Heads and Tails: Paradox in the Word of God
A number of years ago, I had the opportunity to study the Bible with a good friend of mine. He was somewhat of a philosopher who was trying to get to the bottom of spiritual issues in his life. At one point in our conversations, he made an interesting comment which I will try to encapsulate approximately as it was stated to me:
Sometimes it seems to me that some of the most profound truth in the world is so basic that it can only be stated in the form of a paradox. It is almost as if there is no other way to express the full truth than to suspend it between two seemingly contradictory statements. Both statements must be accepted together in order to be fully comprehended.
The concept had a ring of truth which has come into focus over the intervening years and has opened my eyes to several spiritual insights. In the next few pages, I will try to explain why I see this concept as so important to our understanding of the truth of God and how meaningful and significant it is in our spiritually confused world.
The Nature of Paradox
Imagine a tight wire suspended between two pillars. Out in the middle, an aerialist is performing for a large crowd seated below. The tension of the wire, pulled in opposite directions by the pillars allows him to be there, in the middle. If either pillar were to be removed, there could be no performance. If the artist were to perform on top of either pillar and never cross the wire, we would have to wonder why the other pillar was there and what was the point of the wire. His performance would lack inspiration because his being in the middle of the wire is what inspires us. It is dangerous in the middle. It is tricky, uncomfortable and unsafe at best. We watch and say to ourselves, “You wouldn’t catch me out there; maybe on top of one of the pillars, but even that looks intimidating to me.”
The paradox can be seen as similar to the scenario above: Two pillars of truth, pulling in opposite directions with great tension and with the fullness of real truth hanging in the middle. To embrace this fullness means that we cannot cling to either pillar. We must venture out to the middle. It will never be comfortable; it will always be hard to explain and will invariably look foolish and dangerous to pillar huggers! But it is only when we get to the middle and stay there that we understand the real truth.
A Good Example
A vivid example of a paradox in the Bible, where truth hung in the balance and the wisdom of God was displayed in revealing that truth to us, is in the story of Abraham and the sacrifice of his son Isaac (Genesis 22). Abraham had been promised by God that his only son Isaac would be the conduit to the blessing of the entire world. Now God, who had made this promise, commanded Abraham to take this son and sacrifice him on an altar. This presented a great paradox to Abraham.
Abraham’s solution was simply to surrender to both sides of the paradox with the conclusion that he would sacrifice Isaac and that God would bless the entire world through him. He reasoned that to do this God would have to raise Isaac from the dead (Hebrews 11:17-19). This conclusion was highly “irrational” but also highly regarded by God. Abraham was praised by God on the spot, and this episode was held up as an example for all eternity of the true nature of faith! To have taken favor with one side of this paradox or the other would have been displeasing to God; it would also have been faithless and shameful for Abraham.
Religious Heresy and the Paradox
Pillar hugging, when presented with a spiritual paradox, is the root of many Biblical heresies. Many of the foundational teachings about Jesus are embodied in paradox. Take the humanity of Jesus as an example. Was he all man? Was he all God? If he were one or the other, then how could he be the other and the one simultaneously? If he is God, then how can he relate to me? If he was a man, then to what extent could he be God? If he is God, then what is this business about being the son of God?
On and on it goes. Heresy after heresy has resulted from persons unwilling to humbly surrender to the paradox. Those who refuse to accept Jesus as God reduce him to a gifted spiritual leader, a prophet, a teacher and someone worth listening to, but not worthy of worship. Those who refuse to accept his humanity must rationalize many of his teachings and deny his ability to relate to us. To embrace all the Bible’s teaching we must accept both parts of this truth in spite of the apparent intellectual conflict. Acknowledging that there is a paradox and accepting it allows us to be at peace with the true Jesus.
Until we clearly identify and accept this idea of paradox as a source of greater truth, we often vacillate between the two sides of such a truth, embracing one pillar or the other. The opposite pillar is then viewed as an uncomfortable source of confusion and embarrassment. We are often uncomfortable when pinned down by antagonists. We can be made to feel guilty for not being able to concisely and logically resolve the dilemma that paradox engenders, but to take sides would force us to ignore some aspect of God’s teaching. How freeing it is then to simply acknowledge that paradox is often the way of God’s truth. We don’t have to be defensive or guilty. We don’t have to feel irrational. We can be at peace with the acceptance of the seemingly irrational by understanding the nature of paradox and the truth it holds.
All Those ‘Contradictions’
“The bible is full of contradictions” is the siren’s song for those unwilling to consider God’s truth in paradox. I would not be so naive as to deny that there are many apparently contradictory statements in the Bible. When we accept the idea that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, these contradictions puzzle us and can weaken our faith if we labor over their contradictory nature. By knowing that God’s truth is often embodied in paradox and accepting both sides of the apparent contradiction as being true, we surrender to the greater truth.
Here is a simple but typical paradox showing us this principle: God is a god filled with compassion and love. This is clear in the scriptures. God is also all powerful. He created the earth and everything in it and has the power to heal, raise the dead, cause crops to grow, make gold or anything else he wants to do of that sort. So why is there so much disease, death, famine and poverty in his creation? If we do not allow for paradox, we will come to roost in one of two places: We will become bitter because God has the power to resolve the suffering but is seemingly neither desirous of nor doing so, seriously compromising his credibility in the compassion department; or we will become convinced that he really cannot solve the problem, and we lose faith in his omnipotence. Either scenario relegates God to something less than the God of the Bible.
Acceptance of all the teaching presents a paradox that forces us to search for a greater truth. God is both all powerful and all compassionate, and there is a purpose in God’s restraint on resolving the problem of suffering. Perhaps suffering is essential to our spiritual growth. Perhaps the suffering that surrounds us helps us to learn about compassion and sacrifice. The real truth is not immediately obvious, and it is not comfortable. It forces us to look at our own weaknesses and inadequacies instead of making God weak or inadequate. It ultimately glorifies God and puts us in our place, rather than vice versa.
Interestingly enough, once a paradox is accepted and the full truth of it embraced, we often transcend it so that in hindsight it no longer seems like a paradox: The two pillars and the wire seem to resolve into a single all-encompassing truth! The Bible, in fact, has a lot of additional clarification which supports the purpose of suffering in our world and after a while, this becomes so clear to us that we forget how much of a stumbling block it is for others. By identifying paradox as a viable statement of truth, we can help others to step over the stumbling blocks rather than stumbling over them.
Embracing paradox in Scripture requires a humble surrendering to God’s presentation of his truth. Pillar hugging is nothing less than an arrogant assumption that God was somehow unable to present his truth to us in a coherent manner, that it is our job to sift the chaff from the wheat! What is chaff and what is wheat is then subject to debate and creates heresy and division.
Scientific Method and the Paradox
Accepting the greater truth in paradox is a key to understanding why scientific thinking is often in conflict with spiritual thinking. The Scientific Method is based on the supposition that when there is an effect, there is a perceivable and unique cause or combination of causes. If a coin is flipped, it will land heads or tails, or in the extreme, perhaps on its edge. The idea that it could fall heads and tails is irrational and not worthy of consideration in science. Science, as a tool to help us understand and utilize what God has given us, is very useful, but it has a finite domain: the physical world. To apply its methods to the spiritual world denies paradox and creates “pillar huggers.” Unable to “rationalize” apparent conflicts that result from the pillar hugging, many scientifically oriented persons have abandoned their search for understanding God and his truths.
Our response to such thinking is often to throw more scientific facts at such a person, trying to demonstrate the nature of God through the observable (i.e. scientific) nature of his creation. What is often needed is to transcend science by introducing paradox as a viable statement of spiritual truth and leading them to a broader, richer understanding of God.
The space allotted for these thoughts prevents further discussion of the many paradoxical truths found in God’s word. Consider the following list for further reflection. Ponder the nature of each paradox, the “full truth in the middle,” how they could become stumbling blocks to faith and the heresies that develop if we pillar hug either side of the truth:
• The kernel of wheat: Die to live (John 12:24)
• Sacrifice: Give to get (Luke 6:38)
• “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, whoever loses his life … will find it.” (Luke 9:23-26)
• God’s power is made strong in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
• “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:26)
• The first will be last and the last will be first (Mark 10:31)
• Submission: The victory of surrender
• The wisdom of the world is foolish to those who are perishing (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)
• The Savior who didn’t save himself
• Three in One: The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit
• The divinity and the humanity of Jesus
• The eternal sacrifice of Jesus: One moment in time redeeming for all time, forward and backward
• A day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day (2 Peter 3:8)
• He who is not with me is against me (Matthew 12:30; Luke 11:23); he who is not against me is for me (Mark 9:40; Luke 9:50)
• Free from all men I make myself a slave of all (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)
• Prophecy: Multiple fulfillments of singular prophecies
• Nebulae and Sparrows: The God who hung the stars and gives each one a name is still concerned about each sparrow that falls and the number of hairs on your head.
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