In my last post, I highlighted a few of the tensions that we, as believers and followers of Christ, must learn to hold in balance. Letting ourselves be swayed to either extreme – even when the extreme is a good thing – leads to an imbalance in our priorities. I ended with the reminder that we can hold these tensions properly when they are held in submission to God (which may not be as easy to understand on a heart level as in one’s head).
Over the time I’ve been articulating these observations about life (more to myself than to this blog – sorry to disappoint, but I have to save some of the ideas up if I’m ever going to write a book), I’ve been amazed by how many tensions have been popping up in the undercurrents of day-to-day actions and relationships.
Understanding these tensions requires a foundational belief in God. This belief leads us to relationship with Him, ordering the rest of our lives under His sovereignty. God – Love Himself (1 John 4:8) – directs our actions with wisdom as we seek balance between extremes. Belief is one of two options we have when faced with the reality of God; because He is after a real relationship with us, there has to be a legitimate option out in order for love and trust to really exist. Sinful action can be traced back to our second option, unbelief, at its core.* Adam and Eve’s very first sin was unbelief in God – in His wisdom, His generosity, His love, and His sovereignty. This unbelief led them to listen to the serpent, take the fruit, and ultimately enter into a very different relationship. Belief and unbelief are both pathways to relationships! Belief leads to relationship with God, a relationship of love, trust, holiness, and wisdom. Unbelief, on the other hand, leads to death, producing fear, insecurity, unholiness, and division.*
When we choose sinful action in contradiction to God, we are admitting that, on some level, we don’t believe that He is enough, that He is good, that He is fill-in-the-blank. If fear is a sort of relational antithesis to love, it makes sense that unbelief subverts love and displaces God as our ultimate motivation. Thankfully, following Genesis 3, God enacted His plan to redeem us and pave the way for relationship with Him and unity with one another. This doesn’t mean we’re perfect, of course, but it opens the door to discipleship and sanctification in the journey of growing from unbelief to belief.
This is pretty familiar Christian-ese, right? Maybe it’s just my stage of life, but God has recently been leading me into a deeper understanding of what it means to follow Him through tension. These are undercurrents that shift below the day-to-day, surface-level “waves” of our lives. To start to see how they ebb and flow, we have to take a dive! (And, occasionally, come up for air.)
This summer, I’ve had the opportunity to intern at a church in Tulsa, getting some practical ministry experience (and even preparing to preach my first real-deal sermon!). When the internship started, I was a little nervous I wouldn’t find time to practice writing much amidst all the surface-level busyness. Surprisingly, it’s been easier not only to make time for practice, but to actually get words out as well! Writing and working were separate in my mind, but God has a funny way of integrating our lives into a cohesive whole if we let Him. Recently, while reading for some sermon prep, I skimmed through Proverbs 16:2: “All a person’s ways seem pure to them, but motives are weighed by the Lord.” The word “motives” pinged on some radar in the part of my brain that’s responsible for keeping track of what I’ve been writing about.
That word in Prov. 16:2 is the Hebrew ruach, used almost 400 times in the Old Testament. Lots of the time, it’s translated to “breath” or “wind” (Genesis 7:15 and Exodus 10:13, for example). Sometimes it is used to refer to certain feelings, like jealousy, anger, or courage (Numbers 5:14, 14:24; Joshua 2:11). Ruach can refer to the breath of life in creation or to emotions that motivate us – essentially, it is the driving force for action. Throughout the OT, it’s also the word used for “spirit” – more specifically, the Spirit of the Lord, who hovered over the waters in Genesis 1:2, inspired and strengthened the judges (even Samson, which seemed questionable, especially in Judges 14:6), and more.
In Isaiah 61:1, ruach points to the Spirit’s involvement with the Messiah’s ministry, which we see fulfilled through Jesus in Luke 7:22. The Spirit descends on Jesus at his baptism (where the Father speaks to confirm Jesus’ identity) and leads him into trials to kick off his earthly ministry. Later, near the end of this ministry, Jesus promises his disciples that they will receive the very same Spirit to guide them into truth and glorify the Son.
In my experience, it’s easy to know that the Spirit is available to us, but it’s another thing to realize on a heart level that this ruach is at work already, motivating us. The Spirit directs and drives us to be more like the Son, all with the ultimate goal of glorifying the Father. (If you want some examples of what this might look like, just read the book of Acts.)
Paul provides a perfect example of tension and motivation in Romans 7:14-25 (and continuing into chapter 8). God’s law, in its intended motivation of love, was good; however, when His people chose the law out of fear, it was distorted. There’s no “tension” between good and evil, Spirit and flesh – just conflict. Conflict brings us back to the continual choice between belief and unbelief, rather than a balance between two equally good options. Our tendency toward unbelief and fear, as Paul describes in 7:18, makes it difficult for us to live spiritually. What wretched people we are! But thanks be to God, who delivers us through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Unlike the conflict between belief and unbelief, many polarizing issues in our world and culture don’t actually have a right answer. It’s vital to see these issues not as conflicts to be won, but as tensions to be held. Whether you agree more with complementarians or egalitarians, Democrats or Republicans, or whatever other Twitter-debates are out there, we must be able to find right motivation in God and hold those tensions with love and wisdom. This undercurrent affects everything, too, not just culture wars. People are messy; there are rarely correct answers for interpersonal interactions. When you spend time with the Spirit and work out the proper motivation for navigating tension, that motivation ends up being more important to God than the way that seems “pure” to you. The ruach produces fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Wisdom, born from tension, is in some ways the sum of these fruits.) Ultimately, the proper motivation leads us to glorify God by expressing these fruits in our actions.
*For an in-depth conversation about sin and unbelief, check out episode 131 of the Lifeschool podcast. This unbelief leads to “union with death”, which Shane Wood’s Between Two Trees explores in greater detail.