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Hard Problems, Wicked Problems, and Easter….

Posted by  on April 10, 2013

During Holy Week, I spent a day with Dr. L. Gregory Jones, a member of The Colossian Forum’s Advisory Board. Dr. Jones is an accomplished theologian, the former Dean of Duke Divinity School, and currently serves as a Senior Strategist for Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School. During our visit, one key distinction Dr. Jones made stuck in my head – the difference between “hard problems” and “wicked problems.”

Hard problems are like difficult calculus equations. Given enough time we’ll eventually wrestle them to the ground- and boy does that feel good! But wicked problems are so complex, multifaceted and fluid that they resist even our most skillful and persistent attempts to solve them – and boy is that frustrating!

Yet wicked problems offer us the chance to recognize that we are not in control, that the world does not submit to our will, and that we simply do not know the way. Because we hate not being in control, we are often tempted to misconstrue wicked problems as hard problems so that we have something to do, so we can attack the problem and wrestle it to the ground.

For example, existing tensions between faith and science are often attributed to a simple lack of knowledge or misinterpretation of data, be it scientific or theological. This is a hard problem – but one we can solve! With this overly-simple diagnosis in hand, we feel empowered to wrestle it to the ground with an education campaign! While a lack of education certainly names a real dilemma of the faith/science conversation, reducing it to merely a lack of information is analogous to treating a fever accompanying an infected wound but ignoring the wound itself!

We have just come through Holy Week – the week Christians follow Jesus into the teeth of the most wicked problem of all – our rejection of God and our slavery to sin and death. Stories of the Bible tells us of lots of folks who responded to this wicked problem by treating it as a hard problem. Zealots blamed the Romans and their collaborators and attacked them. The Pharisees blamed the morally impure and attacked them. The “realist” Sanhedrin blamed the “idealist” Pharisees and Zealots and attacked them. Judas blamed Jesus and betrayed him. Peter attacked the temple guard to defend Jesus, but when Peter’s mode of action failed, he denied him. They all attacked the problem and tried to wrestle it to the ground.

What does Jesus do to prepare himself and his disciples to face the wicked problem of sin and death? He washes their feet, prays for them and tells them that he is the way, the truth and the life. And what is his way? Entrusting himself and his friends to the goodness of his Father as he willingly goes into the ground!

What would it mean for us as Christians to witness to the goodness of the Father not only in times of joy but also in the face of today’s most wicked problems? Whose feet do we need to wash? For whom do we need to pray?

What would it mean for us to become a community so capable of “trusting God that rather than vilifying those who disagree with us we welcome” them as brothers and sisters in Christ and trust God together? What kind of people would dare to do this? Only an Easter people!

Alleluia – He is Risen!


This piece was originally written for TCF’s April prayer e-letter. If you’d like to receive our prayer letter directly, please send your email address to admin@colossianforum.org to subscribe. Thank you for your partnership!


Michael Gulker

Michael Gulker is President of The Colossian Forum. Michael has a longstanding interest in the intersection of faith and culture and how both thrive best when rooted in worship. A native of West Michigan, he studied philosophy and theology at Calvin College, has a divinity degree from Duke and is an ordained Mennonite pastor. Before coming to the Forum, Michael served as pastor of Christ Community Church in Des Moines, Iowa. He and his wife Jodie have two young children.

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