I’ve been loom knitting for a while now, and getting into more and more complicated patterns and stitches.
Recently, though, a piece called for a regular, plain ol’ knit stitch. Easy. Simple. Basic. No worries about counting or switching stitches or colors. Just the same stitch, straight through. I started knitting away, only to discover halfway through the piece that I had somehow missed a stitch. And what’s worse, I later found that I had done it twice! My “easy” piece was ruined by glaring errors.
How did it happen? I wish I knew. I can do knit stitch in my sleep, so maybe I carelessly stopped paying attention to what I was doing. Maybe, since I knit while often consuming other media or talking to people, I skipped a stitch and never noticed. Who knows?
All I understand is this: knowing the fundamentals doesn’t mean you’ve mastered them.
I knew everything about the fundamentals of driving before I ever got in a car. My parents made me read the manual and take practice driving tests. Before my mom let me so much as roll the car out of the driveway, I knew exactly how to accelerate and how to brake, how to use the turn signal, where the windshield wiper toggle was at, and how to handle snow and icy weather.
Still, that first lurch out of the driveway convinced me that knowing the fundamentals didn’t promise anything. And as my parents will testify, the fact that I once drove a minivan down through the driveway, into the yard, and almost through our house on one errant misadventure is proof positive that knowing the fundamentals doesn’t mean you can always act on them consistently.
As Christians, our fundamental beliefs are pretty simple. Almost childishly so: in fact, they’re meant to be. Anyone can grasp them. That’s the point. Most of them can be summed up in simple statements: God loves us. Jesus died for us. God is in control. God wants us to forgive. God wants us to love our neighbors. And so on and so forth.
The fundamentals are what I sometimes derisively call the “Sunday School” answers: the answers that really work in response to every question because everyone knows they’re true. They’re words like “love” and “trust” and “forgive” and “obey.” They are the rote truths that every Christian learns as soon as we become believers. They are the guideposts of our life. Most of us know them. Mature believers have been drilled in these for decades.
And most of us are very, very bad at putting fundamentals into practice for all that we know them by heart.
I once read the book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. As the title indicates, it’s an expose of the Scientologist religion/cult, and an exploration of their methodologies and tactics. One of the things that amazed me was learning about the degree to which Scientology functions in stages. Adherents start out at a beginning stage of knowledge about the religion and then, only after sufficient “advancement” (and, not coincidentally, after sufficient donations), are permitted to “ascend” to higher stages. In other words, for Scientologists, fundamentals are only the beginning: there’s always another level of secret information waiting. You’re constantly working and paying your way upward to get to the good stuff.
Christianity is not that. Christianity is not a poker religion. Christianity does not bluff. There is no promise that, if we manage certain feats or have enough faith or donate enough money, God will reveal something more about what we ought to be doing or what matters. Believers are given the whole shebang right out of the gate. In Scripture, God puts it all out there, no surprises: Here’s the redemption thing: the whole story, beginning to end. Here is everything you have to do to get it. …it’s really simple.
And it is really simple. Yet that simplicity also makes for profound difficulty. I understand the fundamental that God is the master of the universe and that I live protected in the palm of His hand, and yet – and yet! – I freak out every single time I board a plane. I understand that God loves me more than anyone else could ever possibly love me and has given for me more than anyone else could possibly give and really desires nothing more from me than my attention and love, and yet – and yet! – I cannot always say that I desire my time with Him more than I desire whatever else I most love doing in the world. I understand that my only purpose here is to make His love clear to others in every way I can, and yet – and yet! – I worry about minor affairs and insignificant details.
The answer, for me anyway, is to recognize that I know the fundamentals and yet I’m awful at them. That being a Christian is, for the entirety of life, mastering those fundamentals. That there’s nowhere else to go – no hidden stages or achievements – because the fundamentals themselves, the basic truths of the faith, will be what I grapple with and grow through and am transformed by. That becoming like a child is where real learning begins.
We want to pretend it’s easy. It is easy, in concept. And yet, if it really were for all of us, we’d already be fully-transformed followers of Christ. Instead, we stumble along, reciting the fundamentals with confidence, and yet applying them with great inconsistency. Acknowledging that – realizing that none of us are better than the very basic fundamentals that we started with and that we have a ways to go toward mastering any of them – is the beginning of growth.
May you be blessed as you practice applying the fundamental truths of Christ to your life, over and over and over again.