Seeing Patterns

I’m the sort of person who spots patterns and thinks in patterns.

That’s not by itself better or worse than someone who thinks in a different way (or doesn’t have a typology for how they think—which is the hallmark of a pattern-person), it’s just a thing. It has strengths: I can see that these three pieces of information we have coalesce like this and actually connect to these other four things which together gives us… you get the vague idea.

It has weaknesses, not least that for most people if I filled in the gaps above (the connection between the wool industry and expressive individualism, perhaps?) I wouldn’t take most people on the jumps with me. That doesn’t make my hearers dumb, it means I didn’t explain it well.

Or, the bigger weakness, is that when you think in patterns you see patterns including where they aren’t. It’s a problem when you have three pieces of data that fit a compelling narrative that indicates a bad thing, but that bad thing turns out to not be true.

Your pattern spotting was off, you did 2+2=5 without having to be in Room 101. We all do it, we make assumptions that seem reasonable enough based on the data we have, which tends to include all our previous experiences, but in this case that wasn’t the right pattern. It’s a thing everyone has to be aware of, but especially those of us who are particularly prone to pattern thinking.

Hearing from God

One of my tendencies is then to expect God to work in patterns too. Which can sound like crazy behaviour: we’ve all met the person who reads the hand of God into every single instance of their lives in ways that seem over-the-top to the rest of us. Maybe you being late this morning was simply because you got up late rather than all-out assault by the forces of Hell?

And it can be detrimental to us, we see a sequence of events that if only God did this thing next it feels like it would be fitting or redemptive, and we’ve had some vague prophetic words that appear to confirm us in that direction. It’s easy to start to read the pattern as though it were the hand of the Lord when all that’s really happening is we’re overlaying reality with our wish fulfilment.

I’ve been burned that way in the past.

Except, God does work in patterns. It’s hard to read the Bible and think otherwise. We might call it typology—where an older person or office or object or event prefigures or consciously images a later one—but it’s essentially a pattern or shape to the story. Particularly because Biblical typology isn’t as simple as saying “Adam is like Jesus, Noah is like Jesus…” it’s more like saying “look how Noah is picking up on Adam’s story, the author is showing us something that is completed in Jesus.”

The Bible is a patterned narrative. Sometimes these are the literal structures of the text: I’ve recently been reading through Lamentations with my Bible Reading Group, which is chiastic in the way the five poems of the book interplay with each other. That’s important because the great recapitulation of Exodus 34 is found in the very middle section of the book. Nestled among the pain we discover Yahweh who is gracious and very merciful, seen as if blurred by tears.

When incidental things happen in our lives, this meeting is cancelled or that speculative email is responded to, or so-and-so bigwig likes my tweet, it’s easy to read the purpose of God into them.

History shares the patterns of the Bible, so it’s not wrong to spot patterns, but how do we stop ourselves from the place I find my heart going so often? I find that the thing I desperately want God to do is easily read into a serious of tiny instances which only look like they lead to that thing because I want them to. Of course, I then drive myself crazy with false hope and the inevitable fall to despair when it appears the Lord has not come through when I am expecting him to act in a way he has not promised to in the Bible, and (potentially) I have no rational reasons for expecting him to act so in my life.

How do we not do that?

Well friends, you’re human, so whether this is your foible or not you will have a tendency to seek the hand of God in the ordinary in your life. You don’t want to not do that.

In fact, there are some big dangers here. We could stop seeing God’s work in our incidentals at all—that’s worse than the false hope I think, the Lord loves his children and wants to see them grow in Christlikeness. We could assume that the world is a closed book to us, or that God does not act providentially at all. These are both untrue.

What is true is that our ability to read the book of the world (of history and of nature) is flawed. We learn to read it by, you’ll never have guessed it, reading the Bible. Revelation explicates and exegetes the world around us.

How do we stop overreading it?

Two ways. Firstly, we read the Bible and then we read it some more. Pay attention to the patterns and shapes we find there. These are the patterns and shapes of the way God moves in history. Does God do a new thing (Isaiah 43)? Yes, but in the shape of his purposes, given to us in a book that teaches us to read our lives. Keep reading the Bible.

Secondly, we (you’ll never guess it) read the Bible in community. Our friends who are also attentive to the Bible’s patterns and God’s ways help us read events. They tell us that we sound crazy if we do. Though to be fair, my friend who told me that she saw an angel the other day and proceeded to tell me what he’d said to her might sound crazy, but she isn’t. Anyway, that aside notwithstanding, it’s the community of the people of God who help us read our lives to see God’s purposes.

Sometimes they tell me I’m crazy. But here’s the wonderful truth: more often than not they tell me that I’m missing the ways that God is working in my circumstances. They remind me of what I said I wanted several months ago, of what we’ve prayed for together, of the hopes and dreams I’ve shared with only them, and then point to circumstances unfolding in my life.

In the biggest possible twist that you’ll never have seen coming if you’re a regular reader of nuakh, I suggest that the solution is reading the Bible, in community, and having good friends.

Because it is.

Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash

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