The following is an excerpt from the book, Falling to Heaven: The Surprising Path to Happiness, by James L. Ferrell. We will share one chapter or excerpt, with permission, each week.
Truth in Contradiction
I once saw a T-shirt with this message on the front: “The sentence on the back of this shirt is true.” Then, on the back, it said this: “The sentence on the front of this shirt is a lie.” The two statements make the mind spin, don’t they? That’s because they form a paradox-a self-contradictory and therefore absurd statement. The paradox at the heart of the gospel is not like this one. The divine paradox seems to be a contradiction, but it actually expresses the deepest and most exquisite truth. The trouble is, since it seems like a contradiction, we can easily resist or dismiss it. If we do, we miss all that it offers, including an understanding of happiness.
Sometimes I find it helpful to think by analogy, and regarding paradoxes, some of the clearest examples are from sports. For example, consider weight training. How do we build our muscles up? By breaking them down. That seems paradoxical, doesn’t it? But it’s nevertheless how it works.
Similarly, think about rebounding a basketball. The natural reflex when rebounding is to go to the hoop to get the ball. But this is a mistake. The best rebounders don’t move toward the basket to get the ball, they move away. That is, their first move is to step away from the basket to seal off their opponents. This is hard to do because it seems backwards. To put it in scriptural voice, “Move to the ball and you will miss it; move away and ye shall find.”
Or consider biking. When I first started road biking, every day I tried to ride as fast as I could. It seemed obvious that the way to build strength and be able to ride faster was always to pedal as hard as possible. But then I met a wise man and master cyclist, and I learned this paradoxical truth: “If you want to go fast, you have to go slow.” What? I responded. That doesn’t make sense! But it does. The building of strength and speed requires regular rides of only moderate pace in order to build what riders call their “base.” To put it scripturally, “To go fast, ye must needs go slow.”
Similar paradoxes abound in golf. If you want to hit the ball hard, for example, it turns out that it usually helps to swing easy. And to hit the ball up, you have to swing down. Most of us who golf are hackers because in order to do it well you have to submit to the paradoxes that lie at the game’s core. Our bodies resist. “I’m going to crush this ball!” we say to ourselves, and we tense up the very muscles that need to be relaxed in order to hit a good shot. Insisting on doing what seems natural and logical, we end up doing exactly the wrong thing!
The existence of an important divine paradox is implied by how often the Lord and his prophets speak in paradoxical terms. Jesus famously taught, “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” To his disciples he said, “Whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all.” Concerning wisdom, Paul declared, “If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise.” “When I am weak,” he declared elsewhere, “then am I strong.”
Consider as well the paradoxical nature of the central elements of the gospel. God became man. Mankind fell so that they might become exalted. Jesus died so that we might live. Our “garments are made white in his blood.” “And with his stripes we are healed.“
“Compared to God,” President Dieter F. Uchtdorf has said, “man is nothing; yet we are everything to God.” He called this the “paradox of man,” and warned against concentrating only on one half of the paradox. We may think that happiness is found by focusing only on the happy second half of the statement, for example-on the reality of God’s love. But this is a mistake. We cannot understand the infinite depth of God’s love unless we can grasp the extent of our own nothingness before him, and we cannot understand our nothingness apart from the loving Being who saves us from it. The two parts are a whole, and the truth emerges from the apparent contradiction.
Considering these various examples, it seems that certain central truths of the gospel are most accurately expressed through paradox. If so, here is our challenge: Until we penetrate the divine paradox, we will reflexively resist it. It will seem strange to us, or mistaken, or difficult to understand or to implement. The temptation will be to give up and go back to our old ways-back to focusing on or doing what feels easier or more natural. But that would be a mistake. When we begin to tire of lifting weights, that’s exactly when we need to keep doing it. When the basketball is lofting toward the hoop, that’s precisely when we need to move away. When we are wondering whether God loves us, the answer may paradoxically lie in discovering, as Moses and the people of King Benjamin did, how we are less than we have ever before supposed!
So it seems that the pathways to the answers we seek are often exactly where we are not looking. This means that in order to put off the unhappiness of the natural man, we must first do what feels unnatural to the natural man. And that requires that we to submit to, rather than resist, the paradox. Which, of course, is an act of faith, a reality that brings us to the mother of all paradoxes, the divine paradox that governs our ability to receive the blessings of the tree of life-the fruit of which, the prophet Lehi taught us, fills one’s soul “with exceedingly great joy” and is “desirable to make one happy.
(c) 2012 James L. Ferrell
All rights reserved. Published by Deseret Book Company. Reprinted with permission.