One of my favourite hymns, by George Matheson, I call the paradox hymn because it contains truths in tension that seem to me to go not only to the heart of religion but of that human reality that cannot be completely encapsulated by reason.
The first verse reads: Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free; /Force me to render up my sword, and I shall conqu’ror be. / I sink in life’s alarms when by myself I stand; / Imprison me within / Thine arms, and strong shall be my hand.
Matheson suggests our will is only free when it is in tune with God’s, that to reign we must surrender our sovereignty, that our strength is made manifest in our weakness, and more.
A 19th-century Scot, Matheson wrote from his own suffering. He was a gifted scholar who went blind at 20 and was abandoned by his fiance, but became a Church of Scotland minister and fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
The hymn’s power for me lies in the fact that it recognises our lives are complicated and in many ways opaque to our own understanding, and we live with tensions or paradoxes between many priorities and principles.
It is cognate to the thought common in many religions that the abandonment of desire, not its accomplishment, leads to fulfilment. Christians seek to “die to self” and live for Christ, and are promised that here fulfilment lies.
The good news of the Christian message is built on the apparently logically unresolvable tension between the holiness of God that must turn away from moral imperfection, and the love of God that requires that he reach out to rescue disabled humanity. He achieves this by sacrificing himself, in the person of Jesus Christ.
I know many people find the idea of God absurd, and that gospel message abhorrent, but when (as an atheist in my 20s) I finally understood it I found its beauty overwhelming.
Let me put the paradox in secular terms. Although economists and rationalists base their models on humans following self-interest, very often we do not.
Altruism and heroic self-sacrifice are remarkably common, and cannot be explained by fanciful evolutionary accounts about helping the species survive.
Someone has listed the paradoxes of Christianity: we see unseen things; we conquer by yielding; we find rest under a yoke; we reign by serving; we are made great by becoming small; we are exalted when we are humble; we become wise by being fools for Christ’s sake; we are made free by becoming servants; we gain strength when we are weak; we triumph through defeat; we find victory by glorying in our infirmities; we live by dying.
For Christians, these are truths, and beautiful ones.
Barney Zwartz is a member of the Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy (RASP) and a senior fellow with the Centre for Public Christianity.