I admire mathematicians. Their ability to take complex equations and calculate their way to the correct answer is impressive ~ perhaps because math has always eluded me. Even as an adult, I can recall the anxiety I felt in school when it came time to open our math books or, even worse, to be given a test, especially those that included word problems!
My 6th grade teacher was a kind man with an open faith and even temperament. I adored him and wanted to do my best, not only for the accomplishment, but to see his smile at my efforts. Perhaps that is why I will never forget a math lesson that went beyond numbers.
I had been called to the board to calculate a problem, but the more I pondered the numbers, the more confused I became. As it happened, math was scheduled just prior to recess. I was struggling to find the answer when the bell rang and relief became my best friend. It was a brief relationship. Undaunted, my teacher instructed the class to remain in their seats. “We’re not going to recess until I help Sherry get through this problem.” I remember longing for him to have a change of heart; to keep me behind and let them go. But he stayed his chosen course.
I could feel the eyes of my classmates burning through the back of head and their fidgeting was amplified by my anxiety. My teacher maintained a tone of encouragement as he tenderly coached me through the problem. By the time I arrived at the correct answer, there were tears spilling over, but he alone saw them because I never turned to face the class. At that moment, he revealed his heart. “I knew you could do it!” he lavished praise in the presence of my peers.
Looking back I believe he sought to teach a two-fold lesson. One was to realize the importance of staying at a problem and the other was to instill a sense of patience with one another. He addressed the class. “Now because Sherry worked so hard, we are going to take an extra half hour of recess this afternoon.” I could have fallen into his arms in gratitude. He wasn’t trying to hurt, he was trying to strengthen.
It occurs to me that as believers we struggle in a similar manner with problems inherent to life in a fallen world. We know God is holy, righteous and good. There is purpose to our lives and reasons behind our trials. He understands the process that results in a right response, but the complexities of them confuse and frighten us and we would rather avoid His instructions to press on.
In the 1st Chapter of James, God has preserved these astounding words: “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials …” What? Trials equal joy? How do we embrace such a concept? Trials feel anything but joyful. To lesser or greater degrees, they are something we approach with anxiety and a desire to escape from as quickly as possible. And why not? They are often painful and sometimes heart-wrenching. Counting the number of trials in our world, both personally and collectively and calculating the rate at which they are multiplying makes it difficult to arrive at an answer of joy.
James presents us with a Word problem of divine proportion that seems to counter human understanding. Why would he give us something so confusing? For the same reason I had to remain at the blackboard when I wanted to run. We need the lesson to be hard enough to force us to look to the Teacher; to learn trust in the Master. James went on to reveal both the reason and the answer … “knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” Who doesn’t long for that kind of wholeness? Who doesn’t want to be complete and secure in the facts of true faith? Tests move us to that place. None of us like them, but they are designed to increase our reliance on the One in whom all knowledge rests.
Along the way, we’ll get confused by things now beyond our full understanding, for God’s ways are so much higher than ours. He urges us to trust Him and press on in His Name. However difficult the lesson, He is with us in the test. The tenderness of His love and goodness of His mercy attend us and His desire is to use them for our advancement.
A day of graduation is coming and what a glorious day it will be. There we will stand in awe of how brilliantly all things were divinely calculated for our good. The trials will fade in the joy of His smile and approval of His words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” and, at last, the math will make sense.