The Pursuit of God

Serious Topics for Serious Christians

Statistics & Probability: Learning from the Patterns of God


In this world, we are surrounded by patterns. Every time I hit my thumb with a hammer, it hurts intensely. By observing this pattern, I learn many things. I learn about the amazing neural system in my body which allows instant communication between distant parts of my body. Every time I hit my thumb with that hammer, my brain receives an instant update about what’s happening even though my brain and my thumb are so far away from each other. My toe is even farther away, and yet when I hit it with a hammer, I find its communication is just as swift. This is a very miraculous thing, and it makes me appreciate God’s genius in designing such an intelligent body. But this is just one thing I learn from hitting my thumb with a hammer. I also learn about different types of matter in the universe. I learn that metal is stronger than flesh, therefore I am not the most powerful thing on this planet. If I keep hitting my thumb, I will discover another important lesson: humans have different sets of skills. We’re not all good at the same thing. Some of us are better at driving nails than others, and if I want to spare my thumb, I need to dispense with silly pride and call on someone else to help me complete my task.

God has filled this universe with patterns which He intentionally calls to our attention. He even teaches us fancy ways to analyze those patterns using numbers—this is a field we call statistics. We humans think we’re quite clever by coming up with all of our mathematical formulas, yet it is really God who invented the concept of numerical relationships and we don’t discover anything apart from His direct tutelage. God’s intention in all of this is to teach us a whole host of lessons about our limitations and His infinite Genius. God uses patterns to help guide us in making wise choices. By showing us that it hurts every time we stick our hand into a fire, He teaches us to not stick our hands into fire and humbly accept the limits of our frailty. By helping us notice patterns in other people, He helps us identify part of His plans for others. What we call “natural talent” often boils down to an observance of patterns. On average, one boy hits a baseball farther and more frequently than most other boys, therefore we say he is gifted in sports. When a child instantly picks up some difficult skill—such as playing an instrument or painting—we notice that they don’t fit into the usual pattern we’ve observed, therefore we adjust how we treat them to allow their special gift to thrive. Observing patterns are an important part of navigating through life on this earth. Just as a parent enjoys helping his infant learn to walk, God enjoys opening our eyes to see more and more patterns around us. But problems arise when we stop letting God choose the lessons we are supposed to be learning from these patterns. When we start trying to use patterns as a way to define God’s limitations, then we run into some serious problems.

When Peter decided to try and walk on water, he was demonstrating the very correct attitude that God is not in any way restricted by the patterns He creates. I can get out of a boat a hundred times and try to stand on the surface of a lake. God will probably let me fall right through a hundred times, teaching me a general pattern that He does not intend for humans to walk on water. But at the same time as He teaches me this, God wants me to remember that He can make an exception to this general rule at any time. It is not God’s usual habit to part bodies of water in half and create a strip of dry ground running through them. Yet this is exactly what He did when He parted both the Red Sea in Exodus and the Jordan River in Joshua. As a general rule, God doesn’t make fire fall down from the sky. Yet this is what He did several times in Elijah’s life—first on Mt. Carmel, and then to consume two groups of soldiers who were trying to take the prophet into custody. The ten plagues on Egypt are ten more startling examples of God breaking His own patterns. In the Bible, He has intentionally recorded plenty of examples of Him breaking His own patterns in sudden and shocking ways. Why? So that we wouldn’t go around saying stupid things like “God could never do something like that.” In God’s universe, there are plenty of general patterns, but there are no unbreakable rules. We can never predict with total certainty what God will do next. When we try to use God’s patterns as an excuse to disobey Him or as a reason to teach others that He is some limited, pinched up Being, then we are crying out for discipline.

It was because of patterns they had observed in their own lives that Moses and Jeremiah tried to tell God He had made a mistake in choosing them to serve Him in a public speaking capacity. Both men tried to draw God’s attention to patterns in their lives that “proved” they didn’t have the necessary skills to do what He wanted. God told Jeremiah to stop it and we’re told His anger burned against Moses. God doesn’t like it when people tell Him that He can’t break His own patterns. It might be quite true that you’ve been a stammering wallflower all your life, but if God calls you to preach, He is clearly planning to break the pattern you’ve been used to. We must always be ready for God to suddenly break patterns, start new patterns, and throw patterns out altogether. Patterns are nice and they are very handy teaching tools, but one lesson they will never teach us is that God is limited in any way.

We never need to remind God of the patterns He has established in His own universe. But of course we do anyway. We just can’t help it.

“But, Lord, are You sure You want me to move to that country? They hate Christians over there. I’ll probably be arrested or even killed.”

“God, You can’t really want me to apply for that job. I have no experience. They’ll never look twice at my application. It’s a waste of time.”

“I know You say You’re with me, but I’m being transferred to a war zone where there are real bullets flying at me. Bullets kill people. I don’t see how You could ever get me out of there alive.”

“Once a marriage gets as bad as ours, it always ends in divorce, so why should I keep trying?”

“God will never pour His wrath out on modern countries the way He did in the Bible. That was then, this is now. He just doesn’t do that kind of thing anymore.”

“I just don’t have enough faith for God to ever use me in a really big way.”

All of these statements are based on the assumption that God can’t or won’t break patterns that have already been established. When we think like this, we’re acting like the eleven disciples who refused get out of the boat in the storm. It’s all fine for Jesus to walk on water—miracles were an established pattern for Him. But the eleven knew that God would never allow regular humans to walk on water and they just weren’t in the mood to drown. While Peter seized the opportunity to honor God, the others missed it because they weren’t willing to think outside the box.

One of the ways we really honor God is by refusing to put limits on Him. When God asks us to do something crazy, our natural instinct is to remind Him that His proposal is breaking some firmly established patterns. Being visited by an angel is hardly a normal pattern, yet even this wasn’t enough to stop Mary from questioning God’s announcement that she could get pregnant before she’d ever had sex.

Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Lk. 1:34)

Instead of getting angry, God was glad to give Mary some more information, demonstrating that He doesn’t mind our curious questions as long as they aren’t paired with a rebellious attitude.

Today, we want to be like Mary: available to God and ready to do whatever He wants. We want to be like Noah: receiving our strange assignments and getting to it without a bunch of arguments. Of course we’ll be nervous. Of course our logical minds will scream that we’re making a mistake and Satan will insist that our faith in God is ridiculously misplaced. “You’ll never survive. You’ll never succeed. This doesn’t make any sense. God wouldn’t say something like that. God would never use someone like you for an assignment like this.” With our own logic backing him up, Satan will likely succeed at getting us to have at least a few moments of serious doubts. Doubting is natural and we can’t help feeling uncomfortable when God calls us to walk on water. But when we remember Who it is that created patterns in the first place, we realize that all the statistical data in the world isn’t worth a hill of beans when it comes to predicting God’s next move. Patterns are God’s property and He’ll shuffle them about however much He pleases. It’s all fine to crunch numbers and read statistical tables and learn more about the patterns that have been observed up to the present time. But when it comes to predicting the patterns of the future, the wise Christian will keep a wide open mind and always remember that our God is wild.

“Behold, I am Yahweh, the God of all flesh; is anything too difficult for Me?” (Jer. 32:27)

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