Bothersome Gaps: Life in Tension

Cover, Life in Tension

“Be holy because I am holy” (Lev 11:44) says the Lord God.

Bothersome Gaps: Life in Tension

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

To become a Christian, we must invite the Holy Spirit into our lives. The spirit of holiness becomes part of us and we begin the journey of faith.  To be holy means to be set apart; to be sacred.  We take on a new identity in Christ.  The invitation to be holy is an invitation to approach God and bear His image more clearly.  The Apostle Paul calls this process sanctification (Rom 6:19).  As Christ’s church–the called out ones–our sanctification process is a group activity [1] and it sets us in tension with the world.


If we lived alone on a mountain top, then our process of sanctification would pose no problem other than obedience. But our mountain top experiences are necessarily short. We depend on other people and they also depend on us. Success in sanctification creates a gap between ourselves and other people because biblical and cultural values differ [2].  It also assumes a gap between us and God characterized by sin, inattention, and other shortcomings.

A pastor recently asked:  would you drink from a dirty cup? (2 Tim 2:20) Of course not.  If you were given a dirty cup, you would refuse the cup and ask for another [3]. In the same way, the call of God to be holy naturally sets us apart from those around us as God’s Holy Spirit acts in our lives.  The gap that emerges between us and those around us in our actions (not just our words) which identifies us as Christians.  This gap also sets us in tension with the world. Image bearers naturally bear the image of their creator—it cannot be otherwise.

The Gaps

In this simple analysis, we actually experience three related gaps.  The first gap is the gap between who we were and the person that God created us to be.  The Apostle Paul writes:  “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Rom 7:15 ESV) The second gap is between us and those around us.  Sin separates us even from those closest to us [4]. The third gap is between us and God.  The Prophet Isaiah writes:

“Woe is me! For I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isa 6:5 ESV)

These gaps are related because we are born in sin and only imperfectly reflect God’s image.  Progress in reducing one gap, therefore, leads to progress in reducing the other two (Nouwen 1975, 15).


As a practical matter, gaps created by the work of God’s Holy Spirit in our lives cause tension.  The gap between who we are and who we were created to be causes us shame and grief.  The one between us and others can lead to ridicule, isolation, and persecution.   The one between us and God—our sin— deprives us of spiritual power and leaves us alone.   Writing from a prison cell in Rome, the Apostle Paul reminds us: “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phi 3:20 ESV).  Here on earth, we are refugees, undocumented workers earning subsistence wages.

Can you feel the tension created by these gaps?  Are you okay with it or do you try to run away?

Jesus talks about the gap, addresses the tension, and points to the source.  He says:

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 5:14-16 ESV)

If we expect tension both individually and collectively, what does it look like and how do we deal with it?


[1] The word for church in Greek is ekklesia (ἐκκλησίᾳ) which literally means ones called out (1 Cor 1:2).

[2] Niebuhr (2001, 39) writes:  “In his single-minded direction toward God, Christ leads men [and women] away from the temporality and pluralism of culture.”

[3] Pastor Anthony K. Bones of African Gospel Church of Nairobi, Kenya ( speaking at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Herndon, Virginia on January 14, 2015.

[4] “The LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.’ Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.” (Gen 4:6-8 ESV)


Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.

Richard Niebuhr. 2001. Christ and Culture (Orig. pub. 1951). New York: HarperSanFrancisco.

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Christian Memoir: Looking Back 

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