Portrait of A.J. Swoboda

A.J. Swoboda

  • Pastor
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  • Writer
  • Community Architect

Location: Portland, Oregon | USA

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Apr 9, 2015

The Grand Paradox—An Interview with Ken Wytsma

I recently had the privilege of doing a short interview with my friend Ken Wytsma, pastor of Antioch Church in Bend, Oregon. Ken is also the founder of the Justice Conference which has had a tremendous impact on the church. He recently wrote The Grand Paradox, a phenomenally helpful book on the messiness and paradoxes of following Jesus. I thought I'd reach out and ask him a little about the book.

Here's the interview. Enjoy...

Ken, why did you write this book? Or, what was the moment you conceived it in your mind?

The Grand Paradox is, in some way, a conversation on everything I wish someone had told me when I was wrestling through what it looked like to be a Christian. There are so many confusing ways we either misunderstand or misapply Christian teaching that it’s easy to end up with a distorted view of things. These distorted views are usually complex, confusing and not at all satisfying.

The truth, however, I believe is biblical, comprehensive, simple and beautiful—although incredibly difficult.

My wife, Tamara, asked me one night when the book released what it was I was hoping for. I think my answer went something like, “I really believe so much more is possible in people’s relationship with God and I want them to know and experience it.”

Describe the person you had in mind when you wrote this?

I’d say I probably had a lot of people in mind. Maybe different folks for different chapters. The overarching theme—what a lived and obedient faith looks like—was probably something aimed at everyone who feels in their gut that many who claim to believe in God casually don’t really understand biblical faith.

The chapters on happiness were for those people who have been confused by the church into thinking God is against our satisfaction or joy. The heaven chapter was a reminder for everyone that heaven is a necessary part of the equation if we are to understand faith. The chapter on doubt, maybe the most popular in the book, is a paradigm-altering message I hoped most every man and woman would be able to encounter and find freedom through.

As the sticker on the cover suggests, I think this book aims to be a contemporary guide on the pursuit of God (much like AW Tozer’s The Pursuit of God was years ago.)

You discuss paradox throughout the text. When, how, and why did you get turned on to this idea?

When I became a Christian at age 22, I remember being confronted with the illogical or counter-intuitive side of the faith, but for the first time realizing in the upside-down, there was logic and in the illogical, there was truth. 

Die to live. The first shall be last. Humble yourself to be exalted. Pray for your enemies.

All of these are kingdom principles, not things that make sense according to the world. But in the paradox, in the counter-intuitive, we find the beauty and power of the gospel.

Living the Christian life is a grand paradox. But it is also the language of truth and the heart of faith.

Briefly describe the cost of ignoring paradox in the Christian faith? What do we lose?

I think we have a curious habit in the American church of trying to sanitize, simplify or formulize Christian faith. When we do, we come to the subtle belief that everything in life should work out or be fixable if I am a good Christian. 

Embracing the paradox of Christian faith allows us to begin with the messiness of life and not come to think or have the illusions that life will somehow be cleaner than it is or God more clear and forthright than he will be.

Biblical faith extends through time—it walks—in the tension between the messiness of life on the one hand and the mystery of God on the other.

You quote Nietzsche as the key to intimacy with God: “a long obedience in the same direction.” What is the biggest thing that gets in the way of this kind of path?

I guess quoting Nietzsche there is a bit ironic since he wants nothing to do with God, but I love the vivid picture his words evoke: a long obedience in the same direction. 

Faith and obedience are two sides of the same coin. In Abraham, the archetype of faith, we see the word “obey” used for the first time in all of scripture. Not in Adam and Eve, not in Noah, but in Abraham’s story the word “obey” shows up for the first time and in conjunction with Abraham’s faith or trust in God.

Faith doesn’t mean believing that God exists. Faith means that we’re willing to follow and obey the God who exists.

This means something incredible for my life and my future. It means that I am called to walk by faith and trust that, somehow, in doing so, God will bless and hold me. My greatest happiness comes in my greatest surrender to God. Or, as Aquinas put it, “God along constitutes man’s happiness.” 

Believing, as many American’s do, that faith just means responding to an altar call or claiming to believe God exists, is far from the biblical picture of a radical and lived out discipleship.

What will be the thing about the message of this book that you know Christians will struggle most with?

I think Eugene Cho hits on this in his foreword to the book. I believe people will sense in their guts the truth of much of what I’m arguing, but will want a formula or quick steps that will help them become what they are sensing or reading.

The reality of faith, however, is that it’s not something we control, but rather something that happens when we lay down control. Faith isn’t easy or quick. It doesn’t find its power in clichés or formulas, but rather in mystery and obedience.

The tension most people will sense when they read the book is, in my estimation, the point of the book in the first place. Faith and tension go hand in hand.

Are hope and certainty the same thing?

This is a great question. Here is a section from the book that may prove helpful:

Faith is the Answer

Faith isn’t destroyed or diminished by doubt. The opposite is true: faith is the answer to doubt.

When you are in the desert and are dying of thirst, collapsing in the sand won’t take you to water. When you are drowning in the ocean, becoming motionless won’t save your life. Why when we are doubting do we often believe that bringing our Christian walk to a halt will provide us with answers? We get hung up by our doubt, refusing to move forward until we have answers.

Sometimes we inadvertently or even deliberately hit the brakes to create distance between us and God. That’s why turning to sin in the midst of doubt is such a bad idea. The progression often goes like this: we get hurt and say something like, “I am really struggling with my faith. I need a break from church for a while.” Usually that also means a break from prayer, a break from the Bible, and a general break from our Christian community and even our moral code.

But if we were to be honest and say what’s really going on, it might sound more like, “I’m not sure God exists or loves me. So I’m going to isolate myself from Him, His Word, and all the people I know who believe in Him. Instead, I’ll turn to the things I know will give me satisfaction and pleasure until I feel happy enough to believe in God again.”

How can we expect to find God by deliberately pushing Him away? We all understand that cheating on your spouse isn’t going to solve marital problems. It may bring satisfaction for a while, but it certainly won’t fix any problems. Instead, it will most likely be catalytic in the ultimate destruction of the marriage. Our relationship with God is no different.

Throughout Scripture, God never challenges whether doubt should exist. It is the one point of unity between us and God—the recognition that we struggle with faith, belief, and trust. Where we differ from God is what we think should follow doubt. We think the burden rests on God to erase our doubt. God knows that the burden rests on us to continue to trust and wait on Him, even in our doubt.

Our programmed response to confusion is doubt, while the Psalms teach us to respond to confusion with faith. We think doubt demands an answer. God thinks doubt demands faith.

We look at doubt and think it needs an urgent resolution. God looks at doubt and thinks we need patience and endurance.

It could be said that when we think doubt is the problem between us and God, the reality is that an absence of faith or trust might be the real problem.

Ken's book can be found at your favorite, local bookstore. Or, you can find it here. 







Books I've Written

Living People I Read

Alan Hirsch

Allan Anderson

Amos Yong

Bernard Anderson

Dale Davis

Don Carson

Donald Bloesch

Donald Dayton

Donald Gelpi

Ed Dobson

Elizabeth Johnson

Eugene Peterson

Frederick Beuchner

Gary Babcock

Gordon Fee

Gregory Boyd

Harvey Cox

John Drane

John Goldingay

John Stott

John Zizioulas

Jim Belcher

Jürgen Moltmann

Karen Armstrong

Kenneth Bailey

Kevin Vanhoozer

Kirsteen Kim

Larry Hurtado

Lauren Winner

Mark Cartledge

Margaret Feinberg

Mel Robeck

Nancey Murphy

N.T. Wright

Paul Hiebert

Ray Bakke

Richard Baukham

Rodney Clapp

Robert Banks

Rowan Williams

Sallie McFague

Stanley Fish

Stanley Hauerwas

Thomas Schmidt

Timothy Keller

Walter Brueggemann

Zygmunt Bauman

Dead People I Read

Aimee Semple McPherson



Basil the Great

Charles Spurgeon

Charles Wesley

Colin Gunton

C.S. Lewis

David Bosch

Dorothy Day

Dorothy Sayer

G.K. Chesterton

George Eldon Ladd

Hendrickus Berkhof

Henri Nouwen

John Wesley

Jonathan Edwards

John Calvin

Joseph Fitzmyer

Karl Barth

Leslie Newbigin

Martin Luther

Michel Foucault

Paul Tillich

Raymond Brown

Robert Farrar Capon

Roland Allen

Simone Weil

Steven Bevans

Theresa of Avila

Vincent Donovan

Walter Hollenweger

William McClendon

Top 10 Books Ever

#1 Theology and Hope: On the Ground and Implications of a Christian Eschatology (Jürgen Moltmann)

#2 Church Dogmatics (Karl Barth)

#3 Systematic Theology: Doctrine, Witness, Ethics (William McClendon)

#4 Scandalous Beauty: The Artistry of God and the Way of the Cross (Thomas Schmidt)

#5 On the IncarnationDe Incarnatione Verbi Dei (St. Athanasius)

#6 Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt & Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Leslie Newbigin)

#7 Narratives of a Vulnerable God: Christ, Theology, and Scripture (William Placher)

#8 Personal KnowledgeTowards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Michael Polanyi)

#9 Desiring the KingdomWorship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (James K.A. Smith)

#10 Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Miroslav Volf)