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A cryptic message

CaryThere are two types of people in the world: those who like cryptic crosswords, and those who walk away from them shaking their heads in furious frustrated befuddlement.

The nay-sayers are, of course, right. Crosswords achieve nothing. A crossword setter takes an hour or two fitting words into a grid. And then takes another hour or two to compose clues to encrypt them. The crossword cracker then spends an hour or two reversing the process to find the words artificially put into a grid. And then they're gone and forgotten. Nothing useful happens at any point of this process. You might as well dig a hole in the garden and fill it back in. That way, at least you'll get some exercise and fresh air.

Of course, some argue that crosswords give your brain that exercise and fresh air, increasing your word power and general knowledge. They may even contribute to longevity. (Is that how Methusaleh made it to 969?) Economists might say crosswords have some monetary value - and keep readers of newspapers more loyal. This is true in my case.  The main reason I buy the Saturday Times, apart from Matthew Parris and Giles Coren, is the jumbo cryptic crossword.

But given the needs to bring help to the poor and preach the word, how can Christians justify time spent unravelling cryptic crosswords? If you spend 20 minutes a day on them, that's probably more time than most of us spend reading a Bible and praying. In that sense, our timekeeping would suggest that cryptic crosswords are, for us, 'bigger than God'.

So what are the upsides of crosswords, other than sheer pleasure? Let's pause right there. Sheer pleasure is allowed. In fact, cryptic crosswords neatly combine three biblical virtues - pleasure, hard work and code-breaking. Let's look at each in turn.

Humans were made for pleasure. For God's pleasure. And human pleasure in God's pleasure. The Westminster Short Catechism says that the chief end of man is 'to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.' Life is to be enjoyed, even if the Reformed Presbyterians who espouse the Westminster Confession have a hard time believing that.

This pleasure comes about in doing what God made us to do - which is work. Adam was put in the garden to work it and improve on it even though it was already good. His survival did not seem to depend on that work, as the garden was crammed with seed-bearing fruit plants. In fact, his primary job was probably pruning and cutting back. Weeding only came after the Fall.

The Fall changed everything, except the purpose of life itself - to glorify God and enjoy him for ever. The glorying and enjoying would be harder now, especially for the snake, which lost its legs along the way. (What did the snake look like before?) But the Fall also changed our perspective. What will life look like on the New Earth? We can barely imagine it. What work will we do? Most work today is dealing with the effects of sin, selfishness and crime. And trying to ensure there is enough food to go round. But what does hard work look like when food's not a worry? And sin is no more. And you can just enjoy working hard for it's own sake. I'll tell you what it looks like. Doing a cryptic crossword for the sheer pleasure of the graft.

A third biblical virtue is code-breaking. It's not the third. But more important  than one might think. Like all decent literature, the Bible is cryptic. Given that it is one book for all people in all times and in all places, it shouldn't be surprising that some bits will be confusing or hard to understand at different points in our lives and histories. Even so, it seems odd to say the Bible is hard to understand because if it's all we need to get back to God, one would think it should be abundantly clear. We may even think it is, if we've been a Christian for years and years.

And yet, whenever we hear stories of people finding a Bible in a hotel room, reading it, praying a prayer and becoming a Christian, we're amazed. It's because we know that you don't have to work out the Bible for yourself. It is a book to be read together. Pastors, parishioners, friends, and family - who all help us understand how to read it and tease out its true meaning. Which is how most of us learn crosswords. So if crosswords make you, well, cross, ask for help. It's part of the fun.