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Making the Most of Biblical Paradoxes

They offer a refreshing, and deeper, alternative to "how to" sermons

Carl Sandburg captured well the human condition: "There is an eagle in me that wants to soar, and there is a hippopotamus in me that wants to wallow in the mud." That's a paradox. Seemingly contradictory statements that are nonetheless true. Recently paradox has become more important in preaching.

A new worship attender came to see me. A believer, she vulnerably shared some of the mud in which she was currently mired. Then she blurted out: "I got so frustrated at the church I used to attend. Everything was five easy steps! I need to hear something more than pat answers." I am finding more and more people recognize that a steady diet of "how to" preaching has left them spiritually anemic.

What's the alternative? For those who aren't helped by "three easy steps," a better alternative is to preach the power of paradox.

Paradox is the wild territory within which most ministers live and work.

  • We see unseen things.
  • We conquer by yielding.
  • We find rest under a yoke.
  • We reign by serving.
  • We are made great by becoming small.
  • We are exalted when we are humble.
  • We become wise by being fools for Christ's sake.
  • We are made free by becoming bondservants.
  • We gain strength when we are weak.
  • We triumph through defeat.
  • We find victory by glorying in our infirmities.
  • We live by dying.

With the passage of time, most preachers clear land, build a homestead, and try to tame this paradoxical wilderness. We are told that we're vendors in a spiritual street market clogged with competitors. People pause only a moment before strolling on to the next booth, so we've got to grab them with snappy "How to … " titles. People are looking for answers to make a difference in their lives … yesterday. So we preachers must hit felt needs quickly, cut to the chase, offer "spiritual principles" and "practical handles" that plug directly into people's pragmatic expectations.

Is any attention still being paid to Baron Von Hugel's observation: "The deeper we get into reality, the more numerous will be the questions we cannot answer"? Addressing the person who asks, "How will Christianity improve my life?" C. S. Lewis replies:

Frankly, I find it hard to sympathize with this state of mind. One of the things that distinguishes man from the other animals is that he wants to know things, wants to find out what reality is like, simply for the sake of knowing. When that desire is completely quenched in anyone, I think he has become something less than human.
Foolish preachers, by always telling you how much Christianity will help you and how good it is for society, have actually led you to forget that Christianity is not a patent medicine. If Christianity is untrue, then no honest man will want to believe it, however helpful it might be; if it is true, every honest man will want to believe it, even if it gives him no help at all.

Raising questions that might not have easy answers—leaving the security of the homestead to venture deeper into life's wilderness, beyond the sight lines of reason into the mystery of God—would seem to be the kiss of death to attracting customers. What preacher in his or her right mind would raise thorny questions when people already have too many burrs under their saddles?

And yet, when pat answers no longer satisfy, paradox, paradoxically, can reach the depths of the soul.

What to do with paradox?

C. S. Lewis goes on to distinguish two kinds of readers. One reader receives from books, while a second does things with books. Of the second reader's misguided motives, Lewis writes: "We are so busy doing things with the work that we give it too little chance to work on us. Thus increasingly we meet only ourselves."

This is the contemporary preacher's temptation. We are so busy doing things with Scripture (especially things that address the need of the moment) that Scripture has little chance to do its work in us. We come to Scripture faithfully and genuinely, yet increasingly meet not God, but only satisfy our current want.

What about the truths of Scripture that do not come in easily digestible spoon-size bites? What about truths that need to be gnawed on? We find it hard to do things with paradox. Yet paradox is often a window into the deeper mystery of God.

Enlightenment rationalism was no friend of paradox, but postmodern appetite for mystery is insatiable. People pound away at computer terminals all day, visit their aroma therapist to unwind on the way home, and then read The Celestine Prophecy by candlelight.

Do we realize that we Christians sit atop the motherlode of all mystery? A God who is Wholly Other yet graciously reveals Himself to human beings in Jesus Christ is the unsurpassed mystery of the universe! How are we inviting contemporary people to touch this Mystery, even as we present God as the answer to their felt needs?

Exploring the wild territories of paradox helps us see God less as our personalized AAA map for life (with hazards highlighted), and more as the purpose of the journey. Tramping through these regions, I've identified three distinct types of biblical paradox that open doors to the mystery of God.

Paradox reframes the issue

Ever notice Jesus' preaching does not have the point by point "fill in the blanks" directness so popular today? Jesus was often intentionally paradoxical. His open-ended sermons sent listeners away scratching their heads, with dangling loose ends for them to tie together. (How long would most modern preachers last if our key leaders regularly asked, as Jesus' disciples did, "Tell us, what were you trying to say this morning?")

Jesus' use of paradox shakes us by the shoulders to see familiar things from a fresh perspective. This type of paradox, like a good picture frame, doesn't call attention to itself, but focuses attention on the magnificence of the painting.

When Jesus says "Those who save their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives for my sake will save them," our attention is quickly drawn away from the paradox per se, because it reframes all that we have ever thought about hedging our bets, playing it safe, being conservative—in short, "saving" our lives. We look through this new window where losing becomes saving. What "saving" behaviors might be hindering my spiritual growth? What do I need to lose for Jesus' sake?

Such use of paradox prods us to ask questions of ourselves. It reveals and yet hides, asserts yet invites reflection. "The last shall be first, and the first last" not only asserts a truth, but prompts me to ask: Am I thinking and acting in ways that make me "first" or "last?"

If we try too hard to explain it, such paradox loses its heuristic value. Snappy applications ("Go home this week and … ") are insufficient when dealing with Jesus' use of paradox, which is transforming largely because it works below the waterline.

Framing paradox can be preached effectively through story—not story illustrations hung like coathangers on a deductive outline, but a story comprising the bulk of the sermon. Narrative sermons move preaching away from analysis to experience.

Stories draw us in. We suspend judgment and are more open to change. We move from detached observers to involved participant. The story creates a role for us and we try it on for size. Especially when left open-ended, as many of Jesus' stories were, narrative sermons offer the opportunity for listeners to put themselves in the story and create their "own" ending. Rather than sitting back to evaluate the preacher's truth, listeners discover truth for themselves.

In a sermon addressing the paradox of faith and works, I created a sermon-length story about a woman on a hijacked airplane who must decide whether to identify herself as a Christian when passengers are told all non-Christians are free to leave. Tension builds as the terrorists move toward her seat, forcing each passenger into a bizarre rite of denial by spitting on a picture of Jesus before being allowed to exit to safety.

In her mind, the debate continues—how much action/effort/commitment does faith demand?—until the hijacker finally arrives to shove the saliva-pocked face of Jesus in front of her and bark, "What about you?" Quietly, I asked the congregation, "What about me? What about you?" and sat down. Each was forced to confront the cost of faith and add his own ending.

Paradox that harmonizes

Consider a tuning fork. It delivers a true pitch by two tines vibrating together. Muffle either side, even a little, and the note disappears. Neither tine individually produces the sweet, pure note. Only when both tines vibrate is the correct pitch heard.

Like a tuning fork, harmonious paradoxes declare their truth when two sides of the paradox vibrate in unison. This requires care and honesty. Unlike the tuning fork, which is forged by highly controlled mechanical processes, the paradoxes of Scripture must be forged by the words of highly subjective preachers. Yet despite our biases toward one tine or the other, neither side of the paradox should be muffled, even a little.

The paradox of divine sovereignty/human responsibility offers an excellent example of finely tuned tension. Is my salvation God's election, or my free response to the gospel message? Does God's choice of me negate my choice of God? Can two choices (mine and God's) exist without one inevitably determining the other?

Job and his friends do not face the sovereignty/responsibility tension as an abstract theological debate, but as a painful flesh-and-blood dilemma. Job has lost everything. Who is responsible: Job or God? How can Job accept that God is both all-powerful and perfectly good? Is God transcendently aloof from Job's pain or somehow personally involved?

Job keeps both tines vibrating: God is both transcendently all-powerful and personally involved. In fact, refusing to mute one tine is what allows Job to argue with God. Who could argue with the impassive God of the deists?

Ultimately Job realizes no simple solution is possible. The paradox opens the door to a mysterious and unsearchable God. "Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know" (Job 41:3). Yet living in this paradox has clarified for Job whether his faith is in God, or in what he knows about God. In the end, it is significant that Job cries out, not "I understand" but "I repent" (Job 42:6).

Something similar happened to a woman in our church who tragically lost her middle-aged husband. She began the grief process questioning many of the timeless truths she thought she knew about God. Over time, these questions were not so much answered as shown to be side issues. Like Job, she realized that her faith could ultimately rest only in God, not in understanding God. Mystery reveals, even as it obscures. She came to know God better when she acquiesced to God's mystery.

Something similar happened to Job. At the end of his wrestling with God, Job admits God is unfathomable but also (paradoxically) indicates that he now knows God better than he did before: "My ears had heard of you but now my eyes of have seen you" (Job 42:5).

Intellectual debate or Job-like personal circumstances can devastate believers who have never explored the wilderness beyond easy, five-step answers. Regular exposure to paradox challenges Christians early on to exchange faith about God for faith in God, a God who is trustworthy even if often inscrutable. What a relief to realize that both tines of the tuning fork are necessary for the admittedly elusive note of truth to be heard!

The two-headed monster on Sesame Street uses exactly this strategy to teach children phonetic pronunciations. One head of the monster says "C … "; the other, " … AR." Each head pronounces its syllable with ever-shortening time intervals until the two sounds meld together into a new word: "C … … AR," "C … AR," "CAR!"

Sermons using this method follow an inductive path: first showing the inadequacy of either side of the paradox by itself, then heralding the new note they create when held in tension with each other.

For example, in a sermon on God being perfectly just yet also perfectly loving, I bounced listeners' attention back and forth between the two sides of Mr. Beaver's description of Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia: "he isn't safe … but he's good." Like "C … AR," judgment and love melded together by the end of the sermon in a way people may not have heard in the beginning.

Paradox that's two-handled

While the tension of the harmonious paradox draws opposites together to complement one another, a third type of paradox, the "two-handled paradox," consistently pushes the poles apart.

G. K. Chesterton saw that orthodoxy must exalt extremes: "It has kept them side by side like two strong colors, red and white, like the red and white upon the shield of St. George. It has always had a healthy hatred of pink. It hates that combination of two colors which is the feeble expedient of the philosophers. It hates that evolution of black into white which is tantamount to a dirty gray."

I often watched my grandfather dig post-holes on his farm with an old-fashioned auger. Turning the giant corkscrew, the farmer needed both strength and balance to push on one handle while pulling on the other. Under his practiced hands, every push/pull half turn caused the auger to bite deeper into the hard Nebraska soil.

Nothing is more useless than a one-handled auger! Maximum effect is achieved when you position your hands at the very ends of the handles. Slide your hands toward the middle, and the auger becomes proportionately less effective. Likewise, we do ourselves no favor by whittling down opposing extremes of a two-handled paradox—for example, God's transcendence and immanence, separate from the world yet actively engaged in the world. The transcendent but uninvolved clockmaker God of the eighteenth-century Deists, and the New Ager's immanent, pantheistic God swallowed up within the natural world, both grasp only one handle.

Christian history's greatest heresies whittled down the handles of paradox: God not fully three or completely one, Jesus Christ not fully divine or completely human. In both the Trinity and Incarnation, theology's danger has forever been the coalescence of opposites into a dirty gray.

How might the black and white of the two-handled paradox be proclaimed in all its stark clarity, leading us with awe and silence into the presence of the divine mystery? Both sides of the paradox must be maintained in all their contrary distinctiveness. No pink must intrude into the crisp red on white of St. George's cross. Different facets of one side of the paradox are counterbalanced by opposing facets of the other side. Each pull on one handle is balanced by a push on the other. The shifting back and forth adds movement and retains interest.

One approach I have used is a "Paul Harvey" strategy. The first half of the sermon argues only one side of the paradox. Astute listeners begin to wonder: "This isn't right. What about the other side?" Then "the rest of the story" presents the opposite in equal detail.

I have also used imaginary characters to represent opposite handles of a paradox, taking on different personas for contrary positions. For instance, in one sermon I played two roles endorsing the opposing views "Jesus is human" and "Jesus is God." The two characters began their conversation side by side, then I gradually took steps apart as it became increasingly apparent that, for the whole truth to be heard, each position must maintain its distinctive identity.

As I presented evidence for each viewpoint, they gradually separated until I was shuttling 15 feet back and forth across the chancel as I played each role.

Bigger than we imagine

In a pragmatic age, persistent in finding the quickest route to whatever works, we preachers find little to do with paradox. And yet, like unusual stones found in the bottom of a prospector's pan, we keep discovering biblical paradoxes, rolling them over in our palms, pondering their secrets.

Paradox beckons us into Mystery, and offers a wholesome reminder that God is infinitely greater than our ideas about God.

Types of Paradox
Reframing Harmonious Two-Handled
Visual Symbol Picture frame: "reframes" reality as we look at it Tuning fork: both tines vibrating together create a new note Auger: performs best whenhands are far apart on opposite handles
Characteristic Tension Startles us, but ultimately dissolves Pushes polarities together Keeps polarities apart
Representative Examples Faith vs. works
Judge vs. judge not (e.g. Mt. 13:24ff)
Great reversals (e.g. Mk. 9:35; Mt. 20:1-16; 25:29)
Eternal Life: present possession vs. future inheritance
Predestination vs. free will
Jesus: God yet human
God: transcendent yet immanent
God: three yet one
Humanity: sinful yet in God's image
Opens the door to: Mysteries of life in God's kingdom Mysteries of relationships: God's actions and purposes Mysteries of Being: God's and ours
Strategies for preaching Narratives/stories
Playfulness
Let listeners connect the dots
Unravel "double binds"
Back and forth vibration
("C … AR")
Emphasize contrasts between opposite sides
Risks to Avoid trying too hard to make listeners "get it" Emphasizing one pole over the other upsets their delicate balance Allowing black and white to coalesce into "dirty gray"

Richard P. Hansen is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Visalia, California.

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