Tension with God

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? 

And he said, Who are you, Lord? 

And he said, I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 

(Acts 9:4–5)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The idea of tension with God surprises many Christians for at least three reasons. The first reason is that the church’s focus on the humanity of Christ and off of the divinity of Christ cloaks the urgings of the Holy Spirit leaving us ignorant of our distance from God. The second reason is that a focus on conversion and off of sanctification—the process of nurturing our faith—leaves us living secular lifestyles ignorant of God’s will for our lives. A final reason is that our indifference to sin blinds us to our true selves in Christ, to our neighbors, and to God.

It is not an accident that each of these three reasons is highly theological because postmoderns mostly avoid theology—a fourth reason which may be why tension with God may come as a surprise. The postmodern focus on the emotional content of faith and off of the implications of these three theological trends hides our tension with God and quietly robs our faith of its power, like a vacuum cleaner that has been unplugged. Oblivious to the tension, Christians are lulled into believing in a kind of tension-free, ersatz Christianity that provides individualized services, such as childcare, and generally promises to insulate them from the problems of life without substantial obligation. When life’s problems arise, their ersatz Christianity provides no substantive guidance for dealing with them, leading people to become angry with God, and leave the church. It is accordingly helpful to review the reasons that people are unaware of the tension between them and God.

Humanity versus Divinity of Christ

Our secular society questions Christ’s divinity but has no problem with Jesus’ humanity. If Christ is only human, then Jesus is no more than an interesting teacher, the church becomes another interest group, and conversion is as mundane as joining another club. If Christ is not divine, then Jesus’ teaching has no claim on us (1 Cor 15:17) and we can simply ignore any tension with God that Jesus’ teaching might signal.

Conversion versus Sanctification

Over the centuries, Christian leaders have debated the priority of conversion over sanctification. For example, Jonathan Edwards, often praised as the great American theologian, advocated that church members have a personal relationship with Jesus—a fruit more of sanctification than of conversion—only to have his Northampton church dismiss him in 1750 (Noll 2002, 45). If sanctification can be thought of as a series of conversion experiences whose consequence is a closer relationship with God, then tension with God can be seen as a sign of progress in spiritual formation and maturity.

Think about the tension with God in the life of the Apostle Paul. 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)

Paul was called as a Christian and an Apostle to the gentiles and to suffer for the Name. Do you think Paul’s calling created tension in his life, with God, and with others? 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 (2 Cor 11:23-28) and struggled with an unanswered prayer—a thorn in the flesh—a euphemism perhaps suggesting a grievous sin over which he was not victorious (2 Cor 12:7). 

The point in this example is that if tension with God is a challenge even for the spirituality mature, then being unaware of our tension with God signals spiritual immaturity or, worse, spiritual lethargy. 

Ignorance of Sin

Spiritual lethargy starts with ignoring sin, which even a hardened atheist should worry about. Sin can be: doing evil (sin), breaking a law (transgression), or failing to do good (iniquity). Sin cuts us off from ourselves, from our neighbors, and from God, which leads 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, including our relationship with God.

God’s forgiveness through Christ sets us right with God and relieves our guilt, but does not in most instances 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.

Tension with God is more critical than tension in a human relationship, because our existence depends on God—it’s like a diver at a depth three hundred feet discarding an air tank because life itself is threatened. Sin cuts us off from God, but when we it the channels of communication with God open and we can perceive the promptings of the Holy Spirit. When we obey the Spirit’s promptings we join God in his ongoing creative work in the world and become more sanctified like Jesus, which involves pain and sacrifice. In turn, our sacrifices signal to God, to those around us, and to ourselves that our transformation in Christ is real (2 Sam 24:21-25).

Jesus honors disciples who faithfully pursue godliness:

Honored are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Honored are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Honored are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Matt 5:6–8)

Notice that these Beatitudes mirror attributes that God uses to describe himself—”merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exod 34:6)—and offer a key to growing as divine image bearers. These admonitions remind us that God is interested not so much in what we do as in who we become (Fairbairn 2009, 67).


Fairbairn, Donald. 2009. Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.

Noll, Mark A. 2002. America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tension with God

Also see:

Preface to a Life in Tension

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net,

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/Corner_2020

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  1. I am looking forward to reading this book in Spanish, Thank you so much for working on both versions,
    It is a very interesting book.

  2. Hey Stephen! Wonderful blog! I am happy to say that your post is very interesting to read. Tension with God is more critical than tension in a human relationship because our existence depends on God. Thanks for sharing and keep posting!

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