After we have determined to live a Christian life, many things God asks us to do still appear very tough – and actually are! At first glance some challenges God sets before us can look dangerous or just plain daft! The “big” word for these seemingly absurd or self-contradictory challenges is “paradoxes”. Imagine we met someone who said, “My name is James Brown. Please be aware that I always tell lies.” Would we believe him? Is Brown really his name? Is his warning truthful, or is he telling yet another bare-faced lie? We would have to think carefully about his words, and consider the context of the conversation. What can we discover about the speaker? Only with all the facts can we conclude what he has meant by his words. According to the dictionary, a paradox is “a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement that is, or may be, true.” Jesus, and some of his disciples, used paradoxes to teach principles of Christian discipleship. Below are seven to think about. From our knowledge of the biblical speakers and writers, and the context in which their words were given, we must determine their meaning for us. If we are to follow our Lord’s words in our own lives, we must know what He means! Unlike Mr. Brown above, we know that God never lies! Losing Life Makes Life Secure Jesus said to His disciples, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Mt. 16:25 NIV). Generally, when we lose something it’s gone forever – a favorite pen, a door key, a phone number. In Matthew 16:25 Jesus tells His followers that to lose life is to find it, save it, preserve it, keep it for eternity. We must decide daily whether we are going to live only for this life, or use it better by investing in the life still to come? The right choice could be tough, as discipleship may destroy some of our worldly hopes.
Living for God is dying to this world – “the supreme paradox of discipleship,” according to Robert Mounce in his New International Bible Commentary. Self-seeking leads to self-defeat! Self-denial leads to self-fulfillment. When called to sacrifice, remember that in letting go of this world’s temporary blessings we discover things that count forever.
I think Paul had this in mind when he described himself. Near the end of a list of the paradoxes he found in his own ministry he wrote, “dying, and yet we live on” (2 Cor. 6:9). Worldly Christians chase after the things of this world to the detriment of their Christian walk. Gaining many things this world offers, they end up with nothing that’s really important! True Christian disciples are re-oriented, and daily choose the way of the cross. Their reward – the crown of Christian hope – is secure, though in many respects it is still future.
Serving Is Better Than Bossing
Jesus said to his closest disciples, “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all” (Mk. 10:43-44). Some people talk about career ladders and working their way to the top. Sideways moves are taboo. In their minds progress is only upward. Jesus said that in God’s view the person who serves others is the greatest! Greatness is not measured by how many people serve you, but by how you meaningfully serve others. James and John wanted the rank and prestige of appearing beside Jesus in glory. The others disputed their own rights. Jesus said they all had the wrong perspective.
Jesus also said, “Many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Mk. 10:31) – exactly opposite of the Olympic games! Those whom the world now sees as great will ultimately be unimportant. Others who are insignificant now will be upgraded. God checks our motives as we submit to His will. “Humble yourselves … under God’s mighty hand, that He may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you” (1 Pet. 5:6-7).
Peace In Time Of Trouble
Jesus said, “I have told you these things, so that in Me you might have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33). Jesus warned His followers that their future would not be easy. Together they would face rejection, persecution and death. Jesus did not pray, “Save Me from this hour” (Jn. 12:27). He did not react to upcoming trouble by running away. Troubled circumstances need not mean hearts in turmoil! (Jn. 14:1,27). The answer to trouble in our lives is to trust God.
I was once in the front seat of a small plane flying from London to Newquay, near Cornwall, England. I watched the pilot setting coordinates every few minutes on a cockpit dial. He changed these numbers often during the 300 mile flight. After landing safely, I asked him what he had been doing. He told me that the plane basically flew automatically. Whatever the conditions, it would keep adjusting itself to fly towards the next ground beacon, the next coordinates he had set. What a great picture! As Christians we need to keep on locking onto God Himself. He is our only guaranteed constant through life’s changes.
Our Lord gives us peace – shalom, wholeness, well-being. When we lock our trust onto Him by faith, He uses the same conduit to return a limitless peace back to us. It’s a surprising peace when facing danger, an unusual peace when up against the unknown, a calming peace when we ought to panic. Full confidence in the Creator God leaves no room for worrying (Mt. 6:25-34).
This contradiction of the world’s ways by Christian disciples is an outworking of paradox in daily life. It may seem absurd, and may be at variance with reason. But it is consistent with the Christian’s childlike trust in Father God. God is in heaven, but He’s very much aware of, and in control of, all events on earth.
Giving Is Better Than Getting
“It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). These words of Jesus are recorded in Acts, but not in any of the gospels. Paul was summing up his own ministry among the Ephesians. By his own hard work Paul provided for his own needs and those of his team. He was not guilty of covetousness. His personal hard work was a visual aid to show those watching that Christianity helped the weak without exploiting them. A similar theme is in 2 Corinthians 6:3-10. It ends with, “poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, yet possessing everything.” This paradox concludes a list of items Paul shared to make sure his ministry was not discrediting Jesus.
Today’s world pushes it’s message: “More is better. Buy more.” Jesus’ words counter the world’s way with a much better attitude: We must be ready to give away what we have, so that others will have enough. We are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Mt. 22:37-40).
Other sayings of Jesus recorded in the gospels embellish this paradox: “Freely you have received, freely give” (Mt. 10:8); “Give, and it will be given you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Lk. 6:38); “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Lk. 12:33-34; Mt. 6:19-21).
Christians should concentrate on life beyond the grave, because the future matters more than the present. We should not bother excessively about what we will leave behind at death. Jesus is our great example: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Giving makes you wealthy! Become eternally rich by giving while you can.
Beauty Is More Than Appearance
“Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” (1 Pet. 3:3-4).
Our world is obsessed with appearance! Millions are spent advertising beauty products for women and men. Christianity does not belittle human beauty! God pronounced all of His creation “very good” (Gen. 1:31). But Christianity does challenge the idea that beauty products can ever produce genuine beauty. Real beauty is a lot deeper than skin deep. Real beauty is within the personality.
Peter tells Christians how to be beautiful in God’s sight. The characteristics of Christlike conduct are God’s preferred model in us. Beauty flows from the heart. Meekness, gentleness, unselfishness, holiness in attitudes and actions of life are what make us beautiful to God (1 Pet. 3:4-5).
And such beauty becomes even more attractive with age. Our bodies may wrinkle and deteriorate, but experience develops our character. Deep roots strengthen qualities that come to the surface of a godly life. It is like the difference between Christmas tree decorations and the real fruit on trees. Tinsel and lights are tied on from the outside. Apples, pears, oranges etc. are produced almost effortlessly by goodness flowing from within the tree.
Why preserve what is returning to dust? (Gen. 3:19). Let God give us our resurrection bodies in His own time (1 Cor. 15:38,42-44). We make a big mistake if we care more about our physical bodies than our spiritual lives.
Rejoice During Severe Tests
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (Jas. 1:2-4). The New Testament word for “trial” means to make an experiment to prove the result. This is clear in James 1:12: “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him.”
A boat may look stylish gently bobbing on the tide in the harbor, but it is only proved seaworthy far from shore in all kinds of sea conditions. It is easy to talk a good sail from the pub stool, but much more difficult to be part of the lifeboat crew, ready at any time to rescue those in distress at sea. Like that crew we also need to be ready for whatever trials come our way.
Enduring trials is a requirement for spiritual growth. It will make us mature and complete. Real faith is worked out in the knocks and bruises of daily life. God brings difficulties into our lives to help us learn to trust in Him and realize more of His ability. Our pains encourage us to look heavenward and not be so tied to this world. Above all, we know that our testing is always under the care and supervision of our Father in heaven. When Joseph looked back on everything he had been through, he was able to say to those who caused his troubled life, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20).
Praise God When Suffering For Jesus
“If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you … If you suffer as a Christian do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name” (1 Pet. 4:14,16). While similar to the previous paradox, the key difference is Peter’s focus on our witness being the cause of our suffering. The focus on future blessing in heaven is not withdrawn, but there is a noteworthy emphasis on present blessing. When we are hassled for being Christians, we are at the same time being blessed by God!
Christians should stand out from those who are not yet saved. In this sense our lives are to be paradoxes for those who watch: “Why does he react like that? How come she doesn’t blow up like I would? What keeps him going through all this?” Christian discipleship contradicts worldly logic. Our suffering for following Jesus seems absurd to people who don’t really know Him. Our values and our vision make us different from those aimlessly living in a world devoid of real purpose. Without saying anything, we speak volumes for Jesus!
The role of the Christian can appear ambiguous. We are to be model citizens (1 Pet. 2:12), and at the same time we are to live a revolutionary lifestyle: “These who have turned the world upside down have come here too” (Acts 17:6 NKJV). It may appear that Christians are inverting the traditional world view. The world may resist this challenge by persecution and discrimination.
But no matter! “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good” (1 Pet. 4:19). Whatever is happening, whatever we do, do it all for the glory of God (4:11). This is how God is praised every day.
We know that God will see us through our suffering, and He will choose when and how it will end. We will become more like Jesus the more we let him purify and refine us through this fire. Therefore, we praise God.
By Colin Salter
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org