The Power of Repetition

Multnomah Bible College professor John Mitchell was renowned for having vast swaths of the Bible memorized, including most of the New Testament and much of the Old. He denied having more than average ability and wasn’t even trying to memorize Scripture. Dr. Mitchell absorbed so much of God’s Word because while preparing a sermon he read each passage aloud fifty times before preaching it. The key to learning the Bible is repetition.

This morning I read the story of Demetrius the silversmith in Acts 19. I do my daily Bible study in German and Spanish, checking my interpretation in English. In so doing I improve language skills and get a different perspective from reading the English alone. It is good work but sometimes slow, especially when I run across a new word or phrase. By about the fifth time seeing a word or phrase, I know it. At work I converse with a Spanish speaking lady every day, and talk in German as often as possible. The key to learning languages is repetition.

My daughter took several friends to an archery range to learn to shoot for her birthday party. I taught the girls the basics, including the parts of the bow and arrow, nine basic steps in shooting (stance, nock, set, pre-draw, draw, anchor, aim, release, and follow-through), and safety. Most of the girls were a little awkward and a few quickly tired. One young lady seemed to take to archery like a fish to water, and her shooting was good. She grasped the concepts and had control of her body from years of playing other sports. The key to learning sports is repetition.

We all understand that repetition is the key to helping us do good things, like preach the Bible, learning languages, and shooting archery. Repetition is also the key to help us deceive others, or be deceived ourselves. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s notorious propaganda minister, wrote “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” He was not the first.

Ty Cobb (1886-1961) was one of the top ten baseball players in history. His batting average of .367 was the best of all time. He was a super-competitive player, made many people jealous, and made some people angry. Shortly before his death, journalist Al Stump wrote a biography charging that Cobb hated blacks, sharpened his cleat spikes to injure other players, and even murdered as many as three people. Charles Aelxander’s 1984 book Cobb repeated these accusations. The 1989 movie Field of Dreams disparaged Cobb, and the 1995 movie Cobb followed suit. Conventional wisdom suggested that Cobb was a skilled player but a terrible person. The problem is that these allegations are largely false. Doing research for his book Ty Cobb; A Terrible Beauty, Charles Leerhsen discovered that Cobb supported black players in baseball, tried to get professional baseball to dull cleat spikes, and never killed anyone. Cobb was a flawed person, like we all are, but Stump made up many of the stories out of whole cloth. Conventional wisdom was wrong.

The Nazis in Germany committed terrible crimes and so it was natural to blame the massacre of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest and elsewhere on them. Stalin encouraged this story as a way to kindle further hatred against Hitler. For over 40 years the Soviets blared their innocence and Germany wickedness in the matter. Nonetheless, the Soviets were the ones who killed these Polish officers. Their lie seemed plausible, and they repeated it time and again, and the world believed it. Polish blood in that case was on Red hands.

One reason that people believed these lies about Cobb was because they wanted to. As Randy Stonehill sang in The Dying Breed, we cheer our heroes while we hope that they will fall. One reason people believed Stalin’s lie that the Nazis killed the Poles in Katyn Forest was because they wanted to. We make our enemies even more evil than they actually are, thus dehumanizing them and making ourselves feel better than we are.

Jesus said that the Pharisees were liars because their father, the example, was Satan, and he was a liar. Satan has repeated the same lie since Eve in Eden, saying in effect “if you disobey God, you will be like God (Genesis 3:5).” Eve believe that lie, and we have continued to believe it ever since. The proof that sin destroys the sinner and righteousness is its own reward is visible everywhere, from medical science to ordinary life. Disobeying God does not improve our relationship with Him any more than disobeying our parents gives us a better relationship with them.

Practice does not necessarily make perfect, but it does make permanent. Repetition will make us good at whatever we repeat. Repeating untruths, even if we do not know that they are untrue, makes us more likely to repeat more untruths. Repeating intentional lies make us more prone to lie. Perhaps we should check our own hearts before accusing others, and check the facts before repeating a lie. Perhaps we should repeat the Truth.

“Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” Philippians 4:8.

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