By Stephen W. Hiemstra
The idea of tension with God comes as surprise to many Christians. Three reasons stand out:
- A focus on the humanity of Christ and off of the divinity of Christ leaves many Christians ignorant of the urgings of the Holy Spirit;
- A focus on conversion and off of sanctification—the process of nurturing our faith—leaves many Christians living secular lifestyles; and
- Ignorance of sin blinds us to our true selves in Christ, to our neighbors, and to God.
Robbed of the power of God in their lives, Christians are lulled into believing in a kind of tension-free, ersatz Christianity that presumably insulates them from the problems of life. When life’s problems arise, they are then angry with God and their ersatz Christianity provides no substantive guidance for dealing with it. Many leave the church and return later—if at all—in a casket. Got tension?
Humanity versus Divinity of Christ. Our secular society has no trouble with Jesus’ humanity, but his divinity is repeatedly questioned. If Christ is only human, then his authority shrinks to that of an interesting teacher or story teller. Christian claims on society shrink to that simply of another interest group. Conversion amounts to nothing more than being convinced to join a religious club and sanctification need not be taken seriously. Clearly, if Christ is not divine, then there is no point in reading further.
Conversion versus Sanctification. Over the centuries, sincere Christian leaders have debated this question of conversion versus sanctification. For example, Jonathan Edwards, thought by many to have been the great American theologian of all time, was dismissed by his Northhampton church in 1750 for advocating that members have personal relationship with Jesus . The question addressed here, however, is different. Once one has avoided the pitfalls of ersatz Christianity and seriously begins a disciple’s journey with Christ, how could there still be tension with God?
This is not a trivial question. I remember at one point posing this question to a dear friend who is a Charismatic leader and who is experienced in deliverance ministry. My question was—how could it be true that a Christian could experience spiritual oppression?
As it turns out, this is exactly the problem faced by the Prophet Job. Scripture describes Job as a man: “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” (Job 1:1 ESV) Still, God tells Satan: “Behold, all that he [Job] has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand.” (Job 1:12 ESV) Do you think that Job felt spiritual oppression? Do you think Satan’s afflictions created tension between Job and God?
The life of the Apostle Paul is also instructive. When God told Ananias to go and baptize Saul, he questioned God’s intentions. “But the Lord said to him, Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9:15-16 ESV) Paul was essentially called as a Christian and an Apostle to the gentiles to suffer for the Name. Do you think Paul’s calling created tension in his life, with others, and with God? Paul himself described the life he gave up as a Rabbi and a Jew as rubbish (Phil 3:8) compared to what he gained as a believer. Still, he met every sort of affliction during his ministry .
Ignorance of Sin. Even a hardened atheist needs to worry about sin. Sin can be: (1) doing evil, (2) breaking a law, or (3) failing to do good. Sin cuts us off from ourselves, from our neighbors and from God leading to tensions in all three dimensions. Ignoring sin is like driving too fast on an icy road or throwing dirty sand in your gas tank—it can hurt others and messes everything up.
God’s forgiveness through Christ sets us right with God and may help relieve our guilt, but does not reverse the effects of sin on our person and on others. God can forgive the murderer, for example, but that does not bring the dead person back to life or relieve the perpetrator of punishment under law. A selfish person acting impulsively tenses up many people’s lives and it is ignorant of God.
Tension with God arises is no different that tension in any human relationship. Avoiding sin, which cuts us off from God, has the effect of opening up communication channels and allows us to perceive the promptings of the Holy Spirit. In this way, sanctification can proceed. Still, transformation—pursuing godliness—involves sacrifice and pain . The ebb and flow of our attention to God brings tension, in part, because we are not always anxious to step out in faith to embrace transformation. In this sense, our tension with God is transformative .
Jesus offers blessings for disciples who faithfully pursue godliness:
- Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
- Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
- Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matt 5:6-8 ESV)
Notice how these blessings follow from modeling our lives after attributes of God himself—righteousness, mercy, and holiness—to become pure in heart. This is the heart of the new covenant in Christ.
 Noll (2002, 45) writes: “The dismissal occurred when Edwards abandoned his grandfather Stoddard’s practice of open communion and instead began to insist that candidates for church membership (and the privilege of communion) offer a convincing statement of saving faith”.
 “Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one– I am talking like a madman– with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” (2 Cor 11:23-28 ESV)
 For a detailed discussion of godliness, see Bridges (1996).
 Paraphrasing Kierkegaard, Benner (1998, 78-79) writes that ”self is the synthesis of elements that are, and will always be, in opposition to each other…true selfhood is only possible by being grounded in God”. In other words, we find ourselves only in the transformation process brought about by our relationship with God.
Benner, David G. 1998. Care of Souls: Revisioning Christian Nurture and Counsel. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.
Bridges, Jerry. 1996. The Practice of Godliness. Colorado Springs: NavPress.
Noll, Mark A. 2002. America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. New York: Oxford University Press.