12 Lessons from a Jigsaw Puzzle: Putting Together the Pieces of Spiritual Formation

Jigsaw puzzles often appear on our table during long January evenings. We’ve done several this year.  As we worked at the one pictured, I began to notice what the process has to teach you and I about spiritual practices that help us know and encounter God. Here are a few things to think about next time you reach for a puzzle. I know I won’t approach it again in quite the same way.

First this, though.

Q: If “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phillipians 2:13), why engage in regular spiritual practices at all? Why our effort, if the work is God’s?

A: Because we get to be a part. Our part is to turn–repent is the religious word, to turn toward God and consent to the recreating, renewing work of the Spirit routinely taking place in us. And because it seems we humans are masters of resistance, it helps if we acquire some new habits to reduce the friction.

Quoting N.T. Wright, “Virtue is what happens when someone has made a thousand small choices requiring effort and concentration to do something which is good and right, but which doesn’t come naturally. And then, on the thousand and first time, when it really matters, they find that they do what’s required automatically. Virtue is what happens when wise and courageous choices become second nature.”
After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters

Since I’m talking about the forming God does in us, not what we accomplish ourselves, the one wise and courageous choice I hope will become my second nature is the turning. It’s the one choice that gives me the most trouble, yet holds the greatest promise; a promise of freedom and life for me, and of living and loving others authentically and well.

Dallas Willard says that training in turning involves VIM–vision, intention and means. It’s from his weighty text, Renovation of the Heart, but I’d skip that and go straight to Jan Johnson’s stellar study guide by the same title–unless you’re of tougher cerebral material than me–which you can also exercise with a jigsaw puzzle.

Consider these 12 lessons:

  1. Know your options. Once you open the box and dump the pieces on the table, turn them all over so you can see everything you have to work with. There is a long recorded history of the many ways people have been helped along in their life with God. Learn about those beyond your own tradition and experience. Find out what is available to you.
  2. Establish the framework. Assemble the border by finding and connecting all the edge pieces. My established framework defines the scope of my  own practices. a) God initiates my desire for him. b) My response is enabled by his grace. c) God does the heavy lifting. d) My practices are aligned with scripture and the revelation of God as seen in Jesus. e) God is good, loving and trustworthy, therefore I can have confidence in the process.
  3. Approach with intention. A system helps. Once the pieces are turned over and the border put together, work on objects, areas, then colors, then shapes. Resort to process of elimination if necessary. Random growth in love and freedom happens by God’s great grace. But there is a special kind of life that comes through being awake and engaged intentionally in the process.
  4. Keep the big picture in view. Put the boxtop where you can easily see the completed picture and refer to it often. To live and love as Jesus…that’s not a shabby picture to keep in mind.
  5. Stressing takes the fun out. Remember to breathe. What is intended to be a pleasant activity can turn to frustration when several minutes go by without finding a piece that fits. It’s good to be reminded that there are no gold stars for finishing first or best. We can become so intent on doing it fast, right, efficiently, etc. that the simple fun of partnering with the Puzzlemaker and a partner to create a thing of beauty is lost along the way. Speaking of…
  6. It’s MORE fun with a friend–mostly. Buddy up. It can be hard to persevere if you’re going it alone–even if your friend gets in the way, or hogs the boxtop, or beats you to the piece sometimes. Still, a task shared is worth a little inconvenience. It’s the paradox of community.
  7. Start small. Every puzzle goes together the same way–one piece at a time.“1000 pieces sure is a lot!,” we kept saying, a little overwhelmed by the size of the task we had taken on. That’s why the kids started with 25-piecers that their grandma bought them, graduating to 100, then 300. 500 is just right for a quick night of relaxed fun. Our first in this recent puzzlefest, though, was 750 before we graduated to 1000. (Not heroic, but it’s about capacity for now. ) There are myriad disciplines to choose from but start with just one or two that fit your lifestyle and season, and to which you feel drawn. It takes God very little to make a lot.
  8. Do what you can. Begin with something you can work at. While the majority of pieces seem to belong nowhere in particular at the beginning, there’s usually something that stands out.  Don’t be stubborn, insisting that the one piece you want to make work, simply doesn’t.  Someone may insist on a practice that is life-giving for them, maybe for many. But if it doesn’t make sense for you at this time, lay it down and pick it up again when you can see where it fits. Follow Dom. John Chapman’s counsel, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” But start.
  9. There are surprises along the way. Spending time working piece by piece, reveals much you might miss when you only look at the picture on the cover of the box. The latest surprise was a bird in the window when all we saw was the countryside house. There were 20 birds total and the euonymous bush in the corner was hiding a ladybug–Who knew?! Come with at attitude of openness. There is much to discover.
  10. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Not all the surprises are pleasant. One of the puzzles we purchased had only partially-cut pieces and bizarre, ill-fitting shapes. The shades of color were quite different from those represented on the cover. It was unlike any we had attempted before, presenting difficult and unexpected challenges. We came very near putting it back in the box and giving up. The satisfaction when we finished, however, was that much sweeter. There is discomfort when we are presented with the opportunity to shed old, unloving ways of being. It means encountering parts of ourselves that may surprise us. We may want to stuff it back in the box and give up. Don’t. Anyone can start but only those who keep going know the joy of having persevered.
  11. Change your perspective. View the pieces from a different angle. When I hit a wall and was making no progress, I moved to a different side of the table. It opened up fresh possibilities and shook loose what seemed stuck.  I had new energy to continue as the pieces began coming together again. Find a spiritual director to help you see some part of your journey in another way; participate in a different tradition; meet new friends who share your faith but not your expression. These things can bring a new, rich perspective. Consider shifting your position at the table on occasion.
  12. Take a break. Know when it’s time to do something else…like sleep, or dinner. Stay mindful of time and your immediate reality. (So, like…it’s 1 a.m. before you realize it–not that it’s actually happened or anything… ) God has a timeline for you. Stay grounded and connected to the ordinary moments in life. Put aside a practice that isn’t serving you right now, that has lost it’s life-giving quality. Consider that it may be an invitation to explore some other way God wants to be with you. Move on. Relax. It will all get done when it needs to. Don’t obsess. God, Who began this good work in you, will complete it. Trust that. And rest. Maybe doing even do something non-religious–like a jigsaw puzzle.


Greg McKeown explores the psychology and behavior of habits in Essentialism. “We have a choice. We can use our energies to set up a system that makes execution of goodness easy […ier, I would add] or we can resign ourselves to a system that actually makes it harder to do what is good. We can apply the same principles to the choices we face when designing systems in our own lives.” Great book; check it out.

Adele Calhoun explores a host of spiritual practices in her book Spiritual Disciplines Handbook. You may be surprised to discover that she lists things you are already doing. With a shift of intent they, too, can serve as spiritual disciplines. See it here.

~~Remember to support your local independent booksellers. In Yakima, it’s Inklings Bookshop. 

What “lesson” resonates with you? What other things have you learned from your experiences with various spiritual disciplines?


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