The iconic 1984 movie The Karate Kid was not the first, and is certainly not the only, movie to commit what I refer to as “the Karate Kid Fallacy¹.” The film revolves around a teenage boy named Daniel who moves into a new neighborhood and gets on the wrong side of some bullies who all happen to be black belts in karate. He is befriended by his apartment’s maintenance man, who happens to be an aged karate master. In less than 6 months, Daniel is proficient enough to fight to the last bracket of the local karate tournament and defeat his nemesis.
The Karate Kid Fallacy is this: the effects of short-term sustained effort can surpass the effects of long-term sustained effort. This rarely happens. I’m positive it doesn’t happen in the martial arts world. I’ve taken some martial arts classes a couple different times in my life and all other things being equal, a black belt beats a beginner. Sheer will helps (as does size) but only so far.
This applies to the spiritual life, too. Sanctity is not a quick process. If we want to be like Christ, we don’t just pray and read the Bible through once. We don’t just skip one meal and think we’ve truly experienced fasting. We don’t drop money in the offering once and think we’re done giving.
“The nature of water is soft, that of stone is hard; but if a bottle is hung above the stone, allowing the water to fall drop by drop, it wears away the stone. So it is with the word of God; it is soft and our heart is hard, but the man who hears the word of God often, opens his heart to the fear of God.”²
Habitual action is like that; it creates canyons in our character that either channel good or bad, depending on what cut them to begin with. This means we must spend time—day after day kind of time—in cultivating our hearts.
This can be even more daunting if we have deep-seated sinful habits. God doesn’t often give us quick fixes for these. He can do so—occasionally someone is delivered “in an instant” from an addiction—but these seem to be the exception, and for a very sound reason: God’s goal is for us to love him which is demonstrated by our obedience to him, not for us to view him as a genie.
If we asked God to deliver us from a sinful habit we have lived in for years and he instantly delivered us, we would be tempted to not value the deliverance, thinking it an easy thing. This would allow us to develop a dangerously false view of sin as “not that big of a deal.” More often, God gives us slow grace as we struggle to change the topography of our hearts. It takes effort and constant leaning on and crying out to God, which is just what he wants. If that is what it takes for us to live in dependence on him, we should be thankful for daily struggles as they remind us often to turn to him.
God is not slow; he is the craftsman of our souls and craftsmanship takes time. It takes time because in the slow, steady effort of years of obedience, we grow in ways that are truly pleasing to him.
¹ Amazingly, the internet has not named this fallacy, that I can find.
² Ward, Benedicta, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, Cistercian Publications: Gethsemani, KY, 1984. p. 192