Repetition: Mind-numbing or heart-opening?

by Kristin on October 9, 2013

in Belief, doubt & hope

Photo by T.Hagihara

I was a teenager when I first learned the power of not repeating myself.

“Say your command ONCE,” instructed the teacher of the obedience class my puppy and I had enrolled in. “If you tell the dog to sit three times before you actually make him sit, he will start to think you’re not really serious until you say something three times.”

More than a decade later, I found myself applying some of those very same dog training techniques to my new challenge: parenting a toddler. I know, I know—this is not something I should be openly admitting. But it’s true! There were so many dog training techniques that applied to kids, from always starting an instructive sentence with their name, to “making” them do the thing you just told them to do, if they don’t follow through on their own the first time. That means rather than telling your toddler five times to sit down in her chair, you tell her once and then walk over and gently but firmly show her what you mean (thereby showing her that you meant it).

Repetition has a way of casting a negative spell. Often when we hear something being repeated, it begins to blur together into a “whah-whah-whah” like all the adults who “speak” in the Charlie Brown television specials. Eventually we just tune it out. It’s repetition that makes cliches cliche, and that slowly saps all meaning out of many slogans and once-clever quips. Before we know it, certain words and phrases become so commonplace and overused that we hardly know what they really mean, anymore.

And yet, most of us are slow learners. We’re skeptical and stubborn, and our perspective changes with each day—sometimes each hour. There are certain truths we need to keep hearing over and over again if we’re ever going to get them.

Sometimes we need to keep hearing these truths to help us believe they are still true, even as we change and the world around us changes. Hearing my husband say “I love you” just once, on our wedding day, would not be enough. I need that truth to be repeated daily—three words that line up with and affirm his actions of love. And I especially need that affirmation during those moments when I’m not feeling so loveable, and those days when the sun isn’t shining down on us.

Other times we need to hear important truths repeated because we weren’t ready to hear them the first time—we weren’t mentally or emotionally in a place where we could grasp or trust the words being spoken. Maybe the first time they tried to reach our ears, they bounced off a wall we had built up around us for protection. Or maybe we hadn’t experienced enough pain yet or developed enough compassion to fully absorb the words and consider their full meaning. But later, when the walls have crumbled and our hearts are softened, the words can be repeated and finally make their way to us.

* * * * *

On Sunday, as a group of us prepared to lead worship at church, I decided to open the service by reading the first few verses of Isaiah 43. To be honest, it was a last-minute idea, inspired by the fact that later in the service we were singing a song based on those same verses. As I made the decision, I realized I was repeating myself, which could be seen as lazy. But I also had the sense that I needed to hear those words more than once, in more than one way, and I trusted that others might need that, too.

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name; you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior;

“Do not fear, I have redeemed you.” I have heard those words a hundred times before, yet as I read them I knew that I need to hear them a hundred times more. I need to hear them in a new way. I need to know those core truths haven’t changed even though my life has changed around them, in so many ways. I need to know that those words still apply to me now.

The next day, a friend from church sent me a text to say how glad she was I had read from Isaiah 43. A friend of hers had recently died and had chosen that same passage for her funeral.

“I’m really glad God repeats himself when I need it most,” wrote my friend in her text.

Yes. Me too.

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  • Michael Hadley

    Have you ever read the bible and noticed how often God repeats Himself? I read through the children of israel from like genesis to deut one month. He keeps saying the same things over and over again; yet they keep making the same mistakes over and over. I agree with your friend, I’m glad He repeats. Sometimes it’s the only way we learn. It’s nice that He repeats rather than washing His hands of us.

    • kt_writes

      Exactly! God is the perfect, loving parent. As an imperfect parent, I can assure you there’s nothing more frustrating than watching your kids make the same errors again and again, whether it’s not hanging up their towels or something more consequential.

  • RonSimkins

    Good thoughts; thanks! As a person who tries to always take a route home different from last time, I like to think that I am against repetition. Yet, I never tire of hearing my wife and my children say, “I love you” – more repetitions the better! Really glad the sun comes up every day and even shines through the clouds most days – more repetition the better. Most songs that I hear and love, I play over and over until I wear them out. And, yes, I need to hear both God’s love and God’s challenges repeated many times. Feel free to repeat the reminder!

    • kt_writes

      As you point out, there are wonderful repetitions and meaningless ones. I guess it’s important for us to always consider what we’re repeating and why—if our repetition adds meaning or detracts from it. Here’s to more intentional words and actions!

  • Jennifer Luitwieler

    Ha! I’m the poorly trained dog! I don’t get it until I’ve heard it and tried my own way and failed six times. Oh how gentle He is when he repeats himself. Oh, how glad I am we get to mess up. You are so wise. I’m thankful I know you. I like, too, how While he repeats himself, he whispers it differently each time, so each time we can hear it freshly.

    • kt_writes

      “Oh, how glad I am we get to mess up.” Me too, even though it can be painful. I’ve been reading a lot lately about how important mistakes are when it comes to learning and innovating—a definite silver lining in our stumbles through life.

  • Joi

    “I need to know those core truths haven’t changed even though my life has changed around them in so many ways.” Yes! Today I was reading in a favorite devotional the very same message I have read now 3 times over the last 3 years. I was completely overwhelmed with the fact that not only were the “core truths” I was reading bowling me over with the amazing possibilities of life lived by trusting and thanking God at the center of each day; these truths were STILL trying to make it through the thick fog of my hard-wired habits of dealing with life. Maybe you have reminded us of how memorizing scripture, like the passage you quoted, is so essential to our actually getting it. We need to be able to say it to ourselves over and over to actually make it stick in our heads as truth.

  • Alison Hector

    Repetition has much value, Kristin. I’ve found myself slowing down and reading and rereading the same passages; for example, in the Jesus Calling Women’s Edition, I’ve been on one page for this entire week, sometimes reading no more than one sentence over and over. Our skulls (and our hearts) are so thick that God knew that the message (whatever it may be and the form it may take) would need to be undergirded and underscored time and again. Grateful that He knows us better than we know ourselves!