Romans 12:1 (ESV) … “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
I do not like the word paradox used in reference to Christian teachings, because to most people the word refers to something that is self-contradictory or false. Christianity is not false. But the dictionary also defines paradox as a statement that seems to be contradictory yet may be true in fact, and in that sense there are paradoxes in Christianity. The most obvious is the doctrine of the Trinity. We speak of one God, but we also say that God exists in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. We know the doctrine of the Trinity is true because God has revealed it to be true, but we are foolish if we think we can understand or explain it fully.
One of the great paradoxes of Christianity concerns the Christian life: We must die in order to live. We find this teaching many places in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament, but the basic, foundational statement is by Jesus, who said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it” (Luke 9:23–24).
It was these words that inspired this well-known prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi:
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much
Seek to be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love.
For it is by giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is by dying that we are born to eternal life.
I would not vouch for the theology implied in each of those impassioned sentences, but as a statement of principles governing the Christian life they are helpful.
More important, they are an expression of what Paul sets down at the start of Romans 12 as a first principle for learning to live the Christian life—self-sacrifice. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.” In Paul’s culture a sacrifice was always an animal that was presented to a priest to be killed. So Paul is saying by this striking metaphor that the Christian life begins by offering ourselves to God for death. The paradox is that by offering ourselves to God we are enabled to live for him.
Therefore, it is by dying that we are enabled to live, period. For as Jesus said, trying to live, if it is living for ourselves, is actually death, while dying to self is actually the way to full living. What should we call this paradox? I call it “life-by-dying” or, as I have titled this study, “Dying, We Live.”