Spiritual Math


I have a friend who’s a math tutor. A few weeks ago I was talking with her and she said something that made a lot of sense to me. She said many students who need tutoring have “gaps” in their learning. She told me that students who throw up their arms in frustration and say things like, “I’m just not good at math” most likely have gaps in their math education. 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 and bleeds through the gaps.

As a pastor of faith formation at Granite Springs Church and a regional catalyst with Faith Formation Ministries of the Christian Reformed Church, I spend a lot of time thinking, praying, reading, teaching and coaching individuals and congregations in faith formation awareness and practices. I’m curious to learn how people grow and change—more specifically, how believers are shaped into the image of Christ. There’s 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 learned is addition. 

Christian Reformed folks are good at this one. We have a long history of thorough and thoughtful theological reflection, educating in catechism, and grounded biblical preaching. We’ve encouraged participation in children’s ministry, youth groups, and adult education classes. We guide our young people 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) Let’s be honest; we’re good at addition. We understand it, and we do it. No need for a tutor yet.

However, there’s another aspect of faith formation where we struggle: subtraction. It’s a “gap” in our understanding.

Subtraction is about surrender. Subtraction is about letting go.

It’s about letting go of the need to be right, to have answers, to prove or justify yourself, or to be in control. Simply put, subtraction is about dying.  

I still remember a chapel talk given by Syd Hielema years ago at Dordt College when I was a student there. Emphatically and gently he told a room full of young, optimistic students that the Holy Spirit helps us to die. At the time, I nodded my head in agreement. I had no clue what he really meant. Twenty years later, I know what it means to cry myself to sleep, to struggle with depression, to lose hope, to make mistakes, fail, and suffer. Because of that, I also have a better understanding of what Syd meant—that being formed into the image of Christ is about subtraction too. It’s 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 in order to look more like Jesus. If we only focus on addition, our spiritual lives can start to look like an overstuffed closet—choked full of helpful books, practices, insights, ideas, words, accountability groups, Bible studies, service projects, church services, conferences, adult education classes, websites, podcasts, curriculums, blogs and articles (like this one).

Most churches are good at a faith formation curriculum that focuses on addition. However, in my experience we lack expertise, modeling and encouragement to equally invite people into spiritual subtraction. It’s a “gap.” One practice that helps us to embrace subtraction is lament. Psalm 13 gives us a framework for how to let go. In four brief movements it teaches us how to petition, cry, protest, complain and eventually surrender to God’s will—without needing to understand. Try holding a class that deals with the psalms of lament and then encourage participants to write their own psalm. Create space in worship services for silence and invite people to do “nothing” for five minutes. In sermons, include stories of letting go and how hard it is. Talk about emptiness, silence, simplicity, fasting, and weeping in committee meetings and training workshops with deacons. Begin the process of releasing past hurts and grievances. All these practices help us to grow into the image of Christ.

One practice that helps us to embrace subtraction is lament.

Faith formation is a process of both addition and subtraction. We need both. If we focus on one and neglect the other we have a significant “gap.” In a culture of affluence, it’s easy to emphasis addition—the accumulation of tips, tricks, insights, sermons and studies. In a culture of overstuffed garages and storage units, it’s hard to talk about letting go. It’s hard to talk about dying. It’s difficult to teach subtraction and it’s difficult to learn, but we must. We need avail ourselves to both if, by grace, we are to avoid gaps and grow boldly into the image of Christ.

With the exception of faith, hope and love, spiritual subtraction is about looking this one hard truth square in the face – everything is passing away.

It’s about practicing death and learning how to let go in many small ways, so that when we’re facing the “big” letting go of our physical death, we’ll be ready. We’ll know how to die well, since we’ve had to many opportunities to practice. Subtraction is about letting go so that we can love—just as Christ did not “attribute Godhood something to be grasped, but made himself a servant.” Letting go of his position and privilege as God, taking on human flesh and completely identifying with the joy and sorrow of human existence.  

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Love this framing of faith formation! Wondering if we would consider the practice of the classic spiritual disciplines to be ways to "subtract" in our lives. Certainly fasting, silence and solitude nicely fit in that framework. I wonder how often we consider our liturgy as opportunities to present both addition and subtraction on a weekly basis.  

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thanks for your comment.  I appreciate it.  :)

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It's only when the seed falls to the ground and dies that there there can be growth and harvest.

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that's true.  Thank you!



Currently in a season where dear friends are grappling with death (and we all are grieving), I sincerely appreciate this article. Especially love this reminder: "With the exception of faith, hope and love, spiritual subtraction is about looking this one hard truth square in the face – everything is passing away. It’s about practicing death and learning how to let go in many small ways, so that when we’re facing the “big” letting go of our physical death, we’ll be ready." 

Thanks, Sam. 

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Thank you for responding to my article and sharing some of your story.