Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Spiritual Perils of Censuses (and Blog Stat Counters?)

1 And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel.
2 And David said to Joab and to the rulers of the people, Go, number Israel from Beer-sheba even to Dan; and bring the number of them to me, that I may know it.
3 And Joab answered, The Lord make his people an hundred times so many more as they be: but, my lord the king, are they not all my lord’s servants? why then doth my lord require this thing? why will he be a cause of trespass to Israel?
4 Nevertheless the king’s word prevailed against Joab. Wherefore Joab departed, and went throughout all Israel, and came to Jerusalem.
5 ¶ And Joab gave the sum of the number of the people unto David. And all they of Israel were a thousand thousand and an hundred thousand men that drew sword: and Judah was four hundred threescore and ten thousand men that drew sword.
6 But Levi and Benjamin counted he not among them: for the king’s word was abominable to Joab.
7 And God was displeased with this thing; therefore he smote Israel. (1 Chronicles 21:1-7)
David wanted to number Israel. Why? Because he just wanted to know. And when the numbers come back, we see that he not only wanted to know how many people were in Israel, he wanted to delight in the strength and might of Israel which was represented by the number of fighting men, indicating pride had crept into his heart. He was beginning to trust in the arm of the flesh rather than trusting the Lord. Once upon a time when he had fought Goliath, he had made a point of declaring that the Lord didn’t save with sword or spear and that the battle outcome belonged to the Lord. Evidently he forgot that here.

What’s wrong with taking a count? It can be argued that taking a count is useful to make sure that everyone is present. While I was growing up, our babysitters would count the magnificent seven of us to make sure we were all present because they hadn’t become quite adept enough with our names. My mom and dad would usually call our names from oldest to youngest and we’d check to make sure everyone was in the car so that we weren’t leaving anyone behind. We know in the story about Jonathan that King Saul counted his men to see who was missing. And I often wonder, how long did it take Helaman to count how many of his stripling warriors were still alive? (“Dang! You messed me up! Now I have to start all over again!”)

Yet when the crowd gets big enough, it becomes more difficult to do this. In fact, an accurate count of a nation is almost impossible to obtain, and Joab probably knew it. He probably was aware that a count of a country can change even as it is occurring, and a mere year after it is complete, there have been births and deaths and wars and immigration and emigration and the count has been screwed up. Further, if you try to keep an accurate count all the time, it takes money and time and energy that could be better spent on something else. This is probably why Joab didn’t count the Levites or the Benjamites; he probably wanted to make sure that the count was inaccurate to make the point that 1) there will always be inaccuracies and 2) it isn’t smart to trust the numbers.

Another problem numbers create is that it is easy to forget that there are real people behind the numbers and instead start thinking of people as numbers—Social Security Numbers, credit card numbers, bank account numbers, visiting teaching and home teaching numbers, membership record numbers, telephone numbers, and so on. There’s a tendency toward depersonalization that is contrary to the doctrine of the worth of souls and the doctrine of man’s divine potential.

Another problem censuses create is that they give the illusion of control. We often think that if we measure something, we can control it. It’s easy to start trying to make policies to try to manipulate the numbers and get them to do what we want them to do. When there are people behind the numbers, number manipulation begins to take on shades of exploitation, coercion, and unrighteous dominion, when there should instead be a strong sense of stewardship and service.

So what does this have to do with us today? Well, as a personal application, I may not be queen of a parcel of land, but I suppose you could say I’m the queen of this blog. Many of us who have blogs have stat counters somewhere on them so that we can know how many people have visited our blogs. These counters really have no purpose except to satisfy our curiosity and pride that X amount of people have come to our blog, which was Y more than last week or last month. (If there are any other purposes, could someone please educate me?) I don’t know about you, but I admit that once I installed that stat counter, every time I came to my own blog, that number was the first thing I checked, and the second thing I checked was whether anyone commented. Often I would go to my blog just to check my stat counter. Sometimes I would check my stat counter multiple times a day. After a while I realized that this wasn’t really healthy, and since studying the above story about David, I started trying to ignore my stat counter. (Which worked for a while, and then I started compulsively checking it again.)

Meanwhile, something bothered me a little bit about this story about David. I didn’t understand Joab’s specific objections to having a census—“but, my lord the king, are they not all my lord’s servants? why then doth my lord require this thing?”

Finally I realized what Joab meant when I compared it to me and my blog stat counter. I felt like I needed the stat counter on my blog so that I could know that some people were at least coming. I needed a morale booster when people didn’t comment.. Maybe David also wanted to know that he had support. But wait, David was .. the king. Joab was pointing out that the whole country was bound to serve David, so there really wasn’t any need for him to know how many people were behind him. It should have been enough for David to know that he had support.

So how does this apply to me? Well, after some fighting with myself, I admit that since I know that I have somewhere around 25-30 people who regularly come to read, maybe I can let go of my stat counter and just have faith that they will keep coming, even though I can’t “see” the numbers. Hello, lurkers! (Michaela waves through the computer screen)

So I’ve deleted my blog’s stat counter. Really, checking it was a compulsive habit. Besides, it has just occurred to me that the number of people who visit isn’t nearly as important as I may have thought. What is important is how many are inspired, enlightened, and encouraged here, which is uncountable and unknowable, at least in this life anyway. And I don’t really have any control over that, aside from doing my best to study and write about the scriptures. That is in the Lord’s hands, and He can guide people to what can help them the most, whether it is to something I’ve written or something someone else has written.

What about the “followers” sidebar gadget? Isn’t that also like a census? Well, I’m keeping this widget because I like to get to know my readers. I figure if they like my blog enough to commit themselves, then I want to know about them.

Here’s a sing-out to Jared in Florida, who likes calculus, and piano, and rappelling, and.. hey! I like John Rutter music too! Have you ever heard his arrangement of “For the Beauty of the Earth?”

Here’s a bark-out to “In the Doghouse” from California, who writes some neat hubpages.

Here’s a shout-out to Kathryn Skaggs from southern California, whose excellent goal is “to do more good”.

Here’s a type-out to Bethie from Cottonwood Heights, Utah, who has six different blogs on topics from 60s music, to Isaiah, to electing Mitt Romney.

Here’s a binary blast out to Tim Malone from Camarillo, California, who is an IT guy and is interested in holistic medicine.

Here’s a secret McDuff handshake to Patricia Wright, alias McDuff Q, who lives in Japan and is moving to Oklahoma. She’s really good with animals (being a vet tech). We’ve had many pleasant hours together growing up.

Here’s a shout-out to Luis the mysterious in sunglasses!

Here’s a ink-blotted flourish for Chas Hathaway, who plays piano and is starting an awesome writing group! He used to dig graves! (ooooooo.)

Here’s a page to Seanette Blaylock from Sacramento, California, who is challenging herself to read the Book of Mormon, D&C, and Pearl of Great Price all the way through in 40 days!

Here’s a title wave to Becky from Sunny, Arizona (is that your town’s name?), who has written a book called “Adventures with the Word of God: Making Scripture Study Exciting for the Entire Family”! (AWESOME!!!)

And finally, here’s a здравствуйте! to Lirik from Samara, Russia! He is a translator and he likes Photoshop CS2. (I hope my translator widget got the hello right..)

Isn’t it always about people, rather than the numbers?


In The Doghouse said...

You are just too cute Michaela! I loved this post, and yes, it is about the people. Thanks for the shout out!

FelixAndAva said...

Thanks for the mention! (I'm Seanette.)

Care to join a New Testament in 40 days challenge starting August 10?

I love the amount of thought and study that must go into your posts, and a faithful POV seems very rare in the bloggernacle (lots of fault-finding, rationalizing, finding excuses for doubt, etc., are a lot more common). Please keep up the good work!

Michaela Stephens said...

Thanks, ladies!

Seanette, I'd love to get in on the New Testament 40-day challenge!

It's up to all of us to spread a faithful POV. Each of us makes a difference. Each person has a different kind of stumbling block, and we each have something different we struggle with. Some of us hide it and others don't. Some of us prefer to write about our struggles while in the middle of them, and others of us prefer to write about them after they are resolved.

I hope you ladies keep up the good posts too!

Chas Hathaway said...

Great post! It's so true about the stat counter. Good gravy, it can be hard to ignore than pathetic little counter!

I've always wondered about that census deal, and why it was so bad for him to count his numbers. I bet your right that he was putting too much faith in numbers and not putting his faith in the Lord. That's easy to do, too.

By the way, I'm one of those who are uplifted by your blog! It's my favorite of the doctrine blogs I've found - and I've seen a number of them (I'm a bit of a blogoholic I guess...).

- Chas

FelixAndAva said...

Anyone who's interested in the New Testament challenge, head over to http://watchmenonthetower.ning.com. The challenge begins on August 10 (the day after we finish the Triple Combination challenge). The more the merrier!

I can deal with people talking about stumbling blocks and overcoming, I have problems with bloggers who insist the Church needs to change to conform to the philosophies of the world (e.g. homosexuality, women and priesthood, actually having standardized lessons to keep doctrinal instruction consistent...) or go out of their way to dig up every negative they can find and claim those of us who choose to have faith in God rather than in "critical" scholarship are brainwashed sheep.