By Chelsea Gonzalez, Marketing, Sales, and Rights Assistant
The Christian Life, a Contradiction
The title The Paradox of Holiness caught my eye because the idea of contradiction, especially as it refers to Christian life, is intriguing to me. Apparently the cherished theologian Donald Bloesch believed the same, which is why he dedicated one of his final works to analyzing traits that we struggle to grow in, but by the powerful work of the Holy Spirit still pursue. In the first chapter of his equal parts devotional and book of theology, Bloesch writes, “Holiness is paradoxical because it contains both faith and discipline, joy and sorrow, meekness and boldness, wisdom and ardor, piety and love, peace and turbulence . . . [It] reminds us that saints are at the same time sinners” (4). I deeply appreciate how earnest Bloesch is in making the point that faith and obedience always belong hand in hand. You cannot have one without the other. He is quick and consistent to mention, however, that we can do nothing in our own strength, but it is Christ—in his love and forgiveness—who allows the fruit of holiness to develop and mature in us. Because of this, our sanctification is not only possible, but also inevitable.
Joy Is Not Optional
Of the many significant virtues Bloesch discusses, I want to look more closely at his chapter on joy. Bloesch notes that “joy is a hallmark of genuine faith” (xvi). It is mentioned in scripture countless times and is a paradox in itself due to its intermingled relationship with sorrow. In today’s cultural conversations, joy is as important a topic as ever. In the most recent United Nations’ World Happiness Report, despite having a strong economy and low crime rates, the US dropped in the rankings for the third straight year and is now in the 19th spot—America’s worst showing ever.1 There are no doubt several educated guesses as to why there’s been a decline in overall contentment in the last few years. What is certain is that for the Christian, joy is not optional, nor is it circumstantial. There is a stubborn, persistent condition of the soul that cannot help rejoice in the work of Jesus.
Joy Doesn’t Always Look Like Happiness
From a young age I’ve always pursued what I thought would bring me the most joy. Using my vivid imagination, I loved to dream up scenarios that would make me the most happy. Whether it was a particular location, career path, or person, I chased after what I most desired. And I was always wanting for more.
When I became a Christian in college, this idealism deepened to include a better understanding of what the psalmist meant by, “in thy presence there is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11). I’ve felt this inexpressible joy tangibly and gratefully after periods of time in prayer and worship, but it wasn’t until I experienced heartbreak that I truly understood the difference between happiness and joy as Bloesch details in The Paradox of Holiness. He writes, “Happiness is based on circumstances. Joy is based on the awesome reality of the Lord’s presence. Happiness connotes a fleeting pleasure. Joy, on the other hand, is enduring . . . The biblical witness is that joy can exist when the blessings of life are taken from us” (38). When the Lord, in his wisdom, stripped away what I held most dear, it revealed deep-rooted idols clothed in lovely images for what my future could look like. During this painful refining of my heart, God showed me more care and peace than I thought possible.
An Example of Gospel Joy
Bloesch communicates well what I came to understand (and am still learning today): joy for the Christian comes in greater supply by living a life of surrender and obedience to the Father. This can look like small acts of submission in working faithfully at a job God provides, or it can look like greater means of self-denial or acceptance, so long as there is faith in God’s love and provision.
One of the most wonderful aspects of The Paradox of Holiness is the numerous examples of godly men and women Bloesch includes in each chapter. I gladly spent some time researching these individuals I was introduced to in this book. For instance, the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is highlighted as a representation of the joyous faith, despite his circumstances. Even while in a harsh prison during WWII, one of his co-prisoners wrote, “He always seemed to diffuse an atmosphere of happiness, of joy in every smallest event in life, and of deep gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive” (35). This is the kind of radical joy I want my life to exemplify.
Both Scholar and Saint
Donald Bloesch’s devoted wife Brenda witnessed her husband’s impenetrable joy especially in his dying days. She remarked that despite suffering excruciating pain, Bloesch sang gospel hymns at the top of his voice. Even as he lay dying, he was filled with praise for Jesus (xvi). This piece of information adds a degree of compelling validity to the claims Bloesch makes regarding joy in The Paradox of Holiness. Here is indeed a man who practiced and believed what he preached: “Our hope and confidence should be fixed on Jesus who alone can fill the aching void in our hearts” (39). I am incredibly thankful I was introduced to the sincere teachings of this gifted scholar in The Paradox of Holiness and am looking forward to diving into his sister work, Faith in Search of Obedience, next.
Chelsea Gonzalez is a marketing, sales, and rights assistant at Hendrickson Publishers. She has an MA in publishing and writing from Emerson College. She is enthusiastic about good food, live music, and classic movies.
For more information about Donald Bloesch and The Paradox of Holiness, read this excerpt on agape love, this excerpt on faith and prayer, this blog post on his 15 marks of the Christian life, this excerpt on peace, or visit our website!