Over and over I hear nonbelievers attack the credibility of the Bible based on perceived contradictions. This pains me. I want to defend the authority, the accuracy, the inerrancy of Scripture. More troubling though, is when I hear of believers who doubt the credibility of the Bible. I’ll admit that sometimes even I’m tempted to read the Bible and notice paradoxes where God seems to be a shifting target from one verse to the next.
In order to defend the loveliness and the glory of Scripture to my own heart, I’ve been studying three common paradoxes presented in Scripture. I hope that through this article you also can “think over these things and the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” (2 Timothy 2:7)
1. Lose your life to save it.
“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? (Luke 9:24-25)
The economy of God runs on different principles than the economy of self. This verse clearly teaches that living for self will result in death. We must deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus. But here’s the thing: crosses are for dying. How can an instrument of death lead to life? Even more paradoxically, if I desire to save my life by losing my life in order that Jesus might save it, isn’t that a contradiction? It seems like simply obeying this command will result in… not obeying it.
Clearly, Jesus is drawing us in by pointing to a desire: a desire to save ourselves. That desire is wrongly directed at first: we desire to live for self in this world. We desire to gain popularity, wealth, status, possessions, temporal gains in this earthly life. Jesus isn’t opposed to the desire for life; he just wants to rightly order that desire: toward a heavenly hope. He reorients a good desire (to live) that is exercised incorrectly (to live for ourselves) to a newly reoriented desire (to live sacrificially for God’s glory). He does this by appealing to our desire to live, not by asking us to deny our desire to live.
2. Give to receive
“It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35)
This is similar to the previous contradiction. In my selfishness, sometimes I hoard my own possessions in order to increase my own blessings. If I save more of the money I receive from my job, I can spend more on myself later (more blessings!). If I am efficient with the time that God gave me in life, I can have more “me-time” later in front of the TV (more blessings!). Each of those are examples of stewarding gifts that God gives. It’s not wrong to save money or use time efficiently. But Jesus says that even more blessings come from giving.
What if I want that greater blessing and give simply for a self-serving purpose of receiving blessing? Is that giving or is that receiving (by giving)? This apparent contradiction is meant to draw us in to Jesus’s deeper understanding of joy. We tend to think of giving and receiving as mutually exclusive. They are not. Jesus is helping us see that we can give away (self-sacrifice) and still receive the joy of Christ (blessing) in a greater way. Jesus calls on our desire to want to receive blessing in order to compel us to give blessing to others.
3. Love the ones you hate; hate those you love
I stumbled onto this biblical contradiction through a worship song with the line, “hate the ones you love and love the ones you hate.” This line comes from the following two verses:
“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt. 5:44)
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)
Both of these are tall orders. It’s really hard to love our enemies. By definition, they are our enemies. Love is a tough standard to meet. On the other hand, it’s easy to love the ones who are close to us. They are our favorite people and have lovingly cared for and raised us. How can we hate them? Besides, how can God command us to love some people and hate others? Isn’t this contradictory?
At the center of both of these commands lies a heart of love toward God. Our love of God should be so large in magnitude that it at once pales in comparison to our love for anyone else (even our own families) while at the same time compelling us to abandon hate (even for our own enemies) since we know that this same loving God created all people in His image. The deepest meaning of each command isn’t found in the love/hate of people, but in the profound magnitude of love of God.
The paradoxes of following Jesus
It turns out that these seeming paradoxes are what draw us into the Christian faith. Meditating on these concepts afford a deeper understanding of God. Indeed, the surface meaning of these contradictions drives us to meditate in order to work out the kinks in our theology. We have to be okay with a temporary disconnect in our theology in order to come through the discomfort to the other side: a renewed and deeper understanding of the Lord.