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

Prayers_of_a_Life_in_Tension_webFather God,
Thank you for sending your son, Jesus Christ into our lives to draw us closer to you. Save us from our own evil thoughts and feelings. Unstop our ears; open our eyes; and flood our hearts the promptings of your Holy Spirit. Free us from iniquity and cleanse us from our transgressions. Give us a heart for your word and grant us the mind of Christ. Teach us to lean on your law and to share your grace that we might become true disciples: honored to hunger and thirst for your righteousness; honored to be merciful; honored to pursue Godliness in all we do. Through the power of the Holy Spirit and grace available to us through Jesus Christ. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

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Tension with God

Life_in_Tension_web“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

The idea of tension with God comes as surprise to many Christians.  Three reasons stand out:

  1. 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;
  2. A focus on conversion and off of sanctification—the process of nurturing our faith—leaves many Christians living secular lifestyles; and
  3. 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 [1]. 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 [2].

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 [3].  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 [4].

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.


[1] 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”.

[2]  “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)

[3] For a detailed discussion of godliness, see Bridges (1996).

[4] 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.

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Heifetz and Linsky Lead through Adversity

Heifetz and Linsky, Leadership on the Line
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Heifetz and Linsky Lead through Adversity

Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky.  2002.  Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading.  Boston:  Harvard Business School Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Postmodern philosophy is toxic for leaders. We live in a buddy culture where everyone is presumed to be equal. When equality is not true because of divine inspiration, gifting, or merit, jealous buddies stand ready to entertain with defeatist stories about victims, villains, or helplessness and to rescue mediocrity from actual change. Real leadership is accordingly poorly compensated and under constant suspicion [1].

This characterization is itself, of course, a defeatist rant.


In their book, Leadership on the Line:  Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky assert:

we believe you can “walk the line,” [citing Johnny Cash] step forward, make a difference, take the heat, and survive to delight in the fruits of your labor.

In fact, they see leadership providing meaning to life itself in spite of obvious dangers and discouragements (3, 11-12).

Technical versus Adaptive Change

A key insight in Heifetz and Linsky’s work is to distinguish technical from adaptive challenges.  In a technical change, authorities apply current know-how to solve a problem while in an adaptive change people with the problem must learn new ways to solve the problem (14).  A technical change typically requires nothing more than additional budget while an adaptive change requires an entirely new approach (18).

Technical Change

Heifetz and Linsky cite the example of a car that breaks down.  If your car breaks down, then you can take it to a mechanic and get it fixed.  However, if your car breaks down because of how the family drives it, then the problem is likely to come up over and over until the family changes how the car is driven.  The mechanic can fix the first problem (car breaks down), but only the family itself can fix the second problem (repeated break downs; 19).  The rub arises because:  Habits, values, and attitudes, even dysfunctional ones, are part of one’s identity.  To change the way people see and do things is to challenge how they define themselves (27).  As a consequence, adaptive problems are inherently more difficult and costly to deal with.

Importance of Adaptive Change

Because current leaders were promoted to bring organizations to the point they find themselves in today, part of the challenge of adaptive change arises in dealing with dealing with those with a vested interest in the way things are.  Heifetz and Linsky observe that resistance to change often comes from unexpected places and people.  They see the 4 principal dangers to leaders being marginalization, diversion, attack, and seduction (31).  Marginalization can take the form of tokenism, neglect, or professional pigeon-holing (32-37).  Diversion results in a loss of focus—taking on too many issues or being promoted off-line (38-40).  Attacks may focus on your ideas, character, competence, family, or physical existence (42) [2]. Seduction arises as constituents for change insist on taking the issue too far and the leader then fails chasing the dream rather than accomplishing real, doable change (45-48).

Fog of War

Emotions rage and helpful information is often absent during periods of change.  In the military, this is called the fog of war.  Heifetz and Linsky accordingly observe the need to maintain the capacity for reflection—to observe more clearly what is really going on (52).  During movies of the 1930s and 1940s, during dance or dinner party scenes characters frequently retreated to a balcony to talk (or have a smoke) where they figured out their strategies. On the balcony, Heifetz and Linsky see 4 useful activities:

  1. Distinguish technical from adaptive changes;
  2. Find out where people are at;
  3. Listen to the song beneath the words (do not accept things at face value); and/or
  4. Read the behavior of authority figures for clues (55).

A Christian might substitute the expression—Sabbath rest—for balcony here as we lead our families through the stresses and struggles of life.


Heifetz and Linsky’s Leadership on the Line is written in 11 chapters divided into 3 parts:  The Challenge, the Response, and Body and Soul.  The chapters are:

  1. The Heart of Danger;
  2. The Faces of Danger;
  3. Get on the Balcony;
  4. Think Politically;
  5. Orchestrate the Conflict;
  6. Give the Work Back;
  7. Hold Steady;
  8. Manage Your Hungers;
  9. Anchor Yourself;
  10. What’s On the Line? And
  11. Sacred Heart (vii).

These chapters include an introduction and notes, an index, and write-up about the authors in the pages that follow.

Example of Adaptive Change Challenge

Heifetz and Linsky’s distinction between technical and adaptive changes is most useful.  I cannot tell you how many meetings that I attended in the government where a focus on “low hanging fruit”—technical changes which really did not address the issue but gave managers an opportunity to pretend to do something—pushed aside attempts at adaptive change.

Conversion as Adaptive Change

Conversion to Christ is an adaptive change; it is not the low hanging fruit that people want to grab which leaves them feeling “in control” of their lives.  Christians become leaders the moment they respond to God’s call on their lives because they reject technical change for the transformational change which Christ offers.  The Apostle Paul writes:

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2 ESV)

Consequently, Heifetz and Linsky offer a style of leadership which is an allegory for the Christian life [3].  Leadership on the Line is well worth the reading.


[1] My paraphrase of Heifetz and Linsky’s challenges of leadership on pages 1-5.

[2] In the recent Veteran’s Administration scandal, for example, no one questioned the administrator’s competence, but media attention forced him to resign. In effect, the appetite to solving the problem remains weak—it was easier to personalize the problem and make it go away by assigning blame—a villain story.

[3] www.youtube.com/user/FaithandLeadership.


Also see:

Plueddemann Demystified Leadership Across Culture 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

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

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2vfisNa


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