Christianity as a Paradoxical Faith

Scripture text: Philippians 2:12-13

In the history of Christian theology, one of the most heated debates has concerned our salvation. Is it achieved by God’s initiative alone (grace) or do human beings have a contribution to make (good works)? The Protestant Reformation (of which I am an heir) took its stand on the position that we are saved by God’s grace alone, which we appropriate by our trust in God’s love for us.

But I have always felt Philippians 2:12-13 stands to challenge this assertion. Here is what the apostle Paul wrote:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Revised Standard Version)

The apostle counsels his friends in Philippi to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling. It would seem that Paul does not believe that salvation by God’s grace means a free ride for believers. They have a role to play in their salvation. They must exert themselves through their spiritual disciplines and moral endeavor. And they must do so with utmost seriousness. This is the rationale for all the behavioral admonitions we find in his letters.

Yet Paul goes on to say that it is God who is at work in them, both to desire God’s good will and to perform it. The motivation and the power for living a holy life come entirely from God. This is the rationale for the periodic doxologies we find in his letters, like the ones that end chapter 8 in Romans and chapter 11 in that same letter.

When I read Philippians 2:12-13, I feel as if I am reading a logically contradictory statement. If we are to work with fear and trembling, are we not denying that God is the one at work in us? And if we assert that God gives us the desire and the power to do God’s will, are we not denying that we have a role in our salvation?

I want to say: Which is it? It can’t logically be both. Yet Paul assets both as true. And so we are left with a paradox.

In a paradox, we set two statements side by side. The two statements seem to contradict each other, yet we assert both are equally true. We damn logic in service to the truth. For we recognize a truth that does not fit within the constraints of logic.

If one wants a simpler way to summarize Paul’s teaching in these verses, I would do it this way: In your Christian life, work as if everything depends upon you, and pray as if everything depends upon God.

Many of the fundamental convictions of orthodox Christianity prove to be paradoxical. For example, we affirm our belief that God is one and that God is three. The two beliefs seem to cancel each other out. Yet in our doctrine of the Trinity, we assert both are true.

In our Christology, we assert that Jesus Christ is fully divine and yet also fully human. Another paradoxical statement of what we believe the truth is. And in our views on the Bible, we affirm that the Bible is fully the work of human authors and editors, and yet it is inspired by God’s Spirit so we can regard it as God’s written word. And in the Eucharist, when we consume the bread, we are eating bread made from grains of wheat, yet we also believe we are partaking of the body of Christ.

This is what makes Christianity at times such an exasperating faith. Christians seem to delight in paradoxes. In response, many believers and non-believers alike cry: Keep it simple, stupid.

Many times heresies deliver on that demand. They take paradoxical truths and try to reduce them to simplicity by affirming one side of the paradox and denying the other. But in orthodox Christianity, the gospel does not deliver on that demand, for we believe that the truth is much more dense, meaty, and substantial than we would like it to be.

I am not saying we should go around glorying in the fact that our Christian faith affirms what the rest of the world considers irrationality. Instead our attitude should be one of epistemological humility. In affirming our paradoxes, we accept that the full truth cannot be grasped by logic and reason alone. We stand in the presence of mysteries that will not become clear and transparent to us until God’s kingdom comes in its fullness.

When Was Jonah Saved?

Scripture text: Jonah, Chapter 2

I love the book of Jonah. But not for the reasons many others do. They may love it for its story of a petulant prophet who runs away from God, as we often do. Or they may get all caught up in the sensational miracle of Jonah surviving three days and nights in the belly of a big fish.

I love it for a different reason. It is one of the most powerful statements in Scripture of God’s love for all humanity, including our own enemies. Those enemies can include yesterday’s militaristic Assyrians or today’s Islamic terrorists. When Jesus counsels us in the Sermon on the Mount to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, I have a sense he had absorbed the message of Jonah deep into his soul.

Still there are tricky interpretative traps in reading Jonah. One is what do we do with Chapter 2. This chapter recounts a psalm of thanksgiving that Jonah prays within the belly of the big fish. (We should note the text never calls the creature a whale. It is a big fish.)

In the psalm, Jonah thanks God for saving his life. When the sailors threw Jonah into the sea, Jonah should have died by drowning. He describes this fate in vivid imagery:

            The waters closed in over me,

                        the deep was round about me,

            weeds were wrapped about my head

                        at the roots of the mountains.

            I went down to the land

                        whose bars closed upon me forever [meaning Sheol, the land of the dead].

            Yet thou didst, bring up my life from the Pit,

                        O Lord my God. (Revised Standard Version)

Many who read this psalm are troubled by its placement in the story. Jonah thanks God for saving him. But he is praying this psalm while still in the belly of the fish. He has not yet been vomited up onto dry land.

Some say then that Jonah is praying a song of thanksgiving in anticipation of his future rescue [in Biblical language, his salvation]. Others think the author has clumsily plopped a random song of thanksgiving into the story at an inappropriate place.

Such interpretations, however, assume that Jonah is rescued (or saved) when he is vomited upon the beach. But what if the moment of salvation is when the fish swallows Jonah, not when the fish vomits him forth three days later? Jonah is saved (not in an eternal sense, but in a this-world sense) the moment the fish swallows him.

If we understand that as the moment of rescue, then the psalm makes full sense in its placement in the story. For once the fish has swallowed Jonah, he is safe, even though he is yet to be set free upon dry land. He knows he has been saved, and so he thanks the Lord for his mercy.

This also means that the big fish is a savior figure in the story. He is the means of Jonah’s rescue.

Now this opens up a peculiar way Christians can read the story of Jonah. Following the hallowed Christian tradition of reading the Old Testament as the type for the antitype of the New Testament, the fish in Jonah can be seen as a type of Christ the Savior.

Reading the text in this way, I can’t help being fascinated that an early Christian symbol is the fish. The initials of the phrase “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior” in Greek spells the Greek word for fish. And so the fish was a code symbol early Christians used to identify each other.

Also striking is the fact that we find images of the fish vomiting up Jonah painted on the walls of the Christian catacombs in Rome. There it served as a symbol of resurrection.

The apostle Paul talks about the Christian dead being in Christ and with Christ awaiting the day of resurrection. With that Pauline understanding in mind, one begins to understand why the image of the fish vomiting up Jonah should be a common image in a Christian cemetery. The fish, the savior figure, is projecting the believer into eternal life, after a time of resting in the belly of the fish.

Now I am not at all suggesting the author of Jonah was writing cryptic Christian theology. He was not. But it is easy to understand, however, how Christians can see in the Old Testament resonances with the gospel where others would not. 

Watching a Biblical Insight Emerge

Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?

            Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?

If I ascend to heaven, thou are there!

            If I make my bed in Sheol, thou are there!

If I take the wings of the morning

            and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

even there thy hand shall lead me,

            and thy right hand shall hold me. Psalm 139:7-10 (RSV)

When Christians read the Hebrew Psalms, many will claim that Psalm 139 is one of their favorites. The psalmist says there is no place we can go in life where God’s Spirit is not present with us. Given the many vicissitudes of life, this is a profoundly consoling message.

Few who read this psalm, I suspect, have any idea that they are also watching a world-changing insight emerging in these words.

It comes as a stark surprise for many Christians when they first learn that the ancient Israelites of these Old Testament eras had no belief in a heaven or a hell as the our destinations after death. Christians just assume that the ancient Israelites believed just as we do. They did not.

The prevailing belief among Old Testament Israelites was that when people died, all of them (whether righteous or evil) descended to a land under the earth, a land of the dead. It was a gray and shadowy land where people experienced a gray and shadowy existence. One could hardly call it an afterlife, for it was devoid of all that makes life alive for us. The dead existed in a state we might compare to zombies.

This land was called Sheol, or the Pit. And we find references to it throughout the Old Testament, but most especially in the psalms.

What was most distressing about Sheol was that God was not there. It was a godless world. And so in Sheol no one praised God or enjoyed the comforts of being in God’s presence. (For an example, see Psalm 6:5.) In Sheol, the relationship the righteous had established with God in this life was shattered. It was gone.

This accounts for the desperation we often find in the psalms when the psalmist pleads with God not to let him be swallowed into Sheol or to let the Pit close its mouth over him. (For an example, see Psalm 69:15.)

A belief in an afterlife and in a resurrection of the dead did not make its appearance in Judaism until late into the post-exilic period. And the Christian belief in a heaven and hell is largely a Christian development.

We see an insight, however, that death does not lead to a godless existence emerging in Psalm 139. When the psalmist says, “If I make my bed in Sheol, thou are there!”, he is saying something revolutionary for the Old Testament world. In that world, Sheol was godless. The psalmist, however, senses that maybe Sheol is not godless after all. God’s Spirit is present there as well as in heaven.

This is not a full-blown declaration of a belief in an afterlife, in a heaven and hell. But it is a suggestion that there is a mystery about what happens after death that the old settled dogma of Israelite religion cannot conceive. The ground is shifting. What is emerging in this small seed of an insight will ultimately blossom into the fully developed ideas of the afterlife that we find in rabbinic Judaism and Christianity.

What I find striking about all this is how it speaks to our modern world. The ancient Israelite mind is not that far away from the mind of many modern secularists. They believe that when we die, we just cease to be. There is nothing to expect after death.

Well, in a sense, so did those ancient Israelites. A relationship with God was important, therefore, not as fire insurance, ensuring that we go to heaven when we die. It was important for the way in which that relationship served as the core of life in this world. To be truly alive here and now was to be in close relationship with God here and now. When a belief in an afterlife emerges, it comes as the icing on the cake, not the cake itself.

And I would contend that that is still the case in a biblical faith, despite Christianity’s exuberant development of ideas about heaven and hell. The point of evangelism is not to get people saved so they will go to heaven when they die. It is to invite people into a relationship with Jesus Christ that will transform life here and now.

In John 17:3, Jesus defines eternal life as knowing the only true God and Jesus Christ whom God has sent. Eternal life is defined as a form of knowing, i.e., relationship, not by how long life continues after death.

Christians are too inclined in their descriptions of the afterlife to get too graphic. We seem to know too exactly, as Reinhold Niebuhr once quipped, the furniture of heaven and the temperature of hell.

That is why I read a book like Heaven is for Real with great skepticism. I am not sure we are ever given the kind of details about heaven and hell that such a book claims to give. More importantly, it distracts our attention from the real issue, which is our transforming relationship with God who comes to us in Jesus Christ. The focus of that relationship is first and foremost a changed life here and now, not the here after.

Interestingly, the apostle Paul never goes into the detailed description of heaven and hell that the Book of Revelation does. Instead he says simply, when we die, we are with Christ. What does being with Christ look like? Paul never says, nor should we. That is the big surprise that awaits each of us at the moment of our death. And I am willing to let it remain a surprise.


Living by Faith is Living Life Riskily

Scripture text: Isaiah 7:14-16

Among Christians this passage in Isaiah is one of the most beloved in the Old Testament. We have heard it read at Christmas celebration after Christmas celebration. Following the gospel of Matthew, we read it as a prediction of the virgin birth of Jesus. If we read it without those Christmas trappings, however, it speaks a much more jarring message.

In its original context, the passage is set during the reign of the Judean king Ahaz. Judah is under severe threat from its two northern neighbors, Israel and Aram. They have invaded Judah or are about to do so. When they capture Jerusalem, the two kings of Israel and Aram plan to overthrow the dynasty of David and set up a puppet king in its place.

The threat seems desperate enough that Ahaz is contemplating inviting the king of Assyria to come to Judah’s rescue. (Ahaz ultimately does just that, with disastrous results for not only Israel and Aram, but also Judah.) At this moment of crisis Isaiah visits Ahaz and delivers a word from God. Don’t take any such action, God tells Ahaz. Instead have faith in God, and you, Ahaz, will be firmly established.

As a confirmation of this word, God gives Ahaz a sign. A young woman shall bear a son and name him Immanuel (which in Hebrew means God with us). Before the child has emerged out of toddlerhood, the two kingdoms of Israel and Aram will be gone.

This sign is meant to confirm the promise of God and to strengthen Ahaz’s trust. But notice how the sign works. It places the guarantee of God’s promise into the future. That’s not how we usually expect a sign to work. We expect a sign to provide a solid, unchallengeable reason in the present to trust the divine promise.

The sign God gives calls upon Ahaz to trust in God’s promise without a present guarantee. This means that Ahaz must trust without any guarantee other than Ahaz’s trust in the reliability of God. (The ultimate guarantee is God’s own character.)

This means also that if Ahaz decides to trust in God’s promise, he must step out and accept a risk, a high risk. The life of faith becomes a way of living riskily.

This is quite the opposite to the way we often hear the life of faith presented in our churches. The more common way is to present the life of faith as a way of life that leads to security and stability. We enter into God’s shalom by trusting in God. Yet such an approach tends to obscure the reality that the life of faith always involves some acceptance of risk.

When we walk with God by trust, we can never know in advance where it will lead us. It may lead to a resolution of our problems, to emotional stability, and even to prosperity. But it does not always do so. It can lead us as well into situations of danger, persecution, high anxiety, and even deprivation.

Yes, the life of faith is backed up by God’s promise that he is leading us into his kingdom of peace and wholeness in the end. But getting there can involve accepting real risk. And I think we need to accept that as a fact of the life of faith.

Is it possible that learning to live life riskily is also part of the way Christ fulfills his promise that he has come to give us life, full life? A rock climber seldom feels more alive than when he or she is climbing a steep mountain cliff. The climber must be fully alert and conscious of each movement he or she makes. Is not the thrill of skydiving not tied up with the realness of the risk involved?

In a comparable way, is the life of faith never more fully alive and vivid than when we are called to step out into a situation with some risk in following