The Practice of Repetition

Western culture has developed a repulsion for repetition. We treasure invention, innovation, individuality, spontaneity, and newness. Yet, our minds, hearts, and spirits are formed by constancy, practice, and repetition.

Scripture is full of repetition. Repetition sometimes allows truth to spread from our heads to our hearts. Like all Jews of his day, Jesus likely repeated the Shema every morning and evening—“Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.” The psalms were repeated often as prayers of God’s people. In fact, so well known were the psalms as prayers that Jesus needed only to pray the first line of Psalm 22 (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) to bring to his listeners’ minds the entire lament.

But wait! Doesn’t Jesus teach against “vain repetitions” and “empty babble” (Mt 6:7) in our prayers? Yes, Jesus warned us not to use prayer as a way to manipulate God, as if He were weak, unknowing, and uncaring like the pagan gods. Instead, with hearts turned in adoration to God, we can join in Spirit with the four living creatures in heaven who never stop saying, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” (Rev 4:8). Or, like the persistent widow (Lk 18:1-8), we can keep asking God for what we need.

In what other ways can we use the spiritual practice of Repetition to allow God to form our hearts for His joy and honor? Memorize and pray the psalms, particularly repetitive refrains such as “His steadfast love endures forever” (Ps 136). Read and meditate on the same Scripture passage daily for a week or more. Repeat the Lord’s Prayer, paying attention to each word, phrase, and request. Listen to the same hymn or worship song again and again. Like a hammer striking a nail more and more deeply into the wood, allow God’s love and truth to penetrate more and more deeply into your heart and mind.

Savor God’s gifts. List them. Review them. Record them. Remember them. The Israelites often (repetitively!) built monuments to commemorate God’s action in certain places. The feasts and festivals (such as the Jewish Passover and Christian Holy Week services) celebrate and savor God’s interaction with His people. The Scriptures themselves were written to review and remember. Write down your own stories of God’s steadfast love to you, your “people,” and the world. Use narrative, poetry, or song. Draw or paint a picture. Place a memento where you see it often to remind you of God’s character, words, provision, and love.

Other ideas? Go deep instead of broad. Choose one new Christian spiritual practice (Just one!) to do daily, day in and day out. Consider examen, lectio divina, practicing the presence of God, praying the hours, meditating on Scripture, or breath prayer. Ask God which practice to choose; wait for His answer; then proceed, like a child learning to walk. Expect falls but keep getting up again. Our doting Parent is cheering for you, fellow toddler!

In Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices, author Brian McLaren tells the story of a concert violinist who gives 200 concerts a year. Three are disasters due to illness or technical difficulties. In 190, the audience is pleased because her performance is excellent, as anticipated. However, seven of those concerts can only be described as transcendent, unexpectedly breathtaking, as if time were suspended. The violinist doesn’t know how those concerts happen. She is playing the same music on the same violin. Somehow, in those concerts, God touches and infuses the notes with His own beauty, His own music.

What can we learn from this story? Neither the 190 good concerts nor the seven transcendent concerts would have been possible without the foundation of daily practice. Mundane repetition provides the ordinary human framework for God to fill and infuse with His extraordinary presence and power. God seems to love repetition. Let’s watch for God’s repetition and use this practice ourselves.


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