‘Random’ is one of those slightly annoying words that has come into common usage of recent years, used more often to mean unexpected, entertaining, or out of place than as a description of something occurring without order, aim or pattern. I say it’s annoying because I know I use it that way all the time. So random.
When I went home to my parents’ for Christmas they’d redecorated the shower room, and turned it into a wet-room thing. It’s very nice. Lovely power-shower. In the redesign, half of the room is now impressively tiled, in light, medium and dark blue squares, in a pleasingly random design. However, it caused me some distress. On the first evening home I found myself brushing my teeth for an unreasonably long time because I was studying the tiles so intently, convinced I could find a pattern in their placement. They looked random, but they were so beautifully spaced I knew they couldn’t be…
As a scientist by training, it’s not unusual that I end up looking for patterns. I think, actually, most people do, it just feels more obvious to those who then draw graphs and calculate p-values with them. I was so desperate to find some sort of pattern in how the tiles were distributed, and yet I couldn’t. At all.
The next day I aired this frustration with my parents, and they laughed. Cheers. But helpfully, Dad could explain how the guy had done it. The ratio of coloured tiles was seven light blue, to two medium blue, to two dark blue. The builder had stacked them in 7:2:2 piles and worked round the room, putting them in lots of different orders,but always the same ratio in a set area. So, the pattern wasn’t genuinely random, but was created with a definite sense of order to give the random appearance, and stop accidental clumps or patterns emerging.
As someone who looks for patterns and trends, I often have similar frustration with God when I’m reading the Bible – though it doesn’t so often make me over-brush in the same way. I’ll see a situation that’s analogous to mine, see how the person responded to God, and clock how God responded to the person. It doesn’t take much extrapolation to assume that must mean that in my situation I should respond the same way, and God will respond accordingly: then I know what kind of expectations to have and it’s all good. Patterns, formulae, predictions, outcomes – this is how my brain expects to see the world work.
I want for myself a consistent and predictable God.
However, even within the Bible, God acts differently in situations that are seemingly similar. Take the five healing stories in Luke 5-7. People come away healed from each encounter, yet Jesus does something different for that to occur in every situation. There’s no healing-formula that we can copy and paste. And I know that when I’ve felt my situation is akin to those I’m reading, often God has responded in a completely different way. He’s frustratingly un-formulaic.
So how do I reconcile my desire for order with a God that doesn’t seem ordered – or at least doesn’t seem to behave that way? The trouble is, He actually is ordered; He is steadfast, unchanging, and everlasting. And, He made our ordered world – His imprint of order on it, holding all things together, is the main reason we can study science and find patterns at all. That’s one of the best things about God, that He doesn’t change. But, He doesn’t do the same thing in every situation, and it’s not always obvious why.
Much like our bathroom tiles, I can’t calculate how parts of life with God come to look so ‘random’. But, maybe what I need to remember is that unlike physical properties of the universe, we as humans are not constant, not identical, and we don’t all live out the exact same existence.
God’s plan for me is not the same as His plan for you, or His plan for the Old Testament prophets, or the New Testament lepers and Roman Centurions. And, when He’s in charge, I guess He’s allowed to have different ways of interacting with each of us, and not always answer things in the same way. It might look random, and might annoy me that I can’t predict it and quantify it, but it’s reassuring to know there’s definitely someone there laying his coloured tiles into an intricate and fascinating pattern.