When I taught algebra classes and students had to graph parabolas, I enjoyed using that as an occasion to show God’s order in His creation. From the sagging of telephone wires to the flight of a plane, everything on this earth is impacted uniformly by the pull of gravity. As math students often want to know what math has to do with the real world, it was fun to show how simple mathematical models can represent the world. Amazingly, on a piece of paper we can come up with a second degree equation and a graph that pictures certain natural relationships.
Yet there’s one such parabolic curve we often do not like to consider. Parabolas can also picture our lives pulled constantly by the weight of sin.
We start out as babes with minimal skills, then grow quickly through childhood in our bodies, knowledge, and abilities. Up, up we go – or so we think. In our original design, man was to live forever and continue growing in wisdom and skills. Yet the fall came, and with it the perpetual pull – always downward – of sin. When we reach the top of our parabolic life in our middle age years, we already know we are slowing down, struggling harder to get going, feeling the weight in our bones grown heavy. Many who “reach” old age feel rather that they have “fallen” to it, sadly reduced to a macabre state of wrinkled babyhood – no teeth or hair, needing to be fed by another, and wearing diapers called Depends that speaks of far more than just a bladder condition. This life is either one of going uphill but slowing down or being over the hill and picking up speed. While visiting my poor mother this weekend, the sorrow of life having pulled her 70 year-old mind back down to that of a young child, I could not help notice how many of the older ladies’ humped backs even looked like parabolas. One of them, poor soul, fell not once but twice to the ground while I was there. She got up, but it is only a matter of time. From the dust we came and, like a ball thrown toward the sky, to the dust we invariably descend.
They say technically that a parabola is a curve generated by a point moving so that its distance from a fixed point is always equal to its distance from a fixed line. That’s just it. Our life’s direction is generated by the fixed point of Adam’s fall and the fixed line of our descent from him at that point. Many observable parabolas end at the ground, but mathematically they continue on into infinity. We should remember what lies ahead that we cannot see. In a children’s sermon this past Lord’s Day, I asked what happens to those who do not obey Jesus. After a short pause, a two-year-old whose parents did not think was paying attention said, “Hell!” as clear as a bell (well, at least as clear as some bells). Hell is an infinite descent from God. Ever have those nightmares that you are falling, falling, falling – then wake up before you hit bottom? In hell that will not be a nightmare but a reality. And there will be no waking up from it.
In a college psychology class, for a study our group set up a table, had a ball on it, then asked passers-by to draw the path of the ball if it were to be rolled off the edge of the table. Some drew it like Wile E. Coyote running past Road Runner off the edge of a cliff – a straight line out, then a straight drop down. Others drew a straight line down from the edge, more than one had loops, and too few drew the half parabola it should have been. But though they did not understand parabolas all that well, their pictures all had one thing in common. The balls always hit the floor in their drawings. This life is not just a parabola but a parable. Everyone’s life shows the same truth of the Scriptures. All of us fall short of God’s glory.
What’s one to do? In math there is another marvelous concept called an asymptote. Without getting too technical, a vertical asymptote is a line that represents an anomaly in a formula, where evaluating the formula for a certain value becomes undefined or incomprehensible. Conceptually, often on one side of the asymptote the graph will go toward negative infinity, and on the other side of the asymptote the graph heads toward positive infinity. When Christ died like the rest of us do, Anomaly of anomalies He did not die like the rest of us do. He could not undergo decay! He rose back up from the dust! He broke the equation that you plus sin always has to equal death! Indeed, death for the believer in Him becomes an ascent to God rather than further descent. Like the St. Louis Arch, the conclusion of the believer’s life parabola becomes a gateway to God.
Who said math has nothing to do with the real world?