A paradox is something that seems contradictory, but further consideration reveals harmony rather than contradiction. A paradox naturally has tension, two ideas pulling in different directions or two ideas counter-balancing one another. When we encounter a paradox, our first inclination is often to resolve the tension or give greater weight to one idea over the other. Sadly, we often fail to embrace life-changing truth because we’re uncomfortable with important paradoxes like these.
1. Lament and Joy
An optimist is someone who says, “Things are better than they seem,” while a pessimist says, “Things are as bad (maybe worse) than they seem.” Both the optimist and the pessimist are uncomfortable with the paradox that lament can actually be joyful. They want to resolve the tension one way or the other.
Sadly, even a lot of Christians are uncomfortable with this paradox. If a Christian publicly weeps and mourns, a well-meaning brother or sister will say, “Don’t be sad. The situation isn’t really so bad. At least there are all of these good things. Don’t focus on the painful stuff.” Conversely, especially as it pertains to the moral condition of the world, some Christians seem to give themselves fully to lament, “The world is falling apart. If we don’t do something quick, it’s all going up in flames.”
But faith is able to hold lament in one hand and joy in the other. We are able to say, “The world really is that broken, but Jesus is making all things new.” When we have true faith we are able to both “Rejoice with those who rejoice” and “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). We are able to affirm both the horrible brokenness of the world and the unbelievably great news of what Jesus has done, is doing, and will do.
We must resist the urge to resolve the tension. We must resist the urge to become either optimists or pessimists. We must be people of genuine faith, who hold both joy and lament in our hands at the same time.
2. Mystery and Certainty
For some Christians, “faith” is about embracing the mysterious, the unknown. For others, “faith” is about certainty, based on what is clearly written in Scripture. Because some are very uncomfortable with mystery, they interpret the Bible in such a way that it seems to answer all of their questions. Others are uncomfortable with such dogmatic certainty and would rather say nearly everything is mysterious and we’re all just guessing at what we think might be true.
Perhaps it is best that we do not try to resolve the mystery and certainty paradox. Perhaps it is better that we learn to say, “There are many things of which I am certain and just as many that remain a mystery. I may be wrong about the things of which I am certain and some of the things that remain a mystery may become clear, but for the time being I am content.”
There should be things we can boldly assert, like, “Jesus is the Son of God and reigns as king,” but there are other things that are just our best guesses or about which we really have no idea. We ought to be able to live with both of those realities. As Deuteronomy 29:29 says, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”
3. Contentment and Zeal
Should Christians be zealous to change the world? Or should we live quiet and content lives, waiting for Jesus to come and make everything right? Should we boldly strive for a better world or resign ourselves to the fact that there will always be sin and brokenness until Jesus comes? There is a natural tension between waiting with contentment and working with zeal.
Some Christians try to resolve this tension by saying things like, “We can’t solve problems like hunger, poverty, racism, or injustice. They will always exist. We should just preach the Gospel and wait for Jesus to come.” Other Christians try to resolve the tension the other way, seeming to believe they can create a utopia, fixing all the world’s problems through the right programs and policies.
Again, we destroy the truth when we try to resolve this tension. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to announce the Good News of Jesus’ current reign as King, to bring light and reclaim the world from darkness right now. We are commissioned by God to feed and care for our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, and even our enemies (see Romans 12:9-21; 1 John 3:16-18). But we are also privy to the knowledge that the final redemption of the world is yet to come (Romans 8).
Sadly, there will continue to be poverty, hunger, and injustice until the day Jesus is revealed from heaven; but that knowledge should not stop us from doing all the good we have the opportunity to do (Galatians 6:10). Not all of the work that is done now will survive the fire of judgment, but some of it will (1 Corinthians 3:10-15).
4. Obedience and Assurance
I’ve heard many followers of Jesus ask on their deathbeds, “Do you think I’ve been good enough to go to heaven?” They’ve spent a lifetime trying to earn salvation and are terrified they haven’t succeeded. But I’ve also heard many ministers preach funeral sermons for incredibly worldly people saying things like, “I know she wasn’t much of a religious person, but I’ve been told she was saved when she six years old, so we know she was welcomed into the arms of Jesus when she died.”
Many Christians seem to believe that if we preach that salvation is by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9), there will be no motivation for obedience. They believe people need the constant fear of condemnation to keep them on the straight and narrow. Others try to resolve the tension by saying humans are so totally depraved that salvation cannot possibly be impacted one way or another by our obedience and faithfulness.
As we read the New Testament, however, we find people like Paul, who still struggled with sin but was fully assured he belonged to Jesus (Philippians 3:12). At the same time, Paul also says people who live lifestyles of disobedience will be cut off from the people of God (Romans 11:22).
So, as paradoxical as it may seem, our obedience to God is both necessary and not the basis of our assurance.
5. Individuality and Collectivity
Finally, a brief word on something I wrote about recently, the paradox of individuality and collectivity. The Gospel acknowledges both our individuality and our collective belonging. We share the guilt of our communities and humanity as a whole, but we are able to individually join ourselves to Jesus by faith and be grafted into a new community and a new humanity.
Some Christians try to resolve this paradox by denying our individuality; others try to resolve it by denying our collectivity. But the Gospel cannot really be understood without acknowledging that every human being is both an individual and a part of multiple collective groups. We all bear a responsibility to our collective communities and we have a responsibility to make good individual decisions, even when those decisions differ from those of our ethnic or familial communities.
The conclusion here is pretty simple: Don’t be too quick to resolve tension between two seemingly contradictory ideas. Sometimes the answer is less, “either/or” and more, “both/and.” Perhaps if we were more willing to live with paradox, we would be less likely to fire Bible verses back-and-forth at each other as if they were bullets. Perhaps if we were more willing to live with paradox, we would be more willing to live with and love one another.
I love you and God loves you,