Word problems in math class. That phrase either excites or terrorizes you. Word problems represent an attempt on the textbook author’s part to apply math to the real world and demonstrate how and where we might someday use the principles we were learning. Once I got the hang of solving word problems they seemed the same to me as working jigsaw puzzles. Yes, I am a nerd.

My first exposure to word problems came at the merciless hands of a tyrant named Mrs. Lewis in seventh grade Pre-Algebra. She believed students should teach themselves by reading the book, and pity the fool who could not answer any question Mrs. Lewis posed. She remained absorbed in her newspaper until the class recitation of answers to homework problems halted because some poor student had reached the limits of his knowledge. The specter rose from her desk, berated, terrorized, screamed, and in some cases physically assaulted students though in that era parents did not seem to mind. Her favorite line spoken at high volume, “Boy, if I can’t teach you from the head down I will teach you from the rear end up.”

Once I grasped the major premise (on my own with no help from Mrs. Lewis) that unknowns in the word problems could be represented by letters such as x and y I mastered her class and breezed through Algebra I and II, Geometry, Trigonometry, Math Analysis and even an off-the-books Intro to Calculus taught by a high school teacher fresh from grad school. Mr. Bennett promised that if we gave up our study hall and worked the problems he presented we would be able to soar through the first two years of college Calculus. His impromptu class was a gift that paid big dividends and allowed me to ace Calculus as well as earn financial aid serving as a math tutor for other students needing help.

My electrical engineering degree included hefty doses of math, and I earned nearly enough credits for a math minor though that particular college did not award minors with engineering degrees. The courses I tackled included Calculus I, II, and III, Differential Equations, Probability and Statistics, and Linear Algebra. During one summer session I helped a professor from the School of Liberal Arts in his Calculus II homework nearly every morning at breakfast in the student center. Imagine my surprise to see him waltz into the mandatory Principles of Sociology class the next spring as the professor. He had passed Calculus II and assured me I would see a similar result from my time in Principles of Sociology. Yes, I still did the work, wrote the papers, and studied for the tests.


Many years later I would be blessed with daughters who took math classes. It was my joy to help them work through troubling math topics though their summation of the experience may express a different emotion. I offered help all the way through their high school days or at least until they stopped asking. Often my solution to their quandary started with a simple instruction, “Get out a clean sheet of paper!” 

(I also taught them a three-letter acronym which haunts most math students – CME. That stands for Careless Math Error, and Michelle hates the term even today but that is another story!)

A sheet of paper covered with scribbles and eraser marks offended my mathematical senses. Trying to find a small open space in which to work a new problem seemed unacceptable, and numbers applying to Problem 3 often found a path to add confusion to Problem 4. So Dad counseled that they crumple the paper, take a few deep breaths, relax, shake away the cramps in their fingers, and start anew with a clean sheet. (A pile of cookies might also help with the most intimidating word problems.)

My daughters (and Shawn) laughed at me as I regularly stopped by the discount store for the back-to-school deals. I stocked up on inexpensive packages of notebook paper until an impressive stack grew in my office space. I knew math classes would roll in as long as the girls attended school, and I understood the importance of their having proper tools and equipment. Today the girls are in their own homes, but I have a stack of three-hole paper about a quarter of an inch thick stuck on a clipboard in the shop. For someday.

Notebook Paper

The Bible character Abram (later Abraham) illustrates the fresh-sheet concept for us. God called him to leave his familiar surroundings to travel to a new land, a land God promised to give to Abram’s descendants one day. The early verses in Genesis 12 tell the story. We find that Abram camped in the new land and built altars on which he could express his worship to God. Life seemed good for a few whiles until Abram encountered a major obstacle.

Now there was a famine in the land; so Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land.  Genesis 12:10 NASB

Genesis 12:10 NASB

Obstacles are life’s word problems, bristling with unknowns and often requiring solutions we cannot derive on our own. And no one escapes those word problems. Abram scribbled ideas, ran calculations, and messed up a whole sheet of paper before declaring his solution. (Spoiler alert – he derived the wrong answer!)

Abram packed up and set course for Egypt. We have no record that God led him to Egypt, and the evidence is clear that Abram compromised his integrity on this journey. Understand that he operated out of fear which is the normal result of living life while ignoring God. Our peace dissolves. Our confidence erodes. Our emotions convince us that anything goes in survival mode and we lower our standards rather than trust God.

Abram lied about his relationship to Sarai (later Sarah), beautiful woman that she was, and Sarai was taken into Pharaoh’s house. The king planned to make her one of his wives after she completed the traditional purification process. Thankfully God stepped in, got Pharaoh’s attention, and protected Sarai who was promptly returned to Abram. Pharaoh, completely disgusted with Abram’s duplicity, kicked him out of the country.

“Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife, take her and go.” Pharaoh commanded his men concerning him; and they escorted him away, with his wife and all that belonged to him. Genesis 12:19-20 NASB

Genesis 12:19-20 NASB

Abram left Egypt rich in livestock, silver and gold, but his life had become rudderless. He had drifted into Egypt with all the adversity that choice brought to him, and he needed to take deliberate steps to get back to the place God wanted him. Abram had to crumple up his off-the-cuff plan, pull out a fresh sheet of paper, and revisit his purpose.

So Abram went up from Egypt to the Negev, he and his wife and all that belonged to him, and Lot with him. Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver and in gold. He went on his journeys from the Negev as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, to the place of the altar which he had made there formerly; and there Abram called on the name of the LORD. 

Genesis 13:1-4 NASB

Note Abram’s actions:

  • He went…to the place where his tent had been at the beginning.
  • He went…to the place of the altar which he had made there formerly.
  • and there Abram called on the name of the LORD.

A fresh sheet of paper! A new approach to solving life’s word problems! Consult God and get His input. Great choice, Abram, and thank you for showing us the way! God has never encountered a word problem that He cannot solve. And He doesn’t need any paper.