December 2023
Spiritual formation
God's Patterns and Our Problems

We are made after the image of a pattern-making God, and some of our hardest patterns in life yield the greatest spiritual growth.

God is a pattern-maker; we are pattern seekers. Patterns give us stability in a world that sometimes feels beyond every measure of our control. But patterns are also in place to help us interpret what happens to us. And interpretation is critical. Assigning a God-centered purpose and value (interpretation) to our experiences is what the Christian life is all about. When we do that consistently, our problems and our limitations can be set in faith before the God who governs all things and conforms us to the image of Christ in the process (Rom. 8:29).

What Is a Pattern?

First, what exactly is a pattern? A pattern is a recognizable sequence or configuration. Repetition is at the heart of patterns. And because that's the case, we identify patterns when we perceive similarities. If we can't perceive similarities or recurrences—the teeth in an aspen leaf or the swirling ribs in our fingerprint—then we can't notice repetition, and then there's no pattern for us. There's just randomness, seemingly isolated chunks of experience. If that's all we're seeing, we can't make sense of it; we can't understand the purpose or value of what we experience. And we hate that, for obvious reasons.  

God is a pattern-maker; we are pattern seekers.

As a writer and lover of language, I see patterns in our communication. I became fascinated with the concept of patterns when I began studying the work of the Christian linguist Kenneth L. Pike. Pike would move into remote tribal regions of Mesoamerica where there were no written languages. He'd then learn the language orally, create a written alphabet for the people, and begin translating parts of the New Testament for them. From the very outset of this process, he'd have to listen for patterns. And patterns are everywhere in language—grammatical structures, syllable stress, intonation, verb tenses, keyword repetition. So, it's no surprise that Pike would one day write, "Man without pattern is not a man. . . . Beyond the pure mathematician in his abstractions lies person in commitment to the sheer joy of the pattern chase" (Pike, Linguistic Concepts, pp. xiii, 127).

God as the Pattern Maker

How do we make sense of Pike's words? Well, we aren't human without patterns because God is the pattern maker, and everything in us pulls us towards him. That's what Geerhardus Vos meant when he said that we're always bent towards communion with God (Anthropology, vol. 2 of Reformed Dogmatics, p. 13). For Vos, "To be a Christian is to live one’s life not merely in obedience to God, nor merely in dependence on God, not even merely for the sake of God; it is to stand in conscious, reciprocal fellowship with God, to be identified with him in thought and purpose and work, to receive from him and give back to him in the ceaseless interplay of spiritual forces" (Vos, "Hebrews, the Epistle of the Diatheke,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, p. 186). God is our gravitational center. If he makes patterns, we look for them as image bearers. In fact, as Pike suggests, we even find joy in our pattern chasing. We marvel at a world so intricately interconnected, each new pattern giving us more insight on the beauty and coherence and creativity of God.

If you want examples of patterns, look no further than Genesis 1. That's where God sets up the whole world according to commonalities and kinds, according to patterns. The dry lands emerged from the water with consistent and recurring elements (patterns). The same happened for the waters; consistent and recurring properties made water identifiable. The lights in the expanse of the heavens, marking seasons and making signs, were also patterned. How else could gazers identify them in the midnight sky? Even the plants and the trees were created according to their "kind," (Hebrew, meen). Kinds or types are identified by recurring traits (patterns). The whole creation narrative is one epic of mural of patterns!    

What Does a Pattern Do?

Now, what does a pattern do? A pattern helps us identify something and enables us to give that thing purpose and value (interpretation). Take, for instance, an experience of suffering. My daily experiences with suffering or frustration can seem confounding before I see them as part of a pattern and interpret them accordingly. But to identify a pattern, we have to notice repetition or recurrence. Apart from that, we only see randomness. If we can find a commonality or recurrence, we can identify the pattern. We'll look at this in a spiritual context momentarily.

Identifying patterns helps us feel less foreign, more in control. Our perception is key here. The same environment can feel chaotic and random to one person but perfectly coherent and controlled to another. Why? Perception. My wife's father came to the United States from Cuba, knowing no English. But he and his brother were put into a typical grade school classroom where only English was uttered. Can you imagine how chaotic that environment seemed to him and his brother? So many sounds, gestures, laughs, waves of expression untranslatable. But to all the other native English speakers present, the classroom was following all the norms and patterns of a school day, embedded and communicated in the language. The difference was perception. My father-in-law wasn't yet able to perceive the patterns. And so he saw chaos. The more he learned English, the more coherence and consistency he saw—the more patterns. And, by implication, the more comfortable and in control he could feel.      

The Spiritual Pattern of Suffering in Christ

Now, transfer what we've seen about patterns into the spiritual world, and let's apply it to something we all struggle with: adversity and suffering. There's one spiritual pattern in particular that's at the heart of Christian faith: suffering unto glory. This is a pattern modeled on the life, death, and resurrection of Christ (I highly recommend Paul Miller's book J-Curve on this topic). When we suffer, something happens, and what happens can be perceived as following the pattern of Christ. We may not see it, and so we perceive our suffering as random and unfair, but here's what's really happening when we suffer: God is shaping us to Jesus Christ. That's the commonality, the recurrence, the pattern for every instance of suffering. This is clear from Romans 8:29, which tells us that we're destined to be conformed to the image of God's Son. But it's also evident in Romans 8:17, Phillipians 3:10-11, and 2 Corinthians 4:7-12. Suffering is always ear-marked by God's Christ-conforming work. Every time.  

Suffering is always ear-marked by God's Christ-conforming work.

Based on what we've said so far, that helps us do two things when we suffer: (1) identify what's truly happening to us and (2) shift our perspective so that we can get the most out of it. My father died of cancer when I was 18, which I recently wrote about in I Am a Human. As a teenager, I found in that event nothing but earth-shattering pain. It led to confusion and lostness. Life seemed pointless, since my father was also a practicing pastor. Why would God take a servant away so young? I couldn't identify what was happening as part of any intentional or purposeful pattern. In hindsight, however, I can see that his death was doing many things (most of which I'll never know), one of which was shaping my soul into a seeker, someone desperate for the truth, for hope, for assurance. Christ conformity was starting, even back then.

Once we identify the pattern of suffering as a means to Christ conformity, we know its purpose and value (interpretation). And then we can shift our perspective to ask how questions. Here were (and are) some of mine:

  • Heavenly Father, how do you want me to be shaped to Christ as I continue to miss my earthly father?
  • Christ, how can I live more sacrificially to honor my dad's memory?
  • Spirit, how can you use me to encourage others walking the road of grief and loss?

Identify the pattern; interpret what's happening; shift your perspective. And then ask specific how questions. I often find answers to these questions as I'm pouring through Scripture and praying about how God wants to work in me on a given day.

God's Pattern and Our Interpretation

When we interpret our suffering as an opportunity for Christ-conformity, we give it purpose and value that the world simply can't give it. But that all depends on our ability to recognize patterns in God's work so that we can identify what's really going on around us and inside us. When we grasp that, when we arrive at a God-centered interpretation of our suffering, we can prayerfully shift our perspective and start taking soul-shaping action. And that action is all a work of the Spirit.

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