Meaning in the Tension

Meaning in the Tension

Some years ago, in a bit of a step out of my character, I challenged a few points that a pastor made in a sermon. We exchanged emails back and fourth a few times. Each time I asked a question or expressed my difficultly with a certain perspective, he would respond by quoting more verses and responding to all of my objections and questions. Neither one of us really conceded on our respective positions; and the conversation eventually ended with him challenging whether or not I actually believe what the Bible says.

A few years later, I asked another religious leader the same questions, but instead of answering them and responding to my objections, he acknowledged how difficult the issues were. He acknowledged how certain Scriptural passages make the answer a bit unclear and how impressed he was with my level of thoughtfulness in engaging such questions. He gave me some general direction, encouraged me to keep meditating on the Scriptures, but ultimately left me with the tension of my questions. I probably don’t have to state which conversation was the more fruitful, encouraging, and meaningful one!

In the first conversation, I felt like my value was being placed in the validity of my opinions. Though he meant well, I felt like I was being treated as someone who simply needed to be educated and informed by someone of “higher” rank. In the second scenario, I felt valued and embraced as a human being for exploring, asking questions, and thinking creatively. In the first, I felt devalued. In the second, I felt empowered. The second individual didn’t try to answer my questions or tell me what to think, he encouraged me to explore more deeply and to continue wrestling with my questions.

I’ve always been intrigued by the story in Genesis where Jacob wrestles with God. I think it is fascinating that God didn’t just speak to Jacob or reveal himself to him—he wrestled with him. It’s a fitting image for my own journey anyway. We wrestle with the divine mystery. We don’t dominate it, objectify it, or master it. We wrestle with it. It touches us, wounds us, leaves us in wonder, and blesses us.

In his own form of wrestling, Jesus frequently avoids direct questions and often answers them with another question or a story/parable. “Is it A or B?” someone will ask. “Let me tell you a story,” Jesus responds. Consider just one example in Luke 11 where the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray. He briefly recites the Lord’s prayer but then spends the bulk of his response telling them what type of person his Father is. It is clear that Jesus believes that true prayer is more rooted in our understanding of God’s character than in some sort of formulaic religion.

Authentic life and meaning seem to be found in the tension and in a willingness to wrestle with mystery. The image of an arch has been one of the most powerful images for me in this respect. An arch is only sustained by the pressure of two opposing forces pressing in against each other. If the forces were not even it would collapse. In our lives we so badly want to resolve that tension—but if we do we’ll loose the strength of the arch and it will fall apart. Jim Wallis demonstrates this principle well in his comment on politics, “Don’t go left, don’t go right: go deeper.” It’s fine to acknowledge the tension, but it is only when we move beyond it and go deeper that a different way of being in the world is discovered.

Another wonderful thing happens when we embrace the tension; we become more available to embrace one another. What people desire most is to be loved and valued; but if we are too preoccupied with resolving the tension then we end up plowing the other person over with our advice, answers, and council. The person then feels ashamed, trampled, wrong, inadequate, and guilty (like I did in the first story I shared in this post). We have to learn how to enter into that tension with them, acknowledge their perspective, empathize, open our ears and shut our mouths! I love a statement I once heard Richard Foster say, “Listen always. Encourage often. Give advice rarely.” It has been a guiding principle in my own life.


Fellow pilgrims: May you kindly close your mouths so you may then open your ears. May you find the courage to embrace the tension in your life and resist the temptation to resolve it. May your living in the tension enable you to love and embrace others rather than topple them over—though your intentions may be good. May you wrestle with the mystery in your own life and be blessed by it.


 Photo credit: Public domain [Loc] Aveyron France

1 Comment

  • Etain Pettyank you for a very thoughtful article

    November 12, 2014 at 5:34 pm Reply

    Thank you for a very thoughtful article.

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