Puzzle

Posted on December 23, 2013

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The most interesting part of a Sudoku puzzle to me isn’t how you win, but how you lose.

I say this as a person who has, in the past several months, lost quite a few games of Sudoku.  The exact number is unknown.  I know that it’s more than my current credit rating, but less than the number of times I’ve seen a copy of Les Miserables at a friend’s house with the bookmark 2/5ths of the way through.

How this got started is equally mysterious to me.  As recently as six months ago, Sudoku baffled me.  Every time I looked at a Sudoku puzzle, all I saw was an impenetrable and indecipherable cascade of numbers, not unlike Neo staring into the Matrix, or how I imagine Keanu Reeves sees the world in general.  Very little about it seemed appealing to me.  The only experience I generally have with random number combinations is trying to call for pizza delivery when the Internet is broken.

Moreover, I have not historically been known as “Puzzle Guy”.  Puzzle Guy’s character traits include patience, thoroughness, and logical thinking.  Puzzle Guy loves challenges and enjoys devising strategies for overcoming them.  Puzzle Guy does not, as far as I can tell, spend 20 minutes looking for his favorite coffee mug only to discover it in the microwave where he left it the night before when he started to make tea and then got distracted and forgot about it, which is what I did this morning.

Here’s the thing about losing at Sudoku:  it blindsides you.  It’s like a pro wrestler delivering a clothesline while the other guy is flexing for the crowd.  With other puzzles, they’re generous enough to forecast what’s coming for you.  Crossword puzzles in particular are among the most big-hearted of the puzzle family.  They just lay out the whole deal right up front.  “There it is, my friend.  Know any of this stuff?  Nope?  Fair enough.  You’re probably not winning this one.”

Equally generous are jigsaw puzzles.  Not only do they give you an immediate yes/no verdict on whether a piece fits, they have infinite patience in the meantime.  Jigsaw puzzles are the closest you or I will ever get to having our own Giving Tree.  “That’s not going to fit.  Rotating it?  Sorry.  Flipped over?  Won’t work either.  Oh, don’t be sad, boy- just choose another piece and try again.  I’ll be here on this card table all winter long.  Just keep enjoying your hot chocolate.”

Sudoku is different.  It’s brutal.   There you are, flowing along, dropping in numbers left and right, feeling pretty good about life in general and your brain power in particular (“Glad I didn’t sign up for Lumosity, I might’ve blown up their servers.”), until suddenly everything screeches to  a halt.  Something’s wrong.  Two numbers on the same line, or in the same box.**  You stare at the page for a second.  Can that be right?  Gah!  Everything was going so well!  Thirty seconds ago you were the guy from A Beautiful Mind!  You were driving that puzzle like you stole it!  Now?  The whole thing’s crocked and you don’t know what you did wrong.  All you can do is scribble over it and make a mental note to cancel your Mensa application.  What happened?

**- The object of Sudoku is to fill a 3×3 box, further subdivided into smaller 3×3 boxes, with the numbers 1-9 such that no number occurs more than once in a line or inside one of the 9 boxes.  In Sudoku, as with girls’ phone numbers, three 5’s in a row means you lose.

What happened is you made a logical error earlier in the puzzle and wrote an incorrect number in a square.  Not a huge deal- hey, mistakes happen!- except that the puzzle doesn’t stop you right then.  Nope.  That’s a crossword move, friend.  Sudoku lets you keep going.  It lets you go on writing in other numbers that seem right, eventually realizing the mistake only much later when the puzzle doesn’t work.  Like I said, brutal.

Sudoku puzzles are lost by doing one thing wrong in the middle of doing everything else right.  You might make 99% flawless deductions in the puzzle, but if that second move was wrong, it won’t matter- your puzzle is botched from the get-go.  The brilliance of your other intellectual gymnastics is immaterial.  The sheer genius of your logical inferences can’t stop what’s coming.  If allowed into the puzzle, the wrong number always- always- succeeds in its sabotage.

Sudoku reminds me of the story of King David’s relationship with Bathsheba, recorded in 2 Samuel 11-12.  The contours of the affair are familiar to us by now:  David’s glimpse of Bathsheba bathing from the palace window, their adultery and pregnancy, his murder-by-proxy of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah, and his subsequent rebuke by the prophet Nathan.

The story reaches its climax after Nathan exposes David’s sin, with this passage:

…Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

Nathan replied, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. But because by doing this you have shown utter contempt for the Lord, the son born to you will die.”

After Nathan had gone home, the Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife had borne to David, and he became ill. David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and spent the nights lying in sackcloth on the ground.  The elders of his household stood beside him to get him up from the ground, but he refused, and he would not eat any food with them.

On the seventh day the child died.

Oh.  Wow.  That’s some messed-up Sudoku.

It’s interesting to note that, while it’s a certainty that David sinned in his life, up until this point Scripture doesn’t really record it.  The story of his life so far has basically been a clean Sudoku puzzle.  No false moves.  It’s also interesting that David, when confronted, immediately confesses his sin and begins begging and fasting before God for the life of his child.  He sees the puzzle unraveling before him and tries to start making the right moves again to correct it.  Yet none of it could change the one false number he introduced into his puzzle that day he first saw Bathsheba.  Sudoku’s bleak logic plays out in King David’s life.  The baby dies.

We’ve felt this Sudoku cause-and-effect, yes?  It’s a nearly universal human experience, realizing too late that we wrote a wrong number into one of our life’s puzzles.  It doesn’t have to be an epic fail like David’s.  It can be anything.  It can be the big thing, like making that first decision to work late that becomes an entire missed childhood.  It can be the little thing, like spending hours Facebook-stalking a first date and then accidentally referencing a picture from 2007.

The wrong number we write in might vary- judgmentalism, Seventeen magazine, anger, caramel machiattos, cowardice, dubstep, self-righteousness, fly fishing, pride- as might the puzzle-  a friend, a hamster, years of time, a Caribbean cruise, a marriage, a toy lightsaber, a career, a life.  Even though the combinations are infinite, losing always looks the same.    ____ cost me ____.  I need redemption.

Because of David’s awesome life Sudoku skills, I wonder how much he actually knew about redemption up to this point in his life.  Grace, mercy, love, kindness, power, provision- over the course of his life as recorded in the Old Testament, David had seen and experienced all of these things from God in startling abundance.  But I wonder: might this be the first time David ever needed to look for redemption?  Had ever said “____ cost me ____”?  And I wonder if maybe he didn’t really know what to look for.

What David looked for was for God to step in and immediately rearrange the numbers in the puzzle.  He begged and fasted for relief from the inevitability of Sudoku gone wrong.  It didn’t happen.  If redemption had to look that way, David didn’t get it.

Instead, redemption for David looked like this:

2 Samuel 7:  “….I will raise up one of your descendants, your own offspring, and I will make his kingdom strong.  Your house and your kingdom will continue before me for all time, and your throne will be secure forever.’”

2 Samuel 12:  “Then David comforted Bathsheba, his wife, and slept with her. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son, and David named him Solomon.”

One passage, a promise that God would raise up one of David’s children as an heir- a pomise that God made, in his omniscience, knowing David’s future disgrace.

The second, another son for David and Bathsheba.  You might recognize the name:  Solomon.  The very Solomon who would become a legendary king of Israel in his own right.

Isn’t that cool?  David looked for redemption on the Y axis- God powering straight down into his puzzle to fix his mistake.  God instead brought redemption on the X axis- a promise in David’s past, its fulfillment in his future.  David had the source right.  He just might have missed the shape.  The source of redemption is vertical.  The shape of redemption is horizontal.

Sudoku lies to us by being about walls.  It’s a self-contained game- for the purposes of the puzzle, nothing exists outside of that square.  All the numbers, machinery, logic, and permanently scrambled puzzle are on its inside.  Sudoku warps our redemption vision, trapping our sight inside walls that obscure the horizons.  We get so focused on the broken puzzle, we forget redemption’s shape.

The shape of redemption is horizontal.   For David, his broken puzzle happened on a continuum of grace, in between a promise made to a future murderer and one kept to a past man after God’s own heart.  For the Prodigal Son, from “a long way off”, where the father ran to the son and embraced him.  For the world, a promise made to us after sin wrecked everything, one kept for us at Calvary by Jesus, the Lamb slain before the earliest horizon of time.

I’m improving at Sudoku the more I do it, as it turns out- I’ve managed to complete more and more puzzles without using time-honored strategies such as “checking the answer key in the back”, aka cheating.  I’m starting to get the hang of the shape of winning these puzzles.

But I still lose a few.  Likewise, I still find places in my life where Sudoku is happening- botched puzzles, big and small, needing redemption that isn’t coming via the quick, the miraculous, the vertical.  In those times, it’s great to remember the  redemption that came to David horizontally- from the horizons, with promises made out beyond the rims of life, out of sight to the east and west but still waiting there, to be walked to and discovered.

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