Embracing the extremes
In so many contexts people recommend or assume we should be balanced in our approach and avoid extremism. Extremists are pictured as dangerous terrorists, with wild political agendas aiming to destroy our way of life, or religious bigots who can see nothing but their own particular understanding of truth. It is easy for us as church to assume that a balanced, middle road is always healthy. But I wonder if that stops us from benefitting from the extremes. There are times when we need to be extreme!
We can see obvious examples where we need balance. Walking or riding a bike are difficult or impossible to those whose disability or illness causes them to lose a sense of balance. Good parents try to make sure children do not spend too much time in one activity, especially if it is playing computer games. And a balanced diet is self evidently a Good Thing, even if we really prefer regular chips and ice cream!
Treading carefully through theological minefields where the only thing that is certain is that the scriptures do not give a clear and certain answer, we need grace to be balanced and not go overboard on a favourite speculation. But there are so many circumstances where the scriptures are absolutely crystal clear, and command us not to be balanced. “Love the LORD your God with ALL…..” for example. Our love for God and for one another is extreme - self-giving does not come naturally to fallen humanity but it is part of the essence of God’s character (Phil 2:1-11; Romans 5:6-8).
Where it starts to get really interesting is where we see revealed in scripture two different and apparently contradictory aspects of God’s character. God is Judge and He is also forgiving. We are commanded to fear the Lord, for that is the beginning of wisdom (Prov 1:7 and Psa 111:10). We are also reassured that His grace is sufficient for every situation and that He welcomes us as a loving Father (2 Cor 12:8-10; 1 John 3:1-2; Heb 10:19-22).
Our human minds cannot easily hold the extremes together. It just does not make sense. Psychologists sometimes talk of ‘cognitive dissonance’ to describe the extreme stress of holding contradictory ideas, beliefs or values, or the stress of new information or experience contradicting existing ideas, beliefs or values. We like to hold things together in neat order: it is how our minds work.
So when we think of grace and judgment, fear and intimate welcome, or other extremes in God’s character it almost hurts our minds until we find a way of holding things together. That is where balance comes in ... and can wreck our responses to God. If we try to take a simple average and hold the two extremes together by meeting in the middle, we miss the point of both. The old joke about feeling comfortable with a head in the fridge and feet in the oven illustrates the problem.
How can we embrace both extremes rather than miss the point of both? Let’s take the example of grace and fear of the Lord. Rather than working out a balanced mid-point or veering from one extreme to the other, we can choose the fear of the Lord and ask Him to reveal Himself to us with some of His glory and power, and we can also thank Him for His love and ask Him to reveal Himself to us more as our loving, intimate Father. There might be times we are wholeheartedly in one position or the other but it is a great release to trust God to reveal things in the Spirit that we cannot fully understand with our minds. I am not saying minds don’t matter or we should not try to understand things: I love digging into theology and finding out what others have discovered (or discarding what is clearly not inspired!). But what matters is hearing God speak in revelation: 1 Cor 2:13 shows us that spiritual realities can only be communicated as we allow the Holy Spirit to open our hearts and minds to the truth and as we ask the Spirit to lead us and our speaking.
Next time you find there are two extremes in the character and work of God, talk with Him about it and ask Him to show you how to commit wholeheartedly to both - it may save a lot of stress and mental effort!