The Approximate Problem

Here's a little anecdote from my professional career as a computer programmer...

Back in the late ‘80s I worked on an oil field data collection system. The company that hired us needed to meet some new regulations about natural gas production and asked us to create software that would do a daily calculation of both gas and oil production. I got this multi-page fax from the company's petroleum engineer with the equations needed to calculate the natural gas flow in the pipe. The whole thing ran to about four pages of equations, which I dutifully converted into a computer program.

The computer systems analyst for the oil company saw it and started laughing. When I asked him why, he pointed to the part of the equation that used the current temperature and asked me how I thought they got that number. He then stuck his finger in his mouth, pulled it out, waited a few seconds and said, "I figure about 70 degrees." He then explained that the "good ol' boys" that went out to the gas wells just estimated the temperature anyway. All those pages of complicated calculations were dependent on a wild guess for the raw data. DOH! As the saying goes, "garbage-in-garbage-out" - the result you get from a computer is only as good as the data you put in. When your basic data is just a guess, the end result is just a guess as well, no matter how complex the math you used to derive it.

It's the problem of approximation. We can get close, sometimes very close, to an accurate answer, but all of our philosophy, science, social and economic theory is based on approximations. In computer programming, it's the problem of precision. We only get so many "bits" to represent a number. Once you use all the bits, the rest gets discarded anyway. Those who were around in the 1970s will remember those calculators that would calculate (1/3) x 3 = .999999999. The engineers eventually worked out a way to get around that, but somewhere, sometime, the computer must round-off the answer. If the round-off error is small enough, or averages out, it won't matter. The truth is, computer systems are not nearly as precise and accurate as most people think.

Consider that all digital sound systems do this. Your CD produces a close approximation of the original sound as a set of discrete values and then "smears" the values together to produce a continuous sound. MP3 playback is even more of an approximation. The program that creates that small MP3 file from a large sound file does so by finding the parts of the sound that you won't notice are missing and then throws them out. Our ears don't have enough "precision" to tell the difference, and we hear the sound as an accurate reproduction of the original. It's "close enough" in other words.

Our knowledge is always an approximation, limited by our ability to observe and the form of representation we decide to use. As the philosopher Korzybski put it, "The map is not the territory." A description of a thing is not the thing itself, but we sometimes fool ourselves into thinking it is. On the other hand, if the map allows us to navigate the territory, then the map has served its purpose. It doesn't have to be an exact portrayal with every little rock and shrub depicted. It can be "close enough" to get us where we need to go. Just like the MP3 sound files, the stuff that won't really make any difference is ignored.

This frightens some people. They don't like the idea that everything is an approximation. They don't like vague answers. They don't like uncertainty. They don't like the idea that there are some things that are beyond our perception or comprehension. It sounds too much like there is no absolute Truth. And so they obsess over every "jot and tittle" and phrase and word thinking that more precision is needed to get closer to the truth. In time they get so caught up in studying the map, they forget to go on the journey!

So, here's the point. We can get caught up in very clever logic and reasoning and exegesis and miss the point of the Bible entirely. We can try and "scientifically prove" everything, too. But all of our descriptions of God must be treated as an approximate description. We must use human experience and perception as the "map" that describes the revelatory "territory." We have to do that, since it wouldn't do any good to try and explain things in a way that is outside our experience or beyond our comprehension. So, the Bible uses metaphor, analogy, and other figures of speech to approximate in human terms what God wants us to understand.

We use reason to study the "map," derive things that are not stated explicitly, and to convey our discovery to others. But we always have to be careful not to try and create some complex chain of reasoning when the first premise is an approximation stated in human language with all of its inherent vagueness. If you can get the "abstraction" you have got the answer with sufficient precision to get going. The hard parts are knowing how to apply the abstraction in practical terms, and being willing to go to it.

The point of the Bible, stated in the abstract, is that something is wrong in man, and the thing that is wrong can only be corrected by God's power. We cannot do it ourselves; we must turn to God for help. That's what the Bible calls "faith."

Discovering the reality of what the Bible talks about is always in experience, not theology. Theology, doctrine, preaching, and all of that is just a map to get started. To live by faith is not an intellectual exercise and you can't understand faith until you put it into practice. The Bible is the map, but faith is the territory, in other words. Faith is more than belief, and more than trust and hope, even though those things are certainly a part of faith. Faith can be based on proof, but can also be based on hope. In either case, it is only the actual experience that can legitimately lead to and be called Biblical faith.

Sometimes people complain that if God was real, then we wouldn't have all this evil in the world. That's a bigger question than I want to deal with right here. But part of the answer is that we cannot recognize our separation from God for what it is until we encounter the evil that separation produces. The experience of evil, of trials and tribulations, are the things that get us to understand we need divine help. If all of the evils were removed by God, would man be any closer to God? No. We wouldn't even recognize where the evil comes from and would be forever stuck in the delusion that everything is just fine, hunky-dory, OK, no need for God. So, God allows the evil to continue until we come to see it for what it is, realize our dependency and weaknesses, and cry out to God for help.

To summarize, all of the descriptions of God in the Bible are approximations, but the reality of our condition and God's provision obtained through experience are not. Here is an analogy that I like to use:

Imagine a bridge spanning a deep gorge. Standing next to the bridge is a man with blueprints, calculator, and other such stuff, studying the bridge. After much concentrated effort, he declares that without a doubt the bridge will hold his weight and he could safely cross the gorge on it. At the same time another man is standing on the bridge peering into the gorge below.

The first man's declaration is what most people call "faith." It's not faith in the sense the Bible uses the word. The second man has faith as the Bible uses the term. He is standing on the bridge with the experience that the bridge will hold him up. He doesn't have to know why the bridge works. His experience is sufficient. More importantly, only the second man standing on the bridge proves the bridge is trustworthy. That's the point of faith from God's view. When we rely on Him, the result proves His word is true. No longer do we need an approximate description of God's glory. It has become something real, exact and manifest in this world.

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (Heb. 11:1)

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, being convinced of what we do not see. (Heb 11:1, NET Bible)

I generally like the NET Bible's translation, but in this case they blew it. Many modern translations substitute "assurance" or something similar for the word "substance." That's unfortunate, because substance really conveys the correct meaning in English. To be sure of something requires that we experience the substance of that thing. If it is only some hypothetical assurance, it is no different than the Israelites under the law. Compare Heb. 11:1 with Heb10:1:

For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect. (Heb 10:1, KJV)

For the law possesses a shadow of the good things to come but not the reality itself, and is therefore completely unable, by the same sacrifices offered continually, year after year, to perfect those who come to worship. (Heb 10:1, NET Bible)

The contrast between Heb 10:1 and 11:1 is very clear. We have here a "word picture" drawing the contrast between things that are only a "shadow" and things that are "substance." Thus, it is more than "assurance" in Heb 11. The whole chapter describes the reality of experience when men stand on God's promises. Now, look at this:

The word "substance" deserves careful treatment. It is hupostasis (ὑποστασις), made up of stasis (στασις) "to stand," and hupo (ὑπο) "under," thus "that which stands under, a foundation." Thus it speaks of the ground on which one builds a hope. Moulton and Milligan1 report its use as a legal term. They say that it stands for "the whole body of documents bearing on the ownership of a person's property, deposited in archives, and forming the evidence of ownership." They suggest the translation, "Faith is the title-deed of things hoped for." The Holy Spirit energized act of faith which a believer exercises in the Lord Jesus is the title-deed which God puts in his hand, guaranteeing to him the possession of the thing for which he trusted Him. In the case of this first-century Jew, his act of faith in Messiah as High Priest would be the title-deed which God would give him, guaranteeing to him the possession of the salvation for which he trusted God. Thus, he would have assurance. Vincent translates, "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for." He says that "It is the firm grasp of faith on unseen fact."

Wuest, K. S. (1997, c1984). Wuest's word studies from the Greek New Testament  : For the English reader (Heb 11:1). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

That's the way the experts explain it. But I think the exegesis is slightly off the mark. In a legal proceeding, you can initially make any claim you want. To prove that claim, you must produce "substantive" evidence. The "title deed" is not some assurance of a future reality; it is the substance of the claim that removes all doubt. The legal claim is the "shadow" and the title-deed is the "reality" of the claim. But (here we go again) THIS IS ALL A METAPHOR. Once again we run into the problem of vague approximations using human experience and language. The word translated "things" in "evidence of things" is pragma and it means (pay attention) THINGS IN ACUTALITY, WHAT ALREADY EXISTS OR IS BEING DONE. In other words, faith happens at the point where the actuality of the previously unseen promises of God is manifest. Understand the metaphor: You do not have a "title-deed" so that you can make a claim; you have the "title-deed" because you already possess the land.  Get it?

Really? DO YOU GET IT?

We want to complain about the problems, the trials, the tribulations, the evils of this world. If God was really good and really loved us, would He allow these things in our lives? Yes. So that you might have faith. You do not have faith until you have persevered under the trial and experienced the power of God's deliverance. You do not have faith before the trial, only once you are past it. To get more faith requires more trial. You posses the territory of faith because you lived in the land of God's provision, not because you have some intellectual understanding of a few Bible verses. And here is the really, really, important point: The deliverance by God is His direct revelation of His nature to you. You experience His glory, not just read about it in a book! No longer is knowledge of God a metaphor, an anthropomorphic approximation with words. It is A REALITY TO YOU at the point of your deliverance.

The "approximate problem" in the lives of the saints is that we do not like going through the trials. We want to study the map but not encounter the territory. We seem to think that faith in Jesus removes us from the evils of the world. But Jesus said otherwise, and we should pay attention to what he said.

"I have told you these things in obscure figures of speech; a time is coming when I will no longer speak to you in obscure figures, but will tell you plainly about the Father. At that time you will ask in my name, and I do not say that I will ask the Father on your behalf. For the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. (Joh 16:25-27)

I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In the world you have trouble and suffering, but take courage I have conquered the world. (Joh 16:33, NET Bible)

Yes, indeed. No longer does Jesus hide who He is and speak in obscure terms about it to his disciples. We are long past that point. Despite the promise Jesus made, many still struggle with faith and struggle to overcome. Paul gave us the clue we need in order to overcome:

No trial has overtaken you that is not faced by others. And God is faithful: He will not let you be tried beyond what you are able to bear, but with the trial will also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it. (1Co 10:13)

A "way of escape" is always provided. It is written onto the map and all we have to do is find it. If you face a trial or temptation this day, start looking for the "way out." So many saints suffer because they do not immediately start looking for the exit that God provided before the trial started. God has already provided it and described it in His word to us. If you get stuck obsessing over the condition, you will miss the opportunity to overcome. Worse, since God will not tempt us beyond what we can endure, He will eventually lift the pressure if needed. Don't rejoice in that. If you didn't overcome by finding the way out He provided, you will have to do it all over again. You didn't get to the place of "substantive" faith, so the journey must be repeated. OK?

This is the nature of the life of faith. It is not avoidance of "walking across the bridge" and is not "claiming we know all about it already" because we read it in the Bible. As to the things of this world, we always deal in approximations. But we can have more than an approximate faith. We can have a complete faith, a reality produced by walking across the territory, relying on God every step of the way.


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