Two Key Paradoxes

“There is a way that seems right to a man, but the end is death.” Proverbs 14:12

Each one of us has a great capacity to make ourselves miserable, and we often do this unwittingly, confidently, and even blithely. The scripture for this week’s GraceWaves highlights this chronic tendency. We are all capable of constructing and following a way that seems right, best, and most likely to produce the happiness we desperately want, but it leads precisely the opposite direction.

The Bible is unsparing in its evaluation of the result of this kind of pursuit: death. Other translations have destruction. The Hebrew is literally “the ways of death.”

Solomon, the author of the proverb, is case in point. Gifted with wisdom beyond all others, he constructed a life of fantastic wealth, learning, and insight. He knew people were self-delusional and prone to self-destruction. Yet he himself ended his life in a sad state. Read the book of Ecclesiastes. This is Solomon at his lowest point. Nearing the end of his years he considered everything empty. He knew that one should focus on God alone, but he had lost focus, the nation lost direction and split into two kingdoms after he died. Even the wise physician could not heal himself.

Staying away from the broad, and heavily populated way that leads to death necessitates knowing what the truly right way looks like. Two main principles emerge from scripture and lead us to life. Both are paradoxes.

The first paradox is you are both divine and human. This idea is not some new age (whatever that means any more) idea about a divine spark or embodied spirit. I’m reflecting here the biblical idea that God made every one of us in His image. We can’t pin down what that image is precisely but God has made us somehow like Him. You are made in the image of God.

At the same time, however, you are human, and your humanity has been terribly scarred by sin. Some people are so deeply twisted they mock the idea of divinity for themselves or others. On the other end of the spectrum, even the best among us give expression to the spiritual battle seething within us. Paul could include himself (and all Christians) as among the saints, but also wrote of the terrible struggle of knowing precisely what is right, yet doing precisely what is wrong (Rom. 7:15).

So how do we meet this challenge? The answer is simple and also paradoxical. We humbly admit our incapacity and ask God to continue His slow work of transformation. Admit you are essentially powerless, and God pours His strength into your weakness. Go at this problem on your own, in your own strength, and you will only feed the disabling weakness through your pride.

God is painfully, frustratingly slow from our perspective, but He actually has perfect rhythm and timing. Your challenge is to trust that He is still working in you even when you stumble. You may feel completely wretched and beyond His reach. You are not. God is a great “Reclaimer,” and He wants to reclaim and recreate the son or daughter He created you to be. You must trust that His love for you is unconditional, and His grace is relentless.

Now the second paradox is only slightly less perplexing: focus on yourself and you lose, deny yourself and you win. This truth, of course, is central to Jesus’ call to follow Him. “You must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me” (Mark 8:34). To drive it home He added, “for whoever tries to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel will  save it” (8:35).

Jesus did not mean that we cannot have “time to ourselves.” He would commend care of ourselves in the form of exercise, solitude, or recreational pursuits. What He did mean is that we cannot focus on ourselves. Self-help in any form has a self-imposed limit of the self! You need more than you can give yourself, and that is where the first paradox comes back into play. God enters every space you clear out the clutter of self.

Jesus was quite clear on this, saying several times: The first shall be last, and the last first. This “Great Reversal” highlights both our problem and our opportunity. Take a good, honest look at where you’re heading. Does it lead you to God? Then you will find life. But if it does not, then you face only chaos and destruction.

When you stop going down the wrong way, you discover you were walking alone and did not realize it. Turn back the other way, love and serve God and others, and you discover that Christ will take your hand and lead you to joyful and abundant life.


Dr. Terry Ellis

November 28, 2011