Paradox is unsettling. Having pieces of truth scattered across the table without knowing where they fit in the puzzle can be threatening. It is doubly threatening, of course, when others tell us all the pieces should fit smoothly (and that their puzzles have been assembled for years)!
Paradox is also draining. Paradoxes demand that we wrestle, not shake hands. The struggle is intellectually, emotionally, and often spiritually taxing. In our pragmatic world ill at ease with philosophical issues, a common question is, “why bother?”
Yet who can deny that life is filled with paradox? Our earthly journeys resemble the switchbacks climbing Pike’s Peak far more than an interstate across Death Valley. We are a paradox to ourselves. Carl Sandburg captures 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.”
Paradoxes express the mysterious, undefinable qualities of faith and life that defy logic. Like unusual stones found in the bottom of a prospector’s pan, we keep coming back to them, rolling them over in our palms, pondering their secrets. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: “The great minds are those with a wide-span, that couple truths related to, but far removed from, each other. Logicians carry the surveyor’s chains over the track of which these are the true explorers.”
Exploring Paradox
Paradox is the wild territory within which preachers 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 and build a homestead in this forbidding wilderness. Days are consumed with survival chores: chopping wood, drawing water, getting together next Sunday’s sermon. Paths to the creek and woodpile become well worn from daily use. Gradually the preacher ceases to throw on a pack and set off to explore unknown regions. One-time companions and fellow adventurers on these treks into the wilderness (theologians once read in seminary) become “references.” Their books become travel guides, spiritual Fodor’s or Michelins, from which the preacher occasionally lifts a juicy travelogue of a place he or she has not visited firsthand.
Rather than explorers, many preachers today instead find themselves as vendors in a spiritual street market clogged with competitors hawking their wares. People pause for a moment before strolling on to the next booth. “How to …” titles go especially well in this marketplace atmosphere. Preachers must hit felt needs quickly. People are looking for answers to make a difference in their lives … yesterday. So preachers must cut to the chase, get down to basics and offer “spiritual principles” and “practical handles” which plug directly into people’s pragmatic expectations.
Raising questions that might not have answers, exploring the wilder regions of the mystery of God, leaving the security of the homestead to venture deeper into the paradoxical wilderness beyond the sight lines of faith — these would seem to be the kiss of death to attracting customers. What preacher in her right mind would raise thorny questions when people already have too many burrs under their saddles?
What to Do with Paradox?
C. S. Lewis distinguishes two kinds of readers. One kind of reader receives from books, 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” (emphasis added). This is the contemporary preacher’s temptation: to be so busy “doing things” with Scripture (especially things that address pragmatic felt needs) that Scripture has little chance to do its work in us or our people.
What about the truths of Scripture that do not come in easily digestible spoon-size bites? What about truths that need gnawing on? We find it hard to “do things” with paradox. Yet paradox is often a window into the deeper mystery of God.
Modern appetite for mystery is insatiable. With half-suppressed smiles, we watch our contemporaries seeking it in ludicrous ways. People pound away at computer terminals all day, then gather for Druid worship by the light of the moon. But how can we smile when we Christians sit atop the “mother lode” 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! Are we inviting contemporary people to touch this Mystery even as we present God as the answer to their felt needs? Do we balance our “how to’s” with “ask, seek, knock …?”
Exploring these “wild territories” of faith helps us see God less as offering personalized AAA maps for life (with hazards highlighted), and more as the purpose of the journey. Perhaps the very nature of my human existence resonates with the nature of God Himself? This is in fact the Christian claim — a deep affinity between the mystery of God and the mystery of humanity created in His image. In my own tramping through these regions, I have identified three distinct types of biblical paradox which open doors to the mystery of God.
Reframing Paradox
We miss a whole element of Jesus’ preaching if we do not recognize He was often paradoxical. His open-ended sermons send listeners away scratching their heads, with dangling loose ends for them to tie together. (How long would modern preachers last if our key leaders regularly asked, as Jesus’ disciples did, “tell us what you were trying to say this morning?”) That Jesus’ preaching does not have a point by point “fill in the blanks” directness so popular today suggests that He often wanted to be intentionally paradoxical. Jesus’ use of paradox shakes us by the shoulder to see familiar things from a fresh perspective.
Imagine these comments from a museum tour guide: “This exquisite frame is in a seventeenth-century, French baroque style. Notice how the intricately carved, leaf-shaped highlights on the corners finely balance the strong scrollwork along the horizontal axis …” A frame’s purpose is to focus our eyes on the painting, not draw attention to itself. When a frame does its work well, it is invisible.
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 a truth and yet invites reflection on its meaning. “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 teaching value.
This leads to a second point. Preaching has traditionally stressed insight before action. I understand in new ways; therefore, I begin acting in new ways. But change also moves in the opposite direction. New behaviors lead to new insights. Clinical psychologists and family systems therapists have shown that this is, in fact, exactly how paradoxical counseling strategies do work. Some practical applications at the end of a message (“Go home this week and …”) are insufficient when dealing with Jesus’ use of para-dox, which is therapeutic largely because its work is below the waterline.
The insight/action order is best reversed through story. I refer not to story illustrations hung like coat hangers on a deductive outline, but a story comprising the bulk of the sermon. Narrative sermons move preaching on paradox away from analysis to experience. Stories avoid the death through a thousand qualifications which murder Jesus’ paradox to dissect it as a “text” to be “examined” Stories also release the playfulness that often accompanies paradox. How often did Jesus introduce paradox with a twinkle in his eye?
Stories draw us in. We suspend judgment and are more open to change. Moving from detached observers to involved participants, we “try on for size” the role the story creates for us. The better the story, the more completely we live through the experience it creates. Especially when left open-ended, as many of Jesus’ stories were, narrative preaching offers the opportunity for listeners to resolve the tension 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 vaguely Middle Eastern hijackers move toward her seat, forcing each passenger into a bizarre rite of denial by spitting on a photograph of Jesus before exiting to safety. In her mind, the debate continues — how much does faith demand? — until the hijacker finally arrives to shove the saliva pocked face of Jesus in front of her and barks, “What about you?” Quietly, I ended by saying, “What about me? What about you?” and sat down. Each added her own ending.
Harmonious Paradox
Consider a tuning fork. It delivers a truepitch by two tines vibrating together. Muffle either side, even a little, and the note disappears. Neither tine produces the sweet, pure note by itself. Only when both tines vibrate in tandem will the correct pitch be heard.
Like a tuning fork, harmonious paradoxes declare their truth by two sides of a paradox vibrating 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, each with his or her own dispositions and biases toward one tine or the other. Yet neither side of the paradox can 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? How can two choices (mine and God’s) exist without one inevitably dominating or 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 aware of it? Job allows both tines to keep vibrating: God is transcendently all-powerful and God is personally involved. In fact, refusing to strip God of personality 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 has opened a 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. At the end of His personal struggle with this paradox, it is significant that Job cries out, not “I understand!” but “I repent” (Job 41:6).
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 only rest in God, not what she thought she knew about God. Mystery reveals, even as it obscures. She came to know God better when she accepted the paradox of God’s mystery.
Something similar happened to Job. After wrestling with God, Job admits God is unfathomable but also (paradoxically) indicates that he now knows God better than he did before: “I had heard of thee by the hear-ing of the ear, but now my eye sees Thee” (Job 41:5).
Intellectual debate or Job-like personal circumstances can devastate believers who have never explored the wilderness beyond easy answers. How much better if exposure to such paradox challenges Christians early on to exchange their faith in what they know about God for faith in God, a God who is trustworthy yet remains 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 key to high-scoring pinball (that game some of us played in the Jurassic Age before Nintendo) is being fortunate enough to have a ball caught bouncing back and forth between two bumpers. Sermons on harmonious paradox have a similar goal. Two ideas that began separately vibrate closer and closer together until a new “note” is 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,” C…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 as perfectly just yet 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.
Two-Handled Paradox
While the tension of the harmonious paradox pushes the opposite poles together to complement one another, in a third possibility I call two-handled paradoxes the tension consistently pushes the two poles apart.
I often watched my grandfather dig post holes on his farm with an old-fashioned auger. Shaped like a giant corkscrew, it took both strength and balance to push on one handle while simultaneously pulling on the other. Under his practiced hands, every push / pull half turn caused the auger to bite a little deeper into the hard Nebraska soil. Nothing is more useless than a one handled auger! Early on, I noticed that even with two handles, maximum effect is achieved only when both hands are positioned at the ends of the handles. Slide your hands closer together, and the auger becomes proportionately less effective.
G. K. Chesterton, this century’s most discerning observer of Christian paradox, saw that orthodoxy must exalt opposite 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…”
Whittling down opposing extremes can especially be seen in the case of God’s own paradoxical being. God’s transcendence and immanence, separate from the world yet actively engaged in the world, offer a suggestive example. The transcendent but uninvolved “clock maker” God of the 18th century Deists, and the immanent, pantheistic God swallowed up within forces of the natural world, both grasp only one handle. Not unexpectedly, Christian history’s greatest heresies result from whittling down the extremes of two-handled paradoxes: God not fully three while completely one, Jesus Christ not fully divine while 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? Blaise Pascal in his Pensees explains his approach toward his contemporaries: “If he vaunts himself, I abase him. If he abases himself, I vaunt him…” Working the handles back and forth digs through the topsoil of platitudes and easy compromises to eventually reach a level that ushers us into mystery.
Translating Pascal’s approach into a sermon suggests 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 counter-balanced by opposing facets of the other side. Such movement suggests a “yes … but” approach. Each pull on one handle is balanced by a push on the other. The shifting back and forth (“vaunt” … “abase”) adds movement and retains interest, especially if the preacher begins with more common-place “yes… but” contrasts and gradually moves to deeper ones.
Approaches beyond the whipsaw “yes … but” method are limited only by the preacher’s imagination. For example, a “Paul Harvey” strategy might use the first half of the sermon arguing only one side of the paradox. Astute listeners wonder, “This isn’t right. What about the other side?!” Then the preacher turns to “page 2” and presents the opposite in equal detail. Listeners begin their own search.
Imaginary characters can be used to represent opposite handles of a paradox, perhaps with the preacher even representing these contrary characters while standing in different positions in the chancel or platform. While requiring minimal use of manuscript or notes, such visual movement powerfully demonstrates the opposing sides of the paradox. Such a “debate” between two people allows for increased emotional identification by listeners with both positions. The creative preacher might have the two characters begin their conversation side by side, then gradually take steps apart as it becomes increasingly apparent that, for the whole truth to be heard, each position must maintain its distinctive identity.
While our first tendency is to eye it nervously or throw up our arms and stalk away from it, paradox has undeniable allure. In a pragmatic age, persistent in finding the quickest route to “whatever works,” we preachers find little to “do” with paradox. Yet paradox beckons us into Mystery, and offers a wholesome reminder that God is infinitely greater than our ideas about God. People today need back country guides eager to lead them into all that waits to be explored beyond the homestead in the clearing.
Visual Symbol
Picture Frame – “reframes” reality as we look through it.
Tuning Fork – both tines vibrating together create a new note
Auger – perfoms best when hands 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
Parables of the Kingdom
Eternal Life: present possession vs. future inheritance
Predestination vs. free will
Law vs. grace
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
Let listeners connect the dots
Unravel “double binds”
Back and forth vibration (C…AR)
Emphasize contrasts between opposite sides
Risks to Avoid
Try too hard for listeners to “get it”
Emphasize one pole over the other: upset their delicate balance
Allow the black and white to Coalesce into a “dirty gray”

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