I grew up with a family that loved to do jigsaw puzzles together. We had a large oval dining room table, and so every holiday we would lay out these massive 1500 or 2000 piece puzzles that would commandeer the table. I remember several years when we actually had to set up Thanksgiving dinner on top of the puzzle and were careful not to mess up the pieces as we passed the plates. “Can I please have some more potatoes, and a helping of puzzle?” There were traditions in my family with regards to puzzles as well. My dad would always say, “That piece should be easy to find,” and we’d all groan aloud. Invariably, someone would become convinced that a certain piece was missing, even though it always turned up later, whether under the table, within the crush of pieces, or inside my brother’s pocket.
A puzzle is really a metaphor for life. You lay out all these pieces and you try to see the big picture hidden there by looking at all the little parts and imagining how they might go together. And then you try to piece them together as best as you can with a lot of failure and frustration, and these occasional tiny victories. Sometimes they’ll go together easily and you feel like you’re a genius. Sometimes you’ll have a dry spell and you won’t get any to go together for a long time. Sometimes you’ll keep trying, even though the whole thing is a mess, and sometimes you just have to walk away for a time. But the beauty of a puzzle is that there is a coherent picture behind the chaos. Underneath it all, you know that wholeness is possible.
Unfortunately, the struggle that goes with assembling a real puzzle in life will challenge that belief. When you’re agonizing over a puzzle, you begin to hear a little voice in your head that says something like, “This has no meaning. Struggle is all for nothing. There is no rhyme or reason, no big picture here. You’ll never find wholeness.” At those times in my life, I strive to remember the lessons that I learned about wholeness from doing jigsaw puzzles, lessons that also happen to be summarized in a famous verse in Romans: “All things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”
1) Wholeness is a conviction
It is tempting in this day and age to think of wholeness as the completion of your puzzle. We are ingrained to think this way from our youth when we read that they all “lived happily ever after.” The illusion is that the puzzle will be complete today or some day when we find the right piece. But what about tomorrow? What about when you add children to the fairy tale? Or the loss of a job? Or the addition of a job that forces you to relocate, or commute across the city? Or what about illness? The reality is that pieces which don’t seem to fit keep getting added to the chaos. It becomes clear that wholeness must not be completion, but a conviction.
When Paul says that “all things work together” he is making a statement about a conviction that there is a Designer behind all of this who has created a picture, and that the picture is slowly coming together. There is someone who is controlling all of the things that happen in this universe and that happen in our lives to bring them into a meaningful whole. When you start a puzzle, you begin in faith that all of the pieces are going to fit together in the end. There won’t be any missing, or any that don’t fit. Sometimes that conviction goes against our experience, especially when the pieces in our lives are simply not going together in a way that makes sense.
So Paul says that “all things work together for good” because he believes that ultimately, God is good. There is a Designer who is completely powerful and yet completely good. Wholeness is only possible if that is true. And so sometimes we must reimagine what “good” means. Good tends to be subjective here. It tends to mean comfortable. It tends to be immediate. Good must have a broader definition. It must mean wholeness and not these other things. Because God is good, I believe that this picture will be beautiful in the end in spite of the darkness—in spite of the mistakes I’ve made, the stupid things I’ve done, the way that I have hurt people or have been hurt by them. And so I just keep picking up pieces and putting them together because I believe that a good God makes wholeness possible.
2) Wholeness is guided by a purpose
The most obvious thing about a puzzle is the fact that the picture is broken. As you look around, it is pretty clear that brokenness is part of our reality as well. As Walker Percy speculates in “Lost in the Cosmos,” perhaps some cataclysmic event pulverized reality into trillions of pieces. The universe wasn’t always fractured as we find it today. We long for wholeness even though it has never really been part of our experience. However that happened in history, one thing becomes clear. If a Designer composed this picture, then wholeness is only possible because that Being decided to put it back together again. Wholeness requires purpose.
I have friends who don’t believe in God, and yet believe in a mystical force that governs the universe and that is basically working everything out for them. They believe in an impersonal power of fate or destiny, and yet, it is personal enough to know everything about them and make it happen for them. That is like saying that electricity is going to make sure that you marry the right person or succeed in your career. In actuality, that is a Star Wars faith. Seriously, if this power doesn’t have thoughts or sentience, then how could it govern anything in your life? And would you really want it to do that? Would you want it to make choices for you? But a personal Being with power has a will and can call you to a coordinated purpose.
What that means is that every piece matters to the whole. When I spread out a puzzle on a table, I never think, “That piece doesn’t matter. It isn’t important. I can toss that one away.” On the contrary, I know that every piece matters. There are exactly the right amount of pieces included in this box, and there are no extras thrown in for good measure. That is true in nature as well. If a Designer is behind the universe, then it is clear that Being has amazing economy of effort. Nothing is wasted. If there is a purpose guiding all things, then everything has purpose.
If wholeness is possible, then nothing in your life is wasted. Wholeness means that the days and hours you spent in that dead-end job matter. It means the relationship which exploded in your face matters. It means the business you tried to launch but failed miserably matters. It means the money you loaned to a friend but never saw returned matters. It means the love you poured into the life of a stranger matters. You may never witness it, but if wholeness is possible, then nothing is wasted.
3) Wholeness is the result of struggle
One thing I have noticed by looking around at creation and looking at puzzles is this: the Designer values the process. Everything that happens in nature seems to take time—things happen organically. There is a struggle built into the creation of things. We may not like it—we like things that are immediate. I grew up thinking that God created the world in just six days because that is what the Bible seemed to relate. Today, I doubt that is how the Designer accomplished it. I don’t doubt that it could have happened that way, but I find that the Designer rarely circumvents a process that He invented. Struggle is a process that is hard-wired into nature.
Struggle is the working out of God’s purpose. I know that some people don’t like puzzles because they don’t see the point or don’t like the frustration. Sometimes I don’t really like puzzles either. But I recognize something about puzzles. When I get up from that table, I’m a different person. Something about struggling through the process has changed me, has influenced my character, even if only by degrees. There is a purpose to puzzles that is deeper than just putting the pieces together.
If you look closely at the rest of this passage, you see that deeper purpose: “For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son.” Oddly enough, part of the puzzle—part of the cosmic process of the universe being restored—is having the character of Jesus formed inside of me. As it turns out, the place where the universe was broken is not just around me, but within me. That is hard to accept in a society which sees the other person as the problem. Wholeness must happen in my character before it can spread across the galaxies. It must bear fruit in my heart before it can transform the world. That means struggle. It won’t be immediate. It won’t be comfortable. But it will be good. That is wholeness.
When you buy a puzzle, you might notice something—there is always a picture on the cover of the box. Puzzle purists don’t ever want to look at that picture for help; they want to complete the puzzle independently. That is how we tend to be. But it is provided as a guide. It is supposed to lead you toward wholeness. In my family, we would always resist using the box until that moment when all else failed. And in that moment, a defeated voice would mumble, “Can I look at the box?” When wholeness seems impossible, I hear my own voice mumbling the same thing.
What is the picture on the box? It is not a picture of you or me. Wholeness is bigger than you or me. It is not even a picture of peace on earth, even though that is certainly part of it. Instead, it is a picture of the universe restored, and the very centerpiece of that collage is a figure on a cross—the figure of Jesus. If you look down in the corner of the puzzle, you might see a tiny figure, an aging guy with a receding hairline—it is me writing this essay. I am part of this picture and so are you. You might also see that I am praying in the picture. I am praying for you—that you would come to know: wholeness is possible because God is involved.
Daniel Radmacher © 2017
Thanks Dan for this – it is helpful. I have found in myself and other Christians the obsession to re-create Eden in their lives, not Christ in their heart. Everything must turn out right, nothing bad must happen, all goes well. Everything works out for good – we like that part, as long as the “everything” is also good. I feel bad that on the surface, very little seems to have gone well for me in my life. Much seems to be difficult, more than it needs to be in my eyes. When I start to feel that way I reflect on Hebrews 11. Some obtained the promise and deliverance – some did not only not receive the promise, but suffered. Either way, the world was not worthy of them. I am a son of God – whether I make all the pieces fit or not, nothing will change that. Thanks for making me reflect.