Tension has a bad reputation these days. We suffer from tension headaches. Bad work situations are tense. Relational tension causes loving couples to walk on proverbial eggshells.
So when tension strikes, we seek relief. We pop a painkiller, we change jobs, we seek to sort out our disagreements - whatever it takes to avoid the uncertain, uncomfortable twist of tension.
Because, at the heart of all tension, is uncertainty. Tension is caused by two poles, battling for attention. Perhaps it’s the contraction of a neck muscle, pulled taut between two tendons. It’s opposing views on workplace culture or practices, held between two non-budging individuals. It’s the passive-aggressive silence freezing the room based on unspoken expectations and disappointments.
In the midst of this opposition, uncertainty is created. We don’t quite know how the situation will resolve. We long for relaxation - for the other person to see our views and come to our pole. It’s not quite possible to put your finger on the feeling - but if only the muscle would relax! If only the other party could see my point of view - then this state would be relieved.
Till then, we move with trepidation - watching our words, guarding our movements - hoping for resolution but resisting moving to the other’s side.
See if we had total certainty, knowing everything and being able to understand the motives, movements and mind of all others - we’d likely live a tensionless existence. We could pre-empt other’s behaviour, comprehend their conflicts, and avoid interactions for our own comfort.
Ben Dolnick noted that “In life, we like tranquility; in books, we love tension.”
I crave certainty and ease in my day-to-day life, wanting to be able to conceptualise the world in a way that accounts for all options - allowing me to move with freedom and confidence.
But a story without tension is boredom. We crave the uncertainty of a novel and the twist of a film. We delight in suspending our belief to empathise with the character, and enjoy feeling the weight of their confusion and limitation when romance or redemption is at stake.
What would a love story be if there was no tension? We need the uncertainty, the glimpses-and-glances, the will-they-or-won’t they. From mysteries to music - we celebrate the resolution - but it is made all the sweeter because of the tense journey we have travelled.
And yet even in our popular culture, we seem wired to avoid the precariousness of protagonists for any prolonged time. The hero will save the world. The guy will get the girl. The song will resolve back to the tonic.
In much of what we consume, we get a brief dose of tension and then paradise restored. At a deep human level, we seem to like this. It reassures us that all is well with the world - that everything is in its proper place - and that we are in control.
When we read the Scriptures, however, we find a God who seems to joyfully exist across tensions. He is playful and enigmatic - constantly surprising and delighting, while infuriating with his way to constantly burst forth from the metaphors and images we seek to constrain Him in.
He speaks at Sinai in a mountain covered with thunder, smoke and lightning. Later, He speaks up a mountain to another prophet - but is not in the sound or spectacle, but is in a quiet whisper.
This God moves into a temple in a fiery display of His presence - and yet is both there, and everywhere. He speaks through kings and shepherds and a donkey. He moves from geopolitical influence to concern for a widow’s only child falling ill.
This is a God whose very existence transcends our concepts, leaving us floundering to hold tensions together.
Perhaps nowhere is this better revealed than in Moses encounters with God. As Moses meets this unknown deity for the first time - a God who describes His presence as ‘Holy” yet chooses a remote spot in the wilderness, surrounded by sheep and ordinariness for His grand reveal - Moses asks for God’s name.
What does God reply with?
I AM WHO I AM.
Even this does not capture the boundless nature of this name. It is free of tense - I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE. God is free from the poles, and exists across the categories Moses would try to put Him into.
Then, in one of the most stunning self-expressions of this God, He states - without a shred of irony - that He is a God who shows love to the thousands of generation, who is quick to mercy, and yet does not let the guilty go unpunished.
Sometimes we wish God had an editor. But this is our dynamic, bigger-than-our-eyes God, who takes our frames of reference and splits them to pieces. This is a God who comes to our world and spends the first 30 years as a carpenter in a backwater town in a small, insignificant nation. This is a God who decides that most of His story will be told in song and poetry. This is a God who flips tables in the Temple, and heals the sword wounds of those coming to beat and execute Him.
Our God transcends the tensions. But we cannot contain Him by seeking to capture Him with simple nouns and descriptors. We need song, poem, expression and story. We need metaphor and narrative, prophecy and propositional theology. We need the whole gamut - because this is a God who is three-in-one, who is here yet there, who is merciful and just, who is the wounded healer and conquering lamb.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks - an Orthodox Jew and deep thinker - said, “Judiasm is less a philosophical system than a field of tensions – between universalism and particularism, for example, or exile and redemption, priests and prophets, cyclical and linear time.”
The Jews were better at holding to these tensions than modern day Westerners, with our desire for scientific certainty. They saw tension as being at the heart of life, and embraced the uncertainty that came along with this.
In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, the children hear about Aslan - the Lion and prototype Christ of Lewis’ magnificent creation. Talking to Mr Beaver, they are surprised to learn that Aslan is a lion. Susan, one of the children responds by asking - “Is he safe?”
Perhaps this is at the heart of our struggle with tension. We feel safe in the comfort of certainty. We feel safe when we have the illusion of control.
And Mr Beaver responds with wisdom.
"Safe?" said Mr Beaver ..."Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.”
Perhaps there’s a lesson we can learn from this friendly talking beaver. Our God is not one who exists at the poles - but transcends the tension to occupy new territory. God is not merely love or justice - He is the Lovingly Just and Justly Lover. He is the One who is Here-and-There. He is the King who carries His sheep tenderly in His arms, while cradling the Universe in His hand.
Surely the response to this can be one of humble wonder. We recognise that just as God transcends our certainties, so our ways widen. The arts, hymns, praise and meals are not humble cousins to reading systematic theology, but are beautiful ways we recognise that our ways of knowing cannot capture God.
Abraham Heschel observed that “Man’s walled mind has no access to a ladder upon which he can, of his own strength, rise to knowledge of God. Yet his soul is endowed with translucent windows that open to the beyond.”
May our reading and song, our listening and pause, our eating and community, our thoughts and rhythms, be open to the glorious mystery of our God. The One who longs to be known, yet transcends our petty convictions about what knowledge is.
To borrow the oft-cited cliche of many speakers - may we be people who truly embrace the tension that Jesus calls us to. May we be people of the Now-But-Not-Yet, the Saved-Who-Will-Be-Saved who live our lives in wonder and worship.