Grasping puzzles

Our 22 month old son has gotten into puzzles lately. Of course, the only ones he can do are the large, wooden puzzles with a few, clear pieces that fit into clear, specific spots. A few months ago he had no idea the individual pieces were part of a puzzle — the concept of a puzzle itself was foreign to him — and thought they were simply independent toys. Now he knows they are part of something greater, and he is happy to match the wooden cars to the precisely shaped voids on the board.

Generally. Sometimes frustration hits him when the car doesn’t seem to fit. This baffles him, because he feels like he understands the concept, and he’s confident he is matching the piece to the correct space. While most of what he needs is there, his mind can not yet comprehend deeper elements of context, like orientation. He knows, for example, that the long car goes in the top right corner; what he misses is that if the board is upside-down, the top right corner that he needs is now at the bottom left and flipped. He will try and try and try to fit the piece where it doesn’t belong, until I flip the board and it slips right in.

We like to believe that we are further along with our understanding of the world and God than we really are. Like my son, we take the piece we think we know well, and shove it where we are convinced it will go. If our pride is strong that day, we will keep shoving until we throw out the puzzle altogether. Humility allows us to step back and say, “This isn’t working, even though I feel like it should, so what is happening?” Humility frees us to invite help. Like me as a father flipping the puzzle board when my son lets me, our Father sometimes utterly flips our understanding of the world and Him, to show what is really happening.

At this point, I’ve just been talking about puzzle boards; if I opened a 1000 piece puzzle and dumped it in front of my son, he would more likely eat the pieces than put them together. We often find ourselves bombarded with thousands of pieces of information; instead of piecing them together as something all still under the authority of God, we will engage them individually, and mishandle them like a kid eating a corner piece.

2020 offered ample opportunities for this. Too often we found ourselves overwhelmed with the pieces of “pandemic” and “race” and “politics” and “relationships” and “rights” and “desires”, and instead of engaging them from a wholistic understanding of “seek God, and the rest will follow”, we jumped back and forth, disconnected pieces, tossed pieces we didn’t like, and tried to shove it all together into the picture we wanted.

My older son was prone to this when I tried to teach him how to navigate more difficult puzzles. I tried to guide him by teaching him core strategies:

  • “It looks like a chaotic mess now, but look at this box: this mess is designed to form this picture, we just need to patiently piece it together.”
  • “If you just grab random pieces and try to find how they connect, you may be searching for hours; instead, start with what is clearer, like corner pieces, and find the edge pieces that you know connect them.”
  • “Sometimes all you can go off is a single color, but that may be enough to help you see the connecting piece in the midst of hundreds of wrong pieces.”

While he loosely understood, early on he would drop all the advice once his hands got into the pieces. The closest piece would be his focus, rather than the corners and edges. He would push pieces together that clearly did not fit, simply because he wanted them too. Eventually, he’d lose interest in trying to find the picture that was there in the midst of the chaos.

As we grow spiritually, we grow in confidence that we know how to understand God and how to navigate life. Often, we get too confident — even prideful — and begin understanding God and life in ways that look increasingly different than reality. The “smarter” we get, the more off-track and divided we can become.

Meanwhile, God is holding the puzzle box, and gently saying:

  • “It looks like a chaotic mess now, but I can see the full picture; I’ve designed your existence — individually and collectively — to form this picture, you just need to trust me to help you patiently piece it together.”
  • “If you keep grabbing random elements of life and trying to figure them out, you may be searching for years; I’ve given you guidance around simple places to start, from which you can build the rest. Seek first…”
  • “Sometimes all you have to go off is a singular Truth, but that may be enough to help you see more Truth in the midst of all the lies.”

We like to believe that we are further along with our understanding of the world and God than we really are. Like my son, we go about the puzzle the way we want to, not necessarily the best way. If our pride is strong that day, we will keep grabbing pieces until we throw out the puzzle altogether. Humility allows us to step back and say, “This isn’t working, even though I feel like it should, so what is happening?” Humility frees us to invite help. Like me as a father patiently teaching and demonstrating to my son how puzzles work, our Father desires to walk with us on the long journey to understanding what is really happening.

I enjoy Christopher Nolan movies, and recently watched Tenet. Tenet — and most of his movies — are basically mind-bending visual puzzles. Rather than follow a simple narrative arc, Nolan takes the grand vision of his puzzle, breaks it down, and places elements throughout the movie to create an experience for the viewer, who ends up spending the entire movie trying to understand what is happening.

What makes his movies hit at a different level is that he is not simply using plot twists, but creating entirely new understandings of the world. That means that if we try to understand the movie based on our understanding of, say, time, we will be left baffled by the movie. The only way to understand a movie like Tenet is to release our understanding of time, and embrace the new understanding that Nolan is presenting.

Honestly, people who are looking for a simple feel-good movie likely hate Nolan movies. It is impossible to relax during a Nolan movie, because you have to continually confront your understanding, while trying — often in vain, at least for a while — to piece together what is happening. With Tenet, some of the most important pieces do not come until the very end; this means you spent most of the movie not knowing what was actually happening. What may seem awful to some viewers, is actually exhilarating for others, who enjoy the wild journey Nolan creates.

But if I’m honest, I feel incredibly unintelligent as I watch. Am I the only one that doesn’t get what’s happening? Did I miss something? This dialogue is going over my head; am I smart enough to watch this? Even when I finish the movie, I still have many questions. After watching Tenet, I spent time reading articles and watching videos; eventually I understood what a “temporal pincer movement” was, how the timeline(s) intersected, and what themes and easter eggs were scattered throughout the film. A second and third viewing of Tenet will be far different from the first.

Just as we often want simple rather than complicated movies, we often want simple rather than complicated spiritually. We want a nice, easy, accessible Christianity — one that does not take a lifetime to grasp — and do not want to hear that “the wisdom of God is foolishness to man.” There have been many moments in my life when I was confronted with a spiritual truth that made me feel unintelligent, or a truth that people seemed to understand in wildly different ways; sometimes it was enough to make me upset that God made Christianity needlessly difficult.

This is the equivalent of me getting mad at Nolan for making a “needlessly difficult” movie. To that, Nolan could reply, “No, I made the movie I envisioned, which you are not forced to watch; however, I am inviting you to watch it, and I believe — with time and effort — you can discover the same vision that inspired me.” The problem isn’t the difficultly of Nolan’s movie, but my response to the challenge.

In the same way, the issue isn’t that Christianity is “difficult”, but our response to the challenge of discerning and living it out. God could reply, “No, I created a reality that is good, which I am not forcing you into; however, I am inviting you to a deeper understanding of life, and I know — with time and effort — you can discover the deep Truths that lead to a full life.”

We like to believe that we are further along with our understanding of the world and God than we really are. Like watching a complex movie, we can feel lost and frustrated by confusing plots and dialogue. If our pride is strong that day, we can leave the theater and call it a bad movie. Humility allows us to step back and say, “This isn’t making sense, even though I feel like it should, so what is happening?” Humility frees us to invite help. Like me choosing to finish the movie and then scouring the internet, our Father has patiently invited us to keep going and given us access to community to help in understanding what is really happening.

Let me piece this all together.

We’ve explored three puzzles: a simple board puzzle, a challenging 1000 piece puzzle, and a complex puzzle in movie form.

Within each, the pieces are not solely independent, but part of something greater. Our understanding of the pieces — what they represent, where they go, how they fit together — impacts our engagement with the full puzzle. Our understanding of the full puzzle influences our expectations and willingness to engage; if we don’t trust it, or do not think it’s worth the effort, we won’t stay at the table.

Each new level necessitated a new understanding of the world. My youngest child had to see the world not as individual pieces, but as something collaborative and whole. My oldest child had to learn new ways in how to engage and piece together the world, and that there is a picture that it is slowly creating. I had to learn how to break from the 2D puzzles that I knew, to engaging ideas and concepts that were foreign and difficult for me, because my understanding of the world will always be incomplete.

If God is all-present, all-knowing, and all-powerful, then the elements of our lives become pieces to more deeply understand Him — a complex puzzle beyond our comprehension — and thus ourselves and the world around us. As long as we engage these elements as independent from God, or understand God as untrustworthy and seeking Him as not worth the effort, it will be hard to stay at the table. But like a good puzzle or movie — intentionally and intelligently crafted — God has crafted something for us that is abundantly more than we could ask or imagine.

We think we want simplicity in our spiritual lives, but we forget something important: there’s a reason, as adults, we don’t play with board puzzles anymore. There’s a reason our movie tastes change to include more complicated elements. And there’s a reason the Apostle Paul didn’t want the early Christians to settle for simple:

But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?

1 Corinthians 3:1-3

None of us want an only-milk diet, we want solid food. In the same way, God wants us to understand Him and the reality He created in deeper and fuller ways, because he knows how fulfilling and incredible it will be for us. Yet He will not force us, and He knows when we aren’t ready. As long as the Corinthians chose to engage life in “a human way”, they could not engage it in the way God intended.

Until my sons were ready to engage something new, different, and challenging, they were like the Corinthians, and were prone to throw the puzzle away. As they humbly and willingly stepped into these spaces, the complexity lessened, and they were more confident to step into the next challenge.

For me, I had to be willing to forego my understanding of the world for a new one, which we as Christians struggle with. We want God to be a 2D puzzle in a box, and want to be able to look at the lid to know exactly what to expect. God can not, and will not, be boxed in. Just as Tenet existed on more than just two dimensions, God and His truths are more robust than our simple understanding. We can think we understand puzzles, but I can’t piece together a Nolan movie like my son pieces together a toddler board puzzle. Likewise, I can’t piece together God simply from my human logic.

I had to unlearn and learn certain things in order to engage and grasp Tenet; we have to unlearn and learn certain things in order to engage and grasp God and the life He is inviting us to. So much of what Christ taught defied understanding; his invitations seemed foolish, dangerous, and impossible.

Not only did he teach it, but he lived it, and as others accepted the invitation, they began to realize the way of Christ is not as complicated as it once seemed.




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