When I became a Christian in college I soon found myself a little confused. Not because my new Christian friends reminisced about talking-vegetable cartoons from their childhoods, or had fish symbols on their cars, or enjoyed playing board games on Friday nights, though all that was confusing. What puzzled me were the paradoxes that seemed inescapable for those who followed Christ.
As I studied the Scriptures with other Christians I discovered many truths that were both clear and unclear. I learned that there is one God who is eternally three. I learned that Jesus is fully God and fully man. I learned that God is completely sovereign and that people are responsible for their actions. These ideas were mysterious, puzzling, and, at the same time, wonderfully edifying.
But the paradoxes of the Christian life didn’t end there. Looking into the Scriptures I saw that Christian growth and maturity happened in paradoxical ways. If we want to grow as Christians and to help others to grow, it is essential to understand these paradoxes.
WE LIVE BY DYING
First, we live by dying. In Mark 8:35 Jesus says, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will find it.” If we want to live, we must die. This advice seems foolish in a world that constantly counsels us to “follow our hearts” and “seize the day!” We are told we only live once, and that we should drink up every moment as we climb to the top.
Being a disciple of Jesus, however, means surrendering our lives and embracing the life that Christ gives. This is the only way to true life. As Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” This death happens thousands of times before heaven, and is always an act of faith in Jesus.
Several years ago, I became entangled in a web of sin. Discontentment, lust, and a lack of faith had crept into my heart like a python and were slowly crushing my devotion to the Lord. In that season, a dear brother spoke into my life in a powerful way: he called me to live by dying. He showed me that my love for the world was quenching my love for Christ. He spoke with truth and grace. God used that brother to open my eyes to the promise of life that would only come through dying. I am not sure where I would be if he hadn’t brought Jesus’ call before me afresh, and I am forever grateful that he did.
In discipleship, we must consistently hold the lens of eternity before each other’s eyes to ensure that we are not being “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13). The world constantly calls us to find life in its pleasures. The only antidote to this powerful demand is to meditate on how Christ surrendered his life for our sake. Consider how he hated sin. Ponder how he loved us. Remember how he bled. Think of how he died. Rejoice in how he glorified the Father.
Our discipleship must be marked by helping each other meditate on Christ’s call to take up our cross daily and follow him. Dying is the only way to live.
WE REST BY STRIVING
Second, we rest by striving. Jesus has finished the work, so we must not rest until the work is done. Huh?
How do I strive to “keep myself in the love of God” while at the same time rest in the fact that God “keeps me from stumbling” (Jude 20, 24)? What does it mean for us to come to Jesus who “will give you rest” (Matt. 11:29) while at the same time being told, “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest” (Heb. 4:11)?
Of all the paradoxes of Christian growth, the idea of striving and resting at the same time seems to be the most puzzling. Do I work each day until I pass out from exhaustion or do I sit on the couch and wait for Jesus to pick me up like a puppet? How do I “do” and “depend” at the same time? How do I work without working in my own strength? What does it mean to labor fervently by the grace that God supplies?
While it may be puzzling, we must embrace this tension as presented in Scripture (Dt. 29:29; 1 Cor. 15:10; Phil. 2:12-13). God calls us to rest completely in Christ’s work (Jn. 19:30; Heb. 10; 1 Pet. 3:18) and at the same time to work hard (Jn. 15:8; 1 Cor. 9:24-27; James 2:14-26). Philippians 2:12-13 captures the paradox perfectly: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”
It is in this paradox that we see the point of faith. We step out, we do, but when we put our foot down, we find the ground that supports us is the ground God promised would be there. When we look back, we find that, yes, we stepped out, but it was God at work in us. We rest in God’s faithfulness to empower our striving in obedience.
So what does this paradox mean for our discipleship with other Christians? As you spend time with other believers, rest in Christ. Stare at the cross together. Ponder the empty tomb together. Recall promises that highlight our freedom from sin and condemnation (e.g., Rom. 6:1-4, 8:1). Pray through verses that speak of God’s love for us in Christ (Eph. 2:1-10; Rom. 8:32-39; 1 Jn. 4:10). Remind each other that God is not keeping a scorecard in heaven. He doesn’t have a “smite key” on his computer for the next time you mess up. Treasure the fact that we are pleasing to God because he is pleased with Christ. Preach the gospel to each other. Call each other to rest in Christ’s cry that “it is finished!”
We must also rest in the fact that the risen Christ intercedes for us in heaven (Heb. 7-10). This intercession guarantees that God will be merciful toward our iniquities and will remember our sins no more (Heb. 8:1-12). What a wonderful truth to rest in! We are forgiven in Christ. God does not hold our transgressions against us. We rest in Christ’s finished and ongoing work on our behalf.
At the same time, our discipleship should be marked by a striving together. Remind each other that Jesus has given the “Helper,” the Holy Spirit, to empower us to live in a way that pleases God (Jn. 14:26; Rom. 8:4). We labor, but we do not labor alone. We are united with the presence of the victorious King of Kings through his Holy Spirit. He enables us to make disciples among the nations (Mt. 28:19-20) and to endure persecution as we go (Luke 12:11-12). We can endure sufferings of this life through his strength (2 Cor. 12:9-10) and then comfort others in their sufferings (2 Cor. 1:3-7).
So strive together by living as soldiers of Christ who are at war with the evil one (2 Tim. 2:2; Eph. 6:10; 1 Pt. 5:8-9). Discipline yourself and structure your habits around increasing in godliness (1 Tim. 4:7). Intentionally use your interactions to build up each other for love and good works (Heb. 10:24-25). And above all, help each other strip off everything that slows you down so that you may finish this race and enter that final rest we have been promised (Heb. 12:1-3).
The paradoxes of spiritual growth are not given to us to paralyze us. God gives them so that we will peer into his Word more intently and dig into his promises more freely. So encourage each other to live by dying and rest by striving.
Garrett Kell is the senior pastor of Del Ray Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia.
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format, provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 1,000 physical copies. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be explicitly approved by 9Marks.