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Tuesday, July 17, 2012

on paradox

The language of the Christian faith does not shy away from paradox. A paradox is a statement that on its surface is a contradiction, but for which a reconciling answer is possible. Christianity is full of such statements. Much of the language of Christian paradox is lyrical: we must be poor to be rich, we must lose our lives to save our lives, we must be last to be first. But some of the language of Christian paradox is disconcerting: How do we reconcile the teaching that God is both three and one, that God is both infinitely just and infinitely merciful, that God’s will is sovereign yet man’s will is still free? And the list grows, and our faith begins to feel fragile, and the question presents itself: Can Christianity be trusted? Are these paradoxes foundational truths or fault lines in the bedrock of our faith? One man looks at the dual nature of Christ and says “impossible”. Another man looks at the dual nature of Christ and says “mystery”. One is certainly a fool, and one is wise. But which is which?

It is here that I must acknowledge my great debt, not to a theologian, but to a kindergarten teacher. Though she does not know it, Mrs. Greak, who taught four Wilkin children to write their names neatly and raise their hands politely, taught their mother a vital lesson on paradox.

She explained at meet-the-teacher night how difficult it was to teach the concept of time to a five-year-old. Each Monday she instructed the class to take out their journals and write at the top of the page: “Today is Monday. Yesterday was Sunday. Tomorrow is Tuesday.” The class followed her instructions and harmony reigned.

Her difficulty began on Tuesday when the process was repeated. As soon as she gave the instruction to write “Today is Tuesday”, looks of concern would flood her students’ faces. With the instruction to write “Yesterday was Monday” a hand would go up.

“Mrs. Greak, you told us today was Monday.”

“No, Monday was yesterday. Today is Tuesday.”

More worried looks. Another raised hand.

“Mrs. Greak, you told us tomorrow is Tuesday.”

“No, today is Tuesday. Tomorrow is Wednesday.”

Following this pronouncement, the children would get upset. From their perspective Mrs. Greak had stated a complete contradiction: She had told them first that today was Monday and then that today was Tuesday. Which was it? Could this woman be trusted to teach them addition if she couldn’t even keep track of what day today was?

Of course, both statements were perfectly true. Mrs. Greak’s class was grappling with a paradox: two seemingly contradictory statements that could be reconciled. But because five-year-olds do not yet grasp the concept of yesterday, today and tomorrow, they questioned her grasp on logic. The problem was not with the message. The problem was with the limited ability of the hearer to understand it.

We are like this. We encounter what we believe to be a contradiction in the Bible: How could Jesus be fully God and fully man at the same time? And we begin to worry that the Bible cannot be trusted.  And we forget that we are receiving instruction from One whose understanding is not incrementally greater than ours, but infinitely greater. On a spiritual-insight scale from zero to God, we would be pathologically prideful to rate ourselves at kindergarten level. We must be neither surprised nor discouraged to find that we, who are of yesterday and know nothing, are at a loss to reconcile the words of He who transcends yesterday, today and tomorrow.

But our questions are safe with Him. Surely the Lord looks on us with at least the same compassion and patience that a kindergarten teacher looks on her students. Surely His word to us is much the same as hers: “I know you don’t yet understand, but you will. Take me at my word until you do.” There is no contradiction in the Word of God.  We cannot expect to resolve all paradox this side of Glory, but we can try. And where our trying falls short, we can learn to marvel at the mystery of it, joyfully exchanging the wisdom of man for the foolishness of God - trusting our yesterday, today and tomorrow to the One who was, and is, and is to come.


  1. Jen: Once again you have communicated a beautiful truth in a profound and clear way. Thank you!

  2. I agree with the above statement completely.. having only recently found your blog, I have been very much blessed by its widsom as of late. So thank you Jen!