Recently, I’ve written about grace and God’s powerful desire to break into our lives despite the darkness within and without. He dances into the midst of our sin and invites us to leave our chair on the side of the dance floor and join his dance. There’s just one problem. We don’t always know the steps.
Meet Adriaan de Groot, a Dutch psychologist who spent time studying chess grandmasters in the 1940s. He sought to understand what set grandmasters apart from novices. Was it intelligence? Superior analytical abilities? What he found surprised him. Joshua Foer, in his book Moonwalking with Einstein, explains that when faced with a chessboard, it was neither intellect nor analysis that stood out.
“For the most part, the chess experts didn’t look more moves ahead [than a novice], at least not at first. They didn’t even consider more possible moves…They tended to see the right moves, and they tended to see them almost right away.” (P.64)
The reason for this intuition, Foer goes on, is pattern-recognition:
“At the root of the chess master’s skill is that he or she simply has a richer vocabulary of chunks [arrangement of pieces on the board] to recognize.” (Pp.65-66)
Chess grandmasters study past games and play their own for years, building this vocabulary so that in the moment the right move is (seemingly) obvious.
What do chess grandmasters and our experience of grace have in common? Neither are merely matters of natural ability. Experiencing grace, perhaps surprisingly, takes work. On most days, we don’t wake up, get out of bed and feel overwhelmed by grace. On most days, a person doesn’t wake up and become a grandmaster either.
Entering God’s dance of grace is not the most natural thing because we have to learn the steps.
We ought to take a page out of the grandmasters’ book. The rhythms of grace are not some secret kept hidden away for the elite Christian. They are spelled out in the lives of the saints and the pages of Scripture. The Bible and the testimony of others serve as our chessboard. We allow the stories of God’s gentleness with Israel, his faithfulness to David, Christ’s gracious reinstatement of Peter to seep into our heart-memories.
Grace is a theme of the Christian life because it is repeated, a rhythm beating throughout time. As we study stories of grace, we begin to recognize the beats in our own life. A missed opportunity. Losing our temper. Indulging our worst desires. When we remember the pattern, we begin to see the opportunity: grace, over and over, rising to meet us.
But we can’t recognize the pattern if we’ve never seen it before. We have to learn it. Receive grace, but perhaps even more importantly, look to how God has given it over and over to others so that you can receive it as often as it’s offered and enter his dance.