Raised in contradiction, my father was a drunk and my mother was a saint. My dad not infrequently disappeared for days, sometimes weeks, taking his paycheck and leaving us wondering how to pay for groceries. When you are a child of an alcoholic it is not uncommon for you to internalize feelings of unworthiness and abandonment. The self emerges hobbled. The mind of a child cannot articulate his feelings; nevertheless he feels something is wrong with him. There must be a reason Dad does not show up to school open houses or Little League games. "I do not matter" is the answer.
So my religious mother presented the church to me as a solution for the failure of my dad, but the God of my mother’s fundamentalist church did not like me much either. My hair length, my music, my literature, my ideas, language, movies, card games, school dances, flashy clothes, jewelry of any kind, boy-girl romances, and certain friends were suspect and to be shunned. My culture was to be avoided. It had too many minefields where God was reluctant to tread. More paradox: Jesus incarnated into my culture but then my culture is stripped of all identity except what the church approves. I wondered if denuding the culture was salvation. The separation between secular and sacred further supported this idea: the Son did not come for ‘us,’ He came for the sanitized. Culling the herd seemed more the goal. Further, I needed to insulate myself in church schools where I would learn behavior that pleased God. I needed to wear ‘the robe of Christ’s righteousness,’ so the Father would find me worthy of a relationship. Apparently I did not qualify, thus creating more feelings of unworthiness like those my father engendered. ‘Separatism,’ was a holy doctrine. My church-culture found my character deficient, in constant need of cleansing and development; I was unacceptable as I was. God loved me just as I am; well, almost. Such certainty about uncertainty led me to conclude: my mother’s God needed to see a therapist. Contradiction continued its work.
Do not get me wrong, my mother loved me. She was a saint by church standards, but I never fit the mold her religious mind had constructed. I too easily wandered off her reservation. She would tell me, in a mother’s loving way, how I disappointed her. I forgot my lines in her screenplay. My mother was deeply caring but judgmental. I found that puzzling, not unlike the church in which she worshipped. On the other hand, when my father and I reconciled years later, he had no criteria by which to measure the value of our relationship. He did not care if the square peg did not fit the round hole. Satisfied with our renewed relationship; our time together was all that mattered. Because of his own brokenness, he never expressed disappointment with me. His life history reminded him not to be judgmental and, therefore, he welcomed me without qualification. Paradoxically, I learned more about grace and forgiveness from my sin-ridden father than I did from my faithful Christian mother.
More catch-22: I elected to become a minister in the same church that separated itself from the precise culture it targeted to save. As a minister, I thought God would find me acceptable, but a few years of this mistake and the damn broke. I bolted to find an existence away from this agonizing dilemma of believing in a loving God but finding instead the church’s ‘hanging judge.’ I concluded my church of fences and motes was an insidious system of salvation by behavior. I frantically searched far and wide, reading every author I could find who spoke about God’s infinite love for the sinner. On my Damascus Road, I discovered the Father adored me, even liked me. Jesus, Father and Spirit each possesses a heart of love and acceptance. Jesus was not a bridge from me to a distance wrathful Father, but a bridge straight from the Father’s heart to mine. God’s primary essence was not perfect moral rectitude, but love and fellowship and inclusion as evidenced by the Trinity. God’s holiness is His perfect love and communion with Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I learned I was not separated from God because of me, but I was included because of Him. Like the earthquake that shook the chains off Paul and Silas,[i] the Gospel set me free.
Contradiction is a force, two tectonic plates ripping a new landscape, grinding truth out of the life. My personal inconsistencies challenge the delusions I have constructed. We thrive on illusions; they puff us up and make us what we’re not. We fabricate almost unperceptive self-views based on lies we tell ourselves. We become frauds. When I think I am witty and full of insights; when I think I have life under controI, I do something reckless or unbelievably contrary. I eloquently preach love but behave like a bigot. I talk of faith but doubt crushes me. My views of righteousness demean or disqualify others. George MacDonald writes, “Indeed the business of the universe is to make such a fool of you that you will know yourself one, and become wise.”[ii] Therefore, I embrace my contradictions for they remind me who I am.
There is a difference between a contradiction and paradox. Paradox is more than opposites colliding; a paradox is a truth that tells us something about ourselves. I yearn for life and indulge self-destructive behaviors. That is a contradiction, but it is also a paradox revealing a fact about me: my nature is conflicted with inner realities that clash. A plight I suspect afflicts most of the human race. We are the elder brother and the prodigal. We are a mixed bag. Being haughty or self-righteous, therefore, is an illusion and a lie. Admitting we have contradictions and paradoxes is a form of confession, another word for honesty. I am not as together as I think; in fact, the opposite is true. Jesus arrives in my mess and saves me from being an ‘empty suit’ and contradiction is frequently the tool He wields. When I admit that goodness and badness together find a place in my heart, I move towards a restored self. My contradiction becomes my paradox: for as I lose life I find it. As I confess my brokenness, I begin to find wholeness. I realize again and again ‘that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from me (ourselves)...’ (2 Cor. 4:7). Our achievements, accomplishments, good deeds and positive strides at character development are valuable and encouraged, but they can become illusions by which we define ourselves. The truth we cannot avoid or deny is that our demonstrably flawed humanity needs a Savior.
I learned the origin of my contradictions grew in the Garden. The Tree of Good and Evil offered us eternal bliss or Pandora’s Box. The lid blew off, and the Garden morphed into Charles Bukowski’s seedy world of drunkenness, debauchery, and cigarette smoke in dingy apartments.[iii] The beginnings of self-destruction and environmental decay, and worse, a misunderstanding of the character of God. From sin’s inception, a loving Father was suddenly thought to be frightening, eager to punish, and not to be trusted. He needed blood to love and forgive. Sin birthed the destructive and persistent reality of projecting on God our fears and misgivings, our inability to trust or be trusted, and our need for illusions, like fig leaves, to hide us from ourselves. Our understanding of God further plummeted into regions of darkness and fear. ‘Caught in the devil's bargain/ And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden,’[iv] yet we believed Him as capricious, angry, or distant and indifferent, or receded and absorbed by all things, notions generated by tainted hearts. Though this view of God is a pernicious contradiction, ironically, at the moment of our fall, the Father comes looking for us like the woman seeking her lost coin.[v] He clothes us in our shame (a symbol of adoption),[vi] to let us know it is not He who has changed, but us. In our brokenness and disgrace, Grace visited us and relentlessly still does as the Hound of Heaven[vii] asking, ‘Where are you?’ (Gen. 3: 9). Our incongruities and sins notwithstanding, He is Immanuel.
From the Incarnation, I learned the heart of the Father. Jesus arrives in our messy lives not to judge, but to let us know we are loved and welcomed. From eternity, God called and adopted me,[viii] and though the Fall made God confront chaos and brutal savagery, it did not change His relationship with me. He knew the risks of becoming like us, but He came nonetheless. Dr. Ray S. Anderson writes, ‘God anticipated the risk of creating life with the possibility of death…The incarnational love of God presupposes a tragic dimension when the infinite is exposed to suffering the impossibilities of the finite.’[ix] It is this love of the Father that inspires me to be like Him. Where He finds me He says, ‘This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.’ Jesus is the Father with us, the truth of a God ‘who so loved the world’ that He came to our disordered and fractured planet as one of us to redeem and retrieve. My Holy God loving the likes of me, the most poignant of contradictions and the one I will ponder for eternity.
—Greg Prout is a member of the Southern California Conference Executive Committee.
[i] Acts 16. All biblical texts are from New American Standard Bible, 1972.
[ii] George MacDonald,Lilith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), p. 26.
[iii] Charles Bukowski, an American author and poet (1920-1994) wrote from experience about the darker, seedier side of life.
[iv] Joni Mitchell’s song,‘Woodstock,’ 1969.
[v] Genesis 3:8, 9; Luke 15:8-10.
[vi] A. Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East (London, 1910), p.78. See Genesis 3:21.
[vii] Francis Thompson’s ‘Hound of Heaven,’ (1893).
[viii] Ephesians 1:3-5; 2 Timothy 1:9.
[ix] Ray S. Anderson, The Soul of God, (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2004), p. 82.
Image: Salvador Dalí, Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5252