In the Bible we often find strange truths that seem, well, counterintuitive (if not contradictory).
In fact, the reason many skeptics disregard the claims of the Bible is for precisely this reason!
We shouldn't find seeming contradictions, difficult tensions, and unlikely paradoxes, they say.
But there is something interesting about God's Word. It is a supernatural book—much more than black ink on white paper, so the saying goes.
Chuck Missler, a recently-deceased and beloved Bible teacher, used to say that to happen upon these surface "contradictions" in the Bible was a great blessing—these were an indication, he would say, that God was getting ready to teach you a profound truth.
In reading the words of Jesus, I've identified at least three of these truths that are significant. So significant, in fact, that grasping them could radically change everything about us.
#1. Humble Yourself, Then Be Exalted
Our culture is one bent on self-glorification. Even when we do things for others, often, it is for purposes of self-recognition.
This problem of pride is nothing new; of course, we first encountered it in the garden of Eden! The Doctrine of Original Sin informs us that with Adam, sin and death entered the world (Romans 5:12). And ever since, pride and self-centeredness lurks around every corner.
But Jesus modeled servant leadership.
According to him, it is only when one lays down his own selfish desires—perhaps even his own life—that true exaltation takes place (Luke 14:11; John 15:13). The extraordinary thing about our Savior is that he modeled and demonstrated that which he commanded. In other words, he "practiced what he preached."
By giving his own life for ours, and then receiving exaltation from the Father (Acts 5:31), this paradox has been clearly manifested.
Unlikely as it may seem, it appears the only real way to get ahead is by serving others. As digital marketers who have latched onto the effectiveness of this tactic say in today's economy, "selling...is serving!"
#2. Love Yourself, Then Love Others
Growing up, I remember learning an acronym that was supposed to help me prioritize my relationships: J.O.Y.--Jesus, Others, You. Perhaps you've heard of this?
It was in this order that I was supposed to love. On the surface, one can see how this makes sense. But upon deeper reflection, I came to realize that I'm not sure it's correct.
Consider Jesus' exchange with the Pharisees in Matthew 22:36-39:
Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
It's clear there is no greater commandment than to love God. But then, we are supposed to love our neighbor. How? As ourselves.
Let me ask you a question: What if you hate yourself?
Though sad, it is true that a large number of the population (even Christians!) live utterly dissatisfied lives.
There are many reasons for this discontentment, no doubt. Just one example is the enormous rise in the use of screens. As they become more prevalent in daily activity, so the epidemic of unhappiness increases.
To that end, one researcher writes,
In our study, we analyzed data from a nationally representative survey of eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders that's been conducted annually since 1991.
Every year, teens are asked about their general happiness, in addition to how they spend their time. We found that teens who spent more time seeing their friends in person, exercising, playing sports, attending religious services, reading or even doing homework were happier. However, teens who spent more time on the internet, playing computer games, on social media, texting, using video chat or watching TV were less happy.
In other words, every activity that didn't involve a screen was linked to more happiness, and every activity that involved a screen was linked to less happiness. The differences were considerable: Teens who spent more than five hours a day online were twice as likely to be unhappy as those who spent less than an hour a day.
A possible point of convergence is the rise of comparison living--"keeping up with the Joneses"--to use familiar parlance.
While, as young children and teens, the dependence on screens may seem to be innocent exploration into the world of fantasy (video games, etc.), eventually, it becomes a means by which adults learn to compare their own lives and possessions against others'.
And this is where the real danger lies.
What happens when simply wishing you had your neighbors boat turns into wishing you had your neighbors wife? I wish I could say this example was extreme, but the reality is that we see this kind of thing every day.
But if Jesus is right, it is not only okay to love ourselves, it's something we must do if we're going to properly love our neighbor.
I'm not referring to behavior here; we all fall short of the glory of God each day (Romans 3:23). Rather, we need to get clear on our identity in Christ and realize that we are valued and loved in virtue of who we are.
Only when we begin down this route--seeking satisfaction in our own identity in Christ--do we begin to experience the fullness of God's grace, embrace the fullness of Christ's love for us, and embody the fullness of God's commandment to love our neighbor.
#3. Seek God, Then Material Desires
Above, I mentioned that our culture is steeped in self-glorification. And while this may be true, it is also steeped in self-gratification.
Have you ever put on a humble facade? You appeared to be humble--on purpose--just so that others could see your humility? Just so you could tell yourself, "look at how humble I am!"
While you may not be guilty of this, I'll be the first to raise my hand. I want what's best for me. Always. In every situation.
But the teachings of Jesus buck up hard against this sort of thinking. We act as though we are alone in the world. We live, too often, as "practical atheists"--claiming to believe in God, but acting as though his provision will not suffice.
Have you ever considered the lilies?
Listen in on the greatest Preacher the world has ever known, as he expounds on the truth of God's sovereign provision:
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matthew 6:28b-33)
In 1859, Charles Darwin proposed what came to be known as the theory of biological evolution--the notion that all life on earth is related through a common ancestor. Despite the complexity of this theory, there is good reason to believe that it is not true--not the least of such reasons is the difficulty one faces when simultaneously attempting to marry this theory with the Bible's description of origins.
It's no surprise, then, that the notion of a "dog eat dog world" has overtaken us. While pride has always been at the root of humanity's self-destruction (see Genesis 3; Proverbs 16:18), Darwin ultimately taught our culture that the only way one survives is when someone else does not.
Thus, we try, and try, and try to outdo everyone. We want a bigger house, a faster car, a better job, a few thousand more dollars, a closet full of nicer clothes, etc.
And while none of those things are bad, the false sense of self-provision does nothing but bolster the pride which is just waiting to cause our demise.
We end ourselves in the futile attempt to better ourselves.
As with all other dilemmas, Jesus provides the solution. Seek God first, then the rest will come. Material desires are okay, but only insofar as they take the back burner to the desire of God's will, and leaning on him to provide.
Seek God first, and the rest of your needs will come as a natural consequence. But why is that? What does that look like? How can we understand the mechanics?
It's simple, yet profound: God wants what's best for us. When we want God, he is free to give us that which he has determined is best.
God has one limitation--but only one. It is the self-limitation he has imposed which allows us, his creation, the freedom of choice. We can choose to please God, or we can choose to please self. It was this realization that led classic writer and apologist, C.S. Lewis, to conclude:
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, in the end, "Thy will be done."
You see, when our goals and actions align with God's goals (for our lives), we are, by definition, in what theologians call "the will of God." We often treat "the will of God" as mysterious and ethereal, but it really isn't.
It simply has to do with aligning your desires to God's. Want what God wants, and the rest will follow.
While these paradoxes abound in the Scriptures (did you notice the overlap between these three paradoxes?), of one thing we can be sure: God wants the best for us--his creation. He has given us guidelines by which to live to help us achieve our ultimate purpose.
When we die to ourselves and become alive to him and his purposes, everything falls into place.
This is the Christian life. This is the will of God. This profound dance--abiding in these paradoxes--is how we live fully alive in Christ.