Husband. Dad to 5. Student Ministry Pastor. Follower of Jesus. Yatta yatta.


maths and science formula on whiteboard

Straight up, formulas don’t work in real life.

If you’re baking a cake, you can use a formula.

If you’re mixing chemicals, I’d recommend you get a formula.

If you want to know how big to make the beams on your floor so the second story won’t collapse onto the first, by all means, please use a formula.

But once you start planning for college entrance, trying to win a sporting event, thinking about getting married, finding a job, or anything else involving the variables called “real people and real life”, then go ahead and dump your formula, it won’t work.   You just entered the world of probabilities and formulas are now all qualified with words like usually, often, and most.

When we assume we can use a formula to make the future what we want it to be, we end up with a bucket full of regret and a feeling of being betrayed by the system.   I wish I could list the number of formulas I thought would work that did not.  I was all but promised a set of things would happen when I blogged consistently, when I did xyz as a dad or husband, when I wrote a book, when I graduated from high school got a bachelors degree and again when I got my Mdiv…and a whole lot more.  You name it, all of them had promises of what they would lead to.  But they rarely and sometimes never did.

But this truth doesn’t seem to stop people from trying to sell me on their formula.  The other day someone did it with the “key” to writing.  Another guy told me the “key” to getting volunteers.  A lot of times, people try and turn the Bible into a formula too.  They see it almost exclusively as an “If you do this, then this will happen… either for good or bad” kind of resource.  While there are certainly some “if, then” truths in the Scriptures, it is also equally true that the Bible is not a book of formulas.  The most famous of these being the entire book of Proverbs.  It’s filled with “if, then” statements that are “wisdom” for living, not formulas you can plug and chug through.

The one that bugs me the most is Proverbs 22:6ish.  “Train a child up by [insert your own list of good behavior, ideas, and a litany of christian ideas here] and when they grow old, they will not depart from it.”   Right.  So every kid that goes astray can be traced back to a failed ingredient in the formula.  Mom didn’t read enough scripture to them, dad didn’t come home from work early enough, their church wasn’t ______ enough…. and on and on it goes.

But if you have ever taken a seminary class on the book of Proverbs, then you know that all good scholars will tell you “proverbs are not promises”, they are “wisdom literature filled with probabilities”.   Yes, if you hang out with people who do “x”, you’re more likely than not to do “y” with them.  Maybe A LOT more likely to do that.  But, we all can give evidence of the exceptions, cuz for better or worse, people are always screwing up the formulas.

Knowing this, there are a few options from here:

IGNORE IT AND DESPERATELY SEARCH TO PROVE THE FORMULA WORKS.  These people will do anything and everything to try and convince you that the reason your business didn’t work, that you didn’t get into that college, or that your marriage failed was because you didn’t play the formula right.  They know what’s wrong and they are out to prove the formula. They will use the formula to get you to change your behavior, buy their product, or invest in some service.  All of it based on statistics and facts that “prove” the formula works.  It’s the tongue-in-cheek truth behind all the Direct TV commercials these days.

GIVE UP AND DO WHATEVER YOU WANT, IGNORING BOTH THE FORMULA RULES AND THE WISDOM BEHIND THEM.   These people are the embodiment of the proverbial “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”  They agree that formulas don’t work and live by the wisdom of whatever feels right to them. They often site examples of those exemptions to the rules who managed to find extreme financial success without formal training, make their marriage work for 50 happy years even though they got married 3 weeks after meeting each other, and do all kinds of stuff in the face of the “proverbs”.   They essentially play the lottery of life every day saying, “Someone’s gotta win against all odds.  Might as well be me.”

LIVE WITH WISDOM, BUT KEEP FAITH IN GOD’S WILL, NOT THE FORMULA EVERYONE MAKES IT INTO.   There is a third option.  In this case, these people refuse to buy the formula but also refuse to bet the farm on foolishness. They walk a daily dance between what is wise and what is living by faith, at times living in the face of conventional wisdom for sure.  These are people who know the formulas are about likelihood, not guarantees.  If they go to college, they don’t believe the lies of what it will surely produce in 4 years.  Instead, they enjoy the journey, invest their life as wisely as they can, and leave some mystery in the process.

So BE WARNED: a lot of lies masquerade as a wisdom formula.  The wise learn to discern the difference.


  1. Hey, Brian…I have been disgruntled by formulas myself, especially those of youth ministry that promise success if I do A, B, and C. I am also one who believes wholeheartedly that scripture is true for all people in all places at all times, keeping context in mind, of course. So naturally I look for the exceptions…I hunt for them…I want to see my faithful God prove man’s wisdom to be foolishness. Colossians 3:20 comes to mind…”in all things…” really? But what if…?

    What is the purpose of Proverbs 22:6 if not an opportunity to trust God in the way you train your children? I am trying, by God’s grace, to train my children’s conscience, personally…their natural ability to discern right from wrong and when joined with the Holy Spirit a powerful force in their lives to remain close to God. I understand my children are imperfect, as I am, but it is in this point that God’s grace must be working to overcome our shortcomings. I should be trusting God’s Word for the wisdom I need to make decisions and God’s grace to accomplish God’s will for God’s glory.

    I don’t always know what’s wrong when things don’t work out the way they should have, and I am not trying to prove anything more than the faithfulness of God.

    • Thanks for your interaction Rob. I agree with you. I think I’d say the purpose of Proverbs 22:6 is not to promise a formula for raising kids, but rather to remind us that parenting on purpose is what produces the results we all yearn for in our kids. For me… I’m doing everything I know how to pour into the lives of my own kids and mentor them into young adulthood as followers of Jesus. I’m taking all the wisdom I can from the Scriptures and faithful friends that I can. But I just can’t believe that somehow there is a secret formula where if I jump through all the hoops in just the right order then everything is guaranteed to go right.

      I didn’t put it in the post, but John 16:33 is where Jesus reminds his disciples that the formulas won’t work. He says that “in this world, you will have trouble (i.e.: stuff will go wrong, even with your formulas and in spite of our best intentions), but take heart, for Jesus has overcome the world”.

      Thus my bottom line is apply all the wisdom you can, but don’t forget to lean on Jesus for strength and put more hope in God than you do the appearance of formulas that have God all figured out. It’s a subtle but significant shift for me.

  2. I wasn’t trying to give you the “key” to writing, so much as wishing to encourage. But I’m glad I could help inspire a post! 😉
    I think following a formula is helpful when it’s not depended on. It gives systems to lean into and direction when one feels like giving up. I think that’s my thing with “keys” – I’m not about sticking to a plan so much as not giving up on a dream or goal. If one thing didn’t work out, let’s try another route and then another and another. No one has ever bothered promising me a formula would work. The poor kids are expected to fail despite the formula. (I understand that is a short flippant sentence to simplify a much larger issue, but that’s for another comment) So I’m not shattered when it doesn’t work. I’ve got no one to impress. I haven’t disappointed anyone so I’m less disappointed in myself and more focused on my next attempt.

    • the post was already brewing heather… and it’s a chapter in Crazy House too. But thanks for the convo the other day. However, unlike you, I do want so bad for there to be a formula and I’m often shattered when it doesn’t work the way I thought or believed it would. So much so, that I have bought the formula lie many times.

      I want my current exercise and eating routine to produce the results on the package. It’s really hard for me to not see that as a formula. But I have to constantly remind myself that this is not true. I constantly want to turn probabilities into promises and end up wounded or annoyed when the road I’m on leads to a different end than the one I thought it was headed to…. Especially when the pot of gold turns out to be foil wrapped candy coins instead.

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