Some years ago, I read back-to-back autobiographies of two retired tennis players who had achieved excellence during their lives: Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. There is little doubt that both underwent exacting forms of practice with coaches that built incredible physical and mental habits. Yet, as Andre Agassi said in his autobiography, “We could not be more different, Pete and I.” Sampras loved practice and loved the game. Sampras shared, “I knew exactly where I wanted to go. In order to be the best player in the world, tennis has to be your life. It’s a sacrifice and something I was willing to do.”1
In contrast, Agassi never loved tennis the way that Sampras did. On the opening page of his autobiography, Agassi writes, “I play tennis for a living, even though I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion, and always have.”2 Indeed, the hatred started early, largely driven by a domineering father who demanded excellence. Agassi recalled how he felt at age seven, “I hate tennis, hate it with all my heart, and still I keep playing, keep hitting all morning, and all afternoon, because I have no choice.”3
As Andre’s story reveals, it is possible to be outwardly excellent at a particular endeavor and inwardly hate it. You can obey rules and have “good” habits without a heart for an endeavor. The same is true with the moral life as a whole. Outwardly, you can look like you are at the top of your game, while inwardly you can hate the moral game of life itself. How do we make sure our students develop Sampras-type internal motivation, what moral psychologists call moral identity?
First we must recognize what the foremost expert on excellence, Anders Ericcson, tells us what we all know, “While there are various ways that parents and teachers can motivate children, the motivation must ultimately be something that comes from within the child, or else it won’t endure.”4 In other words, the introduction to practices by parents is usually not sufficient to keep motivating a child, except with a domineering parent (as in Agassi’s case). After all, if that were the case, my boys would have loved everything we practiced and played, including soccer, baseball, basketball, and golf. Their continual practice did not cultivate a love for pursuing excellence in any of these games.
Yet, in the moral realm, I have noticed a problematic tendency among certain Christian writers relating to the cultivation of moral desires. These authors correctly observe that deliberate practice, or what some refer to as liturgies, help us develop habitual reactions or virtues that become our second nature (i.e, what appears to be the fruit of the Spirit). Yet, sometimes certain Christian writers imply or directly suggest that practices or liturgies are the first or primary ingredient to creating and directing moral desire or motivation. They are not (although they may be secondary—more on that later). Not surprisingly, in my research on college students I run across a lot of non-practicing Catholics and other high church Christians who spent plenty of time practicing the behaviors of the Christian liturgy as youth but failed to continue with their practice.
The Power of the Drama
How do we help students become inspired to internalize desires or loves for something that then leads to develop habits that lead to excellence? Sometimes it seems like random things jump-start this process, like going to a concert or sporting event for the first time. In the documentary, Twenty Steps from Stardom, which reviews the role of backup singers in the music industry, one of the most famous backup singers recalls the spark that sent her into her career. She went to a concert and saw a backup singer and thought, “I can do that.”5 Similarly, one of the previous American gold medal skaters’ motivation started by watching the Olympics one winter. I wanted to be a pro baseball player, because my dad took me to professional baseball games early in life.
In these moments, we are introduced to a larger story or drama that already exists. Furthermore, this narrative comes alive when we realize that we can play role in a story or drama that is bigger than ourselves. Although humans have the ability to create dramas that motivate us deeply, God is the greatest of all creators and motivators, and He creates the best motivational drama. It should be no surprise, then, that he motivates us through the Scriptures by catching us up in the grandest cosmic story ever. J.R.R. Tolkien reminds us:
It is not difficult to image the peculiar excitement and joy one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy-story were found to be ‘primarily’ true, its narrative to be history, without thereby necessarily losing the mythical or allegorical significance it possessed… The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind…But this story is supreme; and it is true.6
God, the Great Motivator, inspires us by revealing His grand drama.
Yet, we also must realize that it is a particular part of this story that supplies the most important moral motivation. It is the dramatic story of how God saved us. In fact, God always includes this important part of the story before moral sections of Scripture. Consider the Ten Commandments. Does God just drop them on the Israelites, by saying: “I’m the all-powerful God who created this whole drama, so here’s your part.” No, he allows them to experience his miraculous story of redemption. He first saves them out of brutal slavery Egypt and then motivates them by reminding them of the wonderful narrative of rescuing them from oppression. The chapter that lists the Ten Commandments starts, “And God spoke all these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (Exodus 20:1-2).
Imagine watching a movie in which someone saved a group of peoples’ lives from a hideous concentration camp and then asked them to join a communal drama that promises them a better life. Then, you see the group say “no thanks” and walk away. How would you feel about that group? You would probably be thinking to yourself, “They are really ungrateful and ignorant.” Indeed, the Israelites often wanted to go back to slavery! It is no wonder that one of the characteristics of the depraved mind in Romans 1:21 is “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him” (emphasis added). Gratitude is not an automatic habit. It must be cultivated so that we return to our natural imago Dei self.
Gratitude for God’s virtues is cultivated particularly by remembering God’s virtues. As the Psalmist declares in Psalms 116
1 I love the Lord, for he heard my voice;
he heard my cry for mercy.
2 Because he turned his ear to me,
I will call on him as long as I live.
Later, in versus 12-19, the Psalmist proclaims his motivation for action due to his gratitude,
12 What shall I return to the Lord
for all his goodness to me?
13 I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the Lord.
14 I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people.
The problem with current Christian student conduct codes and certain Christian discipleship that focuses on spiritual disciplines, practices or liturgies is that both start by trying to initiate students into these things without narrative reminders of the basis for gratitude leading to the motivation. In this scenario, students will turn away from the practices. Why? Because the deliberate practice to acquire excellence requires really hard work! As Ericsson and his co-author Pool say, “Deliberate practice takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires the student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her abilities. Thus, it demands near maximal effort, which is generally not enjoyable.”7 This description should remind us that the way of the cross requires the Spirit’s power, mentorship and motivation.
Now Ericsson and Pool did muse regarding the deliberate practice needed to become excellent at some endeavor, “the practice itself may lead to physiological adaptations that produce more enjoyment and more motivation to do that particular activity. That is nothing but speculation at this point, but it is reasonable speculation.”8 Perhaps, the practice of a virtue such as agape love does increase our desire for it, but it is certainly not primary. What we know for sure is that it must first start and emerge out of gratitude for God’s virtues toward us.
- “Sampras Upset With Remarks in Book,” Associated Press, ESPN, accessed April 6, 2018, http://www.espn.com/sports/tennis/news/story?id=4826056
- Andre Agassi, Open: An Autobiography. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), 3.
- Agassi, Open, 28.
- Ibid., 189-90.
- Twenty Feet from Stardom, Documentary, Directed by Moran Nelville Los Angeles: Radius-TWC, 2013).
- J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories, ed. C.S. Lewis, Essays Presented to Charles Williams (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947), 83-83.
- Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, Peak, 17.
- Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), 192.