As a student in high school, I was—unfortunately—the student who pestered his math teacher about the usefulness of the math I was learning (sorry, Scotti!). Now obviously, math is plenty useful. But I couldn’t imagine ever needing to solve for the slope of a point or graph sine waves. And after a brief stint in college studying to be a high school math teacher, my foolish teenage self was proven correct. I haven’t needed that math for a single moment of my adult life.
Whether or not I’ve needed that math in particular, there’s still a case to be made for studying it: it was an exercise in reasoning and problem solving. Could I look at a situation—here, a piece of paper with numbers—and figure it out?
Truth be told, that’s what most math is. Math is not just knowledge, it’s skill. Yes, you need to know that 1+1=2 and 2+2=4, and it’s helpful to have multiplication tables and other rules memorized. But you don’t work out hundreds and hundreds of math problems during the course of your school career in order to know every answer, but in order to know any answer. Whether the problem in front of you is simple or complex, you have the skills to find the solution.
The Bible is very much like a math workbook. It is concerned with skill as much as it is concerned with knowledge. Just like 1+1=2 and 2+2=4, there are staples of biblical knowledge that must be had: Jesus is God, God is good, sin is bad, etc. But Scripture gives shape to those doctrines and through meditation and practice it equips us to find answers to our problems.
Take, for instance, Proverbs 26:4–5:
Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.
Given this advice, what should you do if faced with a fool? Each approach is presented by Scripture as legitimate, yet they completely contradict each other.
The obvious tension here is resolved by something equally obvious: context. Basically, it depends. But you probably don’t need me to tell you that. The pairing of these two opposite statements forces us to wrestle with them and reach that conclusion. And without your even knowing, the Bible puts you through your paces like a math book—how you get your answer is as important as the answer itself.
Take as another example John 12. There, Mary, the sister of Lazarus, anoints Jesus’s feet with ahighly expensive perfume. Judas criticizes her, suggesting that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. The story plainly tells us which course of action is better: Mary’s. But it’s important to note why because an argument could be made for either. In fact, if we were simply told to choose one act or the other—minus the details—many of us would likely side with selling the perfume and giving the money to the poor. And we’d probably be justified in doing so! It isn’t the case that anointing Jesus’s feet is always better. If it were, we’d all need to start looking for ways to do it—with Jesus’s feet noticeably absent! Judas was wrong because he was selfish, while Mary was not. The answer is not so much one act over the other as it is the necessity of Christ-centeredness guiding our lives.
It’s possible to do the right thing for the wrong reason, just like it is possible to get the right answer the wrong way in math. Which is why God’s Word doesn’t only give us answers, it teaches us how to find them. And the way we find answers reveals what’s guiding us—what’s in our hearts. This is why we should approach Scripture like a math workbook, solving problems with a concern for how as much as what.