I have always struggled to understand God and faith and how they relate to everyday life. As a child, I remember sitting confused on a shrunken brown wooden chair, staring intently at the polished parquet floor my feet couldn't quite reach. My young, smiling Sunday school teacher never let on that she was fed up with my regular interruptions to her well-intentioned storytelling. “Who made God, miss? Is God bigger than the universe, miss? Why did God tell Abraham to kill his son? Will he tell me to hit my sister? If I do hit my sister, then isn’t God responsible, because he is in charge of the universe? Why?”
My Sunday school teacher always had an answer that, I see in hindsight, wasn't really an answer. "If we could understand God, then we would be God." Or, "God works in mysterious ways." Or, as a last resort, "Don’t be awkward—get on with your coloring.”
Years later, as a pastor, I sat in a hospital ward and once again stared at the floor, this time sanitised and off-white. I could not bring myself to look directly at the mother kneeling by the bedside, thick black lines of makeup smearing down her face. The one-year-old beside her had been babbling and bubbly just a few days earlier—gorgeously boyish. Now he was blind, crying incessantly, his body rigid. It was supposed to be a routine operation; now his screams expressed how we were all feeling. His piercing cries made audible the pain of the tragedy, the panic for the future, and the ever-present question, “Why?”
My Sunday school teacher’s advice wasn’t going to cut it here. One of my well-prepared sermons on trusting God in difficult situations would have made the situation worse. A glib answer, a slick one-liner, or a handy proof-text would have been next to useless. I sat in silent prayer, asking God for answers that were more than just words. In that moment I began a journey that would lead me to discover it is often in the mysteries of life that we learn most about the mysteries of God. The problem of suffering in the Bible is as messy as the problem of suffering in real life. But discovering the paradoxes of Scripture can be the most effective help when life itself is a paradox.
Up until that point in my ministry, I had thought I was helping my congregation grow by simplifying the Christian faith into neat principles and touching or amusing illustrations. I made the gospel digestible to an increasingly biblically illiterate church. I tried to hold the attention of an audience used to being on multiple screens at the same time. I wanted to give people something they could take home and immediately put into practice. Making Christianity simple, clear, accessible, and engaging was my aim.
But although my motivations were good, I was not, as I thought, building the necessary strong foundations to help them weather the storms in their lives. My best intentions were breeding the worst outcomes. My preaching was winning a hearing in the short-term, but it was actually damaging in the long-term. Sometimes in our desire to communicate, we alienate. Sometimes in our passion to simplify the gospel, we nullify its power. Sometimes in our dedication to give answers, we fail to understand the questions.
3 Negative Consequences of Simplifying Paradox
1. Unhelpful Dependency
As a preacher, it is very satisfying at the end of a service, to hear someone say that I helped them understand God better or helped them see something fresh in Scripture. It is rewarding to be appreciated as the guru, the expert, the font of all knowledge. (Also it keeps me in a job!)
But this can breed an unhelpful co-dependency. I need to be needed, and the congregation needs me in order to get their spiritual fix for the week. By being overprotective in this way, by spoon-feeding our church members, we actually infantilise them, leaving them more vulnerable to heresy and deception. If we preach in such a way as to keep congregations dependent on us, we have failed the task of preaching. Our aim must be to “present everyone mature in Christ.”
2. Lost Credibility
There is an irreducible complexity to the Christian faith. Neither Jesus nor Paul felt it necessary to make things simple. They were keen to make things as accessible as they could, but they didn’t try to explain away complexity. Jesus' parables were simple on one level, but also left people with some big questions rattling around in their heads. Jesus helped people wrestle with current events (Luke 13) and with challenging doctrines like divine sovereignty and human volition (Matt. 10:29), inter-Trinitarian relationships (John 17), persecution (John 15:20), the problem of suffering (John 9), injustice, and eschatology (Matt. 25).
When we attempt to make the gospel simpler than Scripture, first, we are showing very little respect for both Scripture and our audience. We do not have to apologise for the Bible, edit Scripture, or assume our congregation is more gullible now than they were in the first century. Second, we are making Christianity less believable to believers and unbelievers. An oversimplified gospel can sound more like a fairy tale or a cheap marketing slogan than the Word of God. It can fail to present any credible message to the complexities of real life.
3. Inadequate Resilience
The writer to the Hebrews was concerned that the Christians he was writing to weren’t going to hold on to the faith they had first professed. He felt that the church was lacking in maturity and resilience:
In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil (Heb. 5:12–14).
The apostle Paul had similar concerns about the Ephesian believers, who, for lack of discernment, could be like “infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” (Eph. 4:14).
Making our sermons simple and engaging must not be at the expense of helping believers become mature. The solution has to be better preaching and teaching that wrestles with the most difficult and meaty of topics.
In light of all this, how do we preach in a way that will help the congregation become independently dependent on God, to discover the credibility of the gospel in light of all of life, and to build their resilience?
3 Ways to Preach Paradox
1. Highlight the Paradox.
Part of adulthood is learning to cope with complexity. When we are children, there are clear goodies and baddies in our movies and books, but as we get older, we understand that life is not so black and white. This is not a compromise but a growing understanding of the beauty and brokenness of our world and its systems. I have discovered that I am most empowering when I preach in a way that doesn’t try to smooth over the complexities of Scripture or our world. In fact, facing up to those complexities, wrestling with them, and leaving some questions unanswered seems to help people in a deeper, more mature way.
In preparation, I have learned not to dread, but to look out for the most problematic aspect of the passage. For example, when I come across a healing miracle of Jesus, it is one thing to talk about God's power and love. It is another to raise the question of how we cope when we read this in the Bible and yet people around us are not healed. Or when I am preaching on a prophetic passage that predicts Jesus, then as well as focussing on God's sovereignty, I must raise the thorny issue of the place of our own will. Or if I preach 1 Corinthians 13, there is so much inspiration we can take about true love. But there is a disconnect between the ideal of love in this epistle and the abysmal failure to love in the practice of the Corinthian church. Rather than brushing the paradoxes under the carpet, bring them out into the open. Rake them up, and wake your congregation up!
2. Open up about your struggle with paradox.
Someone once said that politics is the art of swallowing frogs whilst smiling. Sometimes preaching feels the same. We put on a brave face and give the impression that our faith is unshakeable. We preach positive, uplifting sermons that demonstrate the truth of Christianity. We take our cues from the infomercial presenters on a TV shopping channel—the products they sell are always amazing, with no flaws or problems.
Neither Jesus nor Paul took this approach. They were both very open about their struggles and heartache. Jesus told his disciples how his soul was overwhelmed to the point of death. Paul openly grieved over the betrayal of fellow believers and the sufferings he had undergone for the gospel. He also talked about wrestling with the pain of unanswered prayer. Being honest about how we have struggled with the tensions of our faith and learned to live with them and trust God in them is powerful, both as a model and as a means of connecting with your brothers and sisters in the pews.
3. Give Paradox more time.
How can you adequately cover some of the complex issues that arise out of Scripture in a 20- or 30-minute sermon? I have found that when preaching is combined with congregational reading, the depth of engagement is greatly increased. Educationalists speak about flipped learning, where students are encouraged to do independent study before a lesson so in the lecture you engage with what people have already learned rather than teaching them for the first time.
Many churches use books in combination with a teaching outline to work through some of the major challenges facing Christians as they read the Bible. Ideally people read a chapter before the service, and then you can move more quickly in the sermon itself. Small groups can also use the material as the basis for their discussions. Alternatively questions can be raised on social media prior to the church service, or even in a brief discussion time at the start of the sermon.
Even if none of this is possible, it is liberating not to feel like all loose ends have to be tied up by the end of the service. In fact, a few loose ends might entice our congregation members to carry on talking about the sermon long after it has ended.
Feeding our congregations so they are hungry for more is, paradoxically, better for their faith than seeking to satisfy them with a feast of a sermon. Leaving them chewing over the gristle can build a gritty determination to faith that no amount of instant smoothie sermons can ever produce.
Krish Kandiah is a theologian, consultant, and activist. His latest book, Paradoxology: Why Christianity was never meant to be simple, will be published by InterVarsity Press USA in February, 2017 (www.ivpress.com).