By Rev. Sam Gutierrez
I have a friend who is a math tutor. She told me that when students throw up their arms in frustration and say things like, “I’m just not good at math,” it is most likely because they have important information missing in their math education—“gaps”. Math builds on itself and students with gaps in their understanding pass through the education system until the gaps are too big or too many and they get stuck. Frustration fills the gaps and spills over through tears and feelings of defeat.
As a pastor, I’m curious to learn how people grow and change—more specifically, how believers are shaped into the image of Christ. There are different ways to frame this conversation, but I invite you to consider the “math” of faith formation. Thankfully, today’s lesson only involves addition and subtraction (no fractions here).
Most likely, the only faith formation you’ve heard about is: addition.
Christian Reformed folks are good at addition. We have a long history of thorough and thoughtful theological education and grounded biblical preaching. We’ve encouraged our young people to participate in children’s ministries, youth groups, and other gatherings. We then guide our youth to continue their Christian education by attending Christian colleges and universities. We take seriously Paul’s admonishment to please God by “growing in the knowledge of God” (Col 1:10). Most of us are good at addition – or at least, we understand it. No need for a tutor yet.
However, there’s another aspect of faith formation where we struggle: subtraction.
I suspect that for many church folks, subtraction is a significant “gap” in our learning. Subtraction is about surrender. Subtraction is about letting go. It’s about letting go of the need to be right, have answers, prove or justify yourself, or the need to be in control. Simply put, subtraction is about dying.
I still remember a chapel talk given by Dr. Syd Hielema years ago at Dordt College when I was a student there. Emphatically and gently he told a room full of young and optimistic students that the Holy Spirit is given to help us to die. At the time, I nodded my head in agreement, but I had no clue what he really meant.
Twenty-three years later, I’ve lived some life and I know what it means to cry myself to sleep, to struggle with depression, to lose hope, to make mistakes, to be filled with fear, to fail, and suffer. Because of this struggle and pain and the surrender that comes with it and from it, I have a better understanding of what Dr. Hielema was trying to say--faith formation is about subtraction too.
Spiritual subtraction is more about tears than it is about theology. Subtraction emphasizes surrender over sermons, grieving over giving, humility over hermeneutics, letting go over liturgy, dying over doctrine.
For many Christians, it’s hard to believe that we might grow equally by subtraction. However, we need both addition and subtraction in order to look more like Jesus. If we only focus on addition, our spiritual lives can start to look like an overstuffed closest packed full of helpful books, practices, insights, ideas, words, accountability groups, Bible studies, service projects, church services, conferences, adult education classes, websites, podcasts, curriculum, blogs and articles (like this one).
In a culture of overstuffed closets, garages and storage units, it’s hard to talk about letting go. It’s hard to talk about dying. It’s difficult to learn subtraction… but we must if we want to grow into the image of Christ.