“So, how’s your love life?”
As I sat there in the vinyl reclining chair at the dentist’s office, with my mouth propped wide open, I wasn’t sure if it was the worst possible moment to be asked such a question or the best. Not that anytime would have been particularly convenient, seeing as the most accurate answer would have been something like, “Think about Sex and the City. Now picture the opposite of that, and you’ll have it just about right.”
My hygienist had known me practically since I had teeth, and she knew my whole family too, so I guess she felt a little more liberty with me than her other patients. Still, as I sat captive in that chair, the scraping of metal in my mouth suddenly seemed like the least of the day’s pokings and proddings. I made a mental note to see if relational interrogation violated some kind of HIPAA law.
While the hygienist did her work, I mumbled something semi-incoherent: “Ah mmmphh bmmph mmm uhmm.” Which, roughly translated, meant something like, “I’ve gone on a few blind dates that didn’t exactly go anywhere, but I’m sure the right guy will come along soon.” Mental note number two: make sure I have something more substantial to report six months hence. Or at a minimum, aim for a cavity so at least we’ll be able to land on another topic of conversation.
Later that week I was minding my own business, reading an article in a magazine, when I was accosted by a terrifying stat: According to a demographic study done by the Barna Group, there are 13 million more Christian women in the United States than there are Christian men. That’s right, 13 million. I mean, I was prepared to wait until I found a guy who was one in a million, but this was taking things a bit far.
Somehow, in this particular situation, it wasn’t comforting to know I was in good company. What had seemed like a personal molehill of a problem suddenly felt like an entire mountain range. And as hopeless as that made me feel for myself, I was also miffed on behalf of all those other women who were doing numerical battle alongside me.
I was going to have to revise my answer at my next dental visit: “I’ve given up hope. There are roughly 13 million other women in my shoes, and we’re all fighting over the same single Christian guy. Don’t try too hard whitening my teeth–I don’t stand a chance.” But of course, with my mouth propped open, it would all just sound like Charlie Brown mumble anyhow.
My statistical freak-out sent me on a quest to find out if God had anything to say about numbers. Not being a numbers girl myself, I’d never given much thought to whether God liked math, but I started noticing that the Bible actually makes a pretty big deal about quantifying some of the details in Scripture. It’s like God is flashing some kind of neon sign, calling our attention to the numerical parts of his story.
In some cases, I suspected the numbers are there for historical purposes–they offer credibility and context for biblical accounts. Cases in point: the number of days it rained while Noah and the rest of his crew were on their ark cruise (40); the number of years Methuselah lived (969); the number of feet Nehemiah and others repaired on one key section of the wall in Jerusalem (1,500); the number of people, including Paul, who were shipwrecked near Malta (276).
But in other cases, I wondered if the numbers were there more for spiritual purposes than for fact-checking reasons. Was it because God knows about our messy relationship with integers and how easily we humans can become slaves to numbers and statistics? With little warning, we can find ourselves consumed by them: the number on the bathroom scale, the number in our bank account, the numbers on the blood pressure reading, the number of candles on our next birthday cake.
How was it that a couple of numbers had a way of utterly decentering my emotional equilibrium? Maybe that’s why God emphasizes a new kind of math.
Take Gideon, for example. He lived in a time when the Israelites were clearly the underdogs. Fierce attacks by the Midianites had them cowering in caves, and the whole nation was basically on the brink of starvation. Enter Gideon. He seemed to be an average sort of guy, with his share of questions and doubts, but God called him to lead an uprising against the Midianites anyway. Gideon finally agreed and rounded up his military recruits: a whopping 32,000 soldiers.
But God’s response at that point is startling–especially for someone like me who finds consolation in the strength-in-numbers mentality. Instead of congratulating Gideon on his impressive recruiting skills, he told Gideon, “You have too many warriors with you.” So, in the face of the enemy’s massive army, which apparently looked like “a swarm of locusts,” God told Gideon to systematically reduce the size of his troops. The number of Israelite soldiers dwindled from 32,000 to 10,000, and then from 10,000 to 300. Only then did God say it was time to go to battle.
The numbers were impossibly stacked against the Israelites… but that seems to have been the point. That way when victory came, they couldn’t claim they’d done it on their own strength–they’d have no choice but to acknowledge God’s hand in beating all human odds.
So I had a choice about what I was going to put my faith in: statistics or the God who brought victory to an against-all-odds army. Would I trust my own strength or the God who also brought Sarah a son when she was ninety years old, the God who added three thousand people to the church in a single day in the book of Acts, the God who rose from the dead after three days? If he was big enough for those kinds of miraculous numbers, maybe he was big enough to handle the scary numbers in my life too.
I also realized that just because God could overcome those alarming numbers in my life offered no guarantee that he would. But it was grounding to remember that the numbers that threatened me and consumed me were no match for God. In fact, he had quite a track record of laughing in the face of the most daunting odds.
Maybe that’s what those numbers were all about, after all: not mere historical markers, but quantifiable reminders that God isn’t scared by statistics. That he can’t be reduced to a formula. And best of all, that he is greater than any number I could have thrown at me.
That’s my kind of math.
A couple of weeks later, I saw I’d missed a call from my dentist’s office. Weird, I thought. They don’t usually contact me unless they’re reminding me about an upcoming appointment.
I heard the cheerful voice of my hygienist on the message. “I just had the most wonderful idea,” she gushed. Apparently she had another patient who was just perfect for me–he was tall and handsome, came from a good family, and best of all, had great teeth.
“Your kids would have such beautiful smiles!”
And then she started rattling off his phone number, HIPAA notwithstanding.
I never could bring myself to make the call. I wasn’t sure if this unsuspecting fellow even knew he’d been dragged into a setup, let alone that the status of his future children’s pearly whites had been a topic of conversation. And I shuddered to think about what kinds of questions my hygienist would ask about my love life if I were with a guy she actually knew.
Even in the face of bad odds, I would still choose hope. Wherever God would lead me on this journey, I figured this waiting and wondering might at least scrape some of the plaque off my heart.