Muscle Memory and the Christian Life

Greg Cooper

Earlier this year, I sat in Rod Laver Arena watching the Australian Open tennis. Normally, it's one of my favourite things to do over summer. But not this day. The temperature in Melbourne was 39 degrees Celsius, and about 50 degrees Celsius on court. Summer is summer – it’s always hot. But this was next level. We were in the shade, but even still we felt physically ill by mid-afternoon. My brain felt like it went to mush – and all I could really do was ‘exist’. I didn’t have any energy to think about anything, or converse with my friends.

 Why was the roof not closed? Why were the tennis players being forced to play in such inhumane conditions? And yet here’s the thing: somehow the players played. Not just average tennis either. They played exceptional, first-grade tennis. They ran all over the place. They made their shots. Sure, by about the third set, they were starting to waver. But up until then, you almost wouldn’t have had any idea it was a sweltering day.

 My guess is that, like me, they were struggling to think in that heat. 

And my next guess is that, instead, their muscles were doing the thinking. How so?

 ‘Muscle memory’ is the result of lots of repetitive training and practice in fields like sport and music. It’s the idea that when you’ve done something so many times, your muscles essentially remember the motion and you don’t have to think about it. You probably know it well. When was the last time you thought about how to walk? Or breathe? Or how to brush your teeth? You get the idea.

 The tennis players I watched were, I’m convinced, operating primarily on muscle memory. The fact that they practice almost every day of the year meant that they could go out there and just play on auto-pilot, much like you or I would walk down the street on auto-pilot.

 Shaping Christian instincts

 As I read the Scriptures, I am convinced that we are called to reach a point where living Christianly is, in a sense, to occur via muscle memory. That is, being made new, our thoughts and conduct should be more the result of genuine heart transformation and well-practiced behaviourial disciplines (based on biblical thinking) than a willed mental effort to apply the right thinking to any circumstance. Certainly, all transformation comes by the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18). But we also have a human responsibility to practice being a Christian – to work the muscles of Christianity so repeatedly that our instincts are shaped in Christlikeness, and our second nature becomes to act in a manner that pleases God. Yes, sin is real and the Fall really happened. But the course of the Christian life should be one of growth in knowledge and love of God, with increasing maturity, putting off the old self, and putting on the new self (Col 3:5-17). 

 I am also convinced that our Sunday gatherings are disproportionately powerful in achieving this end. Why? 


Gatherings are rightly repetitive 

 Firstly, because we are there every single week, taking part repeatedly in powerful practices that shape our heart and mind. Even if you miss 4 Sundays a year, you attend 48 gatherings a year. Conservatively estimating that you live 50 years as a Christian (God-willing), that’s 2400 church gatherings you will attend in your lifetime. At an average of 1.5 hours per gathering, that’s 3600 hours. That’s a lot of gatherings! And more disturbingly, it’s a lot of gatherings to attend if you don’t know why you’re there. It’s crucial that we understand the benefit of attending Sunday gatherings.


Gatherings present God’s word in different mediums

 To that end, a second reason why gatherings are disproportionately powerful is, I believe, because they expose us to different kinds of teaching from the Scriptures. By the Spirit, God’s truth can work on us in different ways through these mediums. 

Preaching is one medium. 

Reading of Scripture is another. 

Corporate prayer based on the Scriptures is another. 

And singing to God and to each another is another. Singing works uniquely, as Bob Kauflin says, enabling us to “combine truth about God seamlessly with passion for God. Doctrine and devotion. Mind and heart.” (Bob Kauflin, True Worshippers, p. 108; emphasis added.) 


Building a Christian intuition

 Reflecting on the role of repetitive practice in enabling tennis players to develop a ‘kinesthetic sense’ (where mind and muscles co-ordinate intuitively to operate on auto-pilot), Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith argues that:

“[t]o conform to the image of the Son is to have so absorbed the gospel as a ‘kinesthetic sense’, a know-how you now carry in your bones, that you do by ‘feel’ what cannot be done by conscious thought. You have been remade in Christ such that there are ways you love him that you don’t even know. You have a Christlike ‘feel’ for the world, and you act accordingly ‘without even thinking about it’.”

 (James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love, p. 108.)


Musicians will know this sentiment well. The hours of practice over many years generates a muscle memory for playing certain scales or songs without conscious effort being required. At one outdoor festival I played with Garage Hymnal, the air temperature was so cold that I couldn’t even feel my hands. And yet my hands remembered the songs and played all the songs effortlessly. Remarkable!

 Whenever I encounter a time of discouragement, suffering, or even joy in life, there is rarely time to sit down and work out a theologically appropriate way to respond. I need to be ready to know how to act. Just as Peter calls us to be so formed in our doctrine as to always be ready to give a reason for our hope (1 Peter 3:15), so we should pray and strive to be so formed to be ready to act for Christ – without thinking. This is a lofty goal – but one to be pursued over the course of the Christian life as part of the goal of full maturity in Christ (Col 1:28), by prayer and trust in the transformative work of the Spirit. Disciplines like attending church go towards forming us in Christ-likeness – even if we can’t see that formation occurring week by week, it often becomes clear in retrospect. Just like the value of regular tennis practice becomes clear when muscle memory takes over in difficult playing conditions. 

 So, perhaps it’s helpful to think of Sunday gatherings as stepping onto the practice court – acquiring muscle memory of what it is to live as a Christian in the world. This occurs as we encounter our holy God through his word, respond to him in song and prayer, and build one other up in love. May we take our gatherings seriously, knowing that through them we are being transformed by the Spirit to be more like Christ, and building an intuition of how to live for him.