For most of my life, most people I’ve known haven’t liked math. Whether while in school or since as a tutor, most people seem to view math as a means to an end—and usually, that end is a decent GPA or a good score on a standardized test.
As you can probably guess, I’m not one of these people. I like math. I did well in math in school. I am a big fan of Algebra, but Calculus was probably my favorite over all. I think there is something special—beautiful, even—about math, something that we never really got into in school, but something that is absolutely vital to understanding mathematics.
I had my math breakthrough in eleventh grade in my physics class. Physics was one of the hardest classes I took in high school, maybe even the hardest class. Our teacher was a small-framed German-educated Armenian man. I discovered halfway through the year that he had a doctorate in physics, but he never talked about it. He had a dry sense of humor, had a flair for the dramatic (lying on a bed of nails, donning a baseball cap to clamber onto his lab table and swing a bat around while seated in a swivel chair), and was absolutely brilliant. We jumped straight in to Newtonian physics, the science of motion and gravity, and I was blown away. (Though, to be perfectly honest, by the time we got to things moving around in circular paths and orbits, I got lost for a little while. I managed to pull through and it was pretty much smooth sailing until we got into wave-particle duality, but that’s for another blog post.)
In physics, with just a few pieces of information, I could write up an equation that would describe how a ball would move through the air when thrown, how a pendulum would swing when released, how a car would navigate a tight corner, or how a planet would journey around a star. I could understand movement—the here-and-now world around me—using numbers and arithmetic operations. Gravity, the force I felt every day without realizing it, could be represented by 9.8 m/s2, some lines and curves on a page corresponding with a force that controls everything in the physical universe.
I was also enrolled in Calculus at the time, and we ended up doing some similar things. If you gave me some information about a cannonball or a tennis ball, I could make an equation, map out the projectile’s course, and then tell you its speed and rate of acceleration along all of the points on that path. I could crystalize the fleeting movement of a game of catch onto graph paper and think of it in this orderly, numeric way.
Maybe this all sounds kind of boring to you. (Sorry, if it does.) But to me, an often-lonely, often-discouraged teenager, it meant the world. When you’re sixteen years old, it can feel like your life is just sort of happening to you, without meaning, without significance. The tiniest thing can go wrong with your day, and suddenly you’re in freefall. It can just feel so random. But math gave me a window into something orderly. Even the seemingly-random, seemingly-insignificant action of throwing a ball into the air or children playing on a seesaw is so orderly, in fact, that it can be represented by numbers, patterns, equations, and graphs. And those patterns and numbers show up again and again, across large and small scales, natural and man-made settings.
Surely, a God who makes even the speed of an acorn falling off a tree branch abide by universal rules of gravity and acceleration, surely He loves us—surely He loves me.
We know that order is good. Whether you like to get your “order fix” from watching Marie Kondo or listening to jazz or looking at flowers or dancing or doing origami, whatever you do and enjoy, there is probably some element of it that is orderly—that is mathematical, in some way. Music theory is math. The rules governing aesthetics are math. Interior design is math. And that’s not to diminish these pursuits, or to try and make them cold and inhuman. I don’t know when math became the bogeyman, some sort of robotic killjoy, but I really don’t think that’s it at all. Math is pattern and order and balance, things that we crave in all aspects of our lives. We fear chaos, disorder, dissonance, imbalance. We fear the absence of order—the absence, well, of math.
Which is why I think that a God who gives us math—who gives us a universe that is full of harmony and rhythm, of flowers and shells in perfectly repeating arches, of circles and squares and binomial pairs—that’s a God who loves us. We know that God Himself creates and delights in order: “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people” (1 Corinthians 14:33, New International Version). Part of our bearing the likeness of God, I think, is that this love of ordering is reflected back in us. And, in spite of our many and constant attempts to foment disorder, God continuously gives us the gift of order in many different ways. Of course, Jesus is the ultimate Restorer of the most important order we have lost—our right relationship with God, which was thrown into disorder by sin and ultimately leads to death. But Jesus, by taking upon Himself our disorderly sin and death, restores to us the original, divine order experienced by Adam and Eve in the Garden, which will be fully unveiled at the end of time and the renewal of all things.
In the meantime, though, teenagers still go through blue spells, and the rest of us do, too. There is a lot of disorder and hurt out there, whether you’re sixteen or sixty, and life can really start to feel out of control at times. But it isn’t. Our God is a God of order, who loves orderliness and gives it to you in many, many ways. And that love, I think, even extends to giving us math.