Preface to a Life in Tension

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101“Be holy because I am holy 

says the Lord God.”

(Lev 11:44)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

When God enters our lives, we change. This change occurs as we increasingly reflect Christ’s divine image in our lives and the Holy Spirit works in our hearts and minds as we behold him (2 Cor 3:16-18). The Apostle Paul calls this process sanctification (Rom 6:19), which means that we accept Christ’s invitation to a lifelong journey to become more holy—sacred and set apart—and the Holy Spirit’s guidance along the way. As Christ’s church—the called out ones, our sanctification is a group activity and, like any activity where individuals  travel at their own pace, tension among believers is expected.


Tension? What tension? Sanctification is necessary because we sin. Sin separates us from other people, from God, and from the person that God created us to be. Sanctification presumably reduces our sin, encourages us to abide in union with God and draws us closer to the person that God created us to be, but it also widens the gap between us and those resisting the Holy Spirit (1 Thess 5:19). Consequently, sin and sanctification can both potentially tense up all three relationships.

Tension comes up daily, as a pastor observes:

Would you drink from a dirty cup? No—of course not. If you were given a dirty cup, you would refuse the cup and ask for another.⁠1

Someone accustomed to clean cups immediately recognizes a dirty one. When we model our lives after Christ, we reveal our identity as Christians; we are set apart from those around us in tension with the world. As conscious image bearers, we naturally begin to share in the tension that exists between God and this world, which implies that how we live and how we die matters to God.

This tension that we feel is a subjective mirror image to three gaps that we can objectively describe. The first gap is within each of us and it describes the distance between our natural selves and the person who God created us to be. This gap can lead to humiliation in the eyes of the world and shame within us, as we realize how far we have fallen from God’s image for us. The second is gap is between us and others and it can lead to isolation, ridicule, and persecution, as we can no longer run with the crowd or accept its norms. The third is the gap between us and God created by sin can lead to feelings of fear, abandonment, and a loss of spiritual power, as we realize what it means to live without God’s presence and blessings.

Can you feel the tension created by these gaps—the shame, the isolation, and the fear? Can you imagine being persecuted for your beliefs? Are you okay with it or do you try to run away? How do we respond creatively to this tension?

Alone with these three gaps, we are lost; but in Christ we are never alone. Christ works in our lives to close these gaps through his reconciling example in life, his atoning work on the cross and his enabling gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit enables us by grace through faith to participate actively in our own sanctification while experiencing God’s peace in the midst of life’s tensions.

The Beatitudes

Early in his ministry, Jesus preached a sermon, a kind of commissioning service for his disciples. He advised his disciples to be humble, mourn, be meek, chase after righteousness, be merciful, be holy, make peace, be persecuted for the right reasons, and wear persecution as a badge of honor (Matt 5:1–11). Incredibly, in the middle of this sermon and in spite of expected opposition, Jesus 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)

This parable about light offers two important insights for our understanding of tension. First, this passage makes no sense unless tension exists between darkness and light—light normally drives out darkness. Second, this passage alludes to the creation accounts where we read:

The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. . . . And God said, Let there be light, and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. (Gen 1:2–4)

Creation involved creating light. The implication is that Christians who embrace tension with the world are participating in a second creation (or re-creation) event (2 Cor 5:17).

Recognizing Christ’s re-creative work in our lives, we participate through the power of the Holy Spirit, not only in our own sanctification, but in the sanctification of others. In other words, progress in reducing one gap in our lives affects the other two. (Nouwen 1975, 15).  Attending to the sin in our lives, for example, makes it easier to get along with others and helps us to be more receptive to the Holy Spirit. Likewise, reducing our gap with God helps us appreciate God’s love for those around us and sensitizes us to the corrupting power of sin in our own lives. In God’s economy is nothing is wasted.

Structure of the Book

In exploring the spiritual dimensions of tension in our lives, I reflect on the Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel. The Beatitudes introduce Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and prioritize his teaching. Because the sermon serves as an ordination service for the disciples, the importance of the Beatitudes for the early church, Christian spirituality, and discipleship cannot be overstated.⁠2

The chapters in this book divide into three parts: tension with ourselves (part A), tension with God (part B), and tension with others (part C). Each part contains three of the nine Beatitudes found in Matthew’s Gospel (numbered from one to nine with decimal points identifying particular sections within them).

Four sections appear in each Beatitude. The first section focuses on understanding what Jesus said and how he explained it. The second section examines the Old Testament context for each Beatitude. The third section examines the New Testament context—how did the Apostles respond to and expand on Jesus’ teaching? And the final section applies the Beatitude in a contemporary context and how we should respond. Each reflection is accompanied by a prayer and questions for further study. Soli Deo Gloria.


1 Pastor Anthony K. Bones of African Gospel Church of Nairobi, Kenya ( speaking at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Herndon, Virginia on January 14, 2015. 2 Guelich (1982, 14) citing Kissinger (1975) reports that: “Matthew 5-7 [appears] more frequently than any other three chapters in the entire Bible in the Ante Nicene [early church] writings”.


Guelich, Robert. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing.

Kissinger, W.S. 1975. The Sermon on the Mount: A History of Interpretation and Bibliography. ATLA 3. Metuchen: Scarecrow.

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

Preface to a Life in Tension

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