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Repentance as Tension

This is an occasional series on repentance. Part 1 is here. In these conversations I’ve had about repentance, the word tension has been mentioned. Tension means fear. Tension means conflict. Tension means uncertainty. It is the liminal space between what should happen and what will really happen. 

In conservative evangelical circles, I’ve noticed we are quick to build and eliminate tension. N. T. Wright wrote a Time Magazine piece explaining the role of Christianity isn’t to eliminate tension but rather embrace it head-on. Coming to terms with tension is where Christianity shines. Not because Christianity offers answers but because COVID-19 has introduced all kinds of tensions in our lives and our instinct as evangelical Christians is to eliminate it as quickly as possible. I’ve noticed sermons (including and especially my own) build tension at the beginning and then work hard to completely resolve the tension by the end of the message. We know Jesus is the answer but is it really desirable to completely resolve the tension? Do we have to do that every week? I think I’ve been taught this not so much by preachers but by Hollywood - where most popular American movies work hard to resolve all plot twists and eradicate any and all tension by the closing credits. 

And doesn’t that reflect in the way we live as well? Let’s face it - waiting is a tension. We don’t want to wait for our food (unless it’s a badge of status, as it is in foodie culture). We don’t wait for our merchandise (Amazon Prime). We don’t want to wait for our romantic relationships and sex (gamification of dating through apps).  Our culture is built around instant gratification, autonomy, and personal fulfillment. 

We expect tension to be quickly eradicated via medication, technology, or avoidance. That’s why this time of shelter-in-place is so profoundly painful because technology has allowed us to progressively minimize tension with each iPhone upgrade. We expect to wait less and experience zero discomfort or inconvenience. 

Acts 5:1-11 But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, 2 and with his wife's knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles' feet. 3 But Peter said, Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? 4 While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God. 5 When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. 6 The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him. 7 After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 And Peter said to her, Tell me whether you sold the land for so much. And she said, Yes, for so much. 9 But Peter said to her, How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out. 10 Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things. (emphasis mine)

The Old Testament is undoubtedly full of uncertainty and fear. Many Christians struggle with the Old Testament because of then tensions violence, tribalism, abuse of women, slavery, and human sacrifice. This stuff is disturbing and they are gaps between how things ought to be and how things are. And yet, even in the New Testament, there is tremendous tension. Pastors love to point to Acts 2:42-47 as the happy, growing commune of Jesus lovers. But this thing with Ananias and Sapphire is crazy. The first-century church, amidst incredible revival, increasing numbers, and miraculous signs of the Spirit, experienced great fear, the worst form of tension. It’s not clear how quickly this tension dissipated or that it ever did in the early church’s life. All we know is, amidst these supernatural works of God, there was tension. This indicates the Christian life is inherently fraught with tension. It means even in the best of times, the greatest periods of spiritual revival and resurgence, tension is not merely coincidental or even an obstacle to God’s work but integral to the work and movement of God. Tension is not the absence of God’s power but its presence. Tension is not God’s hatred but rather an aspect of His enduring love for a broken world. Tension is the way God gets our attention. 

Therefore, tension produces repentance. It is a prerequisite of repentance. Without tension, repentance is unnecessary. Tension is the gap between who God designed us to be and the brokenness of the world as it stands today. Repentance is the intended outcome of tension.

We have an instinct to rapidly reduce or eliminate tension. Would we be slow to eliminate it? Would those who, like me, have been given much evidence willingness to sit in tension and lament with those whose daily lives are immersed in it? Would we be thoughtful and reflective about the nature of tension and what it reveals about us? 

Would we recognize that the Jews, the chosen people of God, lived in tension hundreds of years waiting for the promised one? Would we recognize that those living in third world countries - that the global poor in this country and others - are accustomed to living in tension? Would we recognize that people of color, women, and children also live in a constant state of tension - the looming space between the world that ought to be and the world that is? 

We believe falsely that when God introduces tension in our lives that is a sign of His judgment. But this is the way God teaches his children because tension is part of the parenting process. How else are we to understand how God the Father raised Israel by making them wait centuries for the Messiah? And even upon his arrival, the Jews continue to wait in tension for the restoration of the kingdom to Israel.

Would I as a pastor not be afraid to let tension linger, even at the end of the message, even after I have proclaimed the glory of Christ’s death and resurrection? For the yawning chasm between what is and what should be has yet to be fully merged through the Son of Man’s return. For even the bridge connecting God with man today is suspended by the tension of the cross.


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