Fixer uppers or extreme makeovers?
What makes an expert?
In his book Moonwalking with Einstein, journalist Joshua Foer investigates just this question. How is it that they become the tops in their respective fields? He looks at the category of expert broadly: expert athletes, artists, academics, and everything in between. What sets them apart?
What he found coincides with the secret to sanctification, or the Christian’s growth in holiness.
I was reminded of Foer’s research by our theme this past Sunday.
In the sermon I talked about how we are “fixer uppers.” More accurately, we are in need of extreme makeovers. Because, as the inimitable Robert Farrar Capon has written, Jesus did not come merely to give us a hand up: “Jesus came to raise the dead. Not to reform the reformable, not to improve the improvable.”
We weren’t—and aren’t—just in need of a little spring cleaning of the soul. We need to die. Sound too dramatic? Listen to St. Paul:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. (Galatians 2.20)
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. (Colossians 3.5)
We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. (Romans 6.6)
Luther picks up on this language in the section on Baptism in the Small Catechism. Baptism, he says,
signifies that the Old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise, who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever. (Small Catechism IV.4)
The Christian life, in other words, is a daily death—the very thing we most try to avoid. But the paradoxical reality of faith is that victory comes by way of surrender, that progress comes by way of back-tracking, that life comes by way of death.
Which brings us back to experts.
Foer calls it the “OK Plateau.”
It happens when you get proficient enough at, say, typing—and then you just quit progressing. Or you become a passable driver, so you don’t bother to improve your skills. You’re not getting into accidents, what’s the problem?
This is the OK Plateau: that point at which you’re just kind of comfortable where you are, and so don’t strive to grow any longer. What makes experts experts is that they avoid the OK Plateau at all costs. The question is: how? Herein lies the secret.
Regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes. The best way to get off the OK Plateau…is to actually practice failing. (Moonwalking with Einstein, p. 171-172)
In other words: you need to get used to dying. Daily.
We have a term for this in Lutheran circles: confession. By owning our sin, each and every day—by admitting all the ways that we are still fixer-uppers, and worse—we grow in faith. Not by our powers or preparations, mind you, but by the slow and steady work of the Holy Spirit.
Daily death. Regular, extreme makeover. That’s the secret to sanctification.