The Trouble With Numbers

I’m a numbers person — it’s in my nature to quantify things, to compare things, to optimize things. Back in the fall of 2012, I was on a slow but consistent trajectory, feeling increasingly uneasy about certain aspects of our society, and how my own household seemed to fit the pattern.

Our household had two good incomes, one child, and at the end of the year, almost all of that money was gone… somewhere.  Where did it all go?  I figured that our cup should probably be overflowing. I mean, my parents did quite well on one income, and we had two.

Then I read a book, “Radical: Taking Your Faith Back from the American Dream”.

Have you ever had a week where your life went from feeling kind of straightforward to a giant ball of confusion and tears?  I sat on the couch and wept with my wife, unsure of how I could function as a “normal” person again.

What had changed?  The numbers.  Sure, I had seen pictures of starving children on television when I was growing up, but I had assumed that it was a rare thing.  Now I knew that every 50 days, approximately 1 million children were dying from preventable causes.  To put it in perspective, that’s like 9/11 occurring 6 times a day, every day of the year.  But we’re not sitting glued to our television sets.  What could be more boring than the fact that nearly half of the world’s population lives on less than $2/day?

Where the book really sunk my battleship was pairing these realizations with God’s call to love others as self.  For me, that triggers the realization that each one of these kids is as precious as my two kids.  As I’ve heard it described, parents’ love for their kids is so strong that they would try to claw their way through solid metal if it meant saving the life of their child.  So how should I feel, how should I act, in a world as unjust as our own?

I wrestled with these things for a couple of years, and I was thankful for the chances I had to talk and pray with people at church.  For the first 18 months or so, these realizations, while very challenging, were a huge encouragement to my faith.  I had never felt so close to God, never so passionate. Generosity became an act of celebration.  Purpose, while challenging, is ultimately a blessing.

But I ended up crashing and burning.  When it came time for our church to doll out $300,000 to pretty up the sanctuary and foyer, I couldn’t make the math work.  So unjust is the world that a measly investment of $3,500 in malaria treated bed-nets appears statistically to prevent the death of a child. Suddenly the aesthetics of a church sanctuary started to smell like child sacrifice.  My emotional and spiritual health spiraled downward.

It remains an open question: How do we as Christian families, and as churches, living in one of the best countries in the world, justify the choices we make?  Are our eyes open to the reality around us?  Do we take the command to love others as self with its intended strength, or do we water it down until it’s dilute enough to fit our current lifestyle?

Or do I need to take a chill pill?  I’ve heard that part of our North American culture is that we have a strong bent towards saving life.  Our ambulances race down street with flashing lights and blaring sirens.  Have we made saving life an idol?  Do other cultures view us as being out of balance in this way?

How about the numbers of injustice — maybe I need to take a sabbatical from my quantitative perspective.  Are numbers just a recipe for a headache, or worse, mental illness?

If you didn’t get the numbers gene, you can add that to your prayer of thankfulness tonight.

Daniel Bigham lives in Waterloo with his wife Meredith and two kids. He is a passionate software developer specializing in natural language understanding. His jeans are probably hole-ier than yours.

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