Since I was a child, I have loved the piano. I love listening to the piano and like a whole range of piano music. But I never learned to play the instrument. Because of that, there was always a mystique about it, a sense of mystery. How did someone learn to play Beethoven’s piano sonatas or Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue?

We discovered my son had perfect pitch when he was very young, and so it seemed natural to give him the opportunity to harness that God-given gift and learn to play instruments. Because he was very young when he started lessons (about four or five), I had to sit in on the lessons and secretly I was pleased about that, because I thought that would mean I would finally get to uncover the mystery!

What I discovered over the next few years was there really was no mystery. There was just a lot of hard work and persistent practice. Progress was slow and there were many, many times over the next few years when both he and I would honestly have preferred him to give up. He didn’t always want to practise: there were other things he’d rather do than sit and play scales and play the same pieces over and over again until he’d mastered them. There were other things I’d rather do than listen to the same things over and over again.

But when I listen to him today, able to play just about any piece you ask him to, often by ear, without any sheet music whatsoever, changing the key so it fits our voices, adapting what he’s heard, adding little variations and chord progressions which bring a smile to my face, I’d say it was worth the work. Practice pays off. Perseverance brings its own rewards.

Whatever the task – sport, magic tricks, doing puzzles, sewing, gardening, cooking – we are often awed by those who have practised more than we have at those particular things and feel there’s got to be some magic secret to their success. There isn’t. There is talent, yes, which perhaps means they can do something we can’t. But wherever there is talent, there is also perseverance and hard work if that talent is to mature into achievement. We call it ‘fulfilling potential.’ Talent on its own isn’t enough. As the saying goes, ‘genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.’

Similarly, we can look at other Christians and feel they have some magic formula that enables them to seem so serene, so prayerful, so happy, so powerful. We can envy them their ‘success’. But if you get to know these people, you will find that there really is no magic formula. They have to persevere in faith and experience the same doubts and temptations that are common to mankind, just like we do. They have to persevere in prayer, worship no matter what their feelings say, forgive when they’re hurt, believe when they’re afraid, trust in God’s grace just like we do. There is no secret about it all. God has plainly revealed everything we need to know to live how He wants us to live! Romans 12:12 TNIV sums it up rather neatly: ‘Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.’ That’s it. You don’t have to keep buying the latest ‘how to be a successful Christian’ book to find a magic formula. There is none!

We have to be utterly disciplined about this Christian life. It’s not something we undertake light-heartedly or aimlessly. Paul says, ‘No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.’ (1 Cor 9:27 TNIV) He tells Timothy ‘Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress.’ (1 Tim 4:15 TNIV) Jesus was equally unequivocal about the cost involved (Luke 14:25-33 TNIV). The question is not ‘how do find a magic formula for a successful Christian life?’, but ‘are we willing to count the cost and put in the effort required?’

Jack Gibbons plays ‘Rhapsody In Blue’
(I had the privilege of seeing Jack Gibbons play this live in Oxford in 2011 and then play a variety of Beethoven piano sonatas in 2012. I will never forget these occasions. Talent coupled with hard work is a formidable pairing!)