The Paradoxical Christian Life
Learning about the paradoxes we see in Scripture is, to me, fascinating. Paradoxes are not contradictions, but apparent contradictions that are unresolved in our minds, but resolved in God’s. (I’ve written on paradoxes in my books The Grace and Truth Paradox, hand in Hand: The Beauty of God's Sovereignty and Meaningful Human Choice, and If God Is Good.)
For example, God’s sovereignty and meaningful human choice aren’t contradictory. God has no trouble understanding how they work together. In His infinite mind they coexist in perfect harmony. And while our brains can never fully grasp sovereignty and meaningful choice, by affirming what Scripture says about both, we can avoid the mistake of denying one in order to affirm the other.
The universe, though full of paradoxes, is not full of contradictions. So is the Christian life, as Jen Pollock Michel points out in the following article.
“When we unearth the tension of paradox in the Scriptures,” Jen writes, “we should move toward it with expectation, rather than from it in fear. To be left with tension, complexity, and mystery necessarily moves us toward humility: the still smallness of knowing that he is God and we are not.”
May studying the paradoxes we find in God’s Word and in the Christian life increase both our awe of God and our humility before Him! —Randy Alcorn
Christian Life Is Paradoxical. Embrace It: Worshiping the God of the Both-And
By Jen Pollock Michel
She was angry with me. As any parent might expect, her reasons were both just and unjust. It was the unjust ones, of course, that I rehearsed the next morning, remembering how the house had shook with the gale of tearful, bitter words the night before. Standing at the sink, I reassured myself that self-preoccupation was the stuff of adolescence, that the relational chafing was normal as her high-school graduation loomed. I felt battered all the same.
Worry had woken me early that morning, and I had obeyed it, following it down the stairs to the kitchen. As the kettle heated, I scanned the morning headlines. Luke Perry was dead, and dozens were still missing from the mile-wide tornadoes that had roared through Alabama. Grief, it seemed, was still the confirmed condition of the world. I climbed the stairs to my office, hot coffee in hand, and in the hush of the still-sleeping house, began trying to untangle the previous night’s conversation, which I had not ended but punted to my husband after crawling into bed with a book—a book ironically on the seeming indecency of need. On the pages of my journal, I unwound fears for the future and the besetting guilt of all that I’d gotten wrong these past 18 years. I worried over the fossilization of those mistakes, wondered if the years had hardened them beyond repair. She was turning 18, and time was running out.
The words dripped and sputtered on the page. But they did not console the terrible anguish of being human.
Paradox of Being Human
Like any other human being, I’m a riddle to myself. I want to parent my children well. I will to do right by them. Yet even on my best days, I fail these good intentions by virtue of being human, limited in understanding as well as capacity. I don’t sovereignly know the secret burdens my children bear, nor can I always rise, indefatigable, to carry them. On the worst days (and there are more than I wish to count), I fail my best parental intentions, not simply because I’m human, but because I’m a sinner. When my phone rings, my oldest daughter’s angry, accusing voice on the other end of the line, I won’t answer with sympathy or love. I will hang up.
In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul insisted on this paradox of being human, which is to say, in one sense, that we’re both morally frail and also morally aspiring. In Romans 7, he confesses his own tragic doubleness: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” In this, we’re a mystery to ourselves: We fail the good that we will, and indulge the evil that we hate. Empirically, I prove Paul’s point every day.
According to G. K. Chesterton, the paradox of being human is that we’re both “chief of creatures” and “chief of sinners.” Made in the image of God, we shared his moral likeness, loving the good and hating the evil in the very beginning. We were the “statue of God walking in the garden,” and our great grief, after the fall, wasn’t that of beast but of “broken God.” Though we were meant to be like God and rule with him, we choose autonomy and rebellion over submission and worship. One bite of forbidden fruit has damned us, self-loving creatures that we are, to paradoxically choose the harm of sin every time. In the garden, God graciously offered life, and we willingly refused it. Body of death, indeed.
On the one hand, human depravity is such terribly bad news—a devastating indictment rendered by Paul, earlier in his letter to the Romans, like this: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” On the other hand, to acknowledge ourselves to be sinners is a terrific relief—far better news than the optimism of the secularist who gives short shrift to human capacity for breaking things.
One paradox of the gospel is: The bad news is God’s very good news.
Paradox of the Gospel
Paradox, Chesterton argues, is the beating heart of the gospel. In Chesterton’s journey to faith, the paradoxes of Christian thought particularly compelled him. Reading secular atheists and agnostics, he observed that while Christianity was consistently attacked, it was always attacked for inconsistent reasons. Some criticized it for being too optimistic—others for being too pessimistic. Some faulted it for being too bold—others for being too meek. Christianity was to be blamed, although no one could agree why. Was it too ascetic and monkish—or too insistent on pomp and circumstance? As Chesterton continued to reflect, he began to wonder if Christianity wasn’t in fact all these “vices” at once: pessimistic and optimistic, bold and meek, ascetic and worldly.
In other words, was the only fault of Christianity its hospitality to paradox?
Built on the idea that God had donned human flesh and remained God, Chesterton eventually concluded that Christianity isn’t a theology built on tidy eithers and ors. Instead, compared to other religious systems, Christianity is uniquely hospitable to paradox, which is to say the apparatus of both and and. In fact, as Chesterton saw it, paradox is the sharp edge on which much of God’s truth could be found: “Whenever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth.”
And it’s odd to affirm, in the same breath, that human beings have reason for “great pride” and “great prostration” (Chesterton again). Nevertheless, to grapple with the paradox of being human is the small step that, with God’s help, can become the giant leap toward salvation. At least this was the conclusion of Blaise Pascal, a 17th-century mathematician, philosopher, and converted Christian, in one of his famous “fragments” of religious reflection, or Pensées, that he left behind before his premature death. “It is wretched to know that one is wretched,” Pascal wrote, “but there is greatness in knowing one is wretched.” The paradoxical condition for salvation isn’t moral merit but moral fault. We can’t offer to God pledges of consistency and purity and fidelity because these are promises we can never keep. Our lot is moral failure every time, even should we try willing it otherwise. We are only helped by admitting our need.
But according to Athanasius in On the Incarnation, it’s not just the depravity of humanity that necessitates his salvation; it’s, paradoxically, his greatness. How could God allow his special creation, endowed with his likeness, to fall into disrepair? And if he did, could he call such apathy love? “It was impossible . . . that God should leave man to be carried off into corruption because it would be unfitting and unworthy of himself.” It was God’s glory, even his glory bequeathed to humanity, that demanded a rescue. As Chesterton wrote, “Let him call himself a fool and a damned fool . . . but he must not say fools are not worth saving.” As God has willed it, humanity has been saved by paradox: that falling short of the glory of God, he should be rescued to, once again, become like him.
The reasons for salvation seem paradoxical; consider also the means. According to the great surprise of God’s story, Jesus Christ didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped but made himself nothing, humbling himself to death on a cross. The firstborn of all creation became last, and humanity’s life was found in God’s own losing. Further, lest we think of Christ’s self-sacrifice only as means to acquittal, we must remember the paradox of grace: the gospel announces both leniency and violence; mercy and judgment; rescue and death. What blazes up on Golgotha is God’s embrace of contradiction: weakness as power, foolishness as wisdom.
It’s a paradox to make men stumble.
Invitations of Paradox
It would seem, at least to me, that God has a kind of preference for paradox—that given the choice between either and or, God would often choose and. Paradox is, of course, the way we can rightly reckon, not just with our nature, but God’s: that he is immanent and transcendent; merciful and just; mysterious and knowable. In the person of Jesus Christ, the great I AM became the great I And, neither moderating his godhood nor his humanity but clothing himself with what seems to be contradiction.
There are certainly more paradoxes to uncover in the story of God than I have room to mention here—including the nature of the kingdom (as a reality both now and not yet); the nature of grace (as “God’s working in us that we might will and work for his good pleasure”); the nature of lament, which, like on the morning I scanned the headlines and sat down to journal, invites us simultaneously into grief and hope. These are the irreducible mysteries that no systematic theology can logically explain, and it’s best that we imitate Moses when confronted with paradox. When he stood before the bush that burned and was not consumed, he did two things: drew closer for a better look, then removed his shoes.
Paradox inevitably offers these two invitations: curiosity and humility.
Recently, I was rereading Rosaria Butterfield’s book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert. As she describes some of her assumptions about Christians before she became one, she admitted she thought they lacked curiosity. She thought they read the Bible badly, bringing the Bible into conversation only to stop it, rather than deepen it. They seemed to always be offering answers, but like Rosaria noted ironically, “Answers come after questions, not before.”
Sadly, Butterfield’s experience has sometimes been my own—that we short-circuit our curiosity by insisting, too prematurely, on certainty. I’m not one to argue against certainty, for the Scriptures were written and the creeds argued to establish theological and doctrinal certainties. To maintain the importance of paradox isn’t the ambivalent shrug of postmodernity, which dismisses human capacity for objective knowledge. Instead, paradox gives a category for a different kind of certainty: “of truths that do not logically cohere.” Instead of evading truth claims, paradox is a mechanism for affirming that truth, while knowable, can yet remain mysterious, even beyond the reach of reason.
When we unearth the tension of paradox in the Scriptures, we should move toward it with expectation, rather than from it in fear. To be left with tension, complexity, and mystery necessarily moves us toward humility: the still smallness of knowing that he is God and we are not. Such childlikeness seems argument enough on its own, though curiously, it’s also a compelling witness to our secular age, which, despite having rejected the reality of God, yet longs for the transcendent—for something bigger and more enduring and more beautiful than their muddled, material lives. Our most compelling witness may not always be our reasoned arguments and sophisticated apologetics.
It may also be paradox.
On the morning after the explosive argument with my teenage daughter, I came to the end of several journal pages with a clearer understanding of the way to move forward. Unsurprisingly, the conclusions were mostly built on the both and the and. I needed to both persist in a ministry of words and a ministry of silent presence—because God had given me both the command to talk to my children as a means of spiritual formation and the example of his own quiet ministry of kindness to Elijah, who’d arrived dejected and despairing on the other side of his confrontation with the prophets of Baal. As a both-and, it was an answer full of tension and one that cast me back, not on my own understanding, but on God’s. Unlike an either and or, it was an answer that left me with the conviction that ongoing dependence on the Spirit’s wisdom would be needed.
I suppose the sufficiency of the both-and is what Job discovered at the end of his long, angry tirade which God never saw fit to answer. “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” Job never got answers to his questions. He never had definitive reasons from God for why he had permitted his suffering.
And the paradox is:
It was enough.
Jen Pollock Michel lives in Toronto with her family. She’s the author of Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of ‘And’ in an Either-or World(IVP, 2019), Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home (IVP, 2017), and Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith (IVP, 2014). You can follow her on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on The Gospel Coalition and is used with permission of the author.