• JWool

Give Attention to the Tension

We have been called to lay down our lives for the sake of Jesus and the gospel. Unfortunately, that is not usually what marks the life of a believer. We know the seemingly drastic things Jesus called his disciples to do. We know the stories in the book of Acts. So what happened? Why do we not live like that? Are things simply different in our time? Why do we not live according to the call we have been given by our Lord? My suggestion is that over time, we have suppressed the voice of the Holy Spirit and settled for the status quo - something less than a life of joyful, sacrificial obedience.

From what I have seen in my own life and in the lives of those around me, there is a repeated pattern of how this happens. When we read God’s word, he reveals areas in our lives that do not line up. That is a disconnect. Noticing a disconnect leads us to evaluate and explore how we might make the appropriate changes to conform to scripture; we want to alleviate the tension we feel. After evaluating the potential change to make, we have two options to get rid of the tension: obey or disobey. We will either obey and line ourselves up to God’s word, or we will disobey and explain away the tension. Explaining away the tension is what often leads to the quenching of the Holy Spirit. This process of reading and responding to scripture is not always formal or linear, but this is how it generally plays out:

1. Read Scripture

2. Notice Disconnect

3. Explore Change

4. Decide

#1 - Read Scripture

The process begins when we read scripture. It is our authority and equips us with everything we need for walking in obedience to Christ. When we read it, we are privileged to hear from God himself! Our goal should always be to align our lives to God’s word no matter what.

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:16-17

#2 - Notice Disconnect

When we read scripture, it becomes apparent that we fall short. We see a gap between what God’s word says we should do and what we are currently doing. There are plenty of examples of disconnects which you may examine in your own life. Maybe it’s how you treat your spouse. Maybe it’s how you manage your money. Or maybe you notice a disconnect between your pursuit of God’s kingdom and what is demonstrated and commanded by Jesus. Noticing a disconnect causes a tension in our hearts and minds which forces us to consider taking corrective action.

Steps 1-2 are mostly self-explanatory, so I want to focus primarily on steps 3-4. However, I want to give several tangible examples of how steps 1-2 play out in the context of laying down our lives for the gospel:

-We read “Go and make disciples” and feel the disconnect when we realize we are not focused on this. -We read “Take up your cross” and feel the disconnect when we realize we have made no real sacrifices. -We read “renounce everything you have” and feel the disconnect when we realize we have not done it. -We read “do not worry” about anything but God’s kingdom and feel a disconnect in our other cares. -We read how Jesus spent his time and feel the disconnect when we look at our own calendar. -We read “and the number of churches was multiplying” and feel a disconnect in a lack of new churches. -We read “they loved not their lives” and feel the disconnect when we realize we do love our lives. -We read every story in Acts and feel the disconnect when we do not see it in our own lives today.

The list goes on and on, and our response comes next. We get to decide whether the tension we feel from these disconnects is the voice of the Holy Spirit or not. That decision is made and acted upon in steps 3-4.

#3 – Explore Change

After noticing a clear gap between our lives and scripture, we begin to evaluate what a change might practically look like. Because the entire process is slightly different in each situation, exploring change as it relates to a disconnect could be a one-time thing or it could be an ongoing evaluation. This usually depends on the magnitude of the disconnect. If the gap you see between your life and scripture is as simple as “complaining too much”, there is a good chance you might skip this exploration phase altogether because the action step is easy to determine. But if the gap you are seeing is something more significant like “I am not making disciples”, you will probably spend more time determining what a change might entail. Everyone explores a little bit differently, but there are a few common themes. We want to know:

1. What exactly must I do to change?

2. What is the cost?

In the first part of this phase, we want to determine what tangible action step we must take to realign ourselves to God’s word. This is commonly done by looking around for examples of others who are attempting to live out what we have read. We want to see examples for two main reasons. First, we want to confirm that we are correctly understanding what God’s word is commanding us to do. If you see others around you attempting to align to a certain command from the Lord, it is easy to confirm within your own heart that you have accurately understood its importance. Secondly, we want to see a model of obedience so that we know how to practically obey. To illustrate this point further, let’s say that the disconnect you have noticed is that you are failing to be generous in your giving. You’ve likely heard many sermons on giving, and you probably know of other believers who are working to improve in that area. Boom. You have just confirmed that you are not off base in your assessment that you need to work on this. In fact, bringing it up to other believers will probably result in gaining their support and encouragement in your venture to change. You most likely will determine your practical steps of obedience based on what you have seen others do. This is the power in the body of Christ! In this scenario, the change is obvious and there are plenty of examples to follow. You aren’t walking out on a limb to make a change; most others are also trying to adhere to the same principles. But what happens when you do not have any examples of obedience around you for the disconnect you have noticed? Let’s say this time the disconnect you see is that you have made no real sacrifices for the sake of the gospel. You look around you and see other believers who are living lives of comfort and security, so you assume that maybe you’re missing something. Maybe you’re misunderstanding what Jesus is actually calling you to do in that verse. The lack of examples to follow may lead to confusion on your part about how to truly obey, causing you to drop the idea altogether. Bringing it up to other believers may result in support, but they may also explain away the tension you are feeling. We’ll discuss this idea further in the “decide” phase. The point is that there are certain disconnects for which the need for change is widely embraced by all believers. You will see the majority of the church working to align to God’s word in these areas. But there are other disconnects that are not received in the same way – examples of obedience are hard to come by, so those who want to obey are unsure how to do so. In many cases, those who want to realign risk being labeled as radical or extreme. All of these factors bear weight in the second part of the “explore” phase: What is the cost?

After setting high expectations for discipleship, Jesus asks the following question in Luke 14:28: “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won't you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?” Following Jesus is a series of obedience steps, and there is a cost to each one. In the latter part of the “explore change” phase, we must weigh the cost of realigning to God’s word. There will always be an inherent cost associated with the action itself. The level of cost largely depends on the situation and the person. The cost of managing your finances better may be higher if you have $1 million of debt vs. $10,000 of debt. The cost of meeting with fellow believers is much higher in some areas of the world than it is in countries such as the United States. The level of cost may also increase depending on what all you discovered during the first step of the explore phase: Is the step of obedience clear based on the examples of other believers? Do most believers agree with your assessment that a change is necessary? When the action step is obvious and matches what other believers are already striving toward, the cost will generally be lower than when the change appears drastic and there are few examples to follow. Likewise, the cost of not making a change when there are few examples to follow is much lower because you will likely not be held accountable by others. The further your action step is from the cultural norm, the higher the cost will be to complete it. For example, becoming a better parent will typically cost you less than taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. That does not at all minimize the importance and cost of improving your parenting skills, but the reality is that there is an added risk to the activities that stray away from cultural norms (even Christian cultural norms). While it may not always be a conscious thought, we are constantly weighing the cost of our actions.

The “explore change” phase is marked by our discovery of what change is required of us and what the related cost may be. We look around to find examples to confirm both our understanding of scripture and our assessment that change is needed. We use these examples as our models for how to practically obey. This creates challenges in any given area of obedience when there are few examples and the need for change is not widely embraced. Lastly, we weigh the cost. Much of what we find in our search for examples is factored into the cost of making a change. In addition, every action step will have an inherent cost of its own. We use our evaluations from the “explore change” phase to make a final determination on how we will respond to the tension we feel from the disconnect between our lives and God’s word.

#4 - Decide

Throughout this entire process, you continue to feel the tension from the disconnect you noticed. In the “decide” phase, you decide how you will alleviate that tension. Will you explain it away? Or will you make a change? Essentially, you come to a conclusion on what the tension means. Is it the Holy Spirit calling you to change? Or are you overthinking things? You also make a decision on whether or not you will take the appropriate steps to change. These decisions are guided by what you learned during the “explore” phase. While the decision boils down to “obey or disobey”, there are many ways this plays out. Remember, the goal of the decide phase is to ease the tension you are feeling in one way or another. You can do this through either altering your behavior or by explaining to yourself why you don’t need to alter your behavior. You either do something differently or learn to be ok with the disconnect. It becomes a decision of “change or justify”. Change is simple to describe: you take the appropriate action steps to align yourself to God’s word. Justification is more complicated because there are a variety of ways in which we rationalize our disobedience or explain away the tension that we feel. We often use our own thoughts or the advice of others. I do not claim to know how the human heart works or why we do things a certain way, but here are some common ideas and pieces of advice I have seen believers (including myself) use to alleviate the tension in response to a disconnect:

-“No one else actually does that. At least not the full extent of it. I must be overthinking.”

-“Did God really say that?”

-“Yeah God’s word says to do that…but you don’t have to take it to that extreme.”

-“Yeah God’s word says to do that…but let’s not become legalistic all of a sudden.”

-“That’s not the Holy Spirit talking. That’s you being hard on yourself.”

-“What Jesus really means by that is…”

-“He was saying that specifically to the twelve, not to you.”

-“That verse only applies to you if he were to call you to do that.”

-“Things are different in our world today. Here is how it applies to you now…”

-“Don’t be so hard on yourself! You are having an eternal impact!”

-“You’re just being dissatisfied with the life God has called you to.”

-“Surely God wouldn’t tell you to do that. That is dangerous. You’re being reckless/naïve.”

-“My spiritual gifts test says that’s not my gifting.”

-“That’s not really my personality.”

-“This is just how people with my Enneagram type operate. It’s how God made me!”

-“I’m not geared that way.”

-“That would cost quite a bit, and it’s not technically a requirement.”

-“I can obey in that area without changing that much.”

-“I am already doing that to an extent, but I just have my own way of doing it.”

There are many others also. These rationalizations frequently stem from what we discover in the “explore” phase. We use our own experience to explain why we don’t do what we see in scripture. When we have not experienced it or seen it in the lives of those around us, we assume it is not for us. However, “no one else is doing that” is a weak argument when comparing your life to God’s word. Are you trying to align yourself with the majority of believers? Or are you trying to align with scripture? If most believers are not aligning with scripture, that does not change your authority or nullify what is commanded of you. You must align with God over man.

We usually don’t use these justifications on the widely accepted things. No one says, “That’s not my personality” when the command is to obey your parents. But when we see a command that tells us to go against everything we see around us, we assume it’s only for a few people or that we have misunderstood its meaning. Imagine the Bible said to brush your teeth (it doesn’t, but you still should). If you look around and see no one with a toothbrush, you must decide what the reality is: Is everyone missing something? Or are you misunderstanding what the verse means by “brush your teeth”? I realize that is a silly example, but we tend to lean toward the second reality. We believe that we have simply misunderstood what it means to “brush your teeth”, and we follow in the footsteps of others rather than scripture. After a while, everyone has terrible breath and anyone who decides to buy a toothbrush appears to be strange. God calls all of us to basic things like faithfulness, patience, managing your money well, and being a good spouse. We know and understand this. But he also calls every believer to lay down their lives for the gospel. The fact that only a few have embraced the latter of these two leads us to a false conclusion that only a few have been called to do it or that we have misunderstood the application. When it’s countercultural and we do not have examples to follow, we typically decide we are just overthinking things and explain to ourselves why our current level of obedience is sufficient.

We tend to affirm ourselves and be affirmed by others rather than make the appropriate changes. “Don’t be so hard on yourself” is often our defense mechanism for conviction from the Holy Spirit. Conviction is uncomfortable, and we often incorrectly assume that it is a tactic of the enemy to get us down on ourselves. In response, we dismiss it altogether and make no changes. But God wants to convict you and call you to change! The shame is not from him, but the tension you feel often is. We must give attention to the tension. Failing to do so may result in the quenching of the Holy Spirit.

The “decide” phase is where we choose what we will do in response to hearing God’s word. Let us choose wisely and be doers of the word no matter what.

“[Jesus] replied, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.’” Luke 11:28

To give a bit of color to the process I have described so far, I want to give a real-life example. I thought it would be best to share my own story. As you read, look for each element:

1. Read Scripture

2. Notice Disconnect

3. Explore Change

4. Decide

During my final year at Texas A&M, I started reading through scripture to see what God’s will might be for my life. I opened up the gospels and Acts and had a hard time reconciling what I was reading to what I was living. I would say I was living “all-out” for Christ and the gospel, but this clearly meant something more to the early disciples than it meant to me. I read the hard sayings of Jesus and the amazing stories of God at work, and it created a tension in me that I had never felt before. Why did my life not look like this? If Jesus says I must lay down my life for the gospel, why am I not even sharing it? There seemed to be a major disconnect between my life and the mission of God. I looked around me to see if anyone else either felt this tension or embodied a lifestyle that lined up more closely to what I was reading. I did not see it. I wrestled with how I might go about changing my lifestyle to match God’s word, but I quickly became frustrated because I had no clue how to do so. I thought maybe I was missing something. I thought maybe I was misunderstanding what Jesus was truly calling me to do. It seemed as if God was calling us all to something much more magnificent and compelling than just a casual life, but that call also seemed to demand significant sacrifice. Because I could not determine what change might practically mean, I began to bring up the subject to a few of my peers. I was met with, “Don’t be so hard on yourself. You are having an eternal impact.” This was followed by explanations of the scripture I was reading and what Jesus really meant by what he said. I was affirmed by my peers and reassured that I did not need to change a thing. They told me that all my other pursuits were valid and did not need to take a back seat to what I had perceived God’s mission is according to his word. I started to believe that I was overthinking things since no one seemed to know how to change or even cared to try. I convinced myself that I was simply being a dissatisfied child, allowing myself to become distracted from the life calling God had entrusted to me. But God stopped me! Just before I suppressed the tension I was feeling, he pressed on even more. I could not deny what I was reading in the very word of God. I began to silently disagree with what my peers had advised me, but I still believed I was crazy. I kept exploring what it might look like to practically change, and the tension would not go away. After graduating from college and returning home, I decided I would devote the entirety of my free time toward church activities. I hoped that this would relieve the tension I was feeling, but I had no idea what was coming. I was introduced to a group of people at the church who had begun training on how to live for God’s mission. It was more than just having gospel conversations or participating in a ministry; it was a realignment of their lives and a change of identity. After going with a group to share the gospel for the first time, I still had plenty of questions about what they were doing. But it was as if the Holy Spirit himself leapt within me and said, “THIS IS WHAT YOU MUST DO!” As I began to walk down this path with others, I no longer felt like I was crazy. Instead, I felt crazy for previously reading God’s word and overanalyzing. It says what it says! There is life and joy to be found when we embrace the tension put on our hearts from the Holy Spirit. Three to four years later, I am grateful to God that he did not let me miss out. I pray that I may continue to lean into whatever tension he puts on my heart through his word.

I was on the road to learning to live with the tension I was feeling. I had started to dismiss the tension until other believers gave me vision for change and equipped me to do it. I am convinced that there are others who have felt (or currently do feel) this tension I have described. There is great value in giving vision and training to these folks. Casting vision to believers using God’s word can help them to identify the disconnects. Equipping and training these same believers can move them through the “explore change” phase as they are given practical avenues to obey. I have seen this play out time and time again, and it is incredible how God uses this vision and training to move people closer to alignment with his word. The key uncontrollable factor in giving vision and training to others is what someone will choose in the “decide” phase. Choosing to disobey or explain away the tension can result in a generation of believers who fail to hear the word of God and obey it. Instead, they quench the Holy Spirit by compromising and learning to live with the inconsistencies between their lives and the models they see in scripture. Over time, wisdom is no longer “hear the word of God and obey it.” Instead, it becomes “hear the word of God, analyze it, explain it in a different way, and justify the disconnects.” Those who do well in this are considered wise, but those who abandon all else to obey God’s word are looked upon as foolish or radical. After a while, we may forget that we are called to something marvelous! It is not that God’s word has changed or that the Holy Spirit has gone silent – we have simply learned how to live with the disconnects as long as we are in line with what everyone else is doing. But the Holy Spirit does not stir in us to keep operating according to the status quo. The Holy Spirit challenges us to take risks, abandon our own stories, and give up our lives for Jesus and his gospel. Following Jesus often results in venturing out and going against what is generally accepted. This may hurt, but it is entirely worth it. To quote the famous hymn, “Though none go with me, I still will follow.”

I would like to end by sharing a wonderful example of obedience from God’s word. Just before Jesus was crucified, Peter denied Jesus three times. And no, that’s not the example of obedience. In this situation, he felt the tension but decided to disobey after counting the cost and seeing everyone else turn back. But after Jesus rose from the dead and reinstated him, he was given perhaps the most chilling call to obedience:

“’Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.’” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!” John 21:18-19

His response? In verse 21 he looked at John and asked Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Verse 22 follows: “Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!’” Peter could have easily justified himself in thinking, “Am I the only one who is going to do this? Surely he doesn’t really mean I will die. What does he actually mean by following him? I bet I can go back to my fishing boat and do that in my own way. Perhaps I can follow him and avoid the dying part.” But we know from the life of Peter throughout the rest of the New Testament that he decided to obey. Do you see the pattern again?

1. Peter heard the word of God from Jesus himself and was told to follow him and die.

2. He felt a tension because he knew God’s word demanded change.

3. He explored change by inquiring about someone else’s life and counting the cost.

4. He decided to obey Jesus as his highest authority.

The call is not for him alone. It is for you and me. The joy of obedience lies before you, but the comforts and temptations of disobedience linger close. Do not ignore the tension within you when you notice the disconnects between your life and scripture. Don’t explain it away. God’s word is your highest authority. Obey it at all costs.

Will you embrace the tension by taking up your cross to die for Jesus and the gospel?

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