Gospel as Divine Template

Life_in_Tension_revision_front_20200101“if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom 10:9 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Christianity began in a graveyard with the resurrection (Ps 16:10). The resurrection could not have occurred without Jesus’ crucifixion and death which was, in turn, associated with his life and ministry. Because Jesus’ life and ministry were chronicled after the resurrection, each sentence in the New Testament should be prefaced with these words: Jesus rose from the dead, therefore . . . Jesus’ life, ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection are the Gospel story, which we know because after the Gospels themselves, sermons by both Peter (Acts 2:14–41; 10:34–43) and Paul (Acts 13:16–41) all focus on Jesus’ life story.

The Template

Just before his death the Apostle Paul writes from prison:

that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Phil 3:10-11)

In other words, the Jesus story—life, ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection—was for Paul a template for the Christian journey of faith, beginning with the end in mind. Yet, we know that the end of the story—like its beginning—is in Christ and provides Christian hope (1 Pet 1:3). 

While our eyes remain on the prize (Phil 3:14) and our expectations for the end times, our relationship with each member of the Trinity sustains us day to day. The Holy Spirit is with us, empowers us, and helps us to break the power of sin. Jesus Christ’s life and ministry models a faithful life in a stressful world. God Our Father demonstrates love, grace, and sovereignty over all earthly powers. Because of God’s sovereign power and presence, our hope of the resurrection transforms into our hope in Christ (Col 1:24).

Begin with the End in Mind

The resurrection accordingly influenced how early Christians read the Beatitudes, as in: Jesus rose from the dead, therefore “Honored are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3) Notice that the Beatitude explicitly refers to the kingdom of heaven—a place of healing and rest where the resurrected are assumed to go. Because early Christians read this Beatitude in view of the resurrection, so should postmoderns. 

More typically, postmoderns read the Beatitudes as “pie in the sky”—unobtainable and unrealistic. But how much risk is there in buying a stock if you already have tomorrow’s stock report? If tomorrow’s paper eliminates today’s risk, why dawdle in buying the stock? Unobtainable and unrealistic goals suddenly become reasonable— in light of the resurrection common fishermen become extraordinary apostles.

Knowing that the end of the story is in Christ, the Beatitudes outline the three tensions in our spiritual life: our inward tension with ourselves (poor in spirit, mourning, and meekness), our upward tension with God (righteous, merciful, and pure), and our outward tension with the world (peacemakers, persecuted, and reviled). Inward tension exists, but we know the Holy Spirit will guide us. Upward tension exists, but we know that God loves us. Outward tension exists, but we have Christ’s example in seeking reconciliation and an open door to the future (Rev 3:20).

Tension was not the Plan

Because of our reconciliation with God, we know that our sinful nature which drives this tension was not part of God’s original design. Breaking God’s design, sin emerged in the Garden of Eden as Adam and Eve turned away from God and allowed sin to enter their lives (Gen 3:6). Yet, even as sin entered the world and tensed up our lives, God provided for our restoration through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Gen 3:15).

Jesus rose from the dead, therefore our faith starts with God, not with us.

Gospel as Divine Template

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Preface to a Life in Tension

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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 (http://AGCKenya.org) 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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Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

“I will put my law within them,
and I will write it on their hearts.
And I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.”
(Jer 31:33)

Our girls arrived only sixteen months apart which meant that they remained close and competitive. When Stephen Reza arrived sixteen months after Marjolijn, the pattern continued. More than siblings, our kids remained inseparable, best friends.

They all spoke Farsi making it possible to have private conversations out in front of most anyone, including dad. Maryam, who insisted that the kids call her Maryam rather than mom or mother, leaned into the development of this private world and encouraged a skeptical view of anyone outside the family. At first, I enjoyed the family intimacy, but over time I realized that this tribal closeness fostered co-dependencies within the family and often hindered healthy relationships with others outside the family.

Later, when the youth group at church grew large enough to have both a middle school and high school group, the youth group leaders insisted that Christine and Narsis needed to attend the senior high school group and Reza stay with the middles school group. The kids complained and I visited with the leaders, but they refused any accommodation to my kids’ desire to stay together. At that point, the kids rebelled refusing to attend the youth group and Maryam supported their decision. This fiasco left the kids with no meaningful attachment to the church, a situation never reversed in spite of many attempts on my part.

Here at the point of connection between a close-knit family and my community of faith, I confronted a dilemma that cut to the core of who I was. The dream that I had held since I was a child of an integrated life—a new kaffietijd, a new Sabbath—remained just out of reach because I lacked the faith and the skills to foster it. I had to learn to plant seeds and trust that God would bring the growth, but was I ready?


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The Divine Gift of Sledding


For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways. (Ps 91:11)

The Divine Gift of Sledding

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

After living in the dormitory at Iowa University and taking all my meals in the cafeteria, when I was admitted to Cornell University I decided to live off campus. The idea of living off campus seemed to offer more freedom and would presumably allow me to live with great parsimony. With freedom and parsimony on my mind, during a visit to campus arranged by the department of agricultural economics in August 1976 I rented a basement in a large, cooperatively-organized house with 12 other students on Elmwood Avenue.

The basement was the largest room in the house and, because it was totally unfinished, I was able to rent it for $50 a month on the stipulation that I fix it up. Having worked as a carpenter’s helper and other construction jobs during the summers in college, fixing up a basement to make it look like an apartment was no problem. During the week before classes started, I hung a door on the basement, walled in the heating unit, and wired several electrical outlets. I furthermore converted a small workroom into a study and organized the abandoned furniture into separate living room and bedroom spaces. As living space, my basement apartment was plenty big, but the lighting was poor, the floor was crumbling concrete, and the basement would flood in a heavy rain making it an uninviting place to bring friends; ultimately, it was a depressing place to live.

My living arrangements contributed to my goal of studying economic development by permitting me to save money to travel in Puerto Rico for my thesis project, but living off campus also contributed to my social isolation leaving me more vulnerable to depression, a problem widespread at Cornell that fall. In the fall of 1976 Cornell had record numbers of suicides and student demonstrations on campus before Thanksgiving demanded the college be closed until something could be done about it. Half a dozen students and faculty members, who I heard of through the grapevine, had attempted or succeeded in killing themselves, including one of my housemates—a bright, young premed student—who overdosed herself and was committed to a psyche unit in Syracuse. I drove up to Syracuse to pay a visit, but our conversation turned out to be rather awkward because I had no idea of how to cope with suicide and I was unprepared to learn that she had begun an affair with one of her doctors there—a newlywed. Awkward . . . depressing . . . I so wanted to help.

My own depression started during Christmas break for the first time when I stayed on campus away from my family during the semester break, which was a big mistake. Adding to my sense of isolation from family, most campus activities were suspended during the break and most of my friends disappeared to visit family or, if they had the means, took skiing holidays.[1] So Christmas turned out to be not much of a holiday and I found myself alone, in a cold, dark place with no obvious means of really celebrating the holiday.

My escape at that point was to get up one morning, despondent, and just go for a drive. Thinking of a park on the other side of town, I drove down the hill to Ithaca following an unfamiliar road—Cayuga Street—through town. Down that road, in the middle of Ithaca was First Presbyterian Church.[2] Curious about the church, I parked my car and went in the rear door—I am not sure that I even knew that it was Sunday. On the other side of that door, I must have had the look of death on my face because the music director stopped what he was doing and ushered me into the sanctuary to sing in the choir. In the choir were local college students from Ithaca who were home for the holidays and who invited me to a sledding party that evening. After sledding that evening, I began attending First Presbyterian Church and, when I later became a member, the elders encouraged me to work with their high school kids, which I did for a season.

My discovery of First Presbyterian Church that Sunday morning was a divine intervention and it enabled me to cope with the depression so prevalent at that point in my life. Life took another curve in the following year as I learned that Cornell had admitted me to their doctoral program provisionally—students were expected to maintain an A average in their classes, which proved difficult for me because Cornell adhered to a traditional grading policy. The grade competition was fierce and collaboration among students was not actively encouraged, as was true at Iowa State, in part, because of the Wall Street influence on campus. Wall Street traders at at point still competed in an open-outcry market which meant that a trader either got the bid or not, as is the nature of competitive bidding.[3] This competition sunk in for me when one day I organized a study group only to find when we got together that I was the only one who prepared to discuss the homework; later, members of the study group went on to ace the exam while I did not.

While I felt isolated from my competitive American peers, I increasingly felt at home with Hispanic students and I traded a relatively private office for a desk in the “United Nations” room where I shared a room with a large number of foreign students who studied with a beloved professor, who happened to be blind. The United Nations room was okay with me because I envisioned a career with the World Bank traveling throughout Latin America to visit investment projects and attend meetings, like some of my Washington friends. My goal of working in Latin American development meant that I fit right into my new office where I met colleagues who invited me to play in soccer games and to take part in other activities. One colleague also later became a roommate in the basement for a couple months before he took a job in Mexico City with the InterAmerican Development Bank. Meanwhile, during my first year at Cornell I studied Spanish and at the end of the year Cornell sent me to Puerto Rico for a summer’s study at the Estación Agrícola de Rio Piedras.

[1] Skiing was always a possibility in Ithaca because upstate New York has terribly cold winters with a lot of snow—including lake affect snow virtually every day as the cold wind blows across Lake Cayuga and deposits snow on Cornell which sits on the top an overlooking mountain.

[2] http://www.FirstPresIthaca.org.

[3] At one point, my marketing class visited a grain trading firm in New York City hosted by a trader who sorted through his mail while he talked with us—he never made eye contact with us.


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ShipOfFools_web_10042015Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.
For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone
when he falls and has not another to lift him up! (Eccl 4:9-10)


By Stephen W. Hiemstra

My first small group consisted of three people—Jon (my best friend), my pastor, and I—who met on Wednesday afternoons in my senior year in high school for pizza and soda to discuss the Book of Romans and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book—The Cost of Discipleship (1995). While I really specifically remember only Bonhoeffer’s comments on cheap grace—

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living, and incarnate (44-45).

—those discussions have grounded my faith and theology ever since.

Part of my grounding came by way of Jon who after college went immediately into seminary and shared his seminary texts with me, which we discussed together. He was, for example, heavily influenced by Karl Barth and, at Jon’s prompting, I read some of Barth’s shorter works, such as Dogmatik im Grundriβ[1] in graduate school. Part of my grounding came more directly from my fascination with Bonhoeffer, which led my ordination committee years later (2010) to describe me both as neo-orthodox[2] and very theological.

Grounded or not, the backstory on our group was less encouraging—at the end of my junior year the church fired our youth director unexpectedly when the senior pastor retired. The assistant pastor attempted to fill the void created by her firing, but was not entertaining enough to keep the youth group together. The group collapsed until only Jon and I were left and, because the youth group was my primary social activity outside of school, I was deeply bitter about it. My bitterness continued for several years and, as a result, I did not attend church when I left home for college. At college, I cannot remember attending a single church event on or off campus at either Indiana University or the College of William and Mary.

My lack of church attendance posed no problem when I was away at school, but it was a source of friction when I returned home for holidays and summer vacation. Because my parents moved from Maryland to Virginia during my freshman year, the friction over church was compounded by a change in churches because the kids my age in Virginia were unfamiliar and hung out in high school clicks to which that I was not a part. Between the clicks and my own bitterness, I had no reason to attend church beyond the prompting of my parents. So Sunday morning we would fight, I would attend out of obligation, and not much came of it until I transferred to Iowa State.

At Iowa State University, I lived in Wilson Hall, which overlooked the dairy farm across the street, and shared a room with Dennis who introduced me to the Navigators,[3] a Christian group on campus and who took me to church on Sundays. The Navigators had picnics and other events around campus which I attended, just to get to know other students. Dennis’ church was nondenominational and, because I did not particularly like it, I began attending Collegiate Presbyterian Church [4] and became a member, not knowing that my parents had attended this same church when my Dad was at Iowa State in the 1950s.

Reflecting on why I was returning to church, I realized that the bitterness that I felt when my home church fired our youth director was directed at the leadership of the church, not God. God’s presence was real to me even when I was not part of any church. As a consequence, atheistic arguments never seemed real to me, even when I repeated them, because I knew God first hand and I knew that I had been blessed when I came to faith. Pascal’s Wager, which was directed at atheists, made perfect sense to me, even when I had turned my back on God.

An important atheistic argument starts with the observation that the existence of God can neither be logically proven or disproven. Atheists focusing on this observation prefer the term, agnostic, which in Greek means “not knowing”, suggesting that there is insufficient evidence to make a faith decision. Pascal used probability theory  to argue that the agnostic argument is logically false in that faith is a fair bet (hence the term, Pascal’s wager)—if God exists and you believe, then you win heaven, but if God does not exist and you believe, then you loose nothing. In other words, faith in God has a positive reward even if the probability of God existing cannot be established—just so long as the probability is a non-zero, positive number.[5]  Of course, if you know first hand that God exists, Pascal’s Wager is no bet at all!

Whether Pascal’s Wager seemed logical or not, I began attending church in my junior year at Iowa State both on campus and off. Unlike at Indiana University, Iowa State was close to my grandparents who frequently hosted me on weekends when they took me to Central Reformed Church in Oskaloosa, Iowa where I had been baptized and where I was always in the company of relatives and friends in Christ.


Barth, Karl. 1977. Dogmatik im Grundriβ (Orig pub 1947). Zürich: Theologischer Verlag.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer. 1995. The Cost of Discipleship (Orig Pub 1937). Translated by R. H. Fuller and Irmgard Booth. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[1] I read Dogmatik im Grundriβ during my year in Germany (1979).

[2] Barth, Bonhoeffer, and others started the neo-orthodox school of theological thought which was popular in the period from the 1940s to the 1960s, but since then has fallen out of fashion.

[3] http://www.Navigators.org.

[4] http://www.cpcames.org.

[5] Pascal’s Wager is mathematic proof that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov 1:7)

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The Owl

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts,
but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” (Prov 12:18)

The Owl

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In eleventh grade I wanted to learn to type. I loved to write letters and often composed my letters with the flourish of a fountain pen, but I was embarrassed that I could only hunt and peck on a typewriter. I envied my Dad who composed his dissertation on an Underwood Manual and now was able to type letters using all the proper keystrokes. For me, typing had caché; typing was professional; I wanted to learn to type.

Parkdale Senior High School [1] offered a typing class for aspiring secretaries, not for students in the college track. When I asked to sign up for the class, my guidance counselor frowned and consented to enroll me only after considerable prodding. Even then, a problem arose because typing was a one-semester course and I needed to choose another one-semester course for the other semester. Reluctantly, I signed up for note-taking. I had no interest or use for note-taking but I rationalized that
at least I was learning to type.

The note-taking class proceeded without a hitch but halfway through the semester my counselor informed me that I had been bumped out of the typing class. In its place, I was enrolled in a psychology class—ugh. What would I ever do with psychology? Psychology?

Psychology started in the new semester with little fanfare. Students enjoyed it because the class had no textbook and no homework. We met for 50 minutes a day sitting in a big circle and just talked. The latest rage in 1971 pop psychology was neither Dale Carnegie nor B.F.Skinner; it was group therapy. In group therapy, everyone got their say, but the price of speaking your mind was that you had to listen to everyone else’s feedback. With more than 20 students in this class, feedback could take a while.

Psychology class was definitely a class off track. I knew almost none of the students from any previous class; the few that I knew were from my gym class. Although at the time I thought of them mostly as strangers, I suspect that these were the students who aspired to the typing and shop classes that my counselor refused to enroll me in. In a graduating class of 750 where half the students did not graduate, a lot of strangers wandered the halls.

One of those strangers—Bill—stood out. Bill was tall and gruff and wore work outfits with plaid shirts. Now, I enjoyed plaid shirts myself and took a ration of grief for wearing blue jeans and boots to school before either were fashionable, but Bill also looked mean—like walk down the other side of the street kind of mean. In fact, on a bad day I might have been afraid of him.

One day in class our assignment was to pick the name of a person out of a hat, compare that person with an animal, and explain why that animal provided a reasonable comparison. I still remember the panic—think of the potential embarrassment—think of the new nickname around school—what was that teacher thinking? As we took our turns, we dreaded the potential for public derision that an animal name might hold for us.[2]

When Bill picked my name, I tensed up. What would he say? How would I respond? But, he quietly said that I was smart like an owl…With those words, my image of him changed—he did not seem so mean after all. I wondered: who is this guy? Over the next few weeks, the stranger that I had observed became a friend that I knew. Later, when I class ended, I missed seeing and talking with him.

Funny, I cannot remember whose name I picked that day.


Carnegie, Dale. 1981. How to Win Friends and Influence People (Orig pub 1936). New York: Simon and Schuster.

Skinner, B.F. 1971. Beyond Freedom and Dignity. New York: Bantam Books/Vintage Books.

[1] http://www1.pgcps.org/Parkdale.

[2] Public derision was a real possibility. The “flying finkle finger of fate award” was an example made famous by a television show (1968) called Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYG6L9jcFOE).

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The Road Ahead

Life_in_Tension_webthat I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,
that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Phil 3:10-11 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In writing about the movements of the spirit in our lives, I have used both the descriptive term, gap, and the subjective term, tension. Our minds observe an arm’s length gap but our hearts feel intimate tension because our lives require commitments—we are vested in the things we do, the places we live, and the people with whom we live. This is true even when we aspire to transform our lives and work with the Holy Spirit to close the gaps. Such is the nature of the sanctification process; such is our journey as Christians.

An important lesson that Jesus confers on his disciples in the Beatitudes takes the form of an attitude about the process—we are to be humble in all that we do. Humility is important for the Christian not merely as an outward expression but also as a character trait at the core of our being. When the onion is peeled to its core, there we find humility. Christian obedience, through persecution and even in death, is possible because we have surrendered our lives to Christ and we know in the depths of our souls that the future lies in Christ. So the onion gets peeled and its core is revealed, and we find at the core what we see on the skin—humility.

Here we also see the importance of Christian hope. We share the shalom of Christ expecting persecution and rejection. But our hope remains because we know the end of the story is with Christ. This is the fruit of the resurrection. A soldier is issued a gun and does not expect to leave the battlefield without firing it—Christ is an honest leader who shares with his disciples the unvarnished truth of persecution. We have been given the shalom of Christ and share it gladly having counted the cost.

Probably the hardest lesson for modern and postmodern people concerns our relationship with God. In our natural selves, we scoff at zeal, distain offering or requesting mercy, and think of holiness as old fashioned. After all, we delude ourselves, we have grace and have no need of law. But Jesus says otherwise. Fulfilling all righteousness is impossible without the Holy Spirit and impossible without trying. So we must place our faith in Christ and emulate his life and death so that we might somehow also attain the resurrection (Phil 3:10-11).

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Surprising Priorities

Life_in_Tension_webFor we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,

but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. (Heb 4:15)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

When we accept Christ into our lives, we begin the journey from our natural selves to the person that God created us to be. In a real sense, we begin exchanging the acts of the flesh for the fruits of the spirit (Gal 5:19-23). These exchanges are far from hypothetical and are tied to our self-image, understanding of our faith, and our relationships. For example, if we exchange an idolatrous relationship with our work for a faithful relationship with God, we are likely also to see a blossoming of our faith and a change in priorities. Each exchange is painful and may involve losses that must be grieved. God also sees these changes.

Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection provide us an important template for our journey of faith. This is because Jesus also faced tensions with himself, with God, and with others (Phil 3:10-11). In the Beatitudes, each of these tensions is present and articulated. The first three Beatitudes focus on tension with one’s self (humility, mourning, and meakness). The second three Beatitudes focus on tension with God (zeal, mercy, and holiness). The last three Beatitudes focus on tension with others (peacemaking, persecution, and being reviled).

What is most striking about Jesus’ Beatitudes is that they reveal priorities very different from our own. Jesus places a strong emphasis on humility. Humility is seldom the focus of self-help books—we are more likely to find such books focused on assertiveness training or building self-esteem. Another divine priority is mourning. Mourning is the only emotion among the Beatitudes—why does Jesus not highlight love or joy? Still another surprising priority is mercy. Mercy is one of God’s core values—the first one (Exod 34:6). Finally, the ultimate paradox in Jesus’ teaching comes when he admonishes us to treat persecution as a teachable moment: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt 5:44).

Jesus’ priorities are not naturally our own.

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Living Testimony

Life_in_Tension_web“But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them,
nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared
to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope
that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect…”
(1 Peter 3:14-15 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The New Testament is full of a allusions to persecution which are mostly edited out when passages are cited in worship services and other uses.

For example, the citation above is normally cited entirely out of context as: “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15 ESV). The snipet is entirely upbeat and usually cited as the reason to argue apologetically for the faith. At least three things are missing when this is done. First, there is no recognition of the context of persecution. Second, there is no recognition of Peter’s admonition to speak “with gentleness and respect”. Finally, the verbal defend often highlighted entirely misses the point that the entire letter focuses on “lifestyle evangelism”—living out the faith, not talking about the faith, and only that one phrase mentions a verbal defend.

In fact, one could argue that practicing for a verbal defense is contrary to scripture, because Jesus says:

“And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.” (Luke 12:11-12 ESV)

The tension that we feel with others over our faith is expected because of the work and power of the Holy Spirit manifested in our lives. Notice the order of events in this admonition:

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 ESV)

It is the power of the Holy Spirit acting in us that leads us to become witnesses.

Because it is the power the Holy Spirit that leads us into this tension, it is neither our propensity to be vocal nor a desire to take risks that leads us to witness for Christ. The opposite is also true. It is neither our shyness in front of people nor our risk aversion that holds us back in witnessing for Christ—in our joy in salvation we want to tell the whole world! However, fear can quelch the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Barthel and Edling (2012, 101) note:

“When individuals in groups are motivated by fear of the opinion of other people (what others personally think about them) more than the fear of God, their hearts grow cold to the Spirit of God. Lacking God-consciousness, there is no restraining the motivation of the heart; only world passions and popularity with crowd control. This is common in church conflicts. Defensiveness, self-righteousness, and pride rule the day when people vien in to the fear of man.”

It is interesting that where we frequently pray for protection the early church prayed for boldness in their witness [1]. The problem facing the church of Laodicea, so common today, seems to have come later. As the Apostle John prophesied:

“I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” (Rev. 3:15-16 ESV)

Finney (1982,74-76) lists six consequences of quelching the Holy Spirit in our lives:

  1. Darkness of mind—the truth makes no useful impression.
  2. Coldness towards religion.
  3. Holding various errors in religion.
  4. Disbelief.
  5. Delusion regarding one’s spiritual state.
  6. Attempts to justify wrongdoing.

In this list we observe problems of tension with ourselves, with others, and with God. Fear of others, particularly persecution, leads us to abandon our faith both in God and in ourselves in a kind of downward spiral. Is it any wonder than in our times of timid faith, many are are burdened daily with debilitating anxiety and treated for depression even on sunny days? One wonders if increasing persecution is less about other people than it is about our own weakness and doubt—like a feeding frenzy observed among wounded fish.

Barthel and Edling (2012, 89) observe churches in conflict snapping to their senses when leaders are reminded of the need to remain God-centered and to reframe conflict around well-choice questions for reflection. Of course, this rings a bit like sound pastoral advice for us as individuals as well.

What is your favorite scripture passage?

[1] “And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus. And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.” (Acts 4:29-31 ESV)


Barthel, Tara Klena and David V. Edling. 2012. Redeeming Church Conflicts: Turning Crisis into Compassion and Care. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks.

Finney, Charles. 1982. The Spirit-Filled Life (Orig pub 1845-61). New Kensington: Whitaker House.

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Persecution Can Be Transformative

Life_in_Tension_web“And Saul approved of his [Stephen’s] execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution
against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the
regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” (Acts 8:1 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In my grandparents’ home, every meal began with prayer and ended with a scripture reading. During my college years at Iowa State University, I used to travel to visit them on the weekends. At one point when it was my turn to pick a scripture passage, I read the story of Stephen. Well, sort of. I could not read the story without breaking out in tears…

The charge against Stephen was twofold:

“This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” (Acts 6:13-14 ESV)

Stephen never disputed the charge and offered no defense. Instead, he accused the Jews of false worship and not keeping the law (Acts 7:48,53) effectively validating their charges. What drove them crazy, however, was when he reminded them of Jesus’ words during his trial:

“But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matt. 26:64 ESV) [1]

Jesus was paraphrasing Daniel 7:13. This was clear a claim of divinity. Stephen’s stoning was spontaneous and illegal under Roman law (John 18:31). Yet, it was approved by Saul (Acts 8:1). Persecution requires a persecutor.

By his own words, Saul was an zealous persecutor (Phil 3:6). Saul is introduced in Acts 7:58 with the execution of Stephen. In Acts 8 we are told that he not only approved of Stephen’s stoning, he led the persecution of the church in Jerusalem that followed (Acts 8:1, 3). Saul’s persecution is described with the word ravage (λυμαίνω; Acts 8:3) which suggests a path of self-destruction as in the proverb: “When a man’s folly brings his way to ruin, his heart rages against the LORD.” (Prov. 19:3 ESV)

In leading the persecution of the church, Saul both assists in scattering the Jerusalem disciples to the regions of Judea and Samaria—fulfilling the commission of Christ in Acts 1:8. For example, we read: Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word (Acts 8:4 ESV). In doing so, at his worse Saul still acts as an unwilling, unknowing instrument of the Holy Spirit. However, when Saul sets his course to oppose Christ’s commission in the scattering by going to Damascus, he meets the risen Lord who, unlike in the case of Judas Iscariot (Matt 28:5), graciously prevents him from self-destruction. Even before his conversion, the Apostle Paul, formerly Saul, accomplished God’s will and his own call (Acts 9:15-16).

A spiritual bond is formed between the persecuted and persecutors. Charismatics refer to it as one of the chains of Satan because turning into our pain is a clear choice to turn away from God [2]. Forgiveness breaks this bond and makes room for God’s Holy Spirit to work in our lives (Rom 12:19). Interestingly, the Apostle Paul never forgot Stephen and mentions him in his speech before the Sanhedrin when he is arrested in Jerusalem in which recounts his own conversion (Acts 22:20). Was Paul God’s answer to Stephen’s prayer: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”? (Acts 7:60 ESV)

The Book of Acts reports that the Holy Spirit worked through persecution to establish the first gentile church in Antioch. We read:

“Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews.” (Acts 11:19 ESV)

The key word here is scattered (διασπαρέντες). The only other place in the New Testament where this word appears is in Acts 8:4: Now those who were scattered [by Saul’s persecution] went about preaching the word. The word suggests an action of the wind—in English we say scattered by the wind [3]. The word for wind in the Greek is pneuma (πνεῦμα). This word is also translated as Holy Spirit. The inference is that the Holy Spirit established the church at Antioch by means of persecution. Because the apostles remained primarily in Jerusalem at this point, God went ahead of them to establish his church in “all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 ESV), much like God has used the Pentecostal movement in our own time to reach much of the known world.

The implication here is that persecution is used by God to shake things up and to form not only individuals but also His church.


[1] Also see: Mark 14:62 and Luke 22:69.

[2] Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane gives us a clear template for dealing with pain (Matt. 26:39-44 ESV).

[3] The allusion here is to Luke 8:5-15, The Parable of the Sower.

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