The Reality of Following Jesus: It’s Full of Tension

following-jesus_t_nvAs I wrap up this series on the reality of following Jesus I am sensitive to a seeming contradiction. I have argued, on the one hand, that following Jesus is costly and requires great sacrifice. On the other hand, I have argued that following Jesus is often mundane, even boring. For some those two ideas would seem to contradict one another. To some believers the idea of “taking up their cross” means that Christianity is supposed to be full of drama and excitement. It’s a risk-taking adventure to the other side of the world to help lead the underground church. That is a good thing and, of course, if God calls you to it then you should obey. But the idea that the Christian life could also be a long plodding obedience in the same direction doesn’t fit with this picture. So we often end up choosing one idea of Christian living over the other. The truth, however, is that the Christian life is far more complex than we often admit.

Following Christ is full of tension. There are countless passages that allude to this need tension; they often speak of our need for balance. So, in John 17:14-19 Jesus us gives us the basic pieces of the long-held Christian principle: be in the world, but not of the world. So, we see the need for balance, the existence of tension in the Christian life: we are not of the world, yet we live in the world. In 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 Paul talks about the balance between liberty and responsibility. You are free to eat whatever you want, he says, but you are not free to eat in such a way that you cause your brother to stumble. Again we see an emphasis on balance.

We don’t think this way about our Christian walk because most of us much prefer hard lines. We like the clear black and white that make it easy to check-off boxes on our religious duties list. It makes life simpler in some sense. It’s easier just to isolate yourself from the world than to find a way to live in without being influenced by it. And we like lists of rules that tell us what we can do, what we can eat, what we can watch, what we can wear, because then we don’t have to think hard about our Christian freedom. We like things to be simple, but the Christian life is not simple. It’s complex and full tension. I can’t remember where I got this list, but one pastor has written out just a few of the tensions we find in Scripture as they relate to the Christian life. He writes:

This list probably only scratches the surface, but it is enough to communicate the point. The Christian life is full of tension and requires balance on our part.  There are lots of ways in which this tension manifests itself in our Christian walk. Three areas interest me in particular: theology, ethics, and experience. A quick survey of each will be helpful at this point.

If we begin thinking about the subject of theology we might ask a direct question: is theology simple? Well, yes. The gospel is simple enough for a child to understand and believe. Christ himself even states, “You must come to me like a little child. So, it is simple. And yet, we are talking about the study of the things of God – the God of the universe. Nothing with him is simple. His ways are beyond our comprehending. If we are to talk about the Trinity, the Incarnation, the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, the crucifixion of the Son of God. If we are to talk about these things we will have to necessarily have our minds stretched and work hard to try to make sense, and even then we will not fully comprehend. God wants us to know Him, he has revealed himself to us, given us His Word, sent the Spirit to illumine our minds for understanding. Yet, we recognize that all theological systems are human made and are therefore flawed and imperfect. Is theology simple, then? Yes…and no.

Think, then, about this same question applied to ethics: is ethics easy? Ethics refers to the practice of obedience, conforming our ways to God’s will. Is this easy? The obvious answer for anyone who has been a Christian for more than thirty-seconds is “no.” Obedience is hard. There is unbelievable power behind temptation, and we are often still weak and imperfect in our faith. Yet there are plenty of passages in Scripture that seem to suggest it should be easier.  You are free from sin,” Paul says. It no longer has dominion over you. (Rom. 5). Believers have been given, he says, a spirit “not of fear but of power and love, and self-control.” (2 Tim. 1:3). The Scriptures say that the same power that raised Jesus from the dead is at work in me (Rom. 8:11). Paul adds that we don’t fight our spiritual warfare with weapons made by flesh, but with divine power that is able to break strongholds! (2 Cor. 10). If I am honest, there are days where I read the testimony of Scripture and think: this struggle with sin should be a whole lot easier. There is a tension that exists here. I am free from sin, that’s an important point to keep before me. It gives me motivation to fight. But I am also often like Paul in Romans 7, “I do the very thing I hate.” I need remind myself then that obedience is hard and sanctification is a lifelong process that will only see completion on the day of Christ’s return (1 John 3:2).

Lastly, consider the role of experience in the Christian life. Everyone’s experience of the Christian life is both similar and different. Everyone has a story that is uniquely theirs. Yet they all have the same God, the same gospel, and the same Scriptures that speak into those stories. There’s a tendency within the church to judge other people’s experiences and stories by our own. So, if one addict experience “complete healing” from their addiction, we might expect every other addict who comes to Christ to experience the same. And when they don’t we assume they are either not Christians or they are bad Christians. We also judge the spiritual growth of others by our own progress. Either I am not a good Christian cause I am not progressing like them. Or they’re not a good Christian because they’re not progressing like me. We must remember that everyone’s story is uniquely their own. Yet, taking to far this comes to mean that we can have no means of measuring spiritual growth, and Paul tells us to hold one another accountable, even to judge one another (1 Corinthians 5:12). There is, again, a balance here.

The Christian life is full of tension. We must remind ourselves of this, expect it. If we don’t we are likely to live simplistic lives, overemphasize certain doctrines, patterns, or attitudes to the exclusion of other important doctrines, patterns, and attitudes. Don’t fear the tension, friends, the Christian life is full of it. After all, we worship a savior who is both God and Man, and what could be more full of tension that the incarnation itself?

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