Faith, Joy, Truth

Christian Paradoxes Challenge Us to “Think Out of This World”

Most of us would have been advised to “think out of the box” when we encountered difficult problems with no straight forward solutions. Jesus said: “I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world.” (John 17:14) This leads me to believe that the only way to accept the word of God and have the full measure of His joy within us (John 17:13) is to “think out of this world”. What do I mean by “think out of this world”? How can a person “think out of this world”?

There are many paradoxes in the bible which requires the reader to “think out of this world” in order to accept and be enlightened by them. For example, the Beatitudes (i.e. a set of teachings by Jesus that appear in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke) are filled with paradoxes. In Matthew 5:5 Jesus taught the crowd: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” To many, “meekness” suggests the idea of passivity, someone who is easily imposed upon, spineless and weak. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the Greek New Testament, “meek” is from the Greek term “praus”. It does not suggest weakness; rather, it denotes strength brought under control. The ancient Greeks employed the term to describe a wild horse tamed to the bridle. In the biblical sense, therefore, it describes one who has channelled his strengths into the service of God (see Numb 12:3 and Zeph 2:3). The former passage describes Moses as the meekest man on earth — certainly no weakling; the latter verse declares that the meek of the earth are those who have kept Yahweh’s ordinances. The meek person submits to God!

As to the expression “inherit the earth,” the following facts should be noted. God is the owner of this earth (Psal 24:1). Those who obey Christ become children of God (Gal 3:27; Heb 5:9), and “joint-heirs” with the Lord (Rom 8:17). The Father supplies all our needs (Phil 4:19), we therefore enjoy this earth and its blessings more than all others. However, our inheritance is spiritual (Acts 20:32); we are heirs in the kingdom of Christ (Eph 5:5), and citizenship in that kingdom is available now on this earth (cf. John 3:3-5; Col 1:13). Finally, we also look for an inheritance that is reserved for us in heaven (1 Peter 1:4), because we are aware that the earth will be destroyed when Christ returns (2 Peter 3:10).

As you can see from the above example, the word of God cannot be understood with human ingenuity alone, it has to be interpreted by those who are inspired by the Holy Spirit, especially by true believers in Christ.

Let us examine another paradox by St. Paul: “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5) The Greek word for suffering, basically, is translated as “tribulation, something that causes distress.” It can range from minor annoyances that we go through every day, to major disasters that come sweeping down out of the blue and leave us stricken and smitten.

St. Paul’s call to rejoice in suffering is found everywhere in Scripture (see James 1:2; Peter 4:12; Matt 5:11-12). Let us take a closer look at what this really means and what it does not mean: First, it is clear from Scripture that rejoicing in suffering is not simply stoicism. Sometimes people who are not Christians will put us to shame by the sufferings that they can take without complaining. Secondly, rejoicing in suffering does not mean that all Christians are masochists, who aren’t happy unless they’re miserable. That is a twisted, distorted view of life. That is not what Paul is saying. Nor is he saying that we merely are to pretend that we are happy. Some think this passage is saying that when we are out in public, we should put on an artificial smile and act happy, when inside our heart is hurting like crazy. That is not it, Christianity is never phony. Neither the apostles nor the Scriptures ever ask us to be unreal and phony. This Scripture clearly tells us to have a genuine sense of rejoicing.

So how do we reach a stage where we can rejoice in suffering? St. Paul says, “Knowing that suffering produces…” Suffering does something, accomplishes something. It is productive. It is of value. We know it works, and that is what makes us rejoice. Jesus says: “A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.” (John 16:21)

So what does suffering produces that make us rejoice? The apostle says there are four things that suffering produces: First, suffering produces perseverance. In some versions the word may be patience. The Greek word literally means “to abide under, to stay under the pressure.” Pressure is something we want to get out from under, but suffering teaches us to stay under, to stick in there and hang with it. Suffering teaches us to trust in God and to wait patiently for Him to show his mercy. It helps us build confidence in the Lord who always saves us in times of distress (see Sir 2:6-11). What St. Paul is saying is that suffering produces steadiness or confidence in the Lord.

Secondly, not only does suffering produce steadiness, but steadiness, Paul says, produces character. The Greek word for character carries with it the idea of being put to the test and approved. It is the idea of being shown to be reliable. Steadiness produces reliability. You finally learn that you are not going to be destroyed, that things will work out. People will start counting on you when you demonstrate steadiness in times of adversity. They will see strength in you, and you become a more reliable person. St. Paul, the true veteran of suffering, spoke about this “never say die” character in 2 Cor 1:8-10 which is truly inspiring.

Thirdly, we find that reliability produces hope. It is the hope that we will share the glory of God, which is God’s character, right now. We have the hope that God is producing the image of Christ in us right now. That’s a great thing! And this hope is a certainty, not just a possibility. We are being changed. We see ourselves changing. We are becoming more like Jesus. We can see that we are more thoughtful, more compassionate, more loving. We are being mellowed. We are becoming like Christ — stronger, wiser, purer, and more patient. To our amazement, a certainty grows in our hearts that God is doing his work just as he promised. He is transforming us into the image of his Son.

That brings us to the fourth step that Paul mentions here, and that is that hope does not disappoint us or make us ashamed. That is a figure of speech called litotes, which is the use of a negative to express a positive idea. Paul does this in Romans 1:16 when he says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ because it is the power of God…” What does he mean? He means he is proud; he is confident and bold. Hence, hope or certainty produces confidence and boldness.

Paul goes on to explain why our hope does not disappoint us. He says it is “because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” The argument here is extremely important. It will explain to us how to rejoice in suffering. There are Christians who are suffering, but are not being made steady and reliable and confident. Instead, they are being made bitter and resentful and angry, even to the point of denying their faith. Suffering does not produce these qualities automatically. You can go through suffering as a Christian and be filled with anger and rage and resentment against God. What makes the difference?

As Paul explains in Romans 5:6-10, the difference is in seeing your suffering as evidence of God’s love, and not his wrath. Then you will experience that love in the midst of the suffering. The Holy Spirit will inspire in your heart an experience of the love of God so rich and radiant and glorious that you will not be able to help but rejoice in your suffering. But, if you see your suffering as evidence of God’s wrath, you will be rendered frustrated and angry and resentful and miserable. That is why Paul brings in this description of God’s love for us.

Paul is arguing from the greater to the lesser. If God could love us when it was so evident that we did not deserve it, how much more must we reckon his love now that we know that we are dear to him and loved by him? Therefore, this suffering is not coming into our life because God is angry with us; it is coming because God loves us. It comes from the heart of a Father who is putting us through some development that we desperately need to grow into the kind of person He wants us to be. And He loves us enough that He will not let us off, but will take us through it. Therefore it is not His anger we are experiencing, but His love.

As you can see, it is not easy to understand Christian paradoxes. St. James urges us to keep asking God in faith for wisdom if we are unable to see the good and the purpose in the trials that come our way (James 1:5). We can learn from the Prayer of St. Francis how Christian paradoxes can change our perceptions of life: “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love. For it is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.”

May the song “Thank You Lord for the Trials” enlighten us: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGewnbWryFo

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