Jonathan Edwards, the great American theologian, believed in paradox. He believed that in God we see many traits that don’t seem to belong together: infinite greatness and infinite care, infinite justice and infinite mercy, and infinite majesty displaying itself as stunning meekness. So did G.K. Chesterton, who said, “An element of paradox runs through the whole of existence itself.”

I confess I’m not always comfortable with paradox. I like my theology neatly defined. I understand and accept the idea of paradox, but it sometimes makes me nervous.

According to Jen Pollock Michel, author of the new book Surprised by Paradox, paradox isn’t the exception in life with God; it’s the rule. “From the way Jesus’ life unfolds (from the incarnation to his public ministry, and then to his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascent), everything is full of surprise. God upends our expectations along the way, which seems to insist that we must approach theology with a great deal of mystery.”

Michel is no enemy of theological certainty. Her book is crisp with theological insight. I’m often taken when I read her by her grasp of good theology and her ability to express it clearly and beautifully. But Michel also knows that Scripture doesn’t resolve every apparent paradox. It leaves room for mystery. We live with tension and perplexity. We must worship with humility, wonder, and trust, understanding that there’s a lot we don’t understand.

Surprised by Paradox traces the paradox in Scripture contained within four biblical themes: incarnation, kingdom, grace, and lament. Michel takes us through the major events of Jesus’ life as she also reflects on the tensions and struggles in her own life.

Michel does a good job handling these themes, but that’s not the only reason to read this book. It’s also worth reading because it’s written so well. I decided a while ago that I would read every book that Michel writes. This one reminded me how much I enjoy her writing. Michel is artful. There are sentences in this book (for instance, “Pretense in prayer is a lot like kissing with your clothes on”) that made me put down the book and pray that I would one day be able to write half as well as she can.

But here’s the main reason I recommend reading this book: because the older you get, the more you will recognize the reality of paradox. “This book began in a counselor’s office,” she starts — and that’s enough to get me interested. Michel does not write in the abstract. She writes as someone who has suffered, someone who has questions, and as someone who can relate to you and to me.

I think you’ve probably guessed by now: I loved this book. “As soon as we think we have God figured out, we will have ceased to worship him as he is,” she writes. Well, I want to worship God as he is, and to understand life as it is, and that means living with paradox. This book helps. Read it, enjoy it, and allow it to help you embrace both the certainties and paradoxes of Scripture and life.

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Surprised by Paradox
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