One Sunday not long ago, I was leading children’s worship in our church. During the weekly prayer time, we sat in a circle with the kids taking turns holding a cross that designates their moment to pray, either silently or out loud. I couldn’t help but smile at the “prayer face” some kids made when their turn arrived. Upon receiving the cross, they would scrunch up their closed eyes and assume a very serious demeanor. This was the posture they thought God wanted to see.
Watching them reminded me of Jen Pollock Michel’s words in Surprised by Paradox: The Promise of “And” in an Either-Or World: “There is a great deal of polite praying in church. I am guilty of it myself. We are pious and solicitous with God. . . . Prayer seems to be a lot of saying what we think God wants to hear.”
As Michel observes, God wants to hear not our polite prayers but our rawest expressions of grief, complaint, and hurt. This is one of the surprising paradoxes her book invites us to explore—that prayers of lament can function as confessions of faith. While they may seem impolite and impious, they still involve faith. “Maybe mustard seed faith, maybe angry faith,” she writes, but a form of faith nonetheless.
These kinds of prayers are deeply biblical. Indeed, Michel points out that Scripture contains more psalms of lament than psalms of thanksgiving and praise. Even Christ himself, nailed to the cross, prays the words of Psalm 22:1: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” As Michel puts it, “God did not simply author the songs of lament: he sang them.”
It is clear that Michel’s words on lament carry a deep familiarity with grief, suffering, and the questions they raise, even as they are equally soaked in Scripture. Again and again, the book points us to God’s words and God’s wisdom, keeping the biblical story prominent while offering glimpses into the author’s own life and faith.
Surprised by Paradox considers three other biblical motifs—incarnation, kingdom, and grace—that aren’t as straightforward as we imagine. Reflecting on the Incarnation, Michel marvels at how the God of glory chose to make his glory known by having his Son enter the world as a tiny baby. The Incarnation opens a rich vein of reflection on the relationship of the material world to our spiritual lives, which Michel draws out by beautifully tracing the significance of food throughout the biblical story. In today’s world, we’re often preoccupied with “finding ourselves,” but the Incarnation reminds us that this only happens by looking to Jesus, the one who reclaimed humanity’s glory as he offered his life for our sin. In union with Christ, we are saved from the clutches of pride so that, as Michel writes, we might “burst into glorious flame,” glorifying God as we bear his image in the world.
Turning to the kingdom of God, Michel notes how we often overlook this theme, despite Jesus launching his public ministry by pronouncing that “the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt. 4:17). Even though Jesus offered many teachings about the kingdom, she observes, his earliest followers had trouble understanding its upside-down nature. And today, even though we may regularly pray, “let your kingdom come,” we can still find ourselves in thrall to notions of individual salvation that neglect how, in Michel’s words, “the kingdom of God involves a reality much bigger than the private affairs of our lives.”
Regarding the paradox of grace, Michel explores the strange truth that the good news of God’s grace can be the hardest gift to truly receive. She looks, too, at the paradoxical reality that grace, though it isn’t earned by obedience to God’s commands, still commits us to strive for obedient living. Sanctification, made possible by God’s ongoing grace in our lives, likewise entails work and effort on our part, even as we remember that our work and effort are always grace-empowered.
Centuries ago, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard drew attention to the paradoxes of Christianity. He was concerned that believers in his culture had not fully comprehended the mysteries of their faith. One of his most famous books is titled Either/Or, although in truth he wanted readers to reject the “either-or” options represented within the book. Like Kierkegaard, Surprised by Paradox asks us to reject an either-or approach to certain irreducible mysteries of Christian faith, assuming instead a posture of humility and wonder as we contemplate the fathomless riches of God and his grace.
Kristen Deede Johnson is professor of theology and Christian formation at Western Theological Seminary. She is the co-author, with Bethany Hoang, of The Justice Calling: Where Passion Meets Perseverance (Brazos).
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