Thursday, March 16, 2017

The value of tension, paradox and seeming contradictions

Whenever God gives us a truth, there is often a seemingly opposite truth that goes alongside it and appears contrary to it. Such as God is totally sovereign in the affairs of men and man is fully responsible for his choices. 

Many key truths in scripture are in tension. The greatest truths seem to be those found within these greatest points of tension; between apparently opposing or opposite realities; the seeming contradictions and greatest paradoxes. In other words there is a deeper and fuller truth hidden within the paradox and tension of seemingly opposite truths. 

I would further suggest that those truths most in tension hold the most significant deeper truths i.e the greatest discoveries lie within the greatest tensions. Truths are in tension for good reason; that we might press further in to God in greater trust, to discover the richest and most rewarding realities about him (and ourselves) within the tension. 

Paradox easily misunderstood. 

Because the most profound truths and realities are often found in tension, the deeper truths to be discovered within are easily missed, misapplied or misunderstood.

Like walking a tight rope (at the apex of  truths in tension), if one leans too far to one side or the other they fall off and away from the truth we are meant to uncover in the tension.

We prefer "either or" scenarios because ironically, it's a form of control (or rather an attempt at a false sense of control). We don't like doing a balancing act. It takes a lot of effort (trust) and can be uncomfortable and even exhausting over time. The desire to feel settled ("off the fence") versus feeling unsettled creates stress. We don't like stress but comfort. 

Feeling "settled" is a control thing, tension is a "faith" thing. What we can't control creates tension and requires trust. 

Why denominations

I think these seemingly contradictory truths are also a main reason why there are often strong differences among various groups/denominations within the church at large. We settle on one side or the other of truths in tension to the exclusion of the other side (and gravitate to the group that agrees with us) when both sides are not just taught in scripture but necessary for our greatest understanding of those deeper truths and our greater advancement in our relationship and walk with God i.e. the advancement of our faith in God. 

I believe humility would go a long way in preventing this. We must recognize we are finite and only God is infinite and knows all things. We must submit to him when we have differences instead of dogmatically insisting we see all things clearly and others don't. At a minimum we can recognize that if our understanding of who God is and how he operates is clearer today then it was "yesterday" it is only due to humility and recognizing we must always be learning and have much yet to see. 

Tension...the result of the fall

I propose however the tension is within us not the truths themselves. First it is part of our being finite creatures. Only God knows and sees all. We do not. We don't like this. It goes contrary to a rebellious commitment to independence i.e. to be our own god.

Tension is also part of being broken and living in a broken world. It is the fruit of death (separation from God, the source of love and life) God warned of. It is a form of pain/suffering. When we rebelled everything fragmented. Not just our relationship with God but with others and ourselves. 

When we trust (what we can't fully understand) the tension tends to subside or go away altogether; though not necessarily the paradox causing the tension. The inability to reconcile the paradox may never go away this side of eternity, but remains. 

Tension is the fruit of the fall and ultimately the result of our mistrust in God; in his goodness, wisdom and power. It is the fruit of placing our trust in ourselves and our ability to make sense out of life unaided i.e. independent of God. If we think we can, when we can't we experience tension. 

However, there is no tension, confusion, mystery or lack of clarity within God. Everything makes perfect sense to him. In fact if we believe the claims within scripture, we know he sees and knows all (is all wise), is infinitely good and loving and does everything accordingly; especially the things we don't understand. The way God is bringing things about is exactly the perfect way for them to be brought about. It is this reality we are ultimately called to believe/rest in.  

Some examples of truths in tension

·      You're totally and perfectly righteous before God in Christ. You are still totally broken and sinful, and increasingly more aware of both.
·      To live you must die, 
·      To find your life you must lose your life
·      To be exalted (lifted high) you must be humbled (go low). 
·      "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (true wealth [not necessarily material wealth] comes through poverty)
·      "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. (the greatest comfort often comes through the greatest sadness)
·      "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. (conquering comes through surrendering)
·      "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied (fullness comes through hunger)
·      God is the Sovereign Creator and Sustainer of all things yet he brings about the advancement of his kingdom only through his people/the church. 
·      God hates evil yet fully incorporates evil in bringing about his perfect plans. 
·      God is totally sovereign in salvation yet man is totally responsible for rejecting Gods offer of that salvation.
·      Jesus was and is fully God while also fully man  

·      God is one in essence but also three distinct persons.

It is in wrestling with these and many other truths in tension, we come closest to truly knowing God and his ways (though not necessarily fully). 

There is always mystery. If there was not, he would cease to be the infinite "bottomless" God and we would cease to look to him and trust him for greater understanding. We would simply depend on our reason alone.

And it is only in our looking to him (not to our logic alone) and resting in him that we find our greatest joy, contentment, rest and peace (lack of confusion). If we seek these through perfect clarity of all mysteries, we will never have it simply because we are finite and broken, living in a broken world. To use a biblical description, we now "see through a glass darkly..." That will not change this side of eternity. 

The fact that we are feeling tension in any given area, be it in our understanding of truth or our challenging circumstances (and not being able to understand them), is because there is an underlying reality yet to be discovered in or through the tension, and a place of trust we have not yet reached. 

It is this reality we must ask God to help us learn well. The tension requires we do so.

Pain, tension and spiritual advancement

It is in wrestling with the balance/tension between vital truths that we grow most.

CS Lewis alluded to this when he said truths (and lies) come in pairs and we must be careful to not back away in reaction to one error and fall off the cliff on the other side into another.

Our points of greatest pain, tension and/or confusion are often our greatest times of epiphany and spiritual advancement.

This doesn't mean we should necessarily seek pain found in tension but neither should we avoid it when we can't. Some tensions we cannot eliminate and should not. Rather we need to delve in and wrestle with them to discover the great truths God has for us within them. When it does come, embrace it and learn from it. It always has something to tell us about God and ourselves that is important, if we are listening.

Beauty is in the harmony of diversity and tension

The beauty of God is not physical but has to do with his nature; with harmony in diversity (a key aspect of the Trinity) and how God makes the seeming contradictions of his being work and harmonize together; how there is no conflict within God; everything fits perfectly together.

And the greater the contrast (tension) and variation of the parts, the more unique, amazing and beautiful it is when they work together in harmony.

This is true of God's being as well as his purposes and plans. 

Who among us doesn't say "how beautiful" when we see things we wouldn't normally think would work together, harmonizing? 

An example: the tension and the interplay of choice and the sovereignty of God.

Are we "free" to choose? 

God respects our choice so much he lets us make bad decisions so we will figure out how bad they are and not make them again but rather turn away from them and make good ones. 

That way, when we do, it is our choice and no one else's. And not only are they ours but we made them because we have come to love and trust God's direction and choose him by our "free" choice not because we were programmed to choose him. For true love to happen is must happen freely. 

However, this "figuring out" the right choice is something that only occurs by God's Spirit. Our ability to choose is only because God sustains us and gives us this ability. If not we would never see or figure this out i.e. God is sovereign in our choices. 

Because of our tendency towards control versus trust we avoid tension and try to relegate the mysteries of life into nice, neat, logical boxes and miss the full value of truths in Scripture that are in tension. 

The challenge is we like things (including and maybe particularly God) to fit in neat packages. This gives us a sense of control and doesn't require trust/faith. 

Tension, paradox and seeming contradiction always require trust. We don't like trust, we like control. This was the essence of the serpents appeal in the shall be like god (in total charge of your life by) knowing good and evil... i.e. God will no longer be necessary to help you figure out what is right or wrong, good or bad etc. That will be up to you now. You can make life work without him. 

How wrong we were and how right God was in his warning. We truly did die i.e. broke away from the source of love and life...God himself. 

So we tend to fall on one side or the other of truths in scripture held in tension. In so doing we miss the deeper truths and riches that lie within that tension.

The irony is the more we trust God, the more he reveals to us and gives us a fuller understanding into those mysteries, even if not a complete understanding. 
God is after growing our faith because he's after strengthening our relationship with him. All relationships require trust. This in large part is why I believe truths are in tension. Learning is found in the tension. Humility (a key aspect of faith) precedes learning. 

The fact that we are feeling tension in any given area, be it in our understanding of truth or our challenging experiences, is because there is an underlying reality yet to be discovered in or from the tension and an opportunity to increase our trust in and strengthen our relationship with God. 

It is this reality we must find and ask God to help us learn well. 

When we do, the tension (but not necessarily that which is causing the tension) will subside or go away, possibly altogether on occasion (or at least more frequently). The degree to which we trust God is the degree to which we will have peace in the midst of struggle/tension and also the degree to which God will give us a fuller understanding into those mysteries. A peace that "passes" (goes beyond or outside of) understanding i.e. logic. 

·        For a discussion on the necessity of choice for love to be real, click here
·        For some posts on the freedom of choice , click here
·        For a discussion of the Calvinist/Arminian debate, click here
·        For a discussion on the necessity of humility in seeing truth, click here

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Grace to you
Jim Deal