When The Numbers Lie

Hello Baysiders! Hope all is well in your summer souls this season.

Have you ever heard of the saying, “Numbers don’t lie?” It’s usually heard in a debate of some kind. The original phrase is, “Numbers don’t lie. Liars use numbers.” This is a popular way to say statistics and data are king in determining fact, success or transparency. The number equation related to the issue shows the incontestable truth about the situation. The second part of the saying means people intentionally use numbers to misinform other people, implying that people have a tendency to abuse and misuse numbers. Numbers don’t lie, people using numbers do. But is that true in the spiritual world?

I find it interesting that this secular proverb is not a proverb in the Bible. The idea is not really grounded in scripture. Rather what we find in the Bible is that numbers lie all the time. You shouldn’t trust numbers when it comes to things relating to the deep inner parts of our lives. This is what I mean, we naturally assume big numbers and large amounts of anything is good. For example, lots of money is a good thing and having a few dollars to your name is a bad thing. Having a large army is a good thing for victory and having only ten soldiers to fight is a guarantee for losing the war. Having lots of experience, education and accolades is a promising recipe for career success, yet having only a high school diploma and being green in your field of interest is a sure way to fail. Those examples of the numbers telling the truth are actually seen as lies from the way God works with his people. Over and over again the Bible gives countless examples where no matter the number that’s needed, it is irrelevant. More so, it’s when there is a small number, or tiny amount, or low quantity that God does his best work.

A perfect example for when the numbers lie is in the life of the Israelite judge, Gideon. Long story short, God tells him he will find victory over the Midianites with only a small army. Originally, Gideon had 32,000 soldiers and God told Gideon he had too many soldiers so he decreased the numbers. Then God said, “Go tell the men that if they are afraid that they may leave.” 20,000 men left Gideon with 10,000 men but was still too much. WAIT, WHAT? Too much for God? When is a big number not good for God? Isn’t God a big God who needs and wants bigness? Well, not always. Most of the time God pursues the small number and uses tiny amounts to bring forth His will and goodness. This is in the story of Gideon. God shrinks Gideon’s army to 300! Yes. 300 to fight in a war where they were outnumbered by a long shot! This is when the numbers lie. You would assume Gideon would lose because of the small number but not so. Gideon won a decisive victory over a Midianite army despite a vast numerical disadvantage. This is one of a plethora of anecdotes in scripture where many is a few and a few is many: a quick rundown is Abraham’s only 1 promised son Isaac, David’s 5 smooth stones to kill Goliath, the widow’s only a handful of flour and a little oil in a jug to help Elijah, Jesus’ tiny mustard seed and his 12 disciples as the first members of the church. It is crazy to think Jesus had 12 members in his church and by the end of his life only John and some women remained. God primarily and naturally uses small numbers. For Gideon 300 was the few he needed, not the many 32,000.

Why does God reveal that numbers do lie? Because it is His way to show himself to us as our only need. Gideon had to rely on God, not on the many soldiers he had. It’s so tempting to trust in our army, our bank account, our job position, our parenting skills, our status, our intellect, our family, our good looks, or our wit and not in God. But faith is not trusting God plus in other things, but only in God alone. Small numbers teach us this, IF we allow it. And it’s a big if. Western Christianity has a problem believing in the secular proverb of numbers don’t lie and tries to apply it (with exegetical inaccuracy) in scripture. We naturally assume God will bless us with many, because the numbers don’t lie and God isn’t a liar! Christians often say, “Obviously God is using me by opening another business to get more revenue,” “Expanding my social media followers is how I reach people for Jesus.” Church leaders think to themselves, “Obviously it’s a sign of spiritual health gaining lots of money through tithing, lots of people in churches, lots of professions of faith, lots of billboards with Bible verses,” and so on. But the story of Gideon says otherwise. Small numbers are the best amount to have. God initiates the bigness and scales numbers, not anything we can conjure up or produce.

This is where a Bible nerd tells me, “Stop right there! What about Acts 2 where 3,000 people got saved through Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost? Seems to me author Luke is highlighting that a large number was valuable and a sign of a good sermon.” Well, that number is merely a description from correctly hearing God’s word; it is not a prescription of measurement on how good a sermon is. Luke was not standardizing high numbers to qualify preaching. Let me say it this way, the number stated by Luke is not him telling us that this was a good sermon because a lot of people got saved. If no one got saved, and no one responded with repentance, it is still a good sermon! If he got 0 converts, because rejection was the response, then it’s still a good sermon! If only 12 got saved, it would have no negative effect on the sermon. The sermon is still a declaration of Gods’ truth and that’s why it’s good. This tells us that big numbers aren’t determiners for good and success in church life. Small churches can be a sign of success as well. The assumption is a church with low membership is a sign it’s a bad church or there is some poor teaching or pastoring going on there. But that’s so silly to think when there is no such grading scale in scripture. The Gideon story proves this. If anything, the Bible affirms and defends small numbers in faith life.

Church leaders today unfortunately and unbiblically read this verse to point out that if you are truly preaching God’s word and are faithful then you will have a huge harvest and many people will be at your church. But that can’t be true. Jesus preached in John 6 and all his hearers (except for the 12 apostles) rejected him at the end of his sermon because he started to talk about eating his body and drinking his blood. The prophet Jeremiah had less than a handful of Israelites who followed his ministry. The apostle Paul had only a third of his listeners in secular Athens who believed the gospel after his sermon on Mars Hill. The last best sermon I heard was when I attended a congregation with only 20 people. The pastor’s sermon was the most biblical, powerful, and convicting I’ve heard in a long time. Often the most gifted preachers minister in churches with 20-100 Sunday attendees…Never make the mistake of assuming that the best preachers and healthiest Christians are found in the big churches. Often, just the opposite is true. I am reminded by the parable of the lost sheep. Jesus makes a big deal over 1 sheep and not the whole. That 1 sheep was worthy to be celebrated when found. The shepherd didn’t hold off the party because of the low number who came back. I say all this because many Christians and church leaders would say God cares about numbers since it’s in the Bible right here in Acts; they use this verse to prove that numbers don’t lie. But it’s not true because Luke was not a 21st century venture capitalist trying to increase his investments at the end of the fiscal quarter. He didn’t see the church as a business model with the number of members as chart for spiritual success. He was simply an eye witness describing the wonderful work the Spirit of God was doing.

It’s not the numbers that determine good faith. Christians are caught up in thinking that large numbers equal success for God but Gideon and other past saints show us that’s immature faith. If anything, healthy faith is low numbers, not high. Mature faith is not valuing the big crowds of the Decapolis but in following Jesus into the boat with just a few of his disciples. For us this practically means no matter the number of kids, jobs, dollars, help, days, strengths, weaknesses, problems, opportunities, bills, or blessings, it has no value on who you are and your capability achieving what’s before you. Whatever you think right now is small, tiny in amount and few in number, trust not in it but in the God who can multiply small pieces of fish and bread to feed a multitude of 5,000. The final equation is 0—there is no equal sign in faith because the numerical outcome doesn’t matter; it’s God’s job to calculate. When it comes to spiritual development and nourishment, numbers are irrelevant. Whether you have many or few, our eyes should be on Christ, not the numbers. No number amount will ever be enough but Christ is enough and his grace is sufficient for all things. And that’s no lie.

Grace and peace (;^)

Pastor Aaron