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The Spirituality of Numbers: Hope for Other Numero Aficionados

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October 3rd, 2009

I’m tired of never getting asked to pray at the youth ministry Thanksgiving dinner.

I get asked to pray at my in-laws’ during special holiday meals because the hosts think I’m the most spiritual person about to gluttonize their food. But when I get together with other youth ministers, I often feel like Research Boy—a valuable member of the team capable of offering practical insights about ministry effectiveness, but not the first person you think of when it’s time to really hear from the Lord. It’s like there’s no way that someone who likes hanging around numbers as much as I do has a real chance at sainthood.

First of all, I know sainthood is beyond my reach, but there are more compelling reasons for denying my canonization than being a numero aficionado.

So, on behalf of researchers, accountants, bean-counters, and fantasy baseball geeks all over, I’d like to offer the following proposition: Because the Bible makes it clear that some numbers are important to God, we can be sure that numbers can do more than help us understand if things are working. They can help us do our work so that it actually pleases God.

Here are seven of my favorite numerical passages in Scripture and what I think they tell us about how to count the things that count. I’ve taken the liberty of arranging them in—what else?— numerical order.

The Power of One

When a longtime Cubs fan did what came naturally during game 6 of the 2003 National League playoffs by trying to catch a foul ball hit directly toward him, he became unfairly singled out as the reason for the Cubs’ series loss. And when a single man from Team Israel acted disobediently by taking forbidden souvenirs from the thunderous victory at Jericho Field, God held the entire nation responsible (Joshua 7:1), thus supplying us with a major clue that, as far as God is concerned, one person does make a difference.

Atomic Church

Wanna start a church? Jesus explained the essential building block when he promised to show up whenever two or three gather in his name (Matthew 18:20). Everything else is programming, isn’t it? Other New Testament references illuminate that two or three are enough to confirm a truthful witness on weighty matters (2 Corinthians 13:1; 1 Timothy 5:19; Hebrews 10:28). Same difference. Sometimes it’s experiencing the certainty of Jesus’ presence through the testimony of a single sister in Christ. Maybe it’s standing alone with one other person against popular opinion (see Caleb and Joshua in Numbers 13 and 14). The bottom line is, if the gathering lines up with God’s will, attendance requirements are thankfully low.

Peter’s Favorite Number

If the big fisherman was any good at math, he might’ve understood Jesus’ response to his question about the implicit generosity of God’s forgiveness. Not seven times, but seventy times seven (Matthew 18:21-22). As it was, he learned the measure of God’s love the way we all do—through personal experience. Three was the worst number imaginable the night of Peter’s denial. It became the sweetest uniform number of all after Jesus sank the three in Peter’s heart during the ultimate restoration interview (John 21:15-19). God knows the number we need to hear, too, and it’s not on our Powerball tickets.

Circles of Obedience

Though most of us understand that the Lord wants us to be generally good, there are numbers that suggest God may want us to follow in the specific details of our lives. Whether it’s circling Jericho seven times (Joshua 6), building an ark to specifications (Genesis 6:14-16), following blueprints for a tabernacle (Exodus 25:9ff), or speaking to rather than striking a rock (Numbers 20:7-12), when God wants us to be precise in our obedience, we’ll never hear, “Ah, close enough.”

Moses’ Back Forty

Much of Scripture makes a big deal about relating a person’s age. But tracing Moses’ career path offers hope for late bloomers everywhere. His first 40 years he was an Egyptian prince, without knowledge of the one true God (Acts 7:23). For the next 40 years he lived in exile and worked as a shepherd before he got scorched in the face-to-face with Yahweh that set him up to burn Pharaoh with an unprecedented in-your-face style (Acts 7:30; Exodus 7:7). Then he led the Israelites in a dramatic escape before babysitting them for the next 40 years through the world’s longest object lesson (Deuteronomy 34:7). Moses’ journey into God’s Hall of Fame reassures me that God may yet use me to change the world.

Gideon’s Downsizing

Even Jesus alluded to the conventional wisdom of increasing an army’s numbers before going to war (Luke 14:31). But we have a God who loves to pull off trick plays. By cutting Gideon’s army down from 32,000 to 300, the Lord made sure that everyone knew who alone secures our victories (Judges 7:2). The same kind of surprise move was pulled off when Jesus fed 5,000 men with 7 loaves and 2 fish distributed through groups of 100s and 50s, resulting in 12 baskets of leftovers (Mark 6:32-44). So when the numbers don’t add up, it might be time to shift our trust to the Lord of the new math.

Day by Day

Did you ever think that we’d be better off tracking indicators of the intensity of our spiritual activity than aiming for the resultant fruit? The early church received 3,000 new converts during Pentecost before the growth was too great to keep accurate records (the Lord added to their number daily). Those amazing results might keep us from seeing the more amazing participation and frequency levels they experienced. Check it out: “They devoted themselves…Awe came upon everyone…All who believed…distributed the proceeds to all…Day by day, as they spent much time together…having the goodwill of all the people.” (Acts 2:42-47). Some churches try to accommodate our desire for convenient meeting times. I wonder whether daily gatherings would help us make daily—rather than convenient—followers of Jesus.

Three days in a tomb certify the death that sealed our deal. Twelve disciples are entrusted with an impossible task. The good shepherd leaves 99 sheep to rescue the one that’s lost. God’s love for us is immeasurable. We could go on and on. When we count what counts to the Lord, the numbers never lie.

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.

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