The Numbers Trap

pride of numbers+

 

My mom isn’t swayed by numbers.

I am.

She faithfully teaches the Bible study at their church, preparing for hours each week. While there is often a good crowd, sometimes just a few show up. Bad weather, illness, vacations all affect attendance, but it never matters to her. She’s happy to teach whomever comes. But I find it hard to prepare a lesson all week only to find out that just a handful can make it.

Mom always reminds me that numbers mean nothing. She says, “I’m fine having a small crowd. I know that God has appointed who is going to be there. I remember teaching Sunday school classes when only one child showed up. Those were always my best lessons because I could focus on one person. Besides, some of Jesus best sermons were given to an audience of one.”

I’m ashamed at my desire for many.

I look back at the times I’ve been disappointed because only a few people have shown up to a talk. Somehow I place my value in numbers.

It’s all about pride. Thinking my effort should be maximized. Thinking greater numbers mean greater impact. Thinking it’s all about me.

As I reflect on the ways God has used me, I am reminded of an unforgettable Bible Study, when God showed me the value of “one.”

It was a cold night. The rain was coming down in sheets and I was leading a Bible study at a neighbor’s house. I didn’t want to go and I was annoyed. Partly because I was dreading getting wet in the rain. And partly because the storm would keep others from coming.

Karen opened the door and I ducked inside. Her house was warm and inviting. She poured me some coffee and we sat in the living room, making small talk as we waited for others. I kept glancing at my watch. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. Twenty minutes. Surely someone else would come.

After thirty minutes I conceded, “I think this is it. Maybe I should just go home and we can do the lesson next week.”

I was relieved that Karen quickly agreed. I wanted to go home. As I was about to stand up, I sensed God’s urging not to go. I needed to stay.

Though I felt foolish, I mumbled, “Actually, is it okay if I stay? We can talk about the lesson, or anything you want, since it’s just us.”

Karen nodded and we started talking. She had many questions. About things not in the lesson. About truth. About Jesus.

I remembered when she first came to our annual summer study. At the end of that summer, she confessed that her most significant takeaway was learning she wasn’t a Christian. She had long attended church, which she enjoyed, but she hadn’t known there was anything else. And now that she knew, she wasn’t sure she wanted what it entailed. Having real faith affected everything. It involved commitment. And trust.

But she kept coming back. For two years she came faithfully. For two years she asked questions.

She asked why God wanted animal sacrifices. Why God seemed different in the Old Testament. And why Jesus was the only way.

But tonight’s questions were different- more personal, more searching, less skeptical. After an hour, all her reservations seemed satisfied. She grew quiet, processing all we’d talked about.

I turned to her and asked haltingly, “I know you go to church, but have you ever made a personal commitment to Christ?”

She shook her head no.

I pressed further. “Would you like to? Now? With me?”

She thought for a minute and then softly said yes. Karen and I bowed in her living room as she committed her life to Jesus. I listened as she prayed, in awe of what God had done that night.

As we were finishing, we heard the door. Her husband and children came in quietly. Bible Study was supposed to be over. As they took off their coats in the hall, she whispered, “Thank you. I never would have done that if anyone else had been here. I’m glad it was just us.”

We hugged and I slipped my coat on. I stepped out into the night, into the pouring rain. I didn’t mind getting wet- it was almost as if God’s Spirit was pouring over me.

I was so grateful that the Lord encouraged me to stay. That he used me, despite my reluctance. That he let me participate in his work.

That one night was better than any Bible study I’ve ever led, better than teaching to a crowded room.

I almost missed that moment. I almost left Karen’s house, thinking that doing a Bible study for one person, when I had prepared for many, wouldn’t be worth it.

How foolish I am. I want a crowd. Why? What’s behind my desire for numbers?

Me. My pride. My craving for applause and praise.

And our culture often reinforces that unhealthy tendency. Our popularity on social media can define our value for us. Tweets and re-tweets. “Shares”, “likes” and “followers.” The more people notice us, and like what we say and do, the more worthwhile we feel.

We start to live life on the outside, for what other people think. We can lose our focus- who we are and what we’re called to. We can forget that we are Christ’s ambassadors- that a book or a blog post that touches even one person is more valuable than a best-selling book or a viral blog post that doesn’t further the God’s kingdom.

When I think that this world is about me, of course I don’t consider others. I need to maximize my happiness, feel good about myself, do what’s best for me.

But if this world is about God, I must think about what he wants me to do, where he is working, what his plans are. As Paul Tripp says, “As I think about my life and the glory of God, I need to remind myself that this life is not my party. You and I have been born into a world that was created to celebrate God.

I have to continually remind myself of that. It’s not about me. It’s about God.

And all I do is ultimately for an audience of One.

 

Adapted and reposted from the Archives

 

  • June 9, 2017 - 10:49 am

    MIke R - It seems like Isaiah 55:8-9 is written all over you post. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

    I needed this TODAY, as I am facing a tough time physically, doing what I can no longer do. Prior to my change in health, I had gone from a long career in health care to working on a rural property. Oh, the joy of doing something with my hands in the wide open air. God had blessed my efforts as I found that I could live on half of my prior income and was learning all sorts of basic skills. And I saw amazing things happen. My anxieties about making far less money proved silly. God provided in ways I could have never seen, otherwise.

    And then came illness and disability. What now? Today I’m off to work on my property to begin the long process of selling it. The work seems impossible, and it sometimes is literally impossible. But God works through it and in it. I was always a self-sufficient man (and proud about it). Now I have to pray all the time for small things to get done. And that opens my eyes to the incredible way he provides for all of us.

    Well, I’m off for a rough day, wondering how it will get done. I was harboring dread this morning, but then came this article, reminding me that “numbers” are not important. I lamented that I would only be able to work for 2 hours rather than all day, as I did when I was healthy. And I will need a friend to help, even then. But God is not limited. His strength is made manifest in my weakness. Oh, not enough physical work will happen in my my eyes, but I am learning that Gods economy is above my comprehension. Bless you for your writing. May I learn to stop trying to fit God into my little box of limitations.ReplyCancel

    • June 11, 2017 - 5:55 pm

      Vaneetha - Thanks, Mike. I constantly need to be reminded not to fit God into my little box of limitations too…ReplyCancel

  • June 9, 2017 - 8:00 pm

    Jerry - Hi I’m Jerry from Indonesia. I’m (sometimes feel blessed,sometimes cursed) to work in finance and stock market where everything is about numbers and tangibles. I need constant reminder about life’s true priorities and right way of seeing things from articles like yours here. Thanks for writing it. God bless you.ReplyCancel

    • June 11, 2017 - 5:59 pm

      Vaneetha - I worked in finance briefly and so I understand the temptation to measure success by the world’s standards. Of course, I still do it in other ways, but the financial world is particularly numbers driven. Thanks for writing, Jerry.ReplyCancel

  • June 10, 2017 - 10:56 am

    Kathy - Thank you for writing this and sharing it. The blogging world keeps telling us that we need more numbers of likes and email subscribers. It’s so easy to lose sight of the reason I started my blog: to encourage us to lean on Jesus in our weakness and infirmities. Thank you for reminding me. Did you start your Bible study as a individual or through your church?ReplyCancel

    • June 11, 2017 - 6:03 pm

      Vaneetha - I write (mostly)to remind myself of truth that I need to hear! So glad it was helpful to you. We started our study with a few believing women in my neighborhood. We do it every summer- this is our 22nd one!ReplyCancel

  • June 12, 2017 - 6:40 am

    Janet K - A friend shared your blog as one I would find helpful and I do! I always read it in its entirety when it comes and am blessed. Thank you!ReplyCancel

    • June 12, 2017 - 10:20 pm

      Vaneetha - I”m so glad its been helpful, Janet. Thanks for writing!ReplyCancel

  • June 15, 2017 - 1:03 am

    Van de Casteele - Hi, i am Josiane from Belgium, thank you for these beauthiful words, it thouches my heart.ReplyCancel

  • June 16, 2017 - 1:07 pm

    Victor Enite Abu - I recently deactivated my Facebook account because I felt like I was losing focus on the need to share my faith with others. I had gotten carried away by the likes and recognition by friends and I was always seeking for means to revalidate myself through my posts.. I decided to call it quits for a while and focus on Christ.
    This message has ministered to me in many ways.ReplyCancel

    • June 18, 2017 - 2:43 pm

      Vaneetha - Facebook can be such a trap, can’t it? I struggle with it myself as I love “likes” and “shares” and need to consciously stop looking at them and put my worth and value in Jesus. Thanks for your honesty and your example, Victor.ReplyCancel

  • June 16, 2017 - 3:18 pm

    Barbara H. - I’m here from a link on the True Woman site, and wanted to let you know I appreciate this. Sometimes I get caught up in numbers, too, feeling that I am sharing good truth and wish more people were hearing it. 🙂 But maybe God knows I couldn’t handle that. He wants me to be faithful to Him, whoever He sends along to read or hear. One friend said it helped her to think about it as feeding whoever came to the table, no matter how many or how few.ReplyCancel

    • June 18, 2017 - 2:49 pm

      Vaneetha - Thank you for that example. I love this, “one friend said it helped her to think about it as feeding whoever came to the table, no matter how many or how few.” What a good word.

      Ironically and sadly, when I saw that True Woman site (which I love) mentioned it, I was so happy they liked it enough to link to it. Obviously I need to reread my own post about numbers and recognition. Clearly I need it more than anyone else!ReplyCancel

  • June 17, 2017 - 7:25 am

    Barbara Smith - Thank you so much for this. Last year, at the request of “many,” I began leading a Bible study in my home. Week by week, few showed, but one always did. We finished our study and *I* decided not to do another. The one has mentioned how she’s missed it and I have felt the gentle tugging of our Father to begin again. Through you, I have finally received His message in full and will begin anew, even if it is only for me and the one. After all, where two or more are gathered… Thank you for this post. May His Name be praised!ReplyCancel

    • June 18, 2017 - 2:52 pm

      Vaneetha - Praise God for your obedience, Barbara! I totally understand how hard it is do a Bible Study with just a few, or only one. I still struggle with it but God is continuing to teach me to look to him for what “success” is.ReplyCancel

  • June 19, 2017 - 5:51 am

    jassy - hi. i thank God i stumbled upon this post. this helps me with what I am going through right now. Thank you.ReplyCancel

  • June 24, 2017 - 2:09 pm

    Laudable Linkage | Stray Thoughts - […] The Numbers Trap, HT to True Woman. […]ReplyCancel

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