Reflections on spiritual themes (and a few other things).

Tag: Math

Math & Morals

Dr. Charles Madison Sarratt (1888-1978, longtime mathematics professor and administrator at Vanderbilt University) told his students each year, “Today I am giving you two examinations, one in trigonometry, and the other in honesty. I hope you will pass both. If you must fail one, fail trigonometry. There are many good people in the world who can’t pass trigonometry, but there are no good people in the world who cannot pass the examination of honesty.”

Dr. Sarratt understood that our morals permeate every aspect of life, and that honesty is the very cornerstone of character. Negatively, he was discouraging cheating on exams. Positively, he was promoting honesty in everything.

It’s been a long time since I had to take a math test, but I’m tested in the honesty department every day. I suspect all of us are. 

Every day we’re tempted, even invited, to cut corners, to cheat, to do less than our best, to lie a little here or there, to take credit for someone else’s work. Every day we prove our honesty.

It may be on a project at work. It may be while we’re shopping. It may be in a conversation with a spouse or friend. It may be at the gym. It may be while we’re playing games or sports with others. It may be in the break room. It may be with teachers or students. It may be at church.

How can we pass the honesty exam with consistency?

First, we must be honest with God. In the Parable of the Sower Jesus described a farmer scattering seed by hand in a field. The seed fell on various kinds of soil, some good, some bad. When Jesus explained the parable, he said, “But the seed in the good soil, these are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance” (Luke 8.15). How we respond to God and his word reveals if we’re honest.

Second, we must be honest with ourselves. Paul warned, “Let no man deceive himself.” (1 Corinthians 3.18). Have you ever lied to yourself about your weight? About your exercise habits? About your Amazon spending? About your abilities? Self-honesty is important, because if we lie to ourselves, we’ll lie to anyone.

Third, we must be honest with others. Paul said we’re to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4.15). Love is the seasoning of our communication. But the communication itself must be true, wholesome, and healthy. Lies and deceit are worse than junk food, they’re poison to the soul.

Every day we take an honesty exam. Every day we either grow in honesty or we shrink. May God help us grow in truth and honesty. 

The Asymptote of Perfection

In geometry, “asymptote” refers to a line and a curve that get closer and closer together but never actually touch. If you really want to impress your friends and family, graph the equation y=2x. The asymptote is x=0. When you crunch the numbers, when x is negative and gets bigger and bigger (x=-1, -2, -3, -4, etc.), y gets smaller and smaller, but never reaches 0. But enough of the geekiness!

I want you to think about a Christian’s character in relationship to God. I would suggest that it resembles an asymptote. God is the absolute standard of everything we should be. God is love. God is holy. God is righteous. God is patient. God is merciful. As God is, we should strive to be. “Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5.48). Thus…

  • God is love, and I must become more and more like God in my love.
  • God is holy, and I must become more and more like God in my holiness.
  • God is righteous, and I must become more and more like God in my righteousness.
  • God is patient, and I must become more and more like God in my patience.
  • God is merciful, and I must become more and more like God in my mercy.

We are to grow more and more Godlike in our character, but in this life, we’ll never fully reach his perfection. We’ll grow and grow, but never completely reach our full potential. In other words, God’s perfection and our growth form a moral and spiritual asymptote. 

Obviously, that’s easier said than done!

However, we should be encouraged by the fact that Jesus still expected it of his followers. I don’t think Jesus’ point in Matthew 5.48 is that we will, or even can, become morally flawless people. I think he was stating it to put before us an ideal that keeps us perpetually moving in a godward direction. 

I think the apostle Paul understood this concept when he said, “Not that I have already obtained it [the resurrection from the dead] or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you; however, let us keep living by that same standard to which we have attained” (Philippians 3.12-16).

Paul said to press on. To keep getting closer and closer to the prize. To get closer and closer to the reality of heaven. Paul was saying to keep our eyes on the goal, keep our eyes on the standard, but at the same time worry less about the arrival, and more about getting there.