Tension: the act of stretching or straining; the state of being stretched or strained – www.dictionary.com
I offer an invitation to you to step back for a moment, distance yourself from the world buzzing around, and allow me to share with you how the Lord has been at work in my life. Specifically, I’d like to tell you about the breadcrumbs of transformation that Jesus has left; the signs that He was there and still is, and how I’m learning to bend and conform around Him instead of trying to force Him to conform around me.
The journey of sanctification (the life-long process of a believer becoming Christ-like in character) is largely spent cultivating the art of living in and with tension. What I mean by tension in regards to spirituality is simply that some aspects of our faith walk will not appear to seamlessly fit together, and thus as we work on sorting through our beliefs and what’s going on around us, there are some things that won’t seem to nicely resolve with each other, thus leading to tension in our inner selves as we seek to figure out how we are to live in what remains unrelaxed, if you will, and unresolved. Many issues in the Bible present themselves as apparent contradictions: free will versus predestination, for instance. A practical example, then, of learning the art of living in tension is the realization that as we toss these debates around in our minds and earnestly seek the truth, the reality is that needing to have this figured out starts to matter less as we grow closer to the Lord. Not because it’s not important to understand scripture! But because I realize I don’t have to have it figured out in order to love Jesus and enjoy my relationship with Him right now in this present moment. I can live just fine with this not being solved on this side of eternity. I can rest even in the tension of this truth being unresolved in my understanding because I am His child. (See Psalm 131.)
Other tensions form in our relationships with others. Because I am more aware of my need for grace, I find I am more grace-filled towards others. Not all the time, and not ever perfectly, but much less do I now assume that the other person I am encountering is going to be some flawless ideal, whether this be a friend or a stranger in the checkout line. I am less surprised by the failings of others, but no less saddened by them - as I am with my own failings. And when someone’s flaws are exposed, the temptation to draw attention to them in order to personally benefit has lessened. I find myself more and more desiring to see people as Jesus does and noticing the gifts He’s put in them. I am learning to rest in the tension of dysfunctional relating in a sin-ravaged world because in Jesus there is unlimited hope and potential for reconciliation and renewal.
There is tension in parenting, in learning how to completely trust that your children are in the loving hands of God every day and yet live in awareness that they may encounter suffering. The tension here is in resting in the full belief that God is good even in our children’s suffering. He treasures them more than we ever could or could imagine and yet gives no promise that they will not have hardships to endure.
Consider this: I pray in my children’s rooms every night after they are asleep. Sometimes it is heavy, frantic prayer, and sometimes it is light, sweet words of gratitude. How very natural it is, though, to pray out of the wrenching concern that God may not bless them (with safety, provision, excellence) as we so desire – or perhaps it is better said that the blessings we pray they will receive may not end up looking like what we feel they should, at least in the process of receiving them. What He has invited me to consider over the past months is that He would enjoy my praying for His joy and for His name to be blessed through my children in His relationship with them, and to desire it for Him, as their Creator and Shepherd and Father, along with and above my desire that they have the joy and blessing of being His children. This is harder than it may sound. It is desiring God’s joy over what feels like the best you can imagine for your children. It transfers authorship of what that best looks like. It gives God the right to define what “blessing” will look like for them. And if I’m honest, it exposes to me how little I truly trust Him. (See Matthew 7:9-11. God promises that He will not give us a snake when we ask for a fish. Sometimes the things handed to us resemble snakes in every possible way in the pain that they bring. It isn’t that there are no “bad” things that happen. Perhaps one way we can interpret these words is that when a “snake” is thrust upon us, we can trust that in His perfect will and way, He will make a “fish” out of it.)
I also must learn, then, how to live in tension within my relationship with God. Over the past several weeks, and extending into the next handful of months, I have been and will be involved in deep study over sin – in general theological and academic ways, and most importantly, in examining my own. This is imperative for the Christian. You will never begin to grasp the enormity of God’s grace for you and for all of us if you avoid looking at why you need it or pretend that the notion of sin doesn’t matter anymore. But if you do this with sound materials to guide you and spiritually healthy people to support you, nothing will open your eyes more to the reality of His great love for you and how wanted you are, how jealous the Lord is for you.
It used be something I felt was impossible to find: the perfect convergence of grace and accountability, of feeling the weightiness of my sin and yet living with inner peace every day, wondering how it is, exactly, I am supposed to feel. But what I am realizing is that there is no place of convergence here where you can pitch your tent of optimistic settled emotional finality and go forth with one mindset onto the rugged terrain of spiritual growth. Here is another tension we must learn to live in: in the truth that you are loved beyond measure and He desires you to trust Him in all things and love Him and enjoy and cultivate and nurture this relationship and give Him complete lordship so that He can work to conform you into the image of His Son and use you as His tool in bringing others to Himself……and at the same time live in the knowledge that He is disgusted - to a degree we don’t begin to allow ourselves to fathom - by your sin and the relentless wandering of your heart for something besides Him to worship.
This is the place, then, where the words of “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) and “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12-13) seem to clash and leave us in bewilderment. Grace doesn’t mean that our sin doesn’t offend Him anymore. Grace means He desires us to be His children so much that He created a way that we could be. I used to see no way this could come together. But as He draws me closer and increases my faith, I am becoming less afraid of this bewilderment now and I am stopping my search for the point of convergence. It is tension and I am safe within it. What I am not called to do is wallow in doubt, wondering if He is loathe to approach me because I won’t or can’t seem to get my act together. But neither do I believe there is an invitation to live as if the sin we continue to engage with doesn’t bother Him in the least.
That means sometimes - perhaps all the time? - I live with regret and hope, sadness and trust, reverence and intimacy, aware of who I once was……and who I am now, in Him.
It is His grace that holds me in place. It is the strongest force there is. I need not be afraid it won’t hold. I need not be afraid to come boldly before Him as His child.
My personal belief is that God leaves so many things as apparent contradiction and tension so that we will always be searching, never coming to the point where we’ve decided we have Him all figured out or we’ve come far enough; that we feel we’ve grown and changed enough and can disengage from spiritual matters and get back to the “real life” happening in front of us. This is for our own protection. Those with eyes to see realize that the further they journey on the narrow road, the road left to traverse is far longer than they ever realized.
The Christian walk is hard and messy. But there will be moments that take your breath away, even in the mundane ordinary stuff, when you’ve realized that the Lord has heard you and worked through you and brought you to places you were never quite sure you would ever see, such as realizing you have forgiven someone who hurt you in ways you never thought you could forgive, or walking away from a destructive activity that you never thought you could live without partaking in. These are likely the things that won’t serve as the “proof” that naysayers require. They will be what the people close to you attest to because they knew who you once were and who you are now and what you are headed towards. A sampling of my own journey:
We so easily make people, things, feelings, and even our churches to be idols in our lives. We do this by attempting to craft them in the “images” we want them to be to fill an emptiness and longing that we convince ourselves are necessary to our emotional survival. I have done this. I still struggle against doing this. But the Lord has shown me how to identify when such things are taking an unworthy place in my heart. And He’s shown me when I must “smash” them and completely release them to His control.
Dreams have been dashed, and I’ve had to see that glorifying God was more of a secondary goal next to attaining what I wanted for myself, no matter how hard I had convinced myself of the reverse. I have learned that making plans are good but having agendas are rarely of Him. The need to control “outcomes” has lessened considerably.
I have learned what Psalm 37:4 means. You must trust that God will reveal the things to you that you truly do desire (forgiveness, sonship, and an ultimate purpose, for starters). Those are the things that He promises to give you. They are ultimately what you’ve been longing for.
The earlier years of my marriage, though basically content, were grounded more in ignorance in regards to our spirituality and distance towards that which we could not understand about each other. This morning my husband took my hands in his and led us in prayer, as he has done for many years now, and thanked God for our marriage. This did not magically happen, nor have we arrived at some imaginary land of eternal marital bliss. But the closer I grow to my Savior, the more I want what He wants for me, and this spills out in acts of love and grace, which in turn strengthen my relationships. In this, I have been blessed by having a man who seeks to grow in the Lord for himself, too.
Friendships were once mostly about finding people who could fill and affirm me. Today they are much more about building each other up, enjoying each other’s presence, and looking for ways to see God’s hand in the other and how we can serve. Joining in intimate prayer with others, unafraid and unashamed to together call on the Lord to hear us and help us, binds people together in unimaginable ways.
Learning how to live in tension is (s l o w l y) teaching me how to be busy without hurry, urgent without worry, broken-hearted without being troubled, bound and yet free. All the good growth that has happened here is from the hand of the Lord and His power, and that’s the point. The road of transformation is life-long, but we are given the promise that we will be brought to completion, and that is the hope that we cling to as the desire to be more like Christ continuously, if slowly, takes center stage in our hearts. That the desire is there at all is a work of the Lord. If you do not sense the desire in you but you want it, ask Him for it. I many times have to pray for the desire to pray, for the desire to desire change, for the desire for even more desire. Start right where you are, just as you are, and come. He will not give up on you.
“’Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’” – John 6:68-69 NIV