Today’s question is from an 8-year-old, Joshua. It came to us via his mom, an avid listener to the podcast. Here’s Joshua’s question: “Dear Pastor John, my mom likes to listen to your podcast when she folds laundry. Thank you for filling her mind tank. I have a question: Did you like to study when you were 8? I don’t like math, and I get angry when I do it. I don’t know how not to, and I don’t know how to trust God. Why do I trust God to do math? Mom tells me to do it for him, but I don’t like it and I don’t want to. The harder I try, the harder it gets. But I know it makes her happy.”
I want to talk directly to Joshua. So, Mom, go get Joshua. Hello, Joshua. This is Pastor John. Thank you so much for sending your question about math and how much you don’t like it. I promise you that when I was 8 years old, I did not like math either. In fact, when I was in the third grade, I failed math in the first half of the school year. In those days, teachers gave grades this way: unsatisfactory, satisfactory, very good, and excellent — instead of A, B, C, D. And I got the lowest grade possible, unsatisfactory, on my report card. So, I not only did not like it; I wasn’t any good at it. And like you, I found it to be very hard.
Also, Joshua, like you, I had a mom, and she was a good mom. And she helped me keep on trying, until in the third grade, I was able just to pass the math course. So, I’m going to try to encourage you, Joshua, not to give up, but to do the best you can, no matter how hard it is. And I have four encouragements to keep you going.
1. God Made a Mathematical World
God made the world to be full of math. Now, you know, Joshua, that numbers are like words. You may not have thought about it. The word dog stands for a real animal, and we call that real animal by the word dog. But a real dog is not a word, right? It’s a real animal. The word D-O-G, dog, is just a name — it’s just a name for something that’s real. Words help us talk to each other about what’s real. Without words, all we could do is point. So, words are really useful even though they’re just names. They’re not real things, but they name real things. Now, that’s the way it is with numbers too, right? Numbers are like words. They stand for real things, or real amounts of real things.
For example, if you have two banana trees in your backyard, which we did when I was growing up, and on one banana tree there are four bananas, and on the other banana tree there are four bananas, and the next day at school somebody asks you, “Joshua, how many bananas are growing on the trees in your backyard?” well, you could say, “Four on one tree and four on the other tree.” Or you might say, “Eight bananas,” because 4 + 4 = 8 bananas. That’s math, but those numbers represent real bananas. They’re not just numbers; they stand for real things that you can eat and talk about.
“Math is very useful for being happy in this world.”
God made a world of bananas and dogs and thousands and thousands of other real things that you can count. You can put numbers and names on them. That’s the kind of world God made. So, when we study math, we are trying to understand the way God made the world. This is God’s world, and he loves it when his people, including 8-year-olds, study his world, and understand it, and use it for his glory.
2. God Made Math Useful
Which brings us now to the second encouragement. God made math very useful in this world. He made it to help us. Joshua, let me give you two stories, two illustrations.
Suppose at the gas station, where your parents fill up the gas tank of the car, you notice that they have a special of three chocolate candy bars for $1, and you ask your mom, “Can I have a dollar please, to get those candy bars?” And she says, “Sure, and here’s $2. Get some for your friend.” You hand the man behind the cash register your $2 and ask for the candy bars. And suppose he hands you five candy bars and takes your $2, what are you going to say to him?
If you studied math in the third grade hard enough, like I tried to do, and you learned your multiplication tables, you would know that if you get three candy bars for $1, you should get six candy bars for $2, because you learn in the third grade that 2 x 3 = 6, not 5. And if you didn’t learn that, you’d walk out with five candy bars instead of six candy bars, because you didn’t know your math.
In other words, math is very useful for being happy in this world. Because six candy bars make me happier than five candy bars. And the older you get, Joshua, the more important those numbers become.
Here’s a more serious story. You are squirrel hunting in the woods with your rifle, and suddenly four vicious wolves appear in front of you. They show their teeth, and they look like they’re going to attack you. And you know you can’t fight off four vicious wolves and save your life. You might be able to fight off one wolf, but not four. You quietly check your gun, and you notice that you have only three bullets left in your gun.
So, you do the math that you learned in third grade: “If I kill one wolf with each of my three bullets, then only one wolf will be left to fight, because 4 – 3 = 1. And my life depends on this math.” You aim carefully, and you kill three wolves. And when the fourth attacks, you’re able to use your rifle and smash his head in. Way to go! I promise you, Joshua, math will not only get you candy bars that you should have, but math can save your life. It really can.
3. God Made Parents Wise
Here’s the third encouragement. God made your mom and dad with lots of wisdom about what you need for your future life — wisdom that you don’t yet have, because you’re only 8. One of the reasons God gives kids parents is so that kids can learn about life from their parents and avoid hundreds of mistakes. It sounds to me like you have good parents, Joshua. So did I. And they would not let me quit when I felt like quitting, because they knew what would be good for me. And I didn’t know yet what would be good for me as I grew up.
“God loves it when his people, including 8-year-olds, study his world, and understand it, and use it for his glory.”
I wanted to play outside with my trucks in the dirt with my friend Sonny. That’s all I wanted to do. I didn’t want to study. I didn’t even want to go to school. I didn’t like school in the third grade. But I am so thankful to God that he gave me a mom and a dad who knew what was best for me, because I didn’t know what was best for me myself. The Bible says, and you know it, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord” (Ephesians 6:1). And I am so glad it said that. And I’m glad that I did it.
4. God Made You to Trust Him
Which brings me now, Joshua, to the last encouragement. God made you to show how good and how great he is by trusting him to help you. And God made me too. And guess what? He changed me. He changed me so that in the tenth grade I loved geometry. That’s a kind of math. Finally, there was a kind of math I really liked. It was like a detective story. You found the clues, and you put the clues together, and you discover the solution to the problem. It was like finding out who the bad guy was and putting him in jail.
But Joshua, to be honest, apart from geometry, I was mainly afraid of math. And when I finished my final required basic math class in college, I felt like I had run out of a dark tunnel into broad daylight for the rest of my life. I’ll never, never, never have to take another course in math. Hooray! I mean, it felt like a liberation, coming out of jail.
Here’s the point, Joshua: Even though you don’t like math today, you might like it someday, because you grow and you change. Your brain changes. Or you might not grow to like math, and you’ll be so glad when you don’t have to study math anymore. And that’s okay. God made you the way you are. You don’t have to grow up to be a mathematician. But some math is good for everybody, I promise you.
My final encouragement is this: When your mom and dad say that you need to finish your math assignment, you should say, “Yes, ma’am.” Or “Yes, sir.” And then whisper a prayer to Jesus: “Jesus, please help me. I don’t want to do this. I don’t like to do this. But I am going to do it because Mom says to, and Pastor John says it’s good for me. So, I trust you to help me.” And Joshua, he will. And your trust in him will show how great he is.