The Ultimate Paradox of Faith

by | Mar 25, 2024

Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Mark 8:31-38

If you’re the note-taking type, you might want to take out your bulletins, or a piece of paper and a pen, or your phone. In a few minutes, I’m going to invite you to write something down to reflect upon during the coming week.

My topic this morning is what I believe to be the greatest paradox of the Christian faith. We find it expressed in the gospel text for today and also in the closing prayer of the marriage liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer:

Most gracious God, we give you thanks for your tender love in sending Jesus Christ to come among us, to be born of a human mother, and to make the way of the cross to be the way of life.”

That’s the paradox–the way of the cross as the way of life.

We just heard Jesus tell his disciples:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

There it is again: the way of the cross as the way of life.

What on earth does that mean? How can a means of death be a way of life?

First a story, to remind us all of the meaning of paradox:

When our sons were in high school, we spent one family vacation mountain-biking in Costa Rica, which was every bit as adventurous as it sounds. It was also a lot harder than I had anticipated. Nothing in my years of tooling around on paved roads had prepared me for the terrain there. Riding uphill was exhausting; riding downhill was terrifying. Staring down vertical trails covered with enormous rocks and marked with huge holes, I would ride my brakes all the way down.

Our tour guide gently tried to teach me basic mountain-biking skills. “I know it doesn’t seem logical,” he’d say, “but the safest way to ride down a steep, rocky trail is to accelerate. You need speed to carry you over the rocks safely.” Intellectually, I knew that what he was saying made sense, but I could never get my body to believe that I wouldn’t be killed if I pedaled fast going downhill.

Such is the nature of a paradox. It’s something that goes against our common sense–a statement that seems contradictory, unbelievable, or absurd, but is, in fact, true.

We live with paradoxes daily. Our perceptions tell us that the earth is still and mostly flat, but the truth is that we live on a sphere spinning through space. In relationships, our instincts may be to rush in to help those we love in whatever way we can; but the truth is that there are times when doing so is not the most loving thing, that love also can look like holding back, creating space, allowing those we love to find their own way.

Conversely, our instincts sometimes tell us to pull back when a situation becomes too painful, when in fact what is needed is deeper engagement even when it hurts. I once heard an athletic trainer tell a group of aspiring young athletes that if they wanted to excel in their sport ( fill in here any other endeavor you would want to excel in), they would have to find “a new definition of fun,” one that included long, demanding hours of training and the sacrifices such training demands.

That’s the essence of a paradox–when what doesn’t seem true on the surface, in fact, leads us to a deeper truth or way of being to which we aspire.

Applying these insights into the realm of faith, we begin by simply acknowledging that the paradoxes of faith are many. They are, as the Prayer Book describes them in our Eucharistic liturgies, the mysteries of faith, those things that on the surface seem impossible, contradictory, or counter-intuitive, and yet we come to believe that they are true.

Surely Jesus expresses the ultimate paradox of faith in his assertion that those of us who want to save our lives must lose them, and those who lose our lives for his sake and the sake of the gospel will save them. He sounds like the Buddha when he matter-of-factly informs his disciples that he must undergo great suffering. For Jesus, suffering is not only a part of life, but essential to the spiritual path. He assumes that everyone has a cross to bear, and so the only question is whether we will rail against it or choose to carry it with some modicum of grace and find the life it brings.

But let’s drill down on suffering for a moment, for there are many kinds of suffering, not to be confused with each other. For example, some suffering is unnecessary and avoidable, and thus should be avoided. There’s nothing to be gained by needless suffering, senseless suffering, or what some psychiatrists call false suffering, that is, the pain we experience as a by-product of avoiding something else. Carl Jung once wrote that neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering. In other words, sometimes we’d rather choose one form of suffering that isn’t necessary in order to avoid the cross that is ours to bear.

Nor should the universality of suffering make us complacent to the sufferings of others and the harmful ways that we cause suffering, or benefit from the dehumanizing suffering of others.

How, then, can we distinguish needless suffering from the suffering of our own particular crosses?

One distinction might be in the fruits of suffering, whether or not the suffering takes us anywhere or keeps us spinning in place like a hamster on a treadmill. Is it suffering that makes us more of who we are or confirms our fears and keeps us small? The kind of suffering Jesus endured and that he encourages us to embrace always has redemption of some kind on the other side. In contrast, the pain of false suffering, while real, is pain that goes nowhere. “Choose your pain,” a wise person said to me at an important crossroad in my life. “Whichever path you choose will involve pain. The question is, which pain carries the promise of life?”

There’s a fair amount of language in the Scriptures that refers to a process of dying to self in order to live for Christ, or sacrificing self, as Jesus says today, in order to gain eternal life. But I clearly remember what someone told me in my early twenties, “If you don’t have a self to give, then there isn’t much sacrifice involved.” It’s important to remember, particularly in youth or stages of immaturity, that if we rush too quickly to the part of faith that involves sacrifice without knowing who we are or what we have to offer, then we’re simply avoiding the hard work of becoming a self in the first place.

So with all those caveats firmly in place, let’s move now to the hardest way to determine whether a cross is ours to bear. It’s the one that comes to us and we must accept, no matter the sacrifice required, because we have no choice. These are the crosses thrust upon us and the only question is that of our response. The Benedictine nun Joan Chittister writes that “the will of God for us is what remains of a situation after we try without stint and pray without ceasing to change it.”

These crosses require us to let go of something–something that we love, or hoped for, or worked toward–and to let it go for the sake of a greater love, or, because life demands it, even though we wished for something else. And it hurts. It hurts as much as cutting off a limb would hurt. But the paradox, the mystery of faith is this: in the bearing of our cross, when it’s ours and we know that it’s ours, God gives us more of ourselves in return, selves grounded in the love of Christ, for us and through us.

I don’t know how this works. I only know that it does.

The key is to accept the cross for what it is—the hardest possible thing asked of us—and to embrace it as our destiny, even if we didn’t choose it and would run far from it if we could.

The journey of acceptance is a long one, and there is nothing to be gained from shaming ourselves for struggling to accept the suffering we would never choose.

Two close friends of mine have lost their spouses recently, both of whom had been married for over forty years. They both speak of how hard it is to accept that their life-long partner is gone. They aren’t reconciled yet to the cross they must now bear, though one, whose husband died last summer, has fewer days when she wakes up in acute grief when she remembers that she is alone.

On the path of acceptance, we feel a gradual shift inside, as we take in this new, unwelcome reality and befriend it. Doing so, we become larger inside, with room for this pain to be a part of us as a source of grace for others. We make room for Christ within, a room that he occupies with characteristic humility and love, helping us to become even more of the self we were created to be, even as we’re being stripped away of parts of ourselves that we hate to lose.

Lent is a particularly fruitful time to consider your life through the paradox of the cross, and to consider the particular cross that is yours to accept, through which God’s grace may flow.

We’ve come to the note taking part now: I ask you to write down, or hold in your heart, and name for yourself, if you can, the particular cross that is yours to bear. Don’t worry if nothing comes to mind, or if the examples that surface seem trivial in comparison to the suffering of others. Be honest with yourself, and with God.

Think, too, of the people in our society or in the wider world whom you admire for doing the same thing, those who have embraced the suffering thrust upon them for the sake of a greater good. By taking up their cross they are a part of Christ’s on-going redemption of the world.

In closing, I’d like to read to you a portion of an article that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in the early years of his public ministry. “Suffering and Faith,” was published in the religious journal The Christian Century in 1960. This was after the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and three years before the March on Washington. The editors wrote King back because in his first draft of the article, he never mentioned his own suffering, and they wondered if he might. He hesitated to write of his own suffering, he responded, but given that they had asked, he added a few paragraphs. They didn’t arrive in time to be included in the main article, but were printed later.

He wrote:

Due to my involvement in the struggle for the freedom of my people, I have known very few quiet days in the last few years. I have been arrested five times and put in Alabama jails. My home has been bombed twice. A day seldom passes that my family and I are not the recipients of threats of death. I have been the victim of a near fatal stabbing. I must admit that at times I have felt that I could no longer bear such a heavy burden, and have been tempted to retreat to a more quiet and serene life. But every time such a temptation appeared, something came to strengthen and sustain my determination. I have learned now that the Master’s burden is light precisely when we take his yoke upon us.

As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways that I could respond to my situation: either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course. Recognizing the necessity for suffering I have tried to make of it a virtue. If only to save myself from bitterness, I have attempted to see my personal ordeals as an opportunity to transform myself and heal the people involved in the tragic situation which now obtains. I have lived these last few years with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive.

There are some who still find the cross a stumbling block, and others consider it foolishness, but I am more convinced than ever before that it is the power of God unto social and individual salvation. The suffering and agonizing moments through which I have passed over the last few years have also drawn me closer to God. More than ever before I am convinced of the reality of a personal God.

With whatever cross you are struggling to accept, remember that Jesus is here for you to help you shoulder it. Trust that God’s grace will not only sustain you, but honor your suffering and help transform the loss you experience into a way of life. Rest assured that others will know something of grace and love because of the cross you accept and carry. Amen.