a paradox is something that appears to be a contradiction, but from another perspective is not a contradiction at all.  you and i are living paradoxes, and therefore must be prepared to see ourselves in all our reality.  if you can hold and forgive the contradictions within yourself, you can normally do it everywhere else too” – richard rohr

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i go through little kicks now and then with certain writers & right now richard rohr is at the top of my list. so many gems, packed with deep wisdom & truth.  when i stumbled upon this short piece last week i knew it was going to be one worth really fleshing out more than just a casual glance and a toss into the good-quotes-to-keep-bin.  the thing that struck me about it was the reminder of just how difficult it is for so many of us (and i’ll dare say especially evangelical-y types) to live in the tension of two contradicting things existing at the same time.  it’s so easy to stick with black or white, wrong or right, good or bad, dark or light.

i know this well in my own life–in the past, any doubt at all was a lack of faith because in my mind doubt & faith couldn’t co-exist together.  of course, that’s radically changed over the years & holding the tension now–although still annoying at times–is much easier.  i also used to not be able to accept being good & bad at the same time.  i’d either have to be “all good” or “all bad” but there wasn’t anything in between.  so that looked like doing all kinds of things like a “super christian” or swinging the completely other way & defining myself as a “miserable shame-ful wretch.”

there are so many different paradoxes within all of us.  most human beings i know, when they’re being really honest, are a crazy mixture of good & bad, light & dark, ugly & beautiful, strong & weak, confident & fearful. it’s what makes us human. the problem that so many of us have encountered, though, in our spiritual walk is that very little of what we’ve been taught helps us embrace these things at the same time. if we have fear, then we must not trust God.  if we are sinning, then we must not have any good in us.  if we are weak, then we must not be very strong. (note: i think this is why a bunch of christian women have a really hard time admitting they are afraid).

i believe so much freedom would come if we could better learn how to embrace the paradoxes in ourselves. and if we can embrace the paradoxes in ourselves, then it’s far more likely that we can accept them in other people (including God) as well. it really is the first step.

last week as we wrapped up our summer session for our house of refuge (we’ve been doing the 12 steps together), i used this rohr paradox piece in a short exercise we all did together as part of step 12, which is very focused on paying forward what we’re learning on the healing journey.  i think a huge gift we can give to ourselves & the relationships we are in is learning to embrace life, ourselves, each other in paradox.   each of us wrote down the paradox that we see in ourselves & went around the room & simply shared the two words; i could never re-create it, but i will say it was glorious & beautiful to hear all of the wild contradictions we are all learning to hold in tension.  the one that popped into my mind for me was “strong & weak.”

the more i’ve been reflecting on this since last week & from the many random conversations i have had since then, i am more convinced than ever how difficult this is for most people to do at a very deep level. sure, it’s easy to say “oh yeah, i know i’m good and i’m bad at the same time.” but on a gut level, when we really dig a little deeper, it becomes more apparent how much work is being done underneath the surface personally, relationally, spiritually to “get-out-the-bad-the-conflict-the-negative-emotion-as-soon-as-possible-so-we-can-somehow-be-all-good-and-life-is-easier.”

here are some of the benefits i can think of off the top of my head if we can learn to embrace this idea of paradox:

  • we can learn to accept all parts of ourselves instead of rejecting the ugly-real-human-being stuff & being mad at God and ourselves for not getting it out fast enough.
  • we’ll have keener eyes to see the beauty & the ugly (and all the other kinds of wild paradoxes that exist) together in other people (and institutions, too) instead of only focusing on only one or the other.
  • the capacity for grace for ourselves, for others increases.
  • we’ll stop setting ourselves up in relationships where we’re the all-good-one or the all-bad-one.
  • we’ll learn to accept the paradoxes in general life experiences better & develop a resiliency that is impossible when we demand things to be all good or all bad.  we can see joy in suffering, peace in tribulations, and wholeness & healing in brokenness (one of my favorite bloggers, sarah at emerging mummy, recently wrote a post about seeing God in the paradox).
  • we can begin to accept that all of these things apply not just to ourselves & others, but to God, too.  it might help us let God off the hook a bit.
  • we can also see the paradoxes that exist in institutions as well.  yep, that means churches & organizations & families & all kinds of other systems and structures that are filled with all kinds of lovely & annoying paradoxes we’d rather not embrace because it forces us to love & appreciate parts of them we don’t really want to.
  • it widens our ability to intersect our lives with people that are very different from us.

it’s not like this idea of paradox is new to me, i tell people (and myself!) about it all the time.  but i think i realized in this past week that it is much easier to talk about in an intellectual sense than truly embrace it in the deep places of our hearts & our experiences. and that i want to be a person who is willing to live in the tension of my own paradoxes & the paradoxes of others & the paradoxes of God & how critically important it is for me to be part of a faith community that keeps learning to as well.

i’ll end with this, one of my favorite brennan manning quotes ever that i’ve used in all kinds of different ways over time (i think i might have shared it once before on the carnival, but i can’t remember which post):

“when i get honest, i admit i am a bundle of paradoxes.  i believe and i doubt, i hope and i get discouraged, i love and i hate, i feel bad about feeling good, and i feel guilty about not feeling guilty.  i am trusting and suspicious. i am honest and i still play games. aristotle said i am a rational animal; i say i am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.  to live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life’s story, the light side and the dark.  in admitting my shadow side, i learn who i am and what God’s grace means. as thomas merton puts it, “a saint is not someone who is good but someone who experiences the goodness of God.”  – from reflections for the ragamuffins.

i always love comments, they make it way more fun: how easy or hard is for to embrace the paradoxes in yourself, others, God?

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ps: i have a post up this week at communitas collective called romance vs. reality. i sometimes forget to mention that here (it happens every 3 weeks or so…)

ppss:  if you haven’t checked it out, the refuge blog is kind of fun, a variety of different voices from our community each week.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • i find it so hard to keep balanced in the paradox. last week when we did that exercise, i said i was a wounding healer. (note i did not say wounded healer. tho i am that too.) i also thought, but didn’t say i am a kind, loving a$$hole. i’m learning, but it is hard for me to see the paradox in others, as well. it seem so easy to make a person out to be what he seem at his worst moment ( if i don’t like him) or what he seems at his best moment (if i like him a lot.) to paraphrase your quote:”who we are on our worst day does not define us.” i think we need to remember: who we are on our best day does not define us, either. i think the bottom line might just be GRACE. grace for OURSELVES and grace for OTHERS. in this moment i think i might see a new paradox of myself:

  • So glad I’m on a road with others who are no longer into the hot and heavy pursuit of being an excellent christian, holding the belief that when I’m whole God will love me, be proud of me and then my life will finally begin.

    Oh, but Grace. Being loved fully and completely by God and myself now, in this moment, and let others be where they are and who they are…sometimes ugly sometimes beautiful.

    My paradox: to be still and accepting and loving of all my parts and at the same time being intentional about being better.

  • First of all, I loved the bullet points. They were were practical applications of Rohr’s starting point.

    Second, for me the take-away sentence is “it is much easier to talk about in an intellectual sense than truly embrace it in the deep places of our hearts & our experiences.” It occurred to me that part of the transition from young idealist to an older person of hope is the ability to “truly embrace.” Even Abraham “faced the fact” that his body was as good as dead, yet still believed–he didn’t ignore the tension, he embraced it.

    Finally, I think part of the human condition is our desire to “understand.” Perhaps there is some pride in the urge to understand–we want to feel in control of our lives. I wonder how many of us realize “You can’t have the peace that passes understanding until you give up your ‘right’ to understand.” (Bill Johnson)

    Peace to you, Kathy

  • I too have often thought that doubt and faith could not co-exist at many times in my life. Then I came across a saying that I have hanging in my office and at home. “Doubt is a feeling too lonely to know that Faith is it’s twin brother.” This reminds me that when I have doubts, feel insecure, then guilt or shame sets in, that the wonderful gift of God’s grace, restores me. My faith is tested by doubt, and my doubting self turns to my faith for comfort and security. I find the grace of God by allowing myself to have faith again. Were it not for my humanity, my doubtfulness, I would never feel the love of faith returning, forgiveness of my self and the true gift of strength that comes from the search, and the finding of my faith over and over again. So I remind myself, when doubt sets in, that faith is its twin.

  • This post really made me think about my own paradoxes. I tend toward the perfectionist outwardly but at the same time lack discipline internally. I know I have believed the lie that what I do for God makes a difference to him – it doesn’t. When I let that sink in it is freeing and scary at the same time. I love that my daughter and her family, including three grandchildren live with us but hate the mess and the chaos! Thanks for making me think about this Kathy!

  • Thanks for the shout-out. It seems like you’ve crawled into my head on this one. I’ve not yet read Rohr but keep hearing his name over and over. I’ll have to start.

  • mike – really, really good. wounding healer. powerful! yes, it’s so hard to embrace it in others, isn’t it, even after all that work of embracing it in ourselves. thanks for sharing…

    – glad we’re all in the same boat. i agree with you that crazy mix of real & deep self-acceptance & longing/needing to change is a hard one to live in the tension of. it made me think that’s henry cloud’s idea of how we change is grace + trusth + time. grace & truth (not as in the crazy weird bible-y interpretation truth but as in reality & honesty) mix together over a long time. just grace + time won’t do it, just truth + grace won’t do it. just truth + time won’t do it. all 3 need to live together for a while. love you, my friend.

    ray – thank you so much for sharing. i really like this reminder, you said” “I think part of the human condition is our desire to “understand.” Perhaps there is some pride in the urge to understand–we want to feel in control of our lives. I wonder how many of us realize “You can’t have the peace that passes understanding until you give up your ‘right’ to understand.” (Bill Johnson)” that is huge. we strive and strive and strive to make it fit and somehow understand it instead of relinquish, trust, and live in the mystery of how much we don’t….great thoughts, thanks.

    – now that beautiful. love it.

    patty – thanks for reading & glad it stirred up some good stuff to ponder. i have been thinking about it alot.

    – thanks for your voice…i think you might dig some of rohr’s stuff.


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