The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. –F. Scott Fitzgerald

I’ve always loved paradox.

How is it that two things so seemingly contradictory can both be true, at once, together–and, particularly, make sense?

Lutheranism, or more correctly according to my dad, Christianity, has a number of wonderful paradoxes. Many of them form the base of our theology, which is why I say Lutheranism, although, direct quote from my dad, “I wouldn’t call them ‘Lutheran,’ because Luther simply got into the thought-world of the Scriptures and expressed what is there.” But that’s exactly it: the particular lens through which Lutherans look at some of these ideas in tension is unique.

Here’s a list I came up with–can you add any more?

  • Law/Gospel
  • Sinner/Saint
  • Bread and Wine/Body and Blood
  • In this world/Not of this world
  • God/Man
  • Heaven/Hell (if we go to heaven, it was all God; if we go to hell, it’s all us)
  • Now/Not Yet
  • Human Evil/Divine Good (“You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”)

And, of course, the greatest contradiction of all: the cross. Humiliation/Glory.

My dad added to my list

  • Christ the Lamb/Christ the Shepherd (Rev. 7)
  • Christ the Lion/Christ the Lamb (Rev. 5)
  • Christ the Priest/Christ the Sacrifice (Hebrews 7-10)


Most of you have seen this painting in our dining room, created by our dear, talented artist friend Terrie and given to us in Knoxville. She called it “Sinner and Saint.” We get a ton of comments on it. It’s not easily understood, and the concept of sinner and saint is even harder to swallow–why is why we love it so much.

Why all this talk about paradox? Yesterday I listened to this great podcast with Jennifer Russell and Bryan Franklin about being an entrepreneur vs. business owner. The entire podcast was great, but I especially loved the section on paradox. Great leaders, Russell and Franklin say, are able to “hold” paradox.

Last night I was reading my notes to Derek, and he said, “This sounds very Lutheran.” It does, it really does. Read on.

What is “holding paradox” exactly? It simply means you can experience the truth of each side and feel them both simultaneously without demoting the meaning of the other. They used the example of universal significance: In the context of the cosmos, you’re unimaginably insignificant. And yet, to your loved ones, you could not be more significant. Everything you say and do matters. Your vote counts, and so does how you use your life and love and intention.

[Where’s the Lutheranism in that? Why, just add God into the mix. He created this vast universe, and yet He knows the number of hairs on your head and He has your days counted and He hears all your prayers. Pretty cool.]

Most people, when presented with a paradox of this magnitude, cannot handle the truth of both sides at once, so they either believe one side and dismiss the other, or they put the other in a cognitive dissonance box because there is simply no way for their mind to reconcile these two disparate beliefs.

But, Franklin and Russell say, dismissing or ignoring one of the two sides of the paradox rob you of its power, which is that things only appear to be contradictory because you’re looking at them in a lower dimension than they’re made of.

[Again with the Lutheranism: we humans do this all the time, trying to process, define, and box God in to our piddly frame of thinking, when what we know and what we think we know and what we really don’t know are way out of whack.]

The example they give of looking at a paradox in a lower dimension is like looking at a 2D drawing of a 3D cube. I love this analogy, because as a kid I used to sit around and draw 3D objects constantly when I was bored in class. This year I discovered that Sophia does the same thing. Yes, she’s my child inside and out.

So in the 2D drawing, the lines are at funny angles and they cross each other, when on a real cube, they are at 90-degree angles to each other. If you hold that sensation of a 90-degree parallel when you look at the drawing, it pops in your mind and you elevate to 3D thinking, where there is no conflict.


The lesson: any time you feel things in conflict, pull out. Absorb the paradox. Allow yourself to see a broader and more sophisticated view.

I love the examples they gave for a relationship paradigm, because it has application to everything from marriage to parent-child to colleagues at work. The relationship paradox is that between present perfection (“You’re absolutely wonderful just the way you are”) and the drive or force that says you can be even more (“Even though you’re absolutely wonderful, I know you could be even better”). Think about this in terms of a parent-child relationship. We all love our kids to pieces and think God gave us absolute perfection, and yet we invest time and energy in teaching them to be better people: to not hit each other, to clear the table, to become good stewards and the type of people who serve others in the world.

In a work setting, holding this relationship paradox, if done correctly within the entire company, can  help everyone grow and learn. The idea is to not throw blame but to constantly strive for improvement while acknowledging that each person is responsible for and perfectly suited to their job. For me, that would mean I’m superfantabulous at digital marketing, but that when–and that’s when, not if–I screw up, the other team members would push me to do better, to be more.

For oneself, holding this paradox means you can acknowledge your present value and yet strive for more, without one eroding the other. Think, Franklin and Russell say, about how compelling a leader you can be with this tension.

The final thing I loved that they said was how when you hold a paradox, you can make decisions that serve both sides of it. In the case of raising kids, it’s “I love you just the way you are, and you are fearfully and wonderfully made, and I want you to try harder on your math because you’re being lazy and I know you have it in you to solve these problems.” The decision is to do the hard thing in service to the now and the growth.

For work, it’s “I am perfectly suited for this vocation, but I am committed to always striving to be better at it and to continue to grow and learn in it.”

In a marriage, it’s “This person is God’s gift to me as my lifelong partner. He is perfect for me. I am perfect for him. Yet we continue to improve and solidify our relationship because we’re focused on the now and the long haul.” The decision is to admire, love, and respect while continually trying to make an imperfect relationship better.

(On this one, it’s easy to see the opposite effect, either dismissing one side or practicing cognitive dissonance on it: You can know God gave you your spouse without understanding the drive to improve–and without that, many relationships grow sour and cold. Or you can try to improve–usually the other person–without recognizing that he or she is perfect, as is, for you.)

Which brings me right back to the Lutheran tension of the “now” and the “not yet.” Apply the idea of “holding the paradox” here: You can experience the complete truth of God’s kingdom already being here and yet not fully here until Jesus returns again. Or Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine: It IS bread and wine. It IS body and blood. While theologians have argued over the nuances of “This is my body” and “This is my blood” for centuries, we are comfortably able to hold this paradox.

Because we know we’re all arguing over a 2D drawing instead of getting that we simply don’t get the 3D reality.