Why is the Christian life full of paradox?

Why does our experience of Christian life often seem so contradictory, so paradoxical? Why do we so often seem to move from experiences of triumph and wonder to experiences of doubt and failure? (I have a sense that this is a universal question, and not just a function of my getting older and more grumpy…!) An answer can be found in a curious textual detail in the Book of Revelation.

The structure of the first half of Revelation goes as follows:

a. Opening ‘epistolary’ introduction and vision of Jesus (ch 1)

b. Messages from Jesus to the assemblies in the seven cities (chs 2–3)

c. Worship of God and of the lamb (chs 4–5)

d. Opening of six of the seven seals of the lamb’s scroll (ch 6)

e. First interlude: vision of the Jewish-Gentile people of God (ch 7)

f. Opening of the seventh seal; blowing of six of the seven trumpets (chs 8–9)

g. Second interlude: the commission to prophesy and testify (chs 10–11.13)

In the second interlude to the series of seven judgements, in Rev 10, John is handed a scroll which he is to eat.

Then the voice that I had heard from heaven spoke to me once more: “Go, take the scroll that lies open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.” So I went to the angel and asked him to give me the little scroll. He said to me, “Take it and eat it. It will turn your stomach sour, but ‘in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey.’”  I took the little scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it. It tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour. (Rev 10.8–10)

There is much debate about how this ‘little scroll’ relates to the scroll in the right hand of the one seated on the throne in Rev 5. I am not persuaded by those who think it is the same one, since John uses a different word for it (biblaridion instead of biblion) and introduces it without a definite article (‘a little scroll’) whereas he consistently refers back to things that have already been mentioned with a definite article (e.g. ‘the scroll’).

But the two are closely related, not least in the way they are presented. The mighty angel ‘was holding a little scroll, which lay open in his hand’ (Rev 10.2) and we first meet the scroll of chapter 5 not ‘in the hand’ but ‘upon [epi] the hand’ of the one seated on the throne (Rev 5.1) as if it is held out, to be taken. If the first scroll reveals the will of God for the world, then the little scroll represents the task of communicating his will; as soon as John has swallowed it, he is commanded to ‘prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages and kings’ (Rev 10.11).


But what is fascinating here is the way that John makes use of the OT background. The idea of taking and swallowing a scroll comes directly from Ezek 3.3—so much so that some English translations put quotation marks around the phrase ‘in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey’. But John makes two changes in using the text from Ezekiel. Firstly, Ezekiel is told not to speak to ‘peoples of strange tongues’ but only to the house of Israel, where John must prophesy to ‘many peoples…and tongues’. Even more striking is the contrast between Ezekiel’s experience and John’s. For the former, the scroll is sweet-tasting, but for the latter, whilst it tastes sweet in his mouth, it is bitter in his stomach—an idea that John has added as an entirely novel aspect of the trope of swallowing. And it is emphasised in the text by its chiastic (that is, inverted) repetition:

“Take it and eat it. It will turn your stomach sour, but ‘in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey.’” 

I took the little scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it.

It tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour. (Rev 10.9–10)

There are quite a few examples of holy people being given sacred food or objects to ingest in the ancient world, and that such ingestion allows them to speak words of holy wisdom. But none of them offers any kind of close parallel to this account in Rev 10; we can interpret this quite fully in its relation to the idea in Ezekiel.

John’s adaption of the Ezekiel text is entirely characteristic of his use of the OT. In general terms, John is continually adapting OT ideas and reinterpreting them in the light of what God has done in Christ and his visionary experience of that. But in particular, he consistently ‘dichotomises’ them, so that where they might mean one thing in the OT, in his adaptation they not only mean something else, but they might even mean both the same and the opposite at the same time.

So the scroll is sweet in Ezekiel, but it is both sweet and bitter for John. In a similar way (but in the opposite direction) the ‘time, times and half a time’ or three and a half years in Daniel 7.25 is a time of intense tribulation, but in Revelation (through John’s re-expression of it as 1,260 days or 42 months) it also becomes a time of witnessing and of God’s protection. The anticipated anointed deliverer (‘messiah’) will be a lion from the tribe of Judah (derived from Gen 49.9), but in Rev 5.5 the lion is a lamb—the all-powerful conquering champion is a suffering and slain victim. (I am not sure whether this feature has been noted previously in studies of Revelation’s use of the Old Testament.)

You can find the same dynamic in the messages to the assemblies in the seven cities; the exalted Jesus brings a message which you might think offers encouragement, but it brings stern warnings to many of the readers, and even to those who are without rebuke, the word is often ‘You are going to suffer, but that’s ok.’ And this sense of paradoxical dichotomy continues right through to the end. The New Jerusalem has its gates open day and night, so that no-one is ever refused entry (Rev 21.25) but entry will be refused to anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful (Rev 21.27); the city is both radically inclusive and radically exclusive at one and the same time. And John himself shares in fellowship with all those who follow the lamb both the ‘kingdom’ and the ‘suffering’ that are ours in Jesus (Rev 1.9).

It would be possible to suppose that at each of these points, John was simply being inconsistent and contradictory, and in the past some commentators have decided that there are multiple texts which have been patched together rather badly for just that reason. The problem with this idea is that this ‘dichotomising’ is a completely consistent feature of the text. Like an impressionist painter, John creates the overall picture using a large number of different brushstrokes. Each brushstroke, each individual piece of text, includes this idea of dichotomy and paradox, and it creates an overall picture which says ‘To be a follower of the lion/lamb is to live a paradoxical life, one of victory and suffering, one of triumph and defeat, one of acclaim and vilification.’ This painting is one which, in every section, has startlingly bright colours right next to threateningly dark ones, and it is this contrast which contributes to its dramatic and emotive power as a text.


In doing this, John is emphasising something that we find all through the New Testament, though elsewhere in a more muted form. Paul’s understanding of Christian ministry in 2 Cor 4 is that it is both life giving and death dealing:

‘So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you’ (2 Cor 4.12).

But the contradictions are true for all disciples, not just leaders. The radical freedom we have in Christ can easily enslave us if we use it to indulge our ‘natural’ instincts, and we only experience it as freedom if we allow it to lead us to the disciplined life of conformity to the Spirit (Gal 3–5). Paul’s whole life appears to be marked by the juxtaposition of contrasting experiences, as he sets out to the Philippians:

For I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. (Phil 4.11–12).

And when Paul is preaching, he talks of the power and purpose that comes from ‘the good news about Jesus and the resurrection’ (Acts 17.18), but of course he was very clear that ‘We must go through many tribulations to enter the kingdom of God’ (Acts 14.22). And in preaching in this way, Paul is simply matching the preaching of Jesus, who came to give life in all its fulness (John 10.10) but whose followers must face daily the possibility of death (Mark 8.28). These are the realities expressed in Jesus’ own life, so that (on the one hand) we frequently find him in the gospels full of joy, feasting at parties and revelling in friendships, but also (on the other hand) we find him downcast and burdened, a ‘man of sorrows’.

The theological reason for this comes down to the eschatology of the New Testament: the promised new age of the messiah’s reign has come, breaking into this age, but this age persists, and so discipleship always means living in the uncomfortable tension between the two. Revelation is most explicit in its eschatological focus, so this tension, expressed in the dichotomies of Christian living, is set out most clearly.

But I also wonder whether Revelation paints this picture mostly clearly because it is a later text. Both in the gospels and Acts, and Paul’s letters, we are observing the process of the good news being proclaimed, so the focus leans towards the positive even whilst the counter-point of suffering is ever present. But in Revelation, Christian communities are now established, and they are wrestling with what it means to persist in the Christian life. In that sense, they are just a little closer to our own situation.


In practice, this suggests some important disciplines that we need to embrace if we are to live healthy and integrated lives:

a. We need to hold together the positive and the negative in our own lives—and a key way to do that might well be to keep a spiritual journal, so that we can look back over the highs and lows and put them in perspective across all of life.

b. We need congregations that always consist of a mix of those who are new to faith and those who are some way down the path—so the first can remind the second that life is wonderful, and the second can remind the first that life is sometimes challenging. We need to do this not to dismiss the experience of the other, but to learn from it and hold the two together.

c. We need to foster connections between communities of faith in different parts of the world, so that we can be reminded that, whereas we might only see gloomy news of church decline, we can be reminded that, elsewhere, the situation is very different!

Why does our experience of Christian life often seem so contradictory? Why do we so often seem to move from experiences of triumph and wonder to experiences of doubt and failure? Not simply because I am a grumpy old man, but because this is the very nature of Christian discipleship until the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth.

(You can buy my commentary on Revelation from IVP on their website here, or from your favourite online retailer. The image of Ezekiel eating the scroll is from a 12th-century Latin manuscript BNF MS Latin 16744.)


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13 thoughts on “Why is the Christian life full of paradox?”

  1. Being a Christian (to me) is like being on a journey or moving from a good job to a better one. We are in transition. We are reminded of all the things we left behind but look forward to the (as yet unrealised) joy of new space, new challenges, etc. Paradox is where He is. Paradox is Paradise. Paradox is cake ingredients mixing in a bowl; the scroll in the stomach of John.
    Thanks for this Ian.

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  2. ” We need congregations that always consist of a mix of those who are new to faith and those who are some way down the path—so the first can remind the second that life is wonderful, and the second can remind the first that life is sometimes challenging. We need to do this not to dismiss the experience of the other, but to learn from it and hold the two together.”

    I too am a grumpy old man… Well, not all the time.

    I’m sometimes grumpy when the testimony shared in a church service is another example of utterly triumphant Christian living.” No problems here… Jesus has fixed it all”. Whereas that might be true in some instances (and hallelujah to that) I think there’s the danger of both misselling the Christian Faith and depressing those whose experience is rather more varied.

    I’d suggest reflecting the latter as part of what we do together is more honest, more typical and more helpful.

    Thank you for the article…. We were reflecting in Homegroup that the Christian faith sometimes has tensions we need to hold rather than plop down on one side for the sake of (false) simplicity.

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  3. Aren’t “dichotomy” and “paradox” wonderful words. Like another Ian’s just said, holding opposites in tension. When I was a fairly new Christian I called them ‘the upside-downs’ – first/last, rich/poor, wisdom/folly, flesh/spirit, suffering/joy, cross/triumph procession etc etc It all rings bells with shifting perspective too. A while back you mentioned a word that translates transfiguration, which has quite gone out of my head, but it made me think of when some years ago Gerald Coates was talking about needing a paradigm shift (what ever you may think of his style so may of his sermons have stuck in my head) to see things in God perspective not ours. Like with the psalm on here the other day starting off with the worry and turning to God. I’m pretty sure GC also commented on that nature of psalms saying they start off “Oh God!” and are resolved when you say “Oh God …”. Not at all pc of course lol but very helpful to have stuck in your head when people say it all the time at work (PS am I the first to quote him in the erudite circle of comments on this blog?)

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  4. I think Jim Packer mentions somewhere a Scotsman describing the joy of conversion and the infilling of the Spirit, to which his minister replied: ‘Aye, son, it’s a sair fecht a’ the way.’
    To the paradoxes of Christian life we must add Romans 7 and 8 read ‘stereoscopically’.
    The moralist, of course, thinks we have become soft because we have lived (most of us in the west, at any rate) in a world of anaesthetics and relative comfort (not to mention boredom), to which this year has come as a nasty shock. The strange cultural Marxist waves sweeping across the Anglophone world (I don’t know if Europe is much affected) are a mixture of cognitive dissonance induced by the pandemic (‘This isn’t how our lives are supposed to be!”) and social media-fed confusion about how the world actually is, which magnifies the literally iconic.
    On the second point: these are actually the least “racist” times the western world has ever been through, so why the moral panic now? The reason, suggests American academic John McWhorter, is that everybody now carries around on their phone (and thus FB, Twitter etc) images of isolated police brutality thousands of miles away and somehow feels ‘invested’ in things which they really don’t understand. McWhorter, himself an atheist, cannot help seeing in the fervently promoted cult of “anti-racism” all the lineaments of a zealous ersatz religion for post-Christian western liberals. And it’s hard to disagree: icons, genuflections, confessions of deep-rooted sinfulness and seeking absolution, wearing sacred BLM scapulars – it’s all there. But what Christian writer has the courage to call it out today? Fear of the mob is very strong.
    All my life as a Christian I have been taught that persecution was potentially part of the cost of discipleship, but I had always hoped I wouldn’t be presented with the bill. Nulla in mundo pax sincera …

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    • I don’t think anti-racism is a ‘cult’ and describing it as such detracts from the experiences of those who live on a daily basis with hatred just due to their skin colour. There’s nothing wrong in wanting to be treated equally within a society, in fact it’s good. Whilst I do think the sentiment can go too far (the shooting of Rayshard Brooks *may* be understandable given the police legitimately arrested him on suspicion of drink-driving following a call from the public and he then proceeded to assault both of them, including with a stolen police taser) let’s not label it as a ‘cult’.

      Peter

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      • No, I think “anti-racism” as an ideology to be vigorously promoted and privileged (as opposed to opposition to other sins) and to be made the purity test for social acceptance is in fact cultish in outlook. When someone tells you “it is not enough not to be racist, you have to speaking out and acting against it”, you are encountering a kind of religious zeal that is focused not on your behaviour but your supposed (hidden) attitudes that are to be exposed, confessed and repented of. ‘Anti-racism’ is in fact the creation of activist sociology departments, which function in the new universities as theology departments once did. It has its doctrines, slogans, shibboleths, rituals, icons (and iconoclasts) – and heretics now. I think Martin Luther King Jr. will turn out to be one of these if BLM continues on its merry way.
        It’s the perfect religion for post-Christian people.

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        • “it is not enough not to be racist, you have to speaking out and acting against it”
          – as an example, if a work colleague made an obviously racist remark, should you keep quiet and not challenge them? I think most Christians would think one shouldnt let such comments go.

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  5. Ian, I wouldn’t presume that a ‘young’ Christian new to the faith is automatically thinking ‘life is wonderful’. Whilst there are those who seem to have a permanent smile on their face (I knew one guy like that and I just found it disturbing) within a very short period of time (a few months) I came to realise the Christian life was not ‘wonderful’ to the extent I remember writing to the late David Pawson whilst at university who actually wrote back because despite not normally doing so, he was impressed by the depressing tone of my letter! At the time I was trying to understand, for example, the ‘filling of the Spirit’ as I had friends from both the Scottish Free Presbyterians and charismatics (yes, can you imagine). Unfortunately Pawson emphasised that speaking in tongues was the key sign that one had been filled with the Spirit, so that just created further doubts in my mind. I know now it is a lie of course.

    “The New Jerusalem has its gates open day and night, so that no-one is ever refused entry (Rev 21.25) but entry will be refused to anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful (Rev 21.27) ”

    – the problem with this sentence is, what does it say about Christians, I would suggest all Christians, who have done things which are shameful and deceitful? And if Romans 7 really does apply to believers as opposed to the unregenerate (there is still debate on that) then such doings will happen. Will we be excluded based on what you have said??

    Peter

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    • Peter, I think your David Pawson experience illustrates a rather sad truth that a fair bit of the stress attached to being a Christian comes at the hands of other Christians! In fact plenty of people we know who are not Christians are likely to be easier to get along with! The fact that David Pawson was so plainly mistaken (and your Bible would easily enough attest to that) doesn’t necessarily help very much because it makes plain the reality that other Christians cannot be assumed to be right and perfect in every respect, and points to a rather more lonely walk with God and our Bibles (at least sometimes) than we might have expected or chosen.

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  6. I have never thought of the New Jerusalem as a paradox for Christians. Like a sheepfold it keeps out some things and keeps safe others because the New Jerusalem is always, in this age, in the process of ‘coming down’, not yet on the ground. We are in the age where we look up and see it/Him coming with the clouds. When it arrives with a bump it will be the only show in town, everything ungodly squashed flat beneath its impossible geometry. Then there will be no paradox. It is not something to fret about now. Jesus coming with the clouds and the N.J. are one and the same thing. To me, like a giant, golden, palanquin carried by the 12 foundational patriarchs and guarded by the 12 apostles. Inside is the bride and groom with a retinue of saints and martyrs.

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  7. For many years I have proclaimed the ordinariness of the normality of the paradox God asks us to live with. The greatest being God as Father,Son and Holy Spirit.

    My old course Princilpal, Dr Gaham Selby, often said,”The proof of Christianity was the fact that no one in their right mind would invent a Trinitarian Faith.”

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