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).

References

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

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Spiritual Disciplines: Monday Monologues, September 16, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

This morning I will share a prayer and reflect on Spiritual Disciplines.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on the link below:

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Spiritual Disciplines: Monday Monologues, September 16, 2019 (podcast)

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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Spiritual Disciplines

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

If Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, then staying attached to the vine is our first priority. The First Commandment makes this point: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exod 20:3) John’s Gospel goes a step further declaring Jesus as the ethical image of God with God during creation:

“He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John. 1:2-5)

The idea of an ethical image is introduced here in describing him as “the light of men.” 

In describing Jesus as the light of the world, John draws our attention to God’s first refinement—creating light—after creating heaven and earth (Gen 1:3). The implication is that creation itself started with an ethical intent, which we share in by virtue of being created in God’s own image (Gen 1:27).

Two Objectives of Spiritual Disciplines

In his Sermon on the Mount uses this same light metaphor of his disciples:

“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)

The implication here is that staying attached to the vine is the first priority and that the purpose of this attachment is to convey light, an ethical mandate. Thus, for Christians spiritual disciplines have two objectives: increasing our openness to God’s blessings and extending them to others (Gen 12:1-3; Matt 22:36-40).

Jesus is not looking for fans, he is looking for extension cords.

Rapprochement

The eating of forbidden fruit led to humanity’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Banishment is a penalty reserved for rebels and it creates a physical barrier between us and God that only God can overcome. For as creator of the universe, God stands outside of time and space while we remain within time and space unable to bridge the gap on our own.

Implicit in taking Christ as our example is that Jesus is the divine image in which we were created. As both God and human, Jesus Christ, our great High Priest, is able to bridge the gap that we cannot (e.g. Heb 9:11-13).

In dying on the cross, Christ paid the penalty for our sin, but our remoteness from God requires rapprochement. We must accept Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf and be willing to admit God into our lives. Admitting God into our lives—our sanctification—has three parts: renouncing sin (practicing holiness) and taking on the attributes of Christ (pursuing godliness) (Eph 4:20-24; Bridges). A third part is reconciliation with those who we have sinned against—social ministry.

How we approach practicing holiness and pursuing godliness naturally depends on the sins that we are most prone to commit. In a fractured world where people hide themselves from the consequences of their collective actions, social ministry might be seen as a particularly important sanctification activity.

Dancing with God

In some sense, sanctification is like taking God as a dancing partner. Accepting an invitation to dance is a verbal commitment, but dancing requires coordinated movement between two people. One would never claim the title of dancer having only accepted an invitation to dance. Neither would anyone enter a dance competition without practice. Faith is like accepting the challenge of a lifelong commitment to become the best dancer one can be.

References

Bridges, Jerry. 1996a. The Pursuit of Holiness. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Bridges, Jerry. 1996b. The Practice of Godliness. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Spiritual Disciplines

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Value Of Life

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Bridges Practices Godliness

GodlinessJerry Bridges.[1]1996. The Practice of Godliness. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra, Author of Simple Faith and other books available online.

If you are like me, I always confused the words holiness and godliness, thinking that they were synonyms. Apparently, we are not alone. Bridges explains: “This book is a sequel to an earlier book, The Pursuit of Holiness. In Ephesians 4:20-24, Paul urges us to put off our old self and to put on the new self. The Pursuit of Holiness dealt largely with putting off the old self—dealing with sin in our lives. The Practice of Godliness focuses on putting on the new self—growing in Christian character.”(7)

This explanation made perfect sense to me because I read one right after the other.

 What is Godliness?

Bridges describes the Bible as “a book on godliness.” (11) He highlights these verses:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”(Gal 5:22-23 ESV)

Other such lists can be found in Colossians 3:12-16, Ephesians 4:2-3,32, James 3:17, and 2 Peter 1:5-7 (7). I have always associated these lists as practical translations of Exodus 34:6, where God describes his character:

“The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,”(Exod 34:6)

Being created in the image of God (Gen 1:27), our utmost desire is to emulate God in all we see him doing, which leads us to godliness because of his own self-disclosure of characteristics.

Rejoice Always

A key aspect of godliness in life and in ministry is the gift of joy. Bridges writes:

“But we are not to sit around waiting for our circumstances to make us joyful. We are commended to be joyful always. (1 Thes 5:16)”

Sometimes we need to give ourselves and others permission to be joyful.

Bridges sees four stumbling blocks to joy: (1) sin, (2) misplaced confidence, (3) God’s disciplining, and (4) trials and tribulations (109-112). He advises another four practices in practicing joy: (1) confess and forsake sin, (2) trust in God, (3) take the long view in life, and (4) give thanks in all circumstances (115-117). If we practice joy, he sees two benefits: (1) God is pleased and (2) we will be strengthened physically, emotionally, and spiritually (117-118).

This is interesting advice because I have prayed for strength daily for several years.

Background and Organization

Jerry Bridges (1929 – 2016) studied at the University of Oklahoma, served in the U.S. Navy, and worked on the staff of The Navigators, an evangelistic Christian group headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado.[2] He authored numerous books on the Christian life. Bridges writes in eighteen chapters, each centered on a particular passage of scripture. These chapters are preceded by a foreword and preface, and followed by a postscript.

This is almost the exact same format as Bridge’s other book and, as such, NavPress later issued the two books together with a Bible study as a compendium (2001).

Assessment

Like his earlier book, Jerry Bridges’s book, The Practice of Godliness, is destined to be a Christian classic. The wisdom found in this book has informed my walk with the Lord for almost twenty years. It is easy to read and well worth the effort.

References

Bridges, Jerry. 1996. The Pursuit of Holiness. Colorado Springs: NavPress. (Review)

Footnotes

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerry_Bridges. [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Navigators_(organization).

Bridges Practices Godliness

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Top 10 Book Reviews Over the Past 12 Months

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Bridges Breathes Life into Holiness

HolinessJerry Bridges.[1]1996. The Pursuit of Holiness. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra, Author of Simple Faith and other books available online.

As an author, I sometimes find reading good books difficult because I catch myself comparing my own writing to that of the author. Some authors recall details of every book they ever read; others write with such flair that every sentence reads like poetry; still others peer into the soul and catch points so profound that nothing appears unexplored. In a world of such genius, I think to myself, why do I even continue to write? The answer is that the call of the Christian writer is specific to our own talents and audiences, much like our call as Christians more generally is to glorify God with the gifts and calling that he has given us.

Introduction

In his book, The Pursuit of Holiness, Jerry Bridges writes about a similar dilemma when it comes to holiness:

“We Christian greatly enjoy talking about the provision of God, how Christ defeated sin on the cross and gave us His Holy Spirit to empower us to victory over sin. But we do not as readily talk about our own our own responsibility to walk in holiness.”(10)

Pursuing holiness is a lifelong task for which diligence and effort are required (Heb 12:14), much like the effort required to a develop a talent like writing. Bridges writes: “…the holiness of Jesus was more than simply the absence of actual sin. It was also a perfect conformity to the will of the father.”(43) He refers to holiness as the throwing off of sin, while the putting on of Christ he calls godliness.

Background and Organization

Jerry Bridges (1929 – 2016) studied at the University of Oklahoma, served in the U.S. Navy, and worked on the staff of The Navigators, an evangelistic Christian group headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado.[2] He authored numerous books on the Christian life.

Bridges writes in eighteen chapters, each centered on a particular passage of scripture. These chapters are preceded by a foreword and preface, and followed by a postscript.

Why Worry About Sin?

Bridges poses an important question:

“If holiness, then, is so basic to the Christian life, why do we not experience it more in daily living? Why do so many Christians feel constantly defeated in their struggle with sin?”(16)

He cites three reasons.

First, “our first problem is that our attitude toward sin is more self-centered than God-centered.”(16) Obedience, not victory, is God’s will (17).

Our second problem is that we have misunderstood ‘living by faith’ (Gal 2:20) to mean that no effort at holiness is required on our part.”(17)  

“Our third problem is that we do not take some sin seriously.”(18)

All sin is rebellion against God’s will for lives, which is why it is somethings compared to yeast that acts like an infection that spreads fast with devastating consequences.

Bridges makes an important point: “God does not require a perfect, sinless life to have fellowship with Him, but He does require that we be serious about holiness, that we grieve over sin in our lives instead of justifying it, and that we earnestly pursue holiness as a way of life.”(36) We need to cling to Christ’s mantle, like the woman who suffered from bleeding (Matt 9:20-22)

The Journey

This is a book that I read in 2002, almost a decade before I attended seminary. As I reviewed my notes for this review, I was struck by how many insights that I have found myself repeating since then. One that my wife and kids even remember is this: “How do we view those who do not show love for us? Do we see them as persons for whom Christ died for or as persons who make our lives difficult?”(46) I cited this idea in a sermon only two weeks ago (link), not remembering where I got it.

Assessment

Jerry Bridges’s book, The Pursuit of Holiness, is destined to be a Christian classic. The wisdom found in this book has informed my walk with the Lord for almost twenty years. It is easy to read and well worth the effort.

Footnotes

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Navigators_(organization). [2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerry_Bridges.

Bridges Breathes Life into Holiness

Also See:

Top 10 Book Reviews Over the Past 12 Months

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/HotWeather_2019

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Holiness: Monday Monologues, July 29, 2019 (podcast)

Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018
Stephen W Hiemstra, 2018

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

This morning I will share a prayer and reflection on holiness.

After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on the link below:

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Holiness: Monday Monologues, July 29, 2019 (podcast)

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter: http://bit.ly/HotWeather_2019

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29. Prayers of a Life in Tension by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Prayers_of_a_Life_in_Tension_webAlmighty Father.
Spare us, Lord, from a divided heart, an indecisive mind, and conniving spirit. Prune the eye that sins, a hand that grasps, and ears that itch to hear anything other than your word. Intensify our love of your law; give us gracious hearts and discerning minds. Plant in us your Holy Spirit, holy affections, and sanctified thoughts that we might be truthful to ourselves, to others, and, most of all, to you. Grant us your whole armor: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness,  helmet of salvation, and sword of your word (Eph 6:13-17). That we might serve our entire lives as examples of your godliness, like your Son. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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18. Prayers of a Life in Tension by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Prayers_of_a_Life_in_Tension_webAlmighty Father,

We give thanks for the gift of faith and the call into ministry which reaches out to our family, friends, and beyond. Guard our hearts in times of weakness, hardship, and temptation. Keep our mind sharp that we offer you our praise with clarity, coherence, and dedication, not tainted by vain desires, cultural confusion, or subtle idolatries. Grant us a spirit of meekness, a spirit of humility seated deeply in our character—not loosely held, superficially worn, or overshadowed by cherished sins. Place in us hearts eager to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, and gentleness. Give us the strength to provide a sacrificial hospitality to those around us. In the face of suffering, make your Holy Spirit especially visible that we would not fail in our ministry due to temptations to be relevant, powerful, or spectacular in the eyes of those in our care. In the strong name of Jesus Christ, Your Son and our Savior. Amen.

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Prune, Intensify, and Apply

Life_in_Tension_web“You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you that
everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that
you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” (Matt 5:27-29 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

When Jesus says “Blessed are the pure in heart”, three actions come into view: to prune, to intensify, and to apply.

Prune. Jesus says later in the sermon on the mount: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.” (Matt 5:29) In case you are hard of hearing, he repeats the idea again in the next verse: “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” (Matt. 5:30 ESV). Pruning consists of removing the sin from your life.

Jesus is serious about pursuing holiness and he assumes that it is hard work. Think about the analogies that he employs—tear out your eye, cut off your hand. These are not easy actions to take. Eyes and hands are part of the body—parts of us. Still, when our lives are threatened, amputation is a acceptable option. If sin were no big deal, the analogy might have been to trim your nails or cut your hair.

Intensify. Jesus does not water down the requirements of the Mosaic law, he intensifies it. In his comments about adultery, he discounts the actual commission of the the act and focuses on the corruption of the heart. The sin begins, not with the act, but with a lustful look or intent. Billy Graham reminds us:

“What does this word adultery mean? It is derived from the same Latin root from which we get our word adulterate which means’corrupt; to make impure or to weaken.” (Graham 1955, 78).

If sin begins in the heart, then purity of heart is an absolute necessity in pursuing holiness, but more is required. We must not only avoid sin, we must focus our desires on Christ. The Apostle Paul writes:

“But that is not the way you learned Christ!–assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Eph 4:20-24 ESV)

We must actually practice godliness [1]. Paul admonishes Timothy to “train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7 ESV) and so must we.

Apply. If the heart and mind both make us a unified person, then all of us is affected when we pursue holiness and practice godliness. In the Hebrew mindset it makes no sense to talk about faith being separated from action. When James, the brother of Jesus, writes:

“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.” (James 1:22-25 ESV)

James would almost certainly share Jesus’ assumption that unity of person implies unity of faith and action. In fact, one meaure of sin in this context would precisely be the amount of sunshine between what we say and what we do. After all, Jesus was the first one to use the word, hypocrite, to mean two-faced—saying one thing and doing another [2]. Prior to Jesus, an hypocrite was an actor on the Greek stage.

This unity of faith and action reflects the unity of our Triune God whose love is simply a reflection of his person [3].

So we must prune, intensify, and apply if we are to be pure in heart and see God.

 

[1] Bridges (1996a, 7) writes: “The Pursuit of Holiness [also a book title] dealt largely with putting off the old self—dealing with sin in our lives. The Practice of Godliness [also another title] focuses on putting on the new self—growing in Christian character.

[2] “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” (Matt. 23:25 ESV)

[3] “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut. 6:4-5 ESV)

REFERENCES

Bridges, Jerry. 1996a. The Practice of Godliness. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Bridges, Jerry. 1996b. The Pursuit of Holiness. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Graham, Billy. 1955. The Secret of Happiness. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc.

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