Mastering the Paradoxes of Ministry Tony Cooke

Mastering the Paradoxes of Ministry
Tony Cooke

Ministry ParadoxA paradox involves the presentation of two ideas which seem to be contradictory, but are in fact, complementary. A few classic examples in Scripture of paradoxical statements are:

  •  “…when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10)
  •  We are in the world, but we are not of the world (John 17:11, 14)
  •  “I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me…” (Galatians 2:20)

In his classic, “Make Me an Instrument,” Francis of Assisi captured the essence of paradox when he prayed: “…for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, it is in dying that we awake to eternal life.”

Richard B. Hansenis said, “Paradox is the wild territory within which most ministers live and work. We see unseen things. We conquer by yielding. We find rest under a yoke. We reign by serving. We are made great by becoming small. We are exalted when we are humble. We become wise by being fools for Christ’s sake. We are made free by becoming bondservants. We gain strength when we are weak. We triumph through defeat. We find victory by glorying in our infirmities. We live by dying.”

Parádoxos is a word common in secular Greek for “an unusual event contrary to belief or expectation.”  Its only use in the New Testament is in Luke 5:26: “And they were all amazed, and they glorified God and were filled with fear, saying, "We have seen strange [parádoxos] things today!”

The word here literally means “things which are contrary to opinion, expectation, or belief.” The Amplified Bible renders this, “We have seen wonderful and strange and incredible and unthinkable things today!” Does that seem like a pretty good description of ministry? Sometimes it’s wonderful. Sometimes it’s strange. Sometimes it’s incredible. Sometimes it’s unthinkable.

God’s kingdom is full of paradoxes. We might like to only deal with one end of the spectrum (the good side), but those who survive and thrive are those who learn to deal effectively with all aspects of ministry. We recognize that serving God offers us many “both/and” scenarios… not just “either/or” situations. Consider these statements by the Apostle Paul that reflect paradox.

2 Corinthians 6:8-10
8 by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; 9 as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.

2 Corinthians 4:8-11
8 We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed —  10 always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. 11 For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.

How many seemingly conflicting and contradictory statements can someone make in one letter? How many seemingly conflicting and contradictory emotions can one minister experience in one season of life? In a Peanuts comic strip, Charlie Brown tells Lucy the universal axiom, “Life has its ups and downs.” Lucy is seen screaming in the last box, “I don’t want downs. I want ups, ups, and more ups. The truth is that life involves learning to deal with the good and the bad, and ministry involves a broad spectrum of experiences as well.

Jesus not only got, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” He also got “Crucify him, crucify him!” Ministers need to know how to deal with both criticism and praise—with the ups and the downs. In Acts 14:18, Paul is barely able to keep the multitude from offering sacrifices to him and Barnabas as gods. In Acts 14:19, one verse later, the same multitude is stoning Paul and dragging him out of the city, assuming that they’ve killed him.

Perhaps what we experience—going from one end of the spectrum to the other—isn’t quite as drastic as what Paul experienced, but many ministers know what it is:

  • To go from the funeral home to the wedding rehearsal. You weep with those that weep and you rejoice with those that rejoice.
  • To be overwhelmed by the amazing love and kindness of a church member one day, and feel the sting of betrayal by someone else the next day.
  • To have someone tell you how grateful they are for your ministry and share how their life has been totally changed, only to be followed by a meeting with someone else who is telling you that they’re leaving your church.

Paul dealt with these paradoxes—these seemingly contradictory situations—and so did David. David had the most wonderful relationship imaginable with Jonathan. He also had the most horrible relationship imaginable with Saul. 1 Samuel 18:3, we read that, “Jonathan and David made a covenant, because he loved him as his own soul.” In verse 11, just a few verses later, Saul is throwing a spear at David, saying, “I will pin David to the wall!” David’s experience could have been the inspiration for the opening statement of “A Tale of Two Cities:” “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”

The question is: Can we get our mind and our emotions around these circumstances and these dynamics without being pulled apart by them?

  • Pilots have to deal with crosswinds and wind shear.
  • Swimmers have to deal with riptides and undertow.
  • Ministers have to deal with paradoxes—these situations that seemingly pull us in different directions.

Have you ever considered the fact that Proverbs 26:4-5 (NLT) seems to give us completely contradictory instructions? “Don’t answer the foolish arguments of fools, or you will become as foolish as they are. Be sure to answer the foolish arguments of fools, or they will become wise in their own estimation.” So how is a believer supposed to know what to do when encountering foolishness? Do we ignore it or address it? I think this Scripture indicates that there is a time for both, and we must have wisdom and direction from the Holy Spirit to know which is an appropriate response in a given situation.

A lot of what we’ve mentioned so far is situational and relational. But we also deal with paradoxes theologically. Theological paradoxes are often those issues where people take one side of an issue and exalt it to the neglect of another issue. They take two issues that both involve truth, but instead of realizing the complementary nature of these issues, they perceive them as somehow being contradictory and exclusive.

  • There is something true about the sovereignty of God, and there is something true about human responsibility (the free will of man). It’s not an either/or… it is a both/and.
  • Some hold to an emphasis on an unchanging God, while others herald the power of prevailing prayer. There is truth in both concepts.
  • What about the transcendence and the imminence of God? The God who dwells in eternity and the God who is present with us right now? They are the same God.
  • Is God Three, or is God One? There is truth regarding the Trinity of God, and there is also truth regarding the Unity of God.
  • Is Jesus human or is Jesus divine? It’s not an “either/or.”  It’s a “both/and.”
  • Romans 11:22 says, “Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God…”
  • In 2 Corinthians, Paul referred both to “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort,” but also to “the terror of the Lord” (1:3 and 5:11).
  • Hebrews 4:11 says, “Let us labor therefore to enter into that rest…”
  • What about the paradox of faith and works?
  • We are not saved by works, but we are saved “unto good works” (Ephesians 2:9-10).
  • We are to “Study to show ourselves approved unto God,” but we must not “lean to our own understanding” (2 Timothy 2:15 and Proverbs 3:5).
  • A man who surrenders himself over to the Lordship of Jesus—who becomes a bond-slave of Christ—experiences absolute liberty and freedom, while a man who insists on being free from the rule of God wears a ball and chain throughout his life.

All of these are paradoxical ideas, and we’ll always be lacking if we think we have to choose either/or when it comes to the great truths of Scripture. Many times, we feel a tension between these truths…yet with God, we know that He holds all of these things in perfect harmony. Hansenis said, “Paradox beckons us into Mystery, and offers a wholesome reminder that God is infinitely greater than our ideas about God.”

May we receive great wisdom from God to walk skillfully in His paths!