Rock Gods, Unconscious Competence & the Christian Life
Imagine you’re ten years old and it’s Christmas morning. You receive an acoustic guitar as a gift. Imagine, it’s perfectly tuned. Excitedly, you grab the instrument and strum it with an open left hand. Out comes this amazing harmonic sound. You hit it again. It’s euphoric. You immediately imagine yourself with the closed eyed head roll of the “rock gods” of your youth. (As a child of the 70s I envision Jimmy Page.) So, you do your best Jimmy Page. Rock quotes raised high. At that moment you are suffering from what’s known as unconscious incompetence. You are unconscious of the fact that you are a completely incompetent guitarist. You don’t know what you don’t know. You have absolutely no talent. Your cat could create the exact same sound if it happened to swat the guitar. You’re enthusiastic, but ignorant. Unconscious of all the pain that lies between you and Jimmy.
The next day you go back to the guitar, but this time you have “Guitar for Beginners” on the table. You sit down on the edge of your bed and turn to the chapter on basic chords. Finding “lesson one” you place your fingers on the frets and with Jimmy in mind strum away. This time it sounds like your cat is in the dryer. It’s horrible!! You try again. Contorting your hands and face you try to get your fingers just right. Again… cats in a bag. At this moment you possess conscious incompetence. You are now fully aware of what you did not realize the day before – how incompetent you are at guitar. You are also acutely aware of the years of practice standing between you and any sort of artistry. Blisters. Repetition. Practice. Lessons. You now know what you don’t know. Being conscious of incompetence is the true starting point of progress.
So, years go by. After countless hours of practice and lessons, you possess a level of competency that allows you to play lead in a garage band. You land gigs at local schools and small parties. You’re not a rock god, but you know your way around the instrument. At this level you’re most always the best guitarist in the room. You develop a pretty large catalogue of songs. Given enough time you can learn any song that’s out there. You now have conscious competence. You are aware of your skill level and ability. You are comfortable playing in front of crowds. As you compare yourself to others there is a degree of confidence. You are above average. But, you still can’t sing and play. As you play, you have to pay close attention to what your left hand is doing. As a result, while you never miss a note, but you also never move. There is little freedom. So, rather than doing those rock poses you dreamed of as ten year old, you stand there stiff. Good, but stoic.
Well, turns out you’re a prodigy. You only needed the right teacher to unleash your true gift. You’re a mixture of John Mayer, Gary Clark Jr. and Jack White. In no time you have mastered the instrument. You form your own trio. Sting on bass. Carter Beauford on the kit. You land a recording contract with a major label and rocket into superstardom. So there you are on stage with thousands of screaming fans just as you envisioned. You deliver one face melting solo after another. The entire time your eyes are closed and your head is kicked back like… Jimmy. You have arrived at the zenith of guitar competency. We call this unconscious competence. You don’t have to think about it. You know what you know. It’s all instinct at this point. The guitar is part of you. And so… you wail away. Somewhere in your collection of guitars is that department store acoustic that you received as a gift on Christmas morning twenty years ago. You cannot believe how far you have come. The distance is the difference between unconscious incompetence and unconscious competence and everything in between.
The experience of the Christian life follows the same pattern. When we begin there is a euphoric sense of things. All we know is that Jesus loves us and saved us. We don’t know much else. We don’t know what we don’t know and we act accordingly. We are filled with joy and enthusiasm. We tell everyone we know about Christ and what he’s done. Faith is simple. Life is simple. But, we are suffering from unconscious incompetence. We are unaware of all the pain that lies between where we are now and a life of faith.
As we begin to live the truth sets in – life is hard. Even the Christian one. Especially the Christian one. Euphoria is overtaken by reality. Sin is a struggle. Repentance is constant. Mortification is war with self. We are aware of what a true life of faith is comprised of – a strange mixture of pain and joy. We begin the process of practicing the Christian life. Training our mind and heart to think differently and desire differently. We are conscious of our incompetence. We are humbled and dependent. We realize our weakness and begin to trust in a power outside of ourselves. We are not as brash as we once were in the beginning. We are more realistic. The just shall live by faith.
It’s the third stage of competency that does not (should not) translate in the Christian experience. Unfortunately, it is too often the stage in which we end up. In the Christian life conscious competence is another description for self-righteousness and arrogance. Given the great distance between our sinful hearts and what we ought to be no Christian should ever rest in an assumed competency. Conscious competence is a contradiction as it concerns a life of faith. Mastering the rudiments of the Christian life is no indicator that one is actually living the Christian life. Furthermore, conscious competence is only measurable by comparing one competency to another. This is called pride. Conscious competence is the source of our judgmental hearts and legalism. It’s when our imperfect skill becomes the measure for other’s behavior. Conscious competency is a severe lack of self-awareness. You can rest assure anyone pointing out their spiritual or religious competency is merely blind.
Where we want to end up in the Christian life is in the last stage. Unconscious competence is comprised of humility and faith. It is freedom. Freedom to enjoy that we have been designed and trained to do – Worship. Here we are not bound by rudiments, but live by the Spirit. Those things we do – which are pleasing to the Lord – are organic and sincere. Our obedience has been informed by the instruction of pain, faith and truth. It is different than conscious competence in that it is not self-confident, but mainly unaware. The measure of competency here is neither by comparison nor mechanics, but desire. It is simple faith and uncomplicated duty. It is to “love” as Christ commanded and, thereby, fulfill the whole law. It is Jimmy in the zone.