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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Truth About Math

Many tears in the history of my life have been shed over math.
It started with a change in curriculum when I was in fourth grade. I never recovered.  Beginning with the torture of "speed drills" and continuing until I took the final exam of my final college math class ever, math homework was almost always soaked (literally) with the salt of sweat and tears.  My very kind high school math teacher will remember me forever simply because of the exorbitant number of phone calls she received at unwholesome hours of night because I could not figure out parabolas, long division, and the theorems of geometry.  She's a wonderful lady who usually said something like, "How long have you been working on it, honey?  Three hours?  Okay.  Why don't you put it away and go to sleep? We'll look at it together tomorrow."
She was remarkable.  But that didn't change my passionate dislike for everything related to numbers.  I'm serious.  Finances, didn't matter.  The only numbers I could appreciate were those printed neatly in the corners of book pages so that I could remember where I stopped when I'd had the misfortune of needing to put down whatever it was I'd been reading.
I've spent at least the past five years of my life making an unconscious list of why language is so much more awesome than math will ever be and how God invented math as punishment for rebellious teenagers.
All of it covered in pride.  "I don't like doing things that don't come easily.  It makes me look bad."
And fear.  "I'm never going to understand...ever!"
And defeat.  "I have worked so hard and continued to fail...what's the point?"
So today was a bit of a shock.  And obvious evidence that God uses the very unexpected to prove His faithfulness.
I go to math tutoring.  Believe me, it's not out of joy and excitement that I do it.  It's necessity.  After graduating from college with no plan, I had to spend some time praying and seeking counsel about the future, I have decided to pursue grad work in Linguistics.  The problem is that I have to take the GRE.  And this grad-school entrance exam requires what seems to me like extensive knowledge of algebra, geometry, and problem solving.  All of a sudden, the ghosts of my past rose up to haunt me.  Studying on my own got me nowhere and the only results were the frustrated yells heard throughout the house, "I want to study language! WHY are they testing me on my ability to solve for x????  'X' is a letter, not a number!"
Needless to say, mom wasn't unwise when she sent me to tutoring.
My math tutor is another one of those fantastic people who loves math.  Jenny likes art for its math and math for its art.  She likes her clothing selections for the math of it.  She even picked her shower curtain because it has cocentric circles on it.  Weird.
I've done pages and pages of homework with just a little bit of progress.  She encourages and explains again and again.  She is patient.  I'm still making 40% on my practice tests.  I still cry sometimes.  I still have to force myself to take a deep breath and press on into the numeric forests of darkness.
Today was my fifth session.
As we wrapped up my final questions, Jenny mentioned the Bible study going on at her church on Tuesday nights.  Our conversation turned to things spiritual.  Which is providential.
Things have been rough in my walk recently.
"I've really been struggling with faith recently, Jenny.  For some reason I have no trouble trusting God with big things like hopping over to a foreign country all by myself.  But when it comes to real deal paying my bills, and putting gas in my car, and even that my car is 21 years old and not gonna last forever...when it comes to those little things, I don't even always pray about them.  Somehow, I'm convinced that God doesn't care or doesn't notice.  I know what the Bible says about His concern for me as His child and that He is going to take care of me.  But I don't believe that for some reason.  I use my literary brain to find a way to excuse myself from the applications.  I limit the applications to the intended reader and leave myself out of the circle of His grace.  And so naturally, I worry. A lot."
Jenny smiled.
"You need to know the God of math."
I didn't smile.  I don't associate God with math.  Math is a result of the fall somehow.
Jenny saw my skeptical grin."No really.  Look."  She wrote some numbers on the board.
"How many numbers are there?"
"Well, they keep going forever.."
"Right.  They are infinite.  So we know that man couldn't have created numbers because man is finite and can only create finite things.  Only an infinite God could have created infinite numbers."
I let the words forge a path in a new region of my mind.
"Huh...right.  Never thought of that..."
"So God is infinitely big...and concerned about the big things."
"Yep.  I know that."
"But look at this, Emily."  She wrote the number "1" on the board and then the number "0" a foot or two away.  "How many numbers are between 0 and 1?  Name just one for starters."
My face was blank for a moment.  Then I realized where she was going with the question.
"Good, yes.  What's smaller than 0.5 and bigger than 0?"
"Right.  And half of that is 0.125 and half of that...."  Her hand scrawled indefinite marks on the board.
"...Emily, the numbers between 0 and 1 are infinite.  God is not just infinitely big.  He is infinitely detailed.  He set up the number system to reflect this. This is the the kind of God who deals with bills and gas money and old cars."
I am weak in faith.
Tears welled up in my eyes for a moment.
There was a holy hush in the room.
Chalk dust fell to the carpet.  My keys jingled from their clip.
Jenny blinked and tipped her head.
"You know, Jenny, I kind of like math."

As I drove home, I didn't see trees and roads and people.  I saw algorithms.  Geometrical shapes. Reciprocals.  I saw grid lines on everything.  Formulas floating in the air over stoplights.  The world is a new place today somehow.  The same God who created language, created numbers.  It's another language. Another way of seeing the universe.  Another window into the mind of God.
Today I learned something that I could have, but did not, learn from literature.
Today I took God out of the little box where I'd tried to contain Him.
There will still be days when I sprinkle my linear equations with tears.
There will still be moments when I want to break my pencil and walk away.
But for some reason, I think it'll be different after this.
I get it now.  Math is all about God.
A loving God who cares about little tiny details like the number of hairs on my head and the price of gas in Hampton, Virginia.  The same God who writes poems and invented laughter.
I don't know.  Math isn't all that bad.   


  1. I feel your pain with math, but wow, that's pretty amazing stuff! I got tears now. Thanks for sharing it, Emily!

  2. All I can say is. . . Amazing!