Matthew 11:28-30, 2 Corinthians 12: 9-10
The Paradox of Our Faith
By Chakrita M. Saulina
Psychologist Barry Schwartz in his TED talk, presents what he calls the paradox of choice. He takes aim at a central tenet of western societies: freedom of choice.
He says that there is an official dogma in all Western industrial societies, and it runs like this: “if we are interested in maximizing the welfare of our citizens, the way to do that is to maximize individual freedom. The reason for this is both that freedom is in and of itself good, valuable, worthwhile, essential to being human and because if people have freedom, then each one of us can act on our own to do the things that will maximize our welfare, and no one has to decide on our behalf. The way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice.”
In other words, the more choice people have, the more freedom they have, and the more freedom they have, the more welfare they have (It sounds very reasonable, doesn’t?). In his TED talk, however, he argues that this dogma is wrong! In Schwartz’s estimation, choice has made us not freer but more paralyzed, not happier but more dissatisfied. And of course, this is counterintuitive and something that probably we never have thought before! (If you want to learn more about his full arguments, I really recommend to watch his 20 mins TED Talk which I think the Dr. Schwartz’s presentation is really an eye opening one.
Similar to the case that Dr. Schwartz tries to prove in his paradox of choice theory, we find a paradox when there is a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true.
A poet named Gunilla Norris, however, once says, “Our minds do not like paradoxes. We want to things to be clear, so we can maintain our illusions of safety. Certainty breeds tremendous smugness.“ For me, as an ISTJ personality in the Myers Brigg test, what Norris states is certainly true. Clarity and/or certainty about certain situation gives me some level of power and confident. In contrast, any paradox might lead me into a puzzling situation, with more questions to ask, or even into a mystery to be solved.
Schwartz’s paradox of choice is actually one of the thousands or perhaps millions of paradoxes that we can find in our everyday life… and guess what? This is including our journey in following Jesus. This is what I call the paradox of our faith.
The more I study the Bible and theology as a subject both in and outside schools, the more I feel that I know very little about these two things. The more I learn about the Bible, the more mysteries I find. The more I learn about ministry and the more my involvement in many different kinds of ministries, the more I find more and more theological questions and problems in ministry that still perplex me and I don’t know how to answers these things. At the end of my first theological degree in 2013, I had come to realize that “God is much bigger than my theology.” This statement is still true even after I have finished my second theological degree, and even until now.
In our journey as Christians, there are situations where we find ourselves puzzled by many things that lead us to pounder and ask God so many questions: “God, why this thing happens in my life? I don’t get it. I follow all the rules, I always try to be a good persons, but why there are so many things went wrong? They were not supposed to be like this.”
If you feel that in your journey as a Christian you have many more questions than answers, don’t be discouraged. If you wonder the reason why God brought you in certain direction, hang on there… I am actually in such a situation right now. So many things in my life right now seem very puzzling and confusing. As I prayed about what I need to share to you this morning, God gave me confidence to choose the verses that we have just read together. It seems that God wants me to live my own sermon. Friends, let’s walk together in this journey and let’s God’s words shed some light on our path…
Today’s passages are actually some of the many verses in the Bible that show us about the paradox of our faith. The things that seem contradictory with each other and seem illogical. The things that force us to sit, pounder, think about them thoroughly because they bring out some mysteries and lead to us many questions. These verses regarding the paradox of our faith, however, can help us to see many things from a different perspective, move us from our usual perceptions, and principles that are might have been heavily shaped by this world. These verses also show us how to experience God’s power. The paradox in these verses help us to see that God will not so much as let us be puzzled, confused, and defeated by our problems or situations, but they will actually challenge us to take a step of faith and to walk with a strong confidence in God.
In his letters to the Corinthians, Paul claims that when he is weak, he is strong. This is what I call the Strengths of Our Weaknesses. How can someone say that he is strong when he is weak so he can boast about all of his weaknesses? People don’t like to talk about their weaknesses, do they?
We live in this world and in this generation that edifies power, strength, and wealth. This condition forces people to hide their weaknesses, to cover up many of their imperfections and frailties, or to pretend that they are strong. People don’t want to show their weaknesses because they do not want to look vulnerable on other people’s eyes.
It is very interesting if we know a little bit of the context of 2 Corinthians 12. In this part, Paul tries to defend himself from accusations that are made by the false teachers; that he is not a good teacher, and they are superior to him in many ways. Interestingly, instead of emphasizing all of his gifts and his credentials, which he certainly can boast about all of those things, Paul rather highlights about his own weaknesses.
Paul knows fully that his life and his ministry was, is, and, will never be easy. Earlier in verses 7-8, Paul mentions there are internal challenges and external threats that he has to deal with every day. First, he mentions about a thorn in his flesh (we don’t know for sure what Paul means by this. many scholars agree that this is about a health problem and is related to his eyesight) and a messenger of Satan who is sent to torment him (it is also unclear about what he means by this, but for me this messenger of Satan might symbolize the external treats toward him; such as a lot of oppositions towards his ministry). Many times he asked God to take away this thorn, but God says to him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”
For Paul, God’s grace and power are the secrets of his ministry. The secret to being content in any situations and to bounce back from any harsh situations in his ministry (insults, persecutions, and calamities). On his journey, Paul had fully experienced that his weaknesses become the portal to the unlimited Power of God.
Dear friends, do you have any “thorns” that you have been praying about for a long time? Perhaps you are thinking that God has not heard your prayer since the thorn is still there… Perhaps, God is giving you the same answer to your prayer, saying, “My grace is sufficient for you…”
But then you might also say: “Do you know that it is easier to say it than to experience what you just said?” “Do you know that this ‘thorn’ is so sharp and it is often unbearable?” Dear friends, although I know that my story and my thorn perhaps different from yours, yes I know it is not easy to walk with constant pain, with “attacks” from inside and outside ourselves.
My thorn is my health, my body. When I was still a teenager, 15 years ago, a doctor diagnosed me with a chronic disease that is incurable. I was diagnosed with Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, also known as Lupus. Since then, my life has changed. My parents began treating me like a vulnerable vessel, and they have since been overprotected towards me. This disease almost took my life last year. I prayed many times to God for healing… On the other hand, as years have gone by, some parts of me do not want this to disease to be cured. It sounds weird, doesn’t it? God has always given me the same answer: “My Grace is sufficient for you…” Because in the last 15 years, I have experienced how God’s power heals, sustains, and works within me. I have also learned so many things that I would not have learned otherwise.
Friends, if the pain and the wounds caused by the thorn in our flesh and the attack from outside is real, today God’s word remind us that: God’s power and help is real too… and God’s power is much bigger than our problems, and it is accessible to everyone. God’s word is here to help us see our sufferings, pain, and problems differently and also show us that every weakness you have is an opportunity for God to show his strength in your life. The puzzling and troubling situation that you have to face right now, that you feel like “thorns” for you, perhaps something that God allow to happen so that you can learn and grow in certain areas in your life. Perhaps the reason why God has not taken away those thorns because God wants you to learn something and it could be something that will be very useful for your future life and your calling, or even someday they no longer become your weaknesses but strengths in doing ministry and service to God’s people. Since it is also a paradox of the Christian faith that the more obstacles we overcome, the stronger we grow and the more fervent is our witness for the love and power of God.
One of my professors from my seminary in Canada just passed away three days go. She died in the age of 37 because of Neurofibromatosis Type 2. She worked as a Chaplain in various hospitals in Halifax, for the United Nations in New York and Afghanistan, and was the Founding coordinator of for Chaplaincy and Spiritual Care in my previous school. I knew her as a very sweet professor, I called her Dr. Demmons. She was a very bright young woman too. I will always remember her smile, and her presence that always brought a peaceful atmosphere in class…
While I was still at Acadia, I knew that she struggled a lot with her health. In fact, I remember when she was supposed to teach one of my pastoral care classes, but because she got sick and had to go for a surgery, so the class later on was taken over by someone else.
My friend shared this quote of Dr. Demmons in her Facebook page, (I think the quote is very appropriate for today’s message): we don’t live easy, but we can live well.” And her life has become a testimony of how God’s hands help her to live well in the midst of her difficult life, and lived well with God until the end. Despite her health condition she always tried to be a blessing for other as a Chaplain. Perhaps, she was able to do this because she let God’s power dwell in her life and allowed every weakness that she had to be an opportunity for God to show God’s power in her life. Perhaps, a few minutes before she died she could claim what Paul also claim in his letter to Timothy: ”I have fought a good fight, I have finished the race, and I have kept the faith.”
From, the first paradox of faith that we learn from Paul, we know that there is a different way to see our weaknesses. In fact, our weaknesses, problems, and hardship can be the place for us to experience God’s power, mercy, and grace. Those problems, weaknesses, and hardship can also be an opportunity to find and appreciate the true rest from Jesus. To those who are weary and carry heavy burdens, Jesus says, I will give you rest. Jesus further says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” This is another paradox that I find in the Bible. I call it “the yoke that gives us rest.” Many of us might say, “Why Jesus does not take away all our burdens? Instead, he gives us a ‘yoke’?” That seems strange, doesn’t it? But remember that Jesus promises that our burden will be lighter and we will find our rest.
Just like Dr. Demmons’s quote, it is true that our journey as Christians is not a burden free life. I always try to remind myself and others, God never promises that our days will always be sunny days, or that our road will always be a smooth and straight road… But Jesus promises that he will always be with us… Jesus carries our burden with us and we will never walk alone…
This second paradox teaches us that even though there are still many challenges and troubling situation that we need to face, God will not let us be defeated by our problems or situations. Jesus promises that he will never let you carry your burden alone. It means there will be always hope! You will find your rest when you let Jesus to walk with you and take the lead.
Dan B. Allender says, “Strength is found in weakness, control is found in dependency, and power if found in surrender.” What he says is actually a good explanation for another paradox written on the cover page of our program, “Blessed is the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” I call this The Richness of the Poverty.
This sentence is the beginning of the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 that is also the foundation of the whole Beatitudes. The Beatitudes and whole part of the sermon of the mount are the most profound and at the same time paradoxical teaching on true happiness. But it’s not just a subject among many, it’s foundational to all His teaching and it’s foundational to entrance into His kingdom.
As Timothy Smith rightly put: God wants us happy. Psalm 144:15 says, “Happy are the people whose God is the Lord.” God wants our lives filled with joy. God wants to bless us. He wants us to experience bliss, a deep inner happiness, not produced and not affected by emotion or by changing circumstance, a kind of blessedness and a kind of joy, a kind of bliss, a kind of happiness that is not subject to outside forces but only inside ones produced by God in the heart. And that’s the subject of the Beatitudes and that’s the subject of the Sermon on the Mount which the Beatitudes begin. And the question is…how do you find happiness? And the Beatitudes indicate to us that it really is opposite what the world would assume. Blessed are the poor…the world would say blessed are the rich. Blessed are those who mourn…the world would say blessed are those who laugh. Blessed are the gentle, or the meek…the world would say blessed are the proud and the confident. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst…the world would say blessed are those who don’t hunger and don’t thirst because they have everything.
So, what does it mean to be “poor in spirit?” It simply means to be totally dependent on God. It is like you need air to breathe every single second in your live. As long as you are with God you will find your true happiness! You will find your peace even in the midst of storm. With God in your side, you will fill content in any circumstances and you will always find hope!
Friends, at the end of this sermon, allow me to ask some questions:
Are you carrying heavy burdens right now? Are you feeling confused by your situation and don’t know what to do? Are you feeling hurt by the “thorn” that is in your flesh for years and years? Have you let God to show his power through your weaknesses instead of being defeated by the problem, burdens, and hardship that you have to face these many years? Do you hear that Jesus is calling you and invites you to come to him? Perhaps, Jesus has been waiting for a long time to say to you, “Let me carry this burden with you… I will make your burden light, and have some rest…” What is your answer to him?