Don’t Run From Tension. Embrace It. – Will Anderson

I currently lead a book discussion group at my church for men battling lust and pornography addiction. This week, someone in the group posed this vulnerable question: “Is it realistic to expect we’ll ever be fully free from lust?” 

His question resonated with a tension we all feel: the tension between God’s power to change us and our stubborn reluctance to change. Sanctification and temptation aren’t mutually exclusive; they’re twin truths that keep us hopeful and humble.

Christianity is fraught with tensions like this一truths that seem to push and pull on one another. For example, we’re called to:

Confront our own sin (Matt. 7:1–5; 1 John 1:8–9) and confront sin in others (Matt. 18:15–20; Gal. 2:11–14).
Mourn difficult trials (Rom. 12:15) and give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thess. 5:18).
Plan wisely for our financial future (Prov. 30:25) and take financial risks in order to serve God (Acts 2:45; 1 John 3:16–18).
Serve our biological family (Matt. 15:1–9; Col. 3:18–21) and serve our church family (John 13:34; Gal. 5:13).
Enjoy material things as gifts from God (Eccles. 9:7) and halt spending to quell materialism (Matt. 13:22; 1 Tim. 6:10).

Tension Can Be Right, Even When It Feels Wrong

Living in tension is uncomfortable. It’s a negative word in our vocabulary: a tense conversation is one you’re eager to leave. To have tension with someone indicates there’s friction in the relationship.

But tension isn’t always a warning light to indicate something’s malfunctioning一it can be useful, even beautiful. Power lines utilize tension to stay safely hoisted above pedestrians. Cello strings appropriately tuned produce breathtaking music. Similarly, the more we’re stretched by God, the more he can use us.

Here are four reasons Christians should embrace tension:

1. Tension makes us resilient.

Equal tension creates strength一a maxim I discovered in middle school when learning how to tune a new drumhead. After tightening the tension rods in a star (or crisscross) pattern, you can put your full weight on the drum without doing any damage.

Similarly, when we’re willing to tune our lives to all of God’s truth, life’s blows don’t break our faith; they reveal it. Think of the wife who prays earnestly for her husband’s healing, yet still declares God good after his passing. Her belief in God’s power, held in tension with total surrender to God’s plan, is a holy fusion that makes her exceedingly strong.  

Tension enables us to turn life’s heavy hits into a catchy rhythm that makes even cynics tap their feet.  

2. Tension makes us thoughtful.

We’re all self-interested—prone to favor one aspect of obedience while neglecting another. It’s easier to be lopsided than well-rounded. Without tension to reel in our loose ends, we lean toward whatever suits our preferences, soothes our consciences, or secures approval in our circles. We end up shouting half-truths at each other, unaware that both sides are theologically anemic:

All poor people are lazy or they’re all victims who never work the system.
“Christian” media is always worth consuming, regardless of its content or quality or all such media is cheesy and preachy.
God wants you to buy nice things because you regularly tithe or buying nice things is always selfish materialism.

Tension frees us from reductionism, so we can treat every poor person as valuable (even when discernment precludes giving money), enjoy good Christian films while rejecting bad ones, and prayerfully make a big purchase this month but halt spending next month. Tension helps us think well so we can live well.

3. Tension increases our trust in God.

Tension often exposes the gap between our limitations as finite beings and God’s infinite knowledge. Critics of Christianity often highlight its alleged “intellectual inconsistency,” as if it’s a jigsaw puzzle with incompatible pieces, which Christians naively force together, pretending it all makes sense. What such critics overlook is that mystery is not a threat to Christianity; it’s part of our theology, as John Frame insightfully reflects:

Although I’ve enjoyed a 50-year career expounding reasons for faith, I’ve always had a deep sense of the “incomprehensibility of God.” No matter how clear our concepts and cogent our arguments, God is, in the end, a transcendent being, above and beyond us, one whom we cannot master either by physical strength or by mental skill. . . . So, no matter how much we know, there will always be something beyond us. We cannot know God as God knows himself. Nor can we know anything in creation as God knows it. We cannot even know ourselves as God knows us. Our knowledge is adequate to serve God as he intends, and our ignorance is never an excuse for disobedience. But our knowledge is never exhaustive.

Every time we struggle to balance biblical commands, or comprehend biblical concepts, it’s an opportunity to say: Lord, I don’t know how to navigate this situation. Help me, teach me, strengthen me.

It’s easier to be lopsided than well-rounded.

Parents know the tension of protecting their kids and releasing their kids. Theologians wrestle with how God’s sovereignty relates to human responsibility. Victims of abuse stumble through the tension of forgiving the perpetrator, while also maintaining healthy distance from them.

Tensions remind us of how much we don’t know, yet they’re also an invitation to trust the God we do know.

4. Tension makes us long for heaven.

Tension is tiring, and saints who embrace it ache from being perpetually stretched. From the battered trenches of this inaugurated kingdom, we ache for a better country一one without mourning, crying, death, and pain (Heb 11:16, Rev. 21:4). The glorious news is, it’s coming!

Tensions remind us of how much we don’t know, yet they’re also an invitation to trust the God we do know.

For now, we dangle between the already/not yet一a tension that sometimes feels like it’s ripping us apart. On days when obedience perplexes and exhausts us, it’s a reminder that this world (despite it’s counterclaims) can never relieve the tension inside us. As we eagerly await heaven and the final resolve it offers, let’s be taught to be taut一stretched across the full spectrum of biblical wisdom.

Jon Foreman voices this angst well: “I hate tension. But the only thing that’s going to solve the tension . . . is death. So let’s play music on the strings while we got them.”

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