Posted by: donnatallman | April 13, 2012

Beautiful Dissonance – The Christian Life in Paradox

Photo by Donna Tallman

The end has come. After all the miles walked, people touched, miracles demonstrated, and prophecies spoken; the sunset of Jesus’ life draws near.  Shortly before his arrest, Jesus slips away from his disciples to be alone with his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane. The agony of his spirit drips blood from his face. He begs for another solution for man’s salvation but surrenders to the one his Father had established long ago. The plan of the ages is ready.

A mob comes, leaders accuse, priests tear their robes, Pilate washes his hands, and soldiers flog beyond recognition. Jesus struggles, nails dig in, people taunt, thieves ridicule, one repents, hours pass, darkness falls, the earth rumbles, rocks crack, graves open, the king surrenders his spirit.

Jesus dies.

How is it that days later the man who is dead stands before his disciples in the upper room? They all saw him die on that cross; they were there. How is it that now he lives?

He’s either alive, or he’s dead, isn’t he? Which is it? A person can’t be dead and alive and the same time, can he?

“I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” Galatians 2:20  (NASB)

Okay, so I was crucified with Christ, which means both of us died. Suddenly, I’m not alive anymore but Christ (the dead guy) is living in me? I thought I was dead.  I thought he was dead! It’s a paradox; two seemingly contradictory things that eventually prove harmonious.

Scripture is full of them.

Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.”  Hebrews 4:11  (NASB)

A friend recently asked me, “How do you make every effort to enter rest? In this case, am I to strive, or am I to rest?” It is another Biblical conundrum that creates an unsettling dissonance in my head.

Photo by Philip Tallman

Most of us don’t like dissonance; it rattles us edgy. When listening to music, many of us prefer peace-filled harmonies that rise and fall with the melody line and always, always resolve themselves by the end of the musical composition. We want our music tied up with a bow, and that bow is the resolution of every hanging dangling note.

Tim Henley, a musician friend of mine, feels differently about dissonance; he loves it. Here’s what Tim said about that rumbly unsettled feeling many of us get when listening to musical dissonance:

“I love the sound of dissonance.  In my experience of music it does not need to be resolved. If left unresolved it speaks to me of one of the realities of this life: that not everything gets neatly drawn to conclusion.  Not all situations, emotions, and challenges get closure.”

Spiritual dissonance rattles us edgy because we want logical, rational explanations for everything. We want answers. We want closure. Spirituality isn’t always logical and rational and doesn’t always offer us closure. Sometimes spirituality is just plain eely. Logic presents “either/or” propositions to us, while the way of the paradox offers a life of “both/and.” Both/and rings dissonant and challenges our souls with its very tension.

Do you think God knows this about us and intentionally packed his word full of conundrums and paradoxes just to challenge us?


To live, I must die     (John 12:24)

To save my life, I must lose it     (Luke 17:33)

To be wise, I must become a fool     (1 Corinthians 3:18)

To become the greatest, I must become the servant     (Mark 10:43)

To be exalted, I must be humble      (James 4:10)

To be first, I must be last     (Matthew 20:16)

To soar through seasons of suffering, I must rejoice     (1 Peter 1:6,7)

The value of a spiritual paradox, then, is that it opens the door to the unknown and, perhaps, the unresolvable. The paradox opens our souls to experience faith. Tim describes the comparable musical experience as a “fresh musical language.”

“Most profoundly, dissonance can introduce the listener to a new and fresh musical ‘language’ where we begin to hear beyond what our minds would project as ‘what should happen next,’ This is especially true if the dissonance keeps drawing us onward without readily being brought to resolve. The anticipation is exquisite!”

“The anticipation is exquisite…”


Do you feel that way about the unresolved issues in your life? How about the questions you can’t answer or the paradoxes that give your spirit whiplash? Does your spiritual ear eagerly anticipate how God is going to reconcile two juxtaposed circumstances in your life? What if he never does? What if you have to live in the dissonance?

“The anticipation is exquisite.” Every time I read Tim’s statement, it draws me up short. I must admit that I would not define the anticipation of God’s resolution to my disharmony as exquisite. I would describe my anticipation as, impatient, frustrated, and sometimes, antagonistic, but not “exquisite.”

Exquisite never entered my mind…

but it should have.

Someone has said that music is all about context so the use of dissonance has to fit into a larger context in order for the listener to gain the most from its experience. For example, I will not listen long to a piece of music with sharp dissonant notes that gets louder and edgier with no resolve unless there is a compelling reason to do so. If I were in a theater watching a battle scene from Braveheart, the music would fit the context and I would enjoy it. It’s perfect.

My granddaughter has reached the age where she loves to choose her own clothes. As any mother of a three year-old girl knows, the inherent risk in this phase is ginormous. Even Madison Avenue has had to learn to restrain itself when three year-olds come to town. Nothing is off-limits and clothing combinations can be frightening. Kensie could walk out of her room ready for the beach when it’s 25 degrees outside, or she could come draped in her mom’s workout t-shirt to wear to church. The anticipation of waiting to see what she will put together is always, it’s always…

Well, now that I think about it; the anticipation of Kensie’s arrival is exquisite.

Photo by Jodie

Always one to surprise, Jodie and I stopped in mid-sentence when Kensie made her grand entrance to the living room wearing this delightfully horrific ensemble last week. Besides the color, does any of this go together? No! Is there dissonance in her outfit? Absolutely. Is it unsettling dissonance? Not at all. Why not? Because the context of her outfit is that she’s only three years old. We can endure the disharmony because she’s adorably three. It’s perfect. If she were 35 and wearing this little get-up, there would be all kinds of unsettled dissonance!

Our lives have a context. Sometimes we can see the bigger picture of what God is doing in our lives, but often we cannot. In those moments of spiritual dissonance when things don’t make sense, or they seem to be incongruous, we have the exquisite privilege of stepping into a place of faith. As we do, we just might hear something we didn’t know we could hear. We might hear what Tim describes as the “notes between the notes.” We might hear the Spirit of God whisper:

“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6,7  (NASB)

Peace which surpasses all comprehension; he’s talking about the paradox, the place beyond comprehension.

Jesus offers us his peace in the paradox. I won’t always have answers, but I can always, always have his peace.

© Copyright, 2012 by Donna Tallman.




  1. Donna–love “eely” and “exquisite anticipation”. Am participating in training right now for “Courageous Conversations about Race” in my school district. One of the four agreements that we make in order to even begin discussing is to “expect and accept a lack of closure.” It is SO FRUSTRATING!!! I’m not sure “exquisite anticipation” exactly covers it for me. I think the older I get, the more resigned I am to non-closure, but also just weary of the tension (it’s disequilibrium for me–often with all my being it feels like I NEED to get to that balanced place–but there’s fear, there, that the balanced place that I “want” may not contain the impetus I need to cause me to change!). More and more I want the rest, and to get to my own country. Tired of traveling.

    • No, I don’t anticipate places of non-closure either…they are difficult, but they are also the places where faith gets to shine. Our culture has made so much of needing closure to things, and the hard thing is that we may never see closure on some things until we get to eternity. “Closure” is an enigma.

      So, what do we do in the interim? We must move to the place of faith – sometimes bulldog faith in spite of our circumstances. We have to “let” endurance have its perfect result (James 1:4) so that we will be complete. Our circumstances may never be “complete” but we can be complete when we permit the pain, permit the dissonance to ring unanswered in our spirits.

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