July 1, 2004
The Eureka

the Answer Eludes Us,
Then Suddenly Comes
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Last fall, a young man who works for our lawn service came to rake our leaves. As he was getting ready to leave after finishing, I asked him if he would also clean our gutters. I reminded him that his supervisor had assured me this task would be done. Because our home is surrounded by oak trees and it was late fall, the gutter problem was serious.

“I’m not able to do it today,” he responded, “because I don’t have a ladder in my truck. I’ll need to come back next week when I can bring one with me.”

Once I understood his predicament, I realized that of course he couldn’t possibly work on our roof that day. Though disappointed, I told him, “I understand; just do it when you can come back with a ladder.”

Only after he left did it dawn on me that I have several large ladders quite adequate to scale the roof of our one-story home. Why didn’t I think to suggest he use one of them?

Lazy thinking is the answer. It’s well recognized in psychology (and in sales and marketing strategy) that when someone offers us a reason why something can’t be done, we default toward accepting it. An explanation persuades us, so often, not by its logic but because its effect is hypnotic. We take it mindlessly as the final word, and don’t bother to think beyond it. My failure to see an obvious answer to a simple problem that autumn morning is a textbook example of how this can happen.

This “explanation effect” is merely one of many reasons we may fail to see a situation realistically. We assume we’re thinking clearly, yet miss a critical detail that makes all the difference. Our minds can be very lazy. We each have many blind spots, and our capacity for skewed perception is far greater than we usually imagine. At times we fail to see the hippopotamus in the wading pool in front of us; the answer to a major problem is staring us in the face, yet we miss it.

The other side of this story is equally interesting. When we are able to move beyond our blind spots and cloudy thinking, and open our minds creatively to solving problems, we are often able to see solutions that have eluded us. The answers that come are sometimes downright surprising.

Some years ago, our family was living in a townhouse and my office was in the basement. Because an open stairway connected the basement and the first floor, I was often distracted by noise from upstairs. The obvious solution would be to install a door. Yet since the stairway had an open, expansive design, I couldn’t think of any logical way to fit a door into the wide space at the top or bottom of the stairs. I spent considerable time mulling the problem over, trying to come up with a workable design. I concluded there was no solution short of a major modification to the stairway, which would violate the community’s architectural standards and be too expensive to undertake.

One evening, though, I shared my dilemma at a Bible study. A member whom I respected for his problem-solving skills responded that he was sure there was an easy answer. His confidence inspired me, and I thought, He’s right, there must be a way to do it. The next day it dawned on me that I could insert a door at the landing point where the stairway turned halfway down; since the stairwell was more enclosed there, this modification was easy to make.

The solution was, in fact, so obvious and simple that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before. 

Finding Answers to Impossible Problems

Each of us enjoys such breakthrough moments of insight from time to time, when the answer to a perplexing problem suddenly becomes clear. Few experiences are more thrilling--especially when we’ve grown convinced a problem is unsolvable. We feel like dropping everything and celebrating. We understand how Archimedes, who discovered the principle of buoyancy while bathing, could have sprung from his tub and run unadorned through the streets of Syracuse, crying, “Eureka” (“I’ve found it”) (though hopefully we’re not inspired to repeat his feat).

We have a continual need for such epiphanies as we move through life. Life presents us with an ongoing array of problems to solve and decisions to make. They range from less than earth-shattering (How can I fix this flat tire without a jack? What topic should I choose for this term paper? How can I stop this leak in my kitchen? Who can I ask to the dance?), to much more monumental (How can I find work in this field when no one’s hiring? How can I gain admission to this grad program with a GPI of 2.5? Where can I find help for this knee pain that’s killing me? How can I find someone to marry?).

Invariably, we each encounter certain problems that seem to defy solution. Though we long to find an answer to them, we grow convinced there is none. At this point the tragedy is that we may close ourselves off to finding a solution. Even worse, we may use our powers of intellect from then on to convince ourselves of all the reasons the problem cannot be solved--and so the more we ponder it, the more intractable it seems.

Yet answers often can be found to life’s “impossible” problems, when we open our minds and hearts fully to discovering them. Here it helps us immensely to appreciate two factors that we easily overlook: One is the problem-solving nature of the mind God has placed within us; the other is the help God extends to us in resolving problems and decisions when we ask for it. Let’s look at both of these extraordinary life-benefits. 

Our Mind’s Creative Nature

First, the mind. It’s the nature of the mind God has given us to seek and find good solutions to the problems we face. To say it more strongly, he has hard-wired our brains to do so. We’re beginning from a much greater position of strength than we usually realize.

The Gestalt psychologists of the 1920’s and 30’s were the first in the history of psychology to appreciate this fact. Psychology at the time was dominated by behaviorism, with its mechanistic view of human thinking. Humans are simply a higher form of animal, behaviorists held, who solve problems through a tedious process of trial and error. The Gestaltists took a deeper look and saw something more profound. When we face a problem, they observed, our mind instinctively seeks to bring to it a “gestalt”--which is German for form or shape. And in an instant, we may make a giant leap forward, moving beyond trial and error to a good solution.

Even animals from the more intelligent species are capable of such gestalts, these researchers showed. In one experiment, Wolfgang Köhler placed Sultan, a hungry male chimpanzee, in a room with a bunch of bananas hanging from the ceiling. Sultan first made several attempts to leap at them, finding them well out of reach. Then he discovered a stick and a box well-removed from the bananas. Sultan grabbed the stick and attempted to strike the bananas, but again they were too high. He bounced around the cage, angry and frustrated. Then, suddenly he stopped, went to the box and shoved it under the bananas. He climbed on it and, with a small leap, knocked the bananas down with his stick.

After futilely attempting to solve his problem through random trial and error, Sultan’s mind suddenly fast-forwarded to the right solution. Köhler saw in this episode, and many like it in experiments with primates, a parallel to how the human mind works in solving much more complicated problems. We begin by trying one possibility, then another, exhausting our options step by step, yet only hitting roadblocks. Then our brain suddenly functions on a deeper level, producing an answer so remarkably appropriate that we wonder how it had escaped us until now. 

Our Subconscious Ally

Köhler and his associates* were more concerned with demonstrating the fact that our mind functions this way than with explaining how it happens. Psychologists after them, though, came increasingly to appreciate the role that our subconscious plays in this process. It’s now widely understood that much of our thinking takes place subconsciously. And our subconscious mind typically does a much better job at creative thinking than our conscious mind does. We may feel we’re making no progress in solving a difficult problem, when in fact our subconscious mind is wrestling with it earnestly. In time, a welcome solution may suddenly emerge consciously, with all the impact of a divine revelation.

Poet Amy Lowell describes such an experience in composing a poem: 

How carefully and precisely the subconscious mind functions, I have often been a witness to in my own work. An idea will come into my head for no apparent reason; “The Bronze Horses,” for instance. I registered the horses as a good subject for a poem; and, having so registered them, I consciously thought no more about the matter.  But what I had really done was to drop my subject into the subconscious, much as one drops a letter into the mail-box. Six months later, the words of the poem began to come into my head; the poem--to use my private vocabulary--was “there.”*

Countless writers, artists, composers and scientific thinkers attest to episodes similar to Lowell’s, of sudden inspiration in their own work--often following an unproductive period. Their experiences document the uncanny way the subconscious mind works, and help explain how creative thinking occurs. We’re reminded that much more mental activity is going on beneath the surface in our heads than we tend to think. 

Our Continual Need for God’s Help

However the creative process is understood, the Gestaltists were the first to appreciate its implications--especially for solving the normal problems of life. What they saw, plainly and simply, is that our mind inclines toward finding good solutions to our challenges.

This basic insight is an extremely redemptive one for us as Christians. It helps us appreciate a vital feature of the mind God has placed within us, and an important part of what it means to be made in the image of God. God has given us the ability to think constructively, and to find answers even to some of our most vexing problems.

This doesn’t mean that he has created us to function effectively without his help. We desperately need his Lordship and his constant influence in our life. Apart from his help, we sabotage our own interests in countless ways, and our mind may form gestalts that reflect anything but his best for our life.

But when God provides for us in any area, he normally does so by influencing the natural processes of life that he has created rather than by overriding them. This means that when he guides us, he typically does so, not by giving us a direct revelation, but by guiding the mind he has given us, enabling it to function as he intended. Appreciating this process deepens our sense of purpose, for we recognize that God has given us a role in solving the predicaments that we face.

Yet it also reminds us that we are dependent on God for life and breath and the ability to think clearly. The point never comes in our lives when we no longer need God’s help in resolving problems, and now are able to run on automatic pilot. The good news is that when we ask God for wisdom, Scripture promises he will provide it (Jas 1:5). We may be confident that the God who has given us our mind will help it reach wise conclusions when we humbly ask for his assistance.

The concept of gestalt increases our confidence that this wisdom will come when we pray for it, for we realize that even if we’re at an impasse, a moment of insight may suddenly break through that makes all the difference. Any day may bring with it the enlightenment we need to move forward. We have strong reason for hope. 

Gestalts in Scripture

To this end, Scripture provides us with many examples of individuals who found answers to the most challenging personal problems, often when they had practically lost hope. We see people enjoying relief and the chance to make new beginnings, from experiences of gestalt that surely surprised them in many cases. Their experiences encourage us to be patient and hopeful that we will find the insight we need to turn around difficult circumstances in our own life. Some of the most inspiring examples include: 

The prodigal son (Lk 15: 11-31). This young man left his supportive home, moved to a distant country, and through wild living and many bad judgments squandered his inheritance. A famine then set in. Things grew so bleak for him that he “hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.” He clearly felt he had no alternative but to live a pitiful, poverty-stricken existence.

Finally, though, he “came to his senses.” It occurred to him that his father’s servants enjoyed far better living conditions than his, and they had plenty to eat. He would go back home, apologize profusely to his father, and ask for the privilege of serving as one of his hired hands. Of course, when he followed through and returned home, his father welcomed him exuberantly and hosted a great celebration for his return. Every indication is that he was restored to his full status as a son in the family. At the point when things seemed most hopeless, one moment of gestalt brought a solution, and a vast improvement to his life. 

The woman with the hemorrhage (Mk 5:24-34). Equally destitute, but through no fault of her own, was a woman the Gospels describe as having suffered a blood flow for twelve years. She had exhausted her finances seeking medical help, yet her condition only continued to deteriorate. Then came an unexpected opportunity to encounter Jesus--and with it a gestalt: “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed.” That insight proved to be life-changing in the most thoroughgoing sense. After pushing through a crowd and touching his robe, she experienced healing, then received a profound compliment from Jesus about her faith. 

Paul’s decision to visit Macedonia (Acts 16:6-10). During a particularly difficult period in his ministry, Paul and his missionary team experienced several substantial setbacks. They were thwarted in major attempts to enter both Asia and Bithynia. Then they ended up in Troas, but apparently didn’t feel conditions were right for ministry there. One night, though, Paul had a dream of a man in Macedonia begging for his help. In the morning, after Paul described his dream to his friends, they quickly arrived at a gestalt: God was calling them to evangelize Macedonia. In a moment, they moved from confusion about their mission to clear direction: “we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia.”

Their visit to Macedonia (Acts 16:11-40), while not without challenges (which went with the territory in Paul’s ministry), resulted in many conversions and the establishing of a church in that region. Paul’s central mission of breaking ground for the gospel in unevangelized territory was accomplished. 

Isaiah in the temple (Is 6). Isaiah, distraught over King Uzziah’s death and over the moral and spiritual decay in his nation, enters the temple. During a brief time of worship he experiences a startling paradigm shift: God is looking for someone not just to lament Israel’s problems, but to address and remedy them. “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’”

Isaiah’s exuberant reply: “Here am I. Send me.” 

Abraham’s search for a wife for Isaac (Gen 24). When Genesis describes Abraham’s decision to send his servant to Haran to seek a wife for his son Isaac, it begins by noting: “Abraham was now old and well advanced in years, and the Lord had blessed him in every way.” Why does the writer start with this detail?

It is probably to say that while God had blessed Abraham beyond measure, considerable time had passed and Isaac was still unmarried. It’s likely Abraham had tried earnestly to find Isaac a spouse in Canaan, only to discover that his son wasn’t compatible with the women there. Abraham had probably been confused for some time about how to help Isaac find a mate. If so, then the idea of going to Haran must have come as a remarkable epiphany. Abraham realized he wasn’t bound by geography in seeking Isaac a wife, but could go elsewhere--in this case, to his home region. That insight--that gestalt--came with strong conviction, and the confidence that God would send his angel ahead and give success to the mission.

The servant’s venture to Haran, of course, was victorious. He returned with Rebecca, who became Isaac’s wife, and the rest is history. 

Jacob’s decision to leave Laban and return to his home. Jacob worked for many years as a shepherd for his uncle Laban in Haran. Laban treated Jacob increasingly unfairly as time wore on, and the situation grew more and more frustrating for Jacob and his ever-growing family. Yet Jacob still felt loyal to Laban and compelled to stay.

That is, until what was undoubtedly a stunning moment of revelation. “Then the Lord said to Jacob, ‘Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you’” (Gen 31:3).

It’s very likely that Jacob had wanted to return home for some time, and so God was confirming that what Jacob wanted to do was appropriate. God was giving him permission to leave his intolerable circumstances.

This example is helpful for any of us who are in a demoralizing situation which we feel guilty about leaving. It reminds us that God may be giving us permission--even a mandate--to move on. The realization that God wants us to leave an abusive situation can be a true eureka moment--as it surely was for Jacob. 

Two Ways God Guides Us

Jacob’s epiphany that he should leave Haran is interesting from another angle, for we’re told that God spoke directly to him about what to do. It’s not clear that God did so in any of the other examples just cited.* Scripture cites numerous cases where God gave someone supernatural direction, as he did here with Jacob. Yet for any individual in Scripture--even Biblical heroes--such guidance was the exception, usually the rare exception to that person’s normal experience. Genesis notes only several instances when God intervened in Jacob’s life with a direct revelation, for instance.

Still, these examples are important, for they remind us that God will find a way to give us the insight we need. In most cases he will do so by influencing our mind to function naturally and effectively, so that we reach an inspired solution through our normal mental process. Yet on a special occasion, when our need requires, he may break the rules of nature and communicate to us directly--either through some dramatic means, or by enabling us to come quickly to a conclusion we never could have reached through reason alone.

Appreciating this fact is unspeakably encouraging, for it deepens our confidence that God cares enough to guide us, and will give us exactly the guidance we need, when we need it. He has two means to do so--through influencing our normal thought process, or by bypassing it and communicating with us directly.

In some cases it’s impossible to know whether God has guided us directly or not. Those wonderful moments of gestalt that we enjoy from time to time, when we suddenly recognize a solution to a problem that’s long puzzled us, often feel as though we’re experiencing a supernatural revelation from God. Yet whether in fact we are, or whether an insight from our subconscious mind has simply bubbled to the surface, may be impossible to determine. And we usually don’t need to know which way it happened, either. The important thing is that God has guided us, whether directly, or by influencing our thinking; in either case, he has found a way to give us the enlightenment we need.

Which is another way of saying, nothing is impossible for God. Indeed, understanding that fact--and truly appreciating it--is one of the most encouraging gestalts we can possibly reach.

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