One of the things I have come to realize with age is this: numbers don’t always deliver.
If you are trying to lose weight, it can be helpful to count calories or Weight Watchers points to reach a healthy goal. Numbers on the scale give you an idea of your progress.
On the other hand, facing the actual size of your heft can mock you and undermine the process with discouragement. You think your life will improve dramatically if you could just lose the weight. But then there is this. The smaller numbers that are so hard won can make you think you are a better person somehow just for fitting into the size of clothing you have coveted. Neither case makes you more kind or godly, and can distract you from living the abundant life God has intended for you.
If you are trying to earn more money, the opposite effect occurs. Higher numbers have a soothing effect for a while, but they do not make you more worthy of love or mercy. Lower numbers do not make you less so.
These are the two subjects of our attention that can get the most air time in our consciousness. Yet I would suggest that there is a third, even more insidious dynamic with a mathematical dimension. Jesus addressed it on several occasions with the religious leaders of his day. I am referring to the unwritten but nevertheless extremely compelling notion of earning God’s favor.
It is as natural to us as breathing, for it is bred into us from day one. Behave yourself, and receive your parents’ approval. Misbehave, and be scowled at, or worse. “Be good,” my mother would say each time as we headed out the door to school. If we wanted to earn our parents’ blessing, we followed the rules. When we learned about God, we automatically applied the same principle to that relationship, often with explicit encouragement from our elders. “God is watching you” was a warning, not a comfort. And so we strive to keep our personal balance sheets weighted on the side of assets and not liabilities.
I like to run for exercise. Actually, I jog, but today’s parlance implies that I do more than plod, which is more accurate. The last time I bought running shoes, I was told that they would be good for around 500 miles, and then the benefits of the design would gradually disappear along with the cushioning in the soles. I began a tally of the miles I had run, so I would be aware when it was time to buy new shoes.
After a hundred miles or more, I purchased the audio book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, in which he debunks the prevailing wisdom about running and running shoes. I listened to it during my morning jog. McDougall cites numerous examples of successful runners who sport old tennis shoes. He tells the story of a tribe in Mexico that runs extreme distances in homemade sandals. He quotes experts in sports medicine and university professors who poke holes in the gigantic industry surrounding running shoes, revealing that all the technology and money spent on running shoes is a waste.
No reason to keep a tally then, if McDougall et al are to be believed. But I kept making the hash marks after every workout just in case. Gradually I realized that the tally had nothing to do with shoes. It is a record of accomplishment. It makes me feel great to see how many miles I have run (jogged). I am feeding my own ego, which feels akin to the earning of God’s favor when I think about it. The impulse will not die.
It will take courage and humility to throw the list away and simply enjoy the act, and the benefits, of jogging. It is no wonder that the leap into God’s grace feels risky. There are no measures, no accounting of my worth to God. I cannot fiddle with the gauges of God’s regard for me.
Ah, there it is. Another glimpse of the infinite nature of the Divine. Paul hints at it in Ephesians 3, when he urges his readers to grasp what cannot be grasped: “How wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Eph 3.18-19)
When I first started running, I tried doing the “Couch to 5K” that had me gradually increasing my running time in proportion to walking. I hated it. I decided instead to just run as far as I could before slowing to walk. I made it a lot farther than I expected, and I realized that I liked this practice. I had to consciously avoid improving my speed or comparing myself to other runners. I simply wanted to feel the strength and mechanics of my own body. Five years later I still lace up my running shoes and head out the door.
The life God offers is meant to be explored, enjoyed, pushed to the limits with periods of slowness and rest. It defies accounting, because the standards keep fading into the mist of God’s mysterious, immeasurable love.