Surprised By Paradox

Jen Pollock Michel invites readers to puzzle over the paradoxes of Christianity and to wonder at its mysteries.

Originally published at The Gospel Coalition: Canada

The longer I remain a Christian, the more assurance I find in the mysteries of the faith. When I consider the seeming contradictions within the Incarnation, the Kingdom, Grace, and Lament, they’re almost conspiratorial. They whisper about a reality broader and brighter than either/or; the paradoxes hold out the promise of both/and.

In her new book, Surprised by Paradox, Jen Pollock Michel invites readers to puzzle over the paradoxes of Christianity, and wonder at the mysteries:

  • The saviour who is God and man.
  • The kingdom that is here and is coming.
  • The gift of grace and the work that follows it.
  • Hope in the one who restores and lament for the world that groans for restoration.

With permission to wonder, Michel proposes a journey through the “four-act surprise” of the gospel, declaring it “a mystery, not just in its parts but in its whole” (17). If wondering can sometimes frustrate our human attempts to quantify, reduce, and master, Michel does admirable work in showing how believers can move from wonder at, to the worship of, the irreducible God.

The problem of Paradox

Praise for paradox isn’t exactly common, and for good reason. When faced with extremes, it’s natural to moderate—to compromise. Paradoxes complicate things because they don’t resolve tension, they maintain them. Michel contends that “as soon as we think we have God figured out, we will have ceased to worship him as he is.” Which is precisely why “paradox has promise for forming humility in us all.” (12)

But this doesn’t mean we cannot experience God and know his ways; Scripture makes it clear he reveals himself and makes himself known. However, reckoning with God’s paradoxes strikes at the root of pride that made rebels of humanity in the garden. It’s not for nothing that, although we can learn much from the apostles’ proclamations of God’s mysteries, Paul confesses the mysteries to be mysteries (1 Tim 3:16).

The Promise of Paradox

Surprised by Paradox offers a vocabulary for pilgrims who find themselves in “the middle act,” of the gospel story. We’re pointed towards a promised home, a light visible through the gloom, yet far-off. The good news is Jesus doesn’t just beckon us forward, he calls believers to follow him—and to trust him along the way.

What Christians need today is not necessarily more moral courage or certitude. More important is the confidence to rest, however uncomfortably, in the tension of God’s glory and his grace.

In an earlier essay exploring faith in the secular age, Michel again turns to paradox, and asks: “How can we give ourselves fully to earth and heaven at the same time?” How can we love God and our Neighbours—all of them—completely? The question, which defies tidy logic in practice, ought to lead first to worship:

The Lord’s Prayer teaches us to pray for God’s kingdom to come; it also teaches us to pray for daily bread. For all the tension pent up in those seemingly disparate petitions, perhaps Bonhoeffer resolves it best in a letter to his friend, Eberhard Bethge: “God, the Eternal, wants to be loved with our whole heart, not to the detriment of earthly love or to diminish it, but as a sort of cantus firmus”—the fixed melody line in a polyphonic composition. In other words, we say yes to God’s earth—but never to the detriment of alleluia.[1]

Mystery & Trust

Michel takes “the tangles of Christian faith” and weaves a convincing apologetic for a faith that is honest, hopeful, and humble. She does this without compromising the irreducibility of reality or undermining confidence in the God who makes himself known. This is a picture of “faith in its lived-in condition,” valuable for believers who tend towards either overconfidence or despair, and every messy point in between.

Unsurprisingly, I finished the book less certain than when I began. As someone prone to wonder at both black holes and blackheads, I had my suspicions confirmed: Not only is life beautiful and broken, it’s often beyond me. There are answers, but no easy ones. Believers hope, and struggle, and are often left mourning failure.

Still, I finished Surprised by Paradox deeply encouraged, confident even. Not that all my questions would be answered or all my anxieties soothed, but sure that worshiping and wondering at the God who holds every paradox would bring me safely through.

“When we’re surprised by paradox, we might keep still just long enough to know that he is God.”

[1] Hansen, Collin. Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor (pp. 122-124). The Gospel Coalition. Kindle Edition.

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