Hebrews 5:12-13 admonishes its audience for their immaturity: "You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness." The truth of this statement stings, but also aims us toward the goal: "Solid food is for the mature." Being grown up, that's the goal. And the mature, the text continues, are those "whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil." Grown-up Christians can distinguish. They can tell the difference. They discern.
This growth comes through practice. "Trained by practice." Think about every word of that phrase.
So many of our life skills come through focused, purposeful repetition. Training by practice. Pick any skill. There are no shortcuts that allow for us to dispense with repetitive practice. The accomplished piano player never gets over drilling on the scale. The serious golfer spends hours on the putting green, lining up, settling feet, checking her grip, and stroking again and again and again. The carpenter doing finish work gets a "feel" for how the wood responds by repeated interactions. Practice means repeated, focused, purposeful, attentive action. The same goes for growing in Christ.
The Triune God created us to grow. There is something about the struggle and effort in growth that is part of God's design, therefore of real value. Think about it. The practice itself not only produces growth, but is growth and participates in growth. Paradoxically, the effort is, in a sense, the outcome or result or fruit. The power to grow comes from God. God has created and re-created us such that we grow by responsive, focused, effortful practice. God moves. God empowers. We respond. We yield. We obey. And we keep responding, yielding, and obeying. Every day.
The thing about this kind of interaction with God, though, is that most of the time it doesn't "feel" supernatural or spiritual. It just feels like work. Nonetheless, God works powerfully in our practice.
That God created us to grow spiritually through practice is, in truth, a reflection of divine love. As we struggle with an opaque Bible passage; as we read it over and over again, and interrogate the text and persevere in spite of the feeling of frustration or discouragement, the breakthrough into new understanding evokes real joy, even if it is a quiet kind of joy. Dare I say, that God wants us to feel that joy. The end is the joy. The means is the effortful practice. Once we start to realize that God lovingly uses even the discomfort and the tedium that inevitably comes in practice, we begin to break more fully into his light.
I hope these reflections help us to grasp what Hebrews 5 means by having our faculties trained by practice. As we place ourselves in the yoke with Christ and submit to the process of learning, we find ourselves growing in understanding and wisdom. Christ, through the Spirit, trains our faculties, our "senses" (NASB 202, NKJV, KJV), our "powers of discernment" (ESV), our "perceptions" (NET).
Imagine the outcome of this training. It is not simply a matter of gaining mastery of Bible content. It's much deeper and more personal. Having our faculties trained by practice draws us into more intimate fellowship with God and with one another. The benefit is not only cognitive, but also dispositional and practical. The outcome is a community of whole people, of holy people, who are salt for the earth and the light of the world.
And so, we are called to practice. Most of the time, it doesn't feel natural. It is not pleasing to the flesh. There doesn't seem to be any immediate pay-off. The more we accept this point and resist our resistance to practice in Christian discipleship, the more growth we will see, not because we are good or capable or adequate, but because God is all those things, and more.
If you read "Pressing On" regularly, you know that I am repeating myself. Yes. Hebrews 5:14 was not written to scholars or pastors. It was written to a community of regular followers of Jesus who were struggling to stay faithful to their calling.
If you don't yet have a steady, consistent habit of scripture reading, prayer, and the other disciplines, keep aiming that direction. Keep practicing. Don't let frustration or confusion or discouragement stop you. Open the Bible again and read. If you are spotty in your habit of prayer, start again today. Pray for God's grace to keep you on the path. Find a partner with whom you can pray and share honestly. And may God honor your practice with faculties that distinguish good and evil.