“Mummy, how many more bites of soup do I need to take?”
“Just keep going until it’s all gone.”
“No, but I mean how many more bites is that?”
“I don’t know Anna, it doesn’t matter, just keep taking bites and when it’s all gone you can stop.”
“But I just want to know how many!”
I’m a numbers person. It must be genetic, because I think I’ve passed it on to our daughter! When I was young, I remember being in the car passing buildings with long phone numbers on them and challenging myself to memorise them. I memorised all our old phone numbers, 17 numbers of Pi, and I still remember my high school friend’s Mum’s mobile numbers and most of my family’s social security numbers (my Mum always asked me what hers was when she needed it!). I have no idea why. But I do know that somehow, numbers can make us feel safe. They’re predictable, specific, measurable, controllable…
Sometimes we want the numbers to go up. The number in our bank account, in our followers/viewers/subscribers, the numbers in our ministry. Sometimes we want the numbers to go down. How many more days til we’re out of Covid-19 lockdown? How many sleeps til my birthday? How many years til we can afford a house? How many more bites of soup do I need to take?
Peter seemed like a numbers guy. One day, he asked Jesus “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered “Not just seven times, but seventy-times-seven” (Matthew 18:21-22). From what I understand, Jesus didn’t want to increase the number from 7 to 77, but rather tell Peter that it wasn’t about “how many times”. It was about keeping on forgiving as long as forgiveness was needed. I understood a little of that frustration in my conversation with Anna about the soup! It’s not about exactly how many bites I want her to take, it’s about eating the soup until there’s no more soup to eat!
How easy it is to get fixated on the numbers… they can help us measure ourselves against others, measure ourselves against our goal, measure how far we’ve come. There are plenty of good numbers in scripture too. Obviously Jesus was meant to have exactly twelve disciples, there are 24 elders around the throne in Revelation, God gave Noah the specific measurements of the Ark, and gave Moses the specific numerical measurements for the Tabernacle. Sometimes it’s difficult to decipher what are the important numbers and what aren’t. But something I’m learning is not to draw my value and safety from the numbers… but rather on continuing to do what He’s asked me to do.