One of the paradoxes of disciple-making is that sometimes the harder we try to protect people from dangers to their faith, the more vulnerable we may be leaving them in the long run.
Over the 25 years of my involvement with youth and student ministry, seeing young people step away from faith has sadly become a normal experience. But I also see more and more adults walking away; people dropping out as life events occur, tragedy strikes, church disappoints or priorities shift.
One school of thought argues that the best way we can help Christians to survive as disciples in today’s world is to protect them from it. If we keep believers busy with church activities and the ghetto of Christian subculture, perhaps we can shield them from the evils of the world.
There’s another school that argues that the best way we can help disciples today is to release them into the world with clear mantras and slick answers for all occasions. If we just dole them out in our Bible studies, sermons and seminars perhaps we can equip them for the challenges of the world.
Two chance encounters with two very different people have changed my perspective on these approaches to discipleship. First I came across Nassim Nicholas Taleb, an economist-essayist-mathematician whose book The Black Swan
(Penguin) argues that most of the world-changing events like 9/11, the global financial crisis or the development of the Internet were almost completely unpredictable. Taleb asks how CEOs and politicians can make good decisions when the future is so unpredictable, and argues that we need ‘anti-fragile’ institutions so that governments, banks and economies can withstand the unknown unknowns.
Then I spent a day with a Christian athlete who, though once a vociferous evangelist, had all but abandoned his faith. As a young convert he was nurtured by a brand of Christianity that came as a complete package with black-and-white theological (and political) positions on every subject under the sun. When he began to question one of those positions on the role of women, he was not just destabilised in that aspect of his faith; the whole thing came crashing down.
Because our world and our lives are so unpredictable, how do we make disciples that have an anti-fragile faith? A faith that is resilient and robust enough to cope with whatever life chucks at it? A faith that will not collapse like a house of cards when we come to a crossroads in our life, or a question that cannot be answered?
I believe that part of the answer to developing resilient disciples comes by looking more closely at those questions we usually avoid. The more I have thought about this, the more I believe that it is actually the paradoxes that the Bible presents which may in fact help us with the paradoxes that life churns up.
There are three reasons why this could be true. Firstly, many Christians fear admitting they have unresolved questions, as though they may lead us – or others – to doubt, destabilising or even destroying faith. But false assurance is no assurance at all, so perhaps bringing these difficult questions out into the open is actually the first step to life-proofing our faith.
Secondly, most of our sermons, devotional times and festivals focus on the same safe Bible passages, often recycling the same uplifting anecdotes. We become expert, not in wrestling with the paradoxes of our faith, but in filing them into a
large mental folder marked ‘unanswered’. Many of us have found ourselves in an Intensive Care Unit somewhere praying for a loved one to pull through, wondering if we know God at all. We realise that those questions weren’t safely filed away at all; they were mounting up like an overcrowded inbox ready to crash the whole system.
Thirdly, what if the ancient faith we call Christianity has survived so long not in spite of but because of its apparent contradictions? What if we have settled for neatly packaged, simplistic answers instead of seeking out the deep and rich realities of our faith? What if it is actually in the difficult parts of the Bible that God is most clearly revealed?
There are three common categories of paradox that challenge us. Relational paradoxes cause us to question whether we really know God; intellectual paradoxes challenge our understanding of the faith we profess; and there are expectation paradoxes when we experience a clash between the promise of the Christian faith and the reality of what it delivers. Of course, all of these paradoxes intersect, but let us tease them apart to identify the areas where we could learn something of ourselves, our faith and our God.
There are lots of awkward parts of the Bible where we come across apparent paradoxes in the character of God. In scripture we meet a God who is both terrible and compassionate; offering mercy to Israel but genocide to the Canaanites. We meet a God who is both distant and present; calling the Israelites out of Egypt to be with him but keeping his distance in the Holy of Holies. We meet a God who needs nothing, but demands everything – as in the strange account where God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, or where God does a deal with the devil regarding Job’s life. The puzzling nature of God makes him hard always to love, trust, honour and obey. Unless we are able to wrestle with some of these paradoxes our relationship with him can become stunted, warped or half-hearted. Conversely, it may be as we wrestle with them that our understanding of who God is grows, and our relationship with him is strengthened.
WHAT IF IT IS ACTUALLY IN THE DIFFICULT PARTS OF THE BIBLE THAT GOD IS MOST CLEARLY REVEALED?
In the book of Habakkuk, God sets up a relational paradox. The prophet struggles with the paradox during a conversation with God, and eventually learns to worship more deeply. The paradox is not fully resolved, but the questions are faced squarely and robustly, which can help us with our own questions. The story begins with God telling Habakkuk to ‘Look at the nations and watch – and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told’ (Habakkuk 1:5).
Here God is entirely upfront about the unexpectedness of what he is about to do. He is predicting something unpredictable. He asks Habakkuk to believe in him, even though what he is about to do is unbelievable. God is going to use an enemy pagan nation to punish Israel. Habakkuk’s first response was to complain. If Habakkuk thought life was already bad, it was about to get much worse. Surely God was supposed to make things better?
This is not the sort of storyline we like in our sermons and devotions. In fact, it is not what we like to hear at all. We spend much of our time attempting to smooth out as much of the unpredictable nature of life as possible – we develop routines, invest in warranties, insurance policies and pension plans. At church it can be similar; we have slick routines for our worship so that there is little room for God to disrupt things. In our teaching we focus on the promises that assure us things will get better. But when our best-made plans go asunder it is no good if the God we believe in is just a Father Christmas on steroids. We need to make sure we really know the God of the Bible, even if he is unpredictable.
Habakkuk teaches us about what to do when God acts in ways that run contrary to everything we imagine or pray for. There are no easy answers here, but the dialogue of the book reflects the reality of our own questioning in these difficult times. Habakkuk’s conversation with God involves both questions and complaints. And though he’s not always given the answers he was hoping for, it does eventually lead to a strong declaration of faith and worship:
‘Though the fig-tree does not bud and… the fields produce no food... yet I will rejoice in the lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour. The Sovereign lord is my strength’ (Habakkuk 3:17-19).
Habakkuk may not be a popular text for a sermon or song lyrics, but for many of us struggling to relate to God, it could provide a lifeline. We need faith that exists in spite of God’s unpredictability, as well as because of his predictability.
Sometimes we come across doctrines in scripture that seem contradictory. We encounter a God who is three persons and yet one being. We are introduced to an eternal living God who dies on a cross, a God who is sovereign over all things and yet gives us free will.
Some people are nervous about talking theology for fear of over-intellectualising the faith, or raising questions that undermine it. However, an under-intellectual faith leaves us vulnerable to manipulation, distortion of the gospel or shallow discipleship that is not equipped to handle the challenges of all that life will throw at us.
Let me give you a taste of one of these theological challenges by looking at the Jesus paradox. In scripture, Jesus is presented as both fully human and fully divine. But if Jesus is 100% man, then surely there’s no room for him to be 100% God too? Trying to reconcile the two natures of Jesus leads to paradox after paradox. If Jesus is God, does that mean God died on a cross? Wouldn’t that make God mortal? If Jesus is God, then who was running the universe while he was on the Earth? If God is omniscient and omnipresent – how come Jesus wasn’t?
The divine humanity of Jesus is not a paradox that can be resolved; rather, it is a tension that we have to learn to accept. This is not an intellectual cop-out: there are parallels to this in other fields of study too.
When I was studying A level physics, for example, I was pretty sure I knew what light was. Then I had my first lecture at university. Professor Kemp, with his mad-scientist haircut, walked into a room full of expectant students in gleaming white lab coats and, to the palpable disappointment of everyone present, wrote a very long equation on the board. It scared the living daylights out of us as we were told to mentally throw away everything we had been taught about how light worked, and shown experiments that demonstrated contradictory things about light. Rather than take the easy route and ignore or discount one or the other set of data, scientists take the humble route and acknowledge that their brains are not big enough to understand how these two things relate together; they call this paradox ‘wave particle duality’.
Similarly, when we say that Jesus is both fully human and fully God, it is not just nonsense, a puzzle, or a play on words – Jesus is simultaneously both God and man, and neither his divinity nor his humanity are compromised. Early Church leaders came up with a way of expressing this in the Chalcedonian Creed – ‘the two natures of Christ’, which states:
one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only
begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures
inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly,
inseparably; the distinction of natures being
by no means taken away by the unity, but
rather the property of each nature being
preserved, and concurring in one Person and
one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two
persons, but one and the same Son, and only
begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Jesus paradox reveals the need for humility in our thinking about God. We are called to think deeply about our faith, to resist the temptation of just paddling in the shallows and instead to allow our minds to explore the riches of our faith. But we also need humility to know that the beauty, complexity and mystery of God will not fit neatly into our theological boxes. Learning how to think deeply and humbly will help us enormously as we develop an anti-fragile faith.
Tragically I have met some people who seem to have a faith that is strong intellectually and relationally, but have walked away from God because of the contradictions between the promises in scripture and the realities of life as a Christian. For some, it was because the Bible presented a holy God who was supposed to have liberated them from the captivity of sin and evil and yet they found weakness and temptation in their daily lives too overpowering. For others, it was the disparity between the promises of the Church and its reality. Many of us relate to them as we struggle with expectation paradoxes, navigating a way between faith in the power of God and realism about what we should expect this side of eternity.
The Corinthian paradox shows this most starkly in scripture. Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Church is best known for articulating a beautiful description of the nature of genuine love, used regularly in weddings around the world:
Love is patient, love is kind.
It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
(1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
But these inspiring words are set in a letter addressed to a church that was racked with dispute, disunity and disintegration. It is not a pleasant letter to read. Paul has to write chapter after chapter addressing issues of jealousy, arrogance, quarrelling, sexual immorality and greed. He writes boldly about the characteristics of love – precisely because the people he was writing to didn’t seem to get it one bit.
If we read 1 Corinthians 13 without reading the first 12 chapters, we will be vulnerable to expecting a lofty ideal of love, without accepting the gritty reality. But this is exactly what happens in many of our churches and devotional resources. We inadvertently set people up to fall into the reality gap between God’s intention for his people and the life of our local church communities.
Instead we need to teach the paradox of God’s call on his people and the broken and damaged realities of Christians’ lives. We need to learn, as the first letter to the Corinthians teaches, how to hold in tension the fact we live in light of the resurrection of Jesus while awaiting our own.
We have only skimmed the surface of the Habakkuk paradox, the Jesus paradox and the Corinthian paradox, and yet hopefully we have glimpsed something of the possibility that tackling these difficult questions may enrich our worship and strengthen our faith. Perhaps your appetite has been whet to look more closely at those often-forgotten, often-feared parts of scripture that seem to raise more questions than answers, but may provide unshakeable foundations for our faith.
Krish Kandiah’s book Paradoxology: Why Christianity Was Never Meant to be Simple (Hodder & Stoughton) is out now