Life is complicated—it’s messy, difficult, and full of strange comings and goings. I crave certainty and stability. I want clear-cut answers and black-and-white truths. I often wonder, Why can’t life be easier? Lord, just tell me what I should do.
But just when I think I have a handle on life, God throws me for a loop. I lose a friend. I get laid off from work. His ways are mysterious, and his truths are not simple. But God also brings peace and joy and wonder to me in my valleys, in the presence of my enemies. What a paradox.
I’m learning that paradox is the stuff of sanity. Mystery is at the heart of the gospel. God coming in human flesh, the sinless one becoming sin for us, the God of Abraham saving Gentiles, Jesus resurrected of the dead—these realities are the mystery God has revealed to us (Rom. 11:25; Eph. 3:16; 5:32; Col. 1:27; 1 Cor. 15:51). The difficulty of applying these mysteries to our lives is teased out in Jen Pollock Michel’s new book, Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of And in an Either-Or World.
For the Christian, paradox is the stuff of sanity.
Her book covers four themes: the incarnation, the kingdom of God, grace, and lament. Each section straddles a mystery of our faith that allows us to live before God. The four parts aren’t simply categories to hang your hat on; they’re glasses to see the way things are. Michel—a wife, mother of five, and regular contributor to TGC—unpacks how these mysterious truths open the door to seeing God at work, especially when life doesn’t make sense.
Mystery Is the Way to Sanity
The kind of faith seen in Scripture, Michel observes, is “riddled with fallibility and fear. I saw the heroes of Scripture as emphatically human, getting a lot wrong even as they tried mustering some praise” (6). Faith is mysterious, and seeing God at work in our sinful lives is hard.
The biblical path of faith doesn’t lead to the comfort and certainty I crave. Instead, the Lord uses the griefs I go through to awaken me to a hard-learned reality: I am only given peace and sanity when I learn to trust God in my weaknesses and conflicts. “Jesus remains God-and-man: advocating for his brothers and sisters whose weakness and frailty he bodily knows” (25).
God controls all things and works all things for his glory and our good because of Jesus. God’s glory isn’t opposed to our good; it’s a both/and in Christ. So I can relax and let go of my impulsive craving for certainty.
Surprised by God
Surprised by Paradox surprised me. I was delighted, moved, and filled with awe over these beautiful realities I so easily ignore. Seeing God at work in the mundane is so much harder for me than seeing him in the extraordinary. I’m learning this hard truth every day.
What if certainty isn’t the goal? In a world filled with ambiguity, many of us long for a belief system that provides straightforward answers to complex questions and clarity in the face of confusion. We want faith to act like an orderly set of truth-claims designed to solve the problems and pain that life throws at us. With signature candor and depth, Jen Pollock Michel helps readers imagine a Christian faith open to mystery. While there are certainties in Christian faith, at the heart of the Christian story is also paradox. Jesus invites us to abandon the polarities of either and or in order to embrace the difficult, wondrous dissonance of and.
Surprised by Paradox surprised me.
For example, in my relationship to my fiancé, I am often tempted to see conflict as bad and “peace” as good. But it’s not that simple, is it? In describing her own marriage, Michel describes a reality that’s difficult for me to grasp:
[It] isn’t the absence of conflict that makes for a happy, stable marriage. . . . In marital faithfulness, I am, paradoxically, called to a daily dying and a daily showing up. (27–28)
Conflict in relationships isn’t necessarily a sign of failure. It’s often where we see God at work in my life and in yours. God sanctifies us in our conflicts, the everyday selfishness and misunderstandings.
Christ claims our relationships, lifestyles, personalities, and pocketbooks for himself. This reality described in Michel’s book hits home. When I don’t live in light of these mysteries, I drift by wanting ease, entertainment, and comfort, but this isn’t what Christ wants from me. He wants everything.
Michel urges us to begin to see our daily actions with the eyes of eternity. Christ’s Spirit energizes us to live for him when we serve the poor, change our children’s diapers, and share the gospel. We do this because “we follow a radically generous God who became poor for our sakes” (91).
Surprised by Paradox helps us recover the paradoxes and mysteries that keep us sane. By them we learn to trust in a God who is so much bigger than our finite expectations. As Michel writes, “God has set the world alight with his presence. We just need eyes to see” (41).
In order to fill the cup of my neighbor with God’s love, my heart must be moved by these mysteries. Sanity for our souls begins when we see Jesus at work in the world once more . . . and being surprised.