Have you ever had your life completely fall out from under you on a beautiful day? Maybe you lost a loved one, or your job, or had your understanding of life completely shattered. Or maybe it was something more subtle – perhaps another battle in the war against your personal demons. Perhaps even it was because someone else hurt you deeply. Whatever the case, it leads to one of the most surreal experiences life has to offer. Inside your world is crumbling, yet as the sun shines down on your face and a slight breeze wafts by, you feel a strange sort of conflict – as though the weather is somehow inappropriate, as though life ought to be like a movie and bad things should only happen on grim, overcast days. And there's something impossibly strange about feeling that way. We become a bit mixed up, as the natural good mood that the weather provokes becomes entangled with the hurt and despair that mires us down, and all of a sudden we're stuck with some sort of strange sense that our words fail to express.
The human experience is often paradoxical. A paradox is often thought of as being the same as a contradiction, but there is one important difference: A paradox is when you have two or more contradictory statements that are nonetheless both true. This is a core part of what it means to be human – not only are we capable of two contradictory emotions (like, for example, happiness and sadness) but we are capable of feeling both at the exact same time.
This is one of the reasons why I find Christianity to be so existentially compelling: Paradox is at its very core. It is the story of the fully divine become fully human; the Infinite become finite; that which is undying suffering death; that which is dead knowing life. It is in the message of Christianity that we see these notions reflected, for the Christian life is a call to neither joy nor suffering, but rather both at the same time. More than that, it reflects our own experiences. It does not offer us pat answers - “When you are sad, just be happy!” and the like – but instead meets us where we are and speaks to our core nature. It takes us and shows us that there is beauty in ugliness – and often ugliness in beauty (after all, what better candidate is there for paradoxically being beautiful and ugly at the same time than the crucifixion of Christ?). It shows us that at the height of our despair, there is always reason to rejoice – and that at the height of our joy, there is often reason to mourn. It is the triumph of light over darkness, but also the acknowledgement that darkness has not left us unscathed.
This may seem like a bit of a strange post, but I think it's something that's important to grapple with. As Christians, too often we try to take the paradox out of our faith, to instead scrunch it into neat little boxes that fit a linear logical progression. But in doing so, not only do we taint the message of the faith, but we end up missing the powerful personal connection that this message contains. We dodge away from the difficult and harsh truths of life and instead replace them with a sort of Sitcom Faith, where every problem can be neatly resolved and hugged out within twenty-two minutes if only we pray enough or read the Bible enough or have enough faith. We perhaps become so embroiled with seeking to present a faith that brings joy that we neglect the nuance of Christ's teachings, and as such we end up presenting a belief that feels shallow and unrealistic to others, and that stifles our own flame of faith.
The Christian life calls us to rejoice, yes – but it also calls us to “mourn with those who mourn,” as it were. In other words, it calls us to paradoxical living, where mourning is a form of joy; where we acknowledge that Christ has triumphed over sin and darkness but do not thereby turn a blind eye to these things, but rather face them head-on.
Look, I'm gonna level with you: I have no idea how you might apply this idea. Maybe it'll help you navigate the tension of finding joy when your life is hell, or conversely remembering the sorrow of others when your life is pretty awesome. Hopefully it'll bring some sort of encouragement to anyone who feels trapped by paradoxical experiences. Maybe you'll read this and think “How bloody useless. What a waste of time.” But whatever it is, I ask you to please think about it.
Ryan Killeen is a seminary student at McMaster University. When he's not vainly attempting to contribute to academia, he can usually be found playing guitar, reading, or typing rubbish on the internet.