How can God love me when I’m so unsorted and such a mass of contradictions and petty feelings? This question constantly dwells in me, not far beneath the surface of my brain. I wake up aware of the frustrations of life and the frustrations I have with my own self. I generally don’t have a problem seeing how God could love someone else, no matter how screwed up they think they are, but something happens when I turn that thought of love towards myself. The power of my doubt never seems to fully go away, no matter how deeply the Spirit of God works to convince me of God’s great love. It’s not easy for us to understand the Both-And of being unworthy and yet adopted by God. Our brain’s “factory setting” seems to be Either-Or thinking, and that’s the mindset we are often trained into. Either I feel worthy, or I’m not worthy. Either I can prove my worth, or I’m out of luck. This is how must people have learned to think, even within the church, which is why we are often so unfamiliar with (and perhaps even offended by) a real encounter with grace. There’s usually a trap in the middle of Either-Or thinking, and we are easily ensnared.
I visited the stunning Getty Villa recently, which is a spectacular museum in Malibu, CA. Sitting in the expansive garden, overlooking the Pacific, I found myself thinking about all the resource it took to create such a beautiful space. And then I started thinking about how all that resource could have been used in entirely different ways. From that perspective, the setting seemed extravagant, an opulent and perhaps unnecessary use of wealth. And yet sitting there, I was also so grateful that someone had the vision and resource to create such a sublime place. My brain couldn’t land on which point of view was the “right” view. It is hard for our brains to hold two seemingly opposite truths at once!
I am reminded of the woman who poured expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet. Judas, eager to claim the moral high ground, pointed out how many poor people the expensive commodity might have fed had it been sold. But Jesus said, in essence, “Stop it. She’s done a beautiful thing.” Jesus, who focused so much on the poor and marginalized (and who went to great lengths to feed them) also recognized that the beauty of extravagant sacrifice, even at a great cost, is a noble end. He knew that life was about more than about mere food and physical survival, but also the needs of the mind and spirit and soul. He could see the Both-And of using resource both for the needs of the body and the soul, precisely because he himself experienced the same paradox.
Jesus could hold tension because he himself was in the tension. Jesus is truly the image of God, then, now, and for all time! It’s always a great mind, like Jesus (the greatest of minds) who can hold the tensions inherent in Both-And thinking. And it’s crucial for us to learn to live in Both-Ands if we are to live in our identity as children of God. After all, how can we know that we are unworthy, full of contradictions, and yet be called “the righteousness of God in Christ?” Only a mind that has learned to hold Both-And over Either-Or can live into the story God’s writes for us!
But Both-And thinking takes us even further, to the very face of God. Faith is all about holding tension until we start to see how great and merciful God is, Who both allows, holds, and experiences all these tensions Himself. This, again, is precisely what Jesus demonstrates. God makes Himself vulnerable, suffering within the tensions of life with us, so that a universe with real relationship, not to mention love, is possible. God is not so much “out there” as “right here.” And as Paul says, God allowed himself to be “emptied,” so as to have communion with us. This, of course, is what the incarnation of Jesus was all about, but God was suffering with the world long before Jesus hung on a cross. And he suffers still. The only path for us, for our part, to enjoy this communion is to stop looking for God-the-All-Powerful alone, so that we can also encounter God-the-All-Vulnerable, who remains afflicted with us as we are afflicted.
And so the journey of faith confronts us with yet another Both-And: we begin to experience God not only in the greatness of his power but also in the greatness of His humble vulnerability. When we begin to see, understand, and more importantly, experience this reality, everything changes. When we experience that God truly is Emmanuel, God with us, even at a great and extravagant cost to Himself, faith becomes a “knowing” of an entirely different sort. It ceases to be about trying to screw up our will power to “believe more” and becomes a confident inward knowing which, while impossible to prove is nevertheless an all-encompassing reality.
What a gift then, is paradox and the ability to live into the Both-Ands of life. Ultimately, it allows us to see God who holds all the tensions of the world and in turn, to be held by Him in an entirely new way.