Living the Paradox


The doctrines of the Christian faith are full of paradox. It is a reality that we sometimes forget – our familiarity can make us deaf to its jarring sounds:

A virgin is a mother.

Death is defeated by death.

He who seeks to save his life will lose it.

He who loses his life for my sake will save it.

I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live.

Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.

Paradox is more than an occasional theological statement – it points to the very heart of our salvation. The commandments that we have been given by Christ call us to a life of paradox. Anyone who seeks to love will quickly face the dilemma of paradox. How do I love someone who fails me – who is less than perfect – who is not the fulfillment of my every wish? To love is to lose ourselves for the sake of the beloved.

To forgive also presents us with a paradox, for we are not commanded to limit our forgiveness to those who deserve it, or to those who ask for it, but to extend it to all. We are commanded to love our enemy – in effect, to love those who are unloveable.

It is the same paradox that marks the mystery of the love of God.

St. Ephrem the Syrian offers this observation in his Hymn on the Nativity (11:6-8)

Thy mother is a cause for wonder: the Lord entered her

and became a servant; He who is the Word entered

– and became silent within her; thunder entered her

– and made no sound; there entered the Shepherd of all,

and in her He became the Lamb, bleating as He came forth.

Thy mother’s womb has reversed the roles:

the Establisher of all entered in His richness,

but came forth poor; the Exalted One entered her,

but came forth meek; the Splendrous One entered her,

but came forth having put on a lowly hue.

The Mighty One entered, and put on insecurity

from her womb; the Provisioner of all entered

– and experienced hunger; He who gives drink to all entered

– and experienced thrist: naked and stripped

there came forth from her He who clothes all.

Paradox makes for rich theological reflection – but as illustrated in St. Ephrem’s writings, it is also the way of our salvation. It is the way of our daily life (the path of our salvation). We cannot love if we refuse its paradox. We cannot forgive if we deny its reality. We cannot truly live until we know the paradox of dying daily.

The world has entered a very stressful time – with economic insecurity on a global scale. The temptation will be to refuse the paradox. The temptation will be for the rich to remain rich; for the strong to remain strong; for the anxious to reside in their anxiety. The only way forward is the way Christ has set forth for us – who for our sake became poor; who for our sake became weak; who for our sake dwelt in the land of darkness that all might have light.

Glory to God for all things.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.


14 responses to “Living the Paradox”

  1. Steve Allison Avatar

    Is life possible without the tension of these opposites? Right and Left. Male and Female. Positive and Negative. Yin and Yang. No. As it says in the Gospel of Philip, verse 9: “The light with the darkness, life with death, the right with the left are brothers one to another. It is not possible for them to be separated from one another.” My grasp of this waxes and wanes. Your post is a help in perceiving it.

  2. Steve Avatar


    If I might be permitted to throw my two cents in at this point. Even if these statements are taken at face value (the Gospel of Philip is non-canonical) the incarnation completely upends these equilibria.

    The uncreated light of God reveals what is, but has no opposite, no opposition.

    Perhaps you might wish to look into the deeper meaning of the hypostatic union, the point at which theology becomes prayer.

  3. zoe Avatar

    The concept of opposites as mentioned may be true in our earthly life, in our “fallen state” in which the concept of good and evil also comes to mind. But the Scripture does not teach that the same will be true in the New Jerusalem” that is to come during the reign of Christ. There will be peace and harmony–not tensions created by opposites. Is it safe to say that there is no paradox in heaven? Father Stephen, please elaborate and thank you for your post and God bless.

  4. luciasclay Avatar

    Paradox is indeed an inseperable part of our walk.

    The hardest paradox to deal with are the practical ones. Ones where you are as a believer to love, forgive, and care for one person, and at the same time protect, love and care for another, and where those two seem to be mutually exclusive commands.

    I’ve found though that some seeming paradoxes resolve themselves completely once you reach a certain level of understanding. I suppose they will all work out that way in the end. When we are able to understand all things when we are made new.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    For the record, the paradox is indeed a function of our present life, but not of the age to come. St. Maximos the Confessor teaches quite clearly and authoritatively that these “oppositions” are utterly overcome in the age to come. Romans 8 is a good Scriptural basis for this hope of victory.

    There’s always problems working with Gnostic documents. They understand some things, or sound mystical, but they utterly lack the “Apostolic Hypothesis” as St. Irenaeus terms it. That is to say, they have no understanding of the most fundamental elements of the Gospel.

    For us, “living the Paradox,” is another way of “walking by faith and not by sight.” We entrust ourselves to Christ and His commandments, in which the paradox is resolved.

  6. Robert Avatar

    Fr Stephen I believe it is better to call these antinomies. It may seem a trivial distinction, but in truth they are not. Paradox denotes true conflict between the poles, whereas antinomy holds that both poles are equally true regardless of seeming opposition.

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    I understand, I think. But “living the antinomy” just won’t preach. I’m not certain that theological usage of paradox is quite so precise. For what it’s worth, the Wikipedia article on paradox treats antinomies as a subset of paradox (of which there are many forms).

  8. Stephen W Avatar
    Stephen W

    Robert and Father Stephen,

    Forgive my ignorance and lack of knowledge here and I am sorry if I speak out of line. There does seem to be a true conflict and tension in the Christian life, at least here in the state we are in. Death for instance is not as equally true as life, being nothing in itself. Father Stephen quoted St. Maximos above stating that “these oppositions are utterly overcome in the age to come” It seems to me that we are forced to live in a temporary and unnatural state where things are not fully resolved until the coming of Christ. Does not the word paradox reveal the disorder that we live in yet show the expectation of its resolution? I also looked up antinomy on Wikipedia but it was over my head with talk about Kant. This brings me to a question of how far we should take philosophical concepts into theology and spirituality? I know that this has been done in the Church in the past, baptizing certain words, etc. Sorry again, I’m just wondering if there is a good case for abandoning the word paradox?

  9. Moses Avatar

    I guess what is important here (at least in my opinion) is not the exact meaning of the word “paradox” itself, but the meaning of the “Christian Life” which as Fr. Stephen pointed out is a paradox.

  10. Robert Avatar

    Yes paradox is a much more commonly understood word. I don’t think it accurately describes our life and the reality of things. Death no longer is the ultimate contradiction. But we are not disagreeing. Thanks be to God!

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    Agreed, death is not, finally a contradiction. Christ has overcome it. But for someone who is “walking by sight and not by faith” (to turn the phrase around) the gospel sounds like an invitation to a world turned upside down. In that sense, paradoxical. But only a paradox in the sense that it turns our merely human thought on its head.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar


    As a preacher, I always have to find words that work – sometimes they may be less than accurate, but “close” is frequently all that is necessary when the object is to open the human heart.

  13. zoe Avatar

    May God bless us all, I like Fr. Stephen’s post because what he says and what other responders say help me clarify my own thoughts and therefore reinforce my Orthodox Christian Faith. May God help me, that it is in humility that I respond to this post and that I pray that I do not offend anyone. I like what one of our Priests quoted during one of his homilie that
    “Orthodoxy is paradoxy”. Indeed, a lot of actions that Orthodox Christians do especially in the worship services are paradox in the eyes of this present world with all its commercial trappings. The paradox, tensions
    (or conflict ) in our own Christian life may resolve because of our obedience to Christ’s commandments but we, as Christians will remain a paradox to those who are around us if they do not know our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ and we ourselves will continue to experience this paradox because we are still living in the weakness of the flesh. Thank you Father Stephen and everyone for all your comments and also Fr. Stephen for the reminder to read Romans Chapter 8– This is a good chapter to read in times of troubles and insecurities.

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