Paradoxes have been called the “atoms of philosophy.”[i] In the same way, paradoxes are the particles of theology. The Bible is the ultimate sourcebook for the greatest paradoxes in the sphere of human thinking. God’s Word is a rich sourcebook of paradoxical statements. In fact, the Bible is so full of the paradox that one old commentator said, “Without paradoxes, there is no Christianity.”[ii]
God doesn’t look at life the way we do. He declares in Isaiah 55:8: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways… As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.”
It stands to reason that if there is a God in heaven, He would look at things differently from us, from a different vantage and perspective. That results in paradoxes — statements that appear to be contradictory, but are actually true.
Years ago there was a beloved Christian preacher and publisher named Henry Clay Trumbull who wrote an entire book about this. He called it Practical Paradoxes; or, Truth in Contradictions. The title of his introduction was “The Comfort of Christian Paradoxes.” This is how he began:
The law of the Christian life is a paradox. It is made up of seeming contradictions. All its teachings are contrary to the common opinions of man. According to this law, giving is getting; scattering is gaining; holding is losing; having nothing is possessing all things; dying is living. It is he who is weak who is strong… Happiness is found when it is no longer sought; the clearest sight is of the invisible; (and) things which are not bring to naught things which are.[iii]
Another more current writer listed some of the grand paradoxes of Christianity:
- 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.[iv]
Paul the Apostle said he and his associates were “genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, yet possessing all things” (2 Corinthians 6:8-10).
He said that when he was weak then was he strong (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Jesus began His ministry by stating a set of paradoxes that we call the Beatitudes. He said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” And so on.
In Matthew 10:39, Jesus said: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses His life for My sake will find it.”
If you look at life differently than most (and if others think you’re a walking paradox), congratulations! That’s a mark of authentic discipleship.
— Adapted from my sermon from Ecclesiastes 7, accessible online at www.donelson.org.
[i] Roy Sorensen, A Brief History of the Paradox: Philosophy and the Labyrinths of the Mind (NY: Oxford University Press, 2005), xi.
[ii] Rev. Herbert W. Howell in his sermon, “The Joy of Christ” in Record of Christian Work, edited by William Revell Moody (Northfield, Mass: W. R. Moody, 1901), 493.
[iii] Henry Clay Trumbull, Practical Paradoxes (Philadelphia: John D. Wattles, 1889), 9.
[iv] Richard Hansen, “Making the Most of Biblical Paradoxes” at http://www.preachingtoday.com/skills/2005/august/117–hansen.html.