When Upside Down is Right-Side Up
Orthodoxy is right belief. Orthopraxy is right action. Paradoxy is a faith riddled with seeming contradictions, and the Christian faith is paradoxy extraordinaire. At the very heart of our faith lies paradox: Death leads to life. In fact, our sacred story is more of a triple paradox: a God who is three in one, who embodies his divinity in humanity, and who dies to bring life.
The paradoxes within our faith unfurl even more from there. In the kingdom of God, the first are last, and the last are first. The meek inherit the earth. This divine wisdom is foolishness to the world. Campus pastor Elton Trueblood once wrote, “If a man wishes to avoid the disturbing effect of paradoxes, the best advice is for him to leave the Christian faith alone” (The Incendiary Fellowship, Harper, 1967). If Trueblood is correct, then the reverse is also true: By leaning deeper into paradox, we come closer to the heart of both our faith and our God.
A paradox is a seeming contradiction that reveals a truth. G. K. Chesterton, a paradoxical Christian poet, said paradox is “truth standing on its head to gain attention.” It is commonly a literary device or a play on words that prompts some amusement. “Deep down, he’s really shallow.” “I always lie.” “To make money, spend it.” “‘Impossible’ is not a word in my vocabulary.” “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Sometimes the truth revealed in the contradiction can be grim, as in Hamlet: “I must be cruel to be kind.”
Paradoxes riddle not only the banter of our everyday lives, but the pages of the Bible. The apostle Paul says, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10) to emphasize the sufficiency of God’s grace. Jesus taught that in order to grow up we must become like children, challenging our self-serious pride. He described enemies as neighbors to demonstrate the radicalness of his kind of love. The list of biblical paradoxes is long.
What follows is a guide for a worship series dedicated to some of the paradoxes found in the Bible. Why explore such mindbenders? Our worship leaders wanted a series that drew us deeper into the mysteries—and the playfulness—of Christ’s kingdom. Paradoxes, like prints from the Dutch artist M. C. Escher, require a double-take and mess with our ironclad sense of logic in order to loosen us from our paradigms and move us into a place where our sense of clarity, certainty, and control are shaken. The goal is to move believers into the surprise, scandal, and surrender of worshiping an awesome God. We hope that the paradoxy experienced in worship carries over into a paradoxical life, where in giving we receive and in dying we are born to eternal, abundant life.
We began our series by identifying a number of paradoxes in the Bible that lead people into a deeper understanding of their faith and calling (though we had room for only the first three in our worship schedule). We acknowledged the foundational paradoxes of the Trinity, the dual nature of Christ, and the mysteries of his death and resurrection, but we did not dedicate a Sunday to their exploration. They became the framework for our reflections and the culmination of our preaching.
We decided to be more practical in emphasis by choosing paradoxes related to spiritual formation. There are no doubt more paradoxes to be mined in the Bible, so you may see this as a prompt rather than a comprehensive survey. Enjoy the contradictions, make the tensions creative, and the congregation may be both curious and encouraged. Be sure to make these services about good news—the grace that both saves and forms us.
We include song suggestions, and some of them repeat to provide continuity. We used some music from an album released by two of our members, Nicole Ensing and Russ McKitrick. All the songs on Riddles and Creeds (2014) use the texts of poems by G. K. Chesterton.
The Paradox of Spiritual Growth: To Become Mature, We Must Become Like Children
Matthew 18:1–5; 23:11
The biblical world was replete with hierarchy, whether Roman or Jewish. Unlike today, the status of children was exceedingly low. So the question comes to Jesus: “Who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Note that Jesus doesn’t give a flowchart of the kingdom hierarchy. Instead, he urges immigration to God’s kingdom, and he points to children as model citizens. Their humble status in a culture of hierarchies shows the upside-down nature of the kingdom: The last will be first. In a culture like ours, obsessed with leadership schemes, Jesus calls us to followership, to submission, to awe, and to joy. Children know true helplessness and do not earn their inheritance. For them, everything is grace.
“Jesus Loves Me” LUYH 709, PH 304, PsH 571, SWM 209, TH 189, WR 437, GtG 188
“No Longer Slaves” Brian Johnson, Jonathan David Helser, Joel Case
“Take My Life and Let It Be” LUYH 863, PH 391, PsH 288, TH 585/586, WR 466
“Have Thine Own Way, Lord” LUYH 737, PsH 287, TH 688, WR 486
The Paradox of Obedience: Slavery to Christ as Freedom to Flourish
1 Corinthians 7:22; Matthew 20:24–28
This is a radical, counter cultural teaching: In our world, where freedom is understood as autonomy, independence, and convenience, along with the absence of constraint, commitment, and communal identity, the text calls us to bind ourselves to a ministry and the Lord. The “big idea” of this sermon would contrast negative views of freedom (freedom from) with positive views of freedom (freedom to). The paradox is that negative freedom—individual, self-determining freedom and choice—is a form of captivity or slavery. Conversely, slavery to Christ and his kingdom of righteousness and peace means true freedom and flourishing. Worldly freedom is sinful slavery. Godly slavery is creaturely freedom. In sum, freedom is not about having no master, for everyone must serve something. Freedom comes by having one good, gracious Master.
“No Longer Slaves” Brian Johnson, Jonathan David Helser, Joel Case
“Make Me A Servant” Maranatha! Music
“Lord, Whose Love in Humble Service” LUYH 928, PH 427, PsH 603, WR 575
“I Want to Be Faithful” Craig Musseau
The Paradox of Scale: In Small Deeds Lies Great Love
Luke 7:36–48; Matthew 17:20
“Good things come in small packages.” It’s a warm cliché that this text turns gutsy. A woman of ill repute takes tremendous risk in breaking taboos to wash Jesus’ feet. Observers are disgusted, but Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Matthew 26:13). In our idolatrous, bigger-is-always-better world, we need to discipline ourselves to see God’s kingdom in small things. Small is beautiful, wrote E. F. Schumacher in a critique of our economy of persistent growth. God is in the small kindnesses, the details, the inconspicuous, and even the unlikely. Mother Teresa’s quote is apt: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” Small is big in God’s economy, and like Horton in the Dr. Seuss book Horton Hears a Who, we need to care for the small things that are of great value. For ultimately we are all small and in need of God’s kindness.
“But one must not think ill of the paradox, for the paradox is the passion of thought, and the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion: a mediocre fellow. But the ultimate potentiation of every passion is always to will its own downfall, and so it is also the ultimate passion of the understanding to will the collision, although in one way or another the collision must become its downfall. This, then, is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.”
—Søren Kierkegaard, Philosophical Fragments/Johannes Climacus. Princeton University Press, 1985.
Paradox of Generosity: In Giving We Receive
Acts 20:35; 2 Corinthians 9:6; Mark 12:41–44
This Sunday could focus on our time, talents, and treasures in a way that isn’t as self-conscious as on a pledge Sunday. There would be freedom to speak persuasively about the virtue of generosity without feeling self-interested or manipulative (that is, with a goal of inspiring giving for church budgets). The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz may help in a prophetic critique, as he argues that the plethora of consumer choices increases our levels of anxiety and dissatisfaction. Paradoxically, more is often less, and less can be more. See the More-with-Less Cookbook (Herald Press, 2016) and David G. Myers’ The American Paradox: Spiritual Hunger in an Age of Plenty (Yale University Press, 2000) for more reflections on prosperity and simplicity in God’s upside-down kingdom. God’s generosity is a model for us.
The Paradox of Power: When I am Weak, Then I am Strong
2 Corinthians 12:9–12; Matthew 19:30, 20:16
This paradox comes in Paul’s discussion about the “thorn” in his side. In a world that worships strength and power—as well as comfort and ease—God calls us to vulnerability, suffering, and a certain honesty about our limits. A preacher might venture a soft critique of such programs as Strengthfinders and Discover Your Gifts here as a reminder that sometimes God works most powerfully through our difficulties, deficiencies, and disasters. This is not to romanticize suffering, but Christ’s “wonderful cross” does contrast sharply with our hedonistic culture. It’s in our brokenness that we depend most deeply on God and cling to his grace. It is through our baptism, through self-denial and death, that we find new life (Matthew 16:25).
“You, Lord, Are Both Lamb and Shepherd” LUYH 225, SNC 182, WR 99
“Meekness and Majesty” LUYH 157, SNC 109, WR 97
“Baptized in Christ” LUYH 846
“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” LUYH 175, PH 100/101, PsH 384, TH 252, WR 261, GtG 223
“The Wonderful Cross” LUYH 176
“The world of science lives fairly comfortably with paradox. We know that light is a wave, and also that light is a particle. The discoveries made in the infinitely small world of particle physics indicate randomness and chance, and I do not find it any more difficult to live with the paradox of a universe of randomness and chance and a universe of pattern and purpose than I do with light as a wave and light as a particle.”
—Madeleine L’Engle, Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988.
There is a place in worship for apologetics—the rational defense of our faith in the midst of modern critiques. But at a certain point we must simply offer the biblical story in all its beauty, scandal, and contradiction. Our faith rests in some paradoxical realities, and the proper response is wholehearted surrender and joy at being lost in God’s love and grace.
We could get carried away with paradox and lose sight of the goal: union with Christ. But union with Christ is a deeply mysterious reality, and if meditation on the paradoxes of life and spiritual formation brings us deeper into divine mystery, we have accomplished something worthwhile for pilgrims on the way.
- Donald B. Kraybill, The Upside-Down Kingdom. Herald Press, 1978, 2011.
- N. Graham Standish, Paradoxes for Living: Cultivating Faith in Confusing Times. Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
- Mark L. Strauss, Jesus Behaving Badly: The Puzzling Paradoxes of the Man from Galilee. IVP, 2015.
- Cameron C. Taylor, Twelve Paradoxes of the Gospel. Tremendous Life Books, 2010.
- Tom Taylor, Paradoxy: Coming to Grips with the Contradictions of Jesus. Baker, 2006.