Deep truths in Christian faith often come packaged in the form of paradox.
We serve a God who is omnipotent yet personal, a God as perfect in love as He is in wrath. Giving does not deplete us, rather fills us so that we have more to give. Our slavery to righteousness sets us free. We are to be marked both by humility and our deep knowledge of our preciousness to God. We must die to ourselves so that we may truly live.
None of this makes sense unless we wrestle with it, unless we struggle and grapple with our understanding of how the world can and ought to be. None of the truths we need to know deep within us are clear without an intellectual fight, lots of questions, and a good deal of time.
We’re currently reading through Isaiah chapter by chapter in office devotions and the same question comes up that often presents itself when we read parables: Why can’t God just come right out and say it?
Why the symbolism, the poetry, the complexity, the mystery? Why lead us on a hunt for the truth instead of simply presenting it to us, beautiful and whole?
Part of the answer is certainly due to literary style. Parables and prophecies were both informed by the styles of writing prominent in their day. Even without belief in God, these texts can be admired for their literary and artistic value alone.
In these kinds of literature, we see symbols and metaphors add depth and complexity to what we can understand. Successful literary devices always do. When describing a beautiful woman, I can tell you that her lips are red. Or I can tell you that her lips are the color of a ripe cherry, giving you all the suggestions of summer, vibrancy, and seduction that come with that.
So our God in the bible is not just powerful and kind, but he also speaks through storms. He is a young lion, fierce and strong. He is a fortress powerful and firm. He is a mother hen, drawing his children underneath his wings. In all of these, we gain so much more than if it was simply handed to us in straightforward words. Instead we are given an explanation imbued with rich beauty and meaning from those symbols that run deeper than the words that depict them.
Beyond the beauty, the style, the richness, still there lies confusion. Beyond the gap of culture and time, there is something so complicated that led even the disciples to ask Jesus what he was actually talking about. So we return to the truth in paradox.
How do you describe a kingdom that conquers the earth completely yet peacefully? It is yeast quietly laboring in dough. How do you communicate the complete disruption of a society undergoing judgement? You tell them tales of desolate cities, families without fathers, and unkempt vineyards. How do you make people understand the power of limited human faith in the hands of an almighty God? You explain to them the humble beginnings of the mustard tree.
We are not given straightforward explanations for many things in scripture, in part, because straightforward explanations cannot explain the deep truth of a paradox, they only leave the listener slightly confused and wanting more. The process of navigating complicated truth explained through parables and symbols allows us to use literary guideposts as a way to discover truth that we can actually believe. Through the struggle of interpretation, we find genuine faith and precious understanding. If God tries to simply hand truth to us with no poetry or puzzles, I think we would lose essential truths and would be left with a perplexing rule book that we wouldn’t really be able to believe in at all.
As difficult as prophecies and parables can be to decipher, we are better for the work of untangling all of that troubling language. On the other end of the confusion of interpretation, we emerge with a truth and a faith that we truly think is worth believing in.