A friend of mine reminded me the other day of his teenage son, who is doing nuclear physics in his school classroom, but then goes to church and is given a thin, dumbed-down version of Jesus and the faith. His intellectual grasp is very high, and he is being given nothing that challenges or compels. We need to be giving our young people at least the same level of intellectual challenge in their understanding of Christianity as they’re getting in the rest of their education. If we don’t do that for people, we send them out completely ill-prepared for life, and reap the pastoral fallout from that because we haven’t theologically formed people enough.
This can be, like I’ve tried to do in this book, an accessible process. You don’t have to use long and complicated words to expose people to the riches of biblical theology. We just need to have an attentive eye and ear to where the Bible’s message is sending us and not be afraid to look at those challenging parts.
That’s what this book is—I look at the parts of the Bible that I find most challenging personally. What do you do with a God who owns the universe, but still asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son? What kind of God would deliberately tease a couple who had been childless for decades by giving them the child they’d always dreamt of, then asking for him back? I want to look at those kinds of questions face-to-face, not just brush them under the carpet.
Those questions run through the whole Bible. Why would God call the people of Israel out of slavery to be with him, then set up the whole Levitical priestly system, seemingly to keep them as far away from his intimate presence as possible? But of course, those seemingly paradoxical things are a real key to understanding more about God, not less.
A lot of people are nervous about mystery in our theology because they feel it’s just giving up intellectually. But I think mystery is the beginning of our intellectual process. Saying that we’ll work harder to grapple with our tough questions even if we may not have tidy answers for everything, is good. Mystery is an invitation to deepen our thinking about God.
Does this work toward the “anti-fragile faith” you mention in the book?
Absolutely. The idea is that leaders often try and help Christians cope with the difficult parts of life by giving a few comforting verses or nice words, but we often don’t seem to realize that it’s in those difficult parts of life that the most growth happens. Faith gets stronger in the process of going through tough times. They mature and grow us—which is itself a paradox. We grow in the times that seem they should stunt our growth. I want to encourage Christian leaders to engage their people with the Bible’s paradoxes on suffering and grief ahead of time—before a crisis comes and faith is tested.
We need to have a realism about our ministry, a commitment to real equipping. Many times, as leaders we feel that we must put a positive spin on things—to find that encouraging angle. The Bible doesn’t seem to hold that value, though. Instead, it helps us understand and be enriched, to face up to those difficult times.
That deeply resonates, but we’ve also all seen church leaders who use “mystery” as an easy out to those same tough questions. How do we embrace paradox with people without it coming across as a dodge?
Well, when people are in a situation of trauma or at a crossroads of faith, the neat solution can be more damaging than embracing God’s paradox. If they’re not proving an “answer” of ours true in their experience, it’s like trying to build an actual house out of Lego bricks. It’s not up to the task. A lot of the simplistic proof texts that people hear are not an adequate portrayal of the Bible’s theology of a given topic. So it’s very easy to compound the problem, doing two disservices to people at such moments—we’re not being true to Scripture, and we’re not equipping people to cope with the situations of their life.
The Bible doesn’t apologize for its paradoxes. Read the Psalms, for example. These are beautiful, but often tragic poems and songs, inspired by God to help us live. Psalm 22, which Jesus quoted on the cross, is the Messiah crying out to God and wondering why he’s been abandoned. That’s a paradox in itself—crying out to one who has abandoned you. He’s giving voice to these paradoxical realities. That living in the tension, choosing to trust God independent of circumstances or resolution, is an example for us of paradoxical prayer.
The Bible leaves room for these kinds of responses. Take Habakkuk. The prophet cannot understand how God has allowed his country to get into the state it’s in. The Law has been mocked; evil is getting away with everything. He cries out to God, and God replies by saying that he’s going to do something that even Habakkuk won’t believe—use a pagan nation to punish Israel. But in this story and prayer, Habakkuk’s whole understanding of God is being reframed. And at the end of the book, Habakkuk doesn’t have resolution. He doesn’t understand why God is doing what he is. Disaster is coming on his nation but with a sense of conviction, he affirms his trust beyond his circumstances, promising to praise God even if the fig tree does not bear fruit. That is the tension that we need to be able to define and discover. Not easy solutions, not a cop-out, but real, raw faith that confronts the difficulty of our world and Scripture, and is still able to confess trust in God.
How do you do that as a leader? What are practical strategies for helping another Christian wrestle with these paradoxes in a healthy manner?
One key way is to increase their appetite for Scripture. It is not ideal to start doing this in the middle of a crisis. Help the congregation develop a true and deep and rich understanding of Scripture—all of it, not just our favorite selected passages—this will begin to happen.
Teaching the Bible systematically is a great way to avoid neglecting tough sections. You are forced to speak on subjects you don’t feel comfortable with. It’s great—but it must be paired with teaching in a way that is very humble, sometimes acknowledging that you don’t have all the answers and that it’s OK to wrestle with the text.
As well, modeling humility, openness and trust in God and his Word is vital. It’s healthy, and it commissions a congregation to bring that to their own faith. You develop a culture in your church that is confident, but also has room for the questions that might not neatly resolve. Show them that you trust the Bible—all the Bible—and leave room for asking questions. We just need to show people that they do not need to be afraid of their own hard questions.
Read part 2 of the interview »