The Quantitative Temptation

spiritual formation, spiritual growth, quantitative, qualitative, measurementMildred Bangs Wynkoop, a Wesleyan theologian, noted that you can more or less break up how you look at the world into two categories: quantitative and qualitative. If you’re looking at things quantitatively, she notes, you measure such things by the smallest possible (or at least reasonable) unit. When you look at things qualitatively, however, you look not at what is small, what you build up to form something, but rather by comparing it to perfection. You measure the length of a grasshopper by, say, millimeters, but you can’t measure beauty that way. You compare how beautiful something is by how beautiful it could be or even by how beautiful anything could ever be.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art 24 hours long and of greater than average yearly temperature by 13.2 degrees.

Yet this is something we get tempted to do when it comes to our spiritual lives. A book I’m reading talks about people who have designed questionnaires to help us determine how mature or healthy we are or how well we’re growing by looking at things like how often we pray and attend church and read our Bibles and serve others. But that’s looking at units. It’s trying to measure the content of our hearts by quantitative means. We’re reducing things to little units that we can bundle together and say, “I’ve done this many!” That can feel satisfying (or disheartening, depending on how “well” it looks like you’re doing), but our development as people and as Christians isn’t something that is measured quantitatively. Our spirits aren’t bundles of units.

Our spiritual growth must be looked at qualitatively, which means that we must compare, instead, to perfection. This, too, can be disheartening since we can never reach perfection. But as any optimist knows, that simply means we keep moving forward, striving, like Paul said, for what lies ahead. (For us pessimists who have trouble looking ahead, there’s always the option of comparing how our growth now looks against how well we seemed 1, 5, 10, etc. years ago.) We may never reach perfection, but we can always grow closer, more loving, more beloved, more patient, more humble, more joyous.

And thankfully, perfection is also reaching down to us, calling us and working in us. “For it is God who works in you both to will and to work for His good purpose.” – Phil. 2:13. Our benchmark is not the atom or the second or the brick. It is Jesus Himself, who is perfect. And He is active, if we are willing, to make us like Him.

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