The word tension typically evokes negative thoughts of stress, strain, or conflict. Have you ever had a tension headache? Or perhaps you can recall a time when the tension in a meeting was so strong it was palpable? I’ve been thinking a lot about tension recently, and as crazy as it seems, this is what I chose for my word of the year for 2021. We’re only two months in to this new year, but I’m already being constantly reminded of how tension can work as a positive in our lives.

How is tension positive? Take the surface tension of water, for example. It’s just exactly right to allow objects to float on top of it without sinking. Water striders can stride across the top of water thanks to surface tension. If you have an office chair, you likely have adjusted the tilt tension knob, which helps you recline, rock back and forth, and generally be more comfortable in your seat. Tension comes from a Latin word meaning “to stretch.” Think about the tendons in our bodies, which stretch between muscles and bones, allowing just enough tension and stretching for movement. Tension in this case is, “The act of stretching or the state or degree of being stretched.” An appropriate amount of tension is a good thing, and stretching outside of our comfort zone brings much-needed growth.

For the early Christians who lived under the rule of the Roman Empire, following in the way of Jesus undoubtedly caused tension. Believers walked the tightrope of being good citizens of the Empire but also proclaiming Jesus, not Caesar, as Lord. They had to navigate a culture which was obsessed with personal and familial honor and status, all while acting in a new way as part of a new Kingdom. Paul pushed against the status quo when he said anyone could be part of this new family of believers―who were one in Christ―without any distinction or shame. In this new family there were, “Neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” (Gal. 3:28). While the tension they experienced within the Greco-Roman culture was intense, it sharpened their focus, drew them together as a community, and strengthened their resolve to give all for the cause of Christ.

Jesus himself lived in the tension of this world, as he both taught the Scriptures but called out the self-righteous religious leaders who placed a higher value on the Law instead of on people. He was the King of Kings, yet he chose a different way of ruling than his followers had hoped. He ruled by laying down his power, turning the other cheek, loving his enemies, eating with sinners, and giving time to those who were considered of little value or worth. His followers had to stretch and be challenged in their ideas of worldly power and the ways of the Empire. Jesus was calling them to sit in the tension, to leave behind their old ways and step into the new. He called them to stop vying for power and position and instead, “Take up your cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24).

Today, as followers of the Way, we still find ourselves living in tension. We live in the in-between time― between Christ’s first and second comings. We rest in the power of his life, death, and resurrection; look ahead to his coming again to restore, renew, and make all things right; and yet seek to live faithfully in the here-and-now. The in-between time is a stretching time to be certain. We live in the world and engage with the culture, but we sometimes feel like aliens from a foreign planet. (See for example 1 Pet. 1:1, 2:11.)

There is tension in both living in the world and at the same time, knowing it’s not our ultimate destination. Some have chosen to focus solely on the “one day” of heaven, neglecting our call to do justice and love mercy in the here-and-now; while others are so focused on doing good here, they forget our true hope remains in the future coming of our King. We are indeed pulled in two directions, and the question is how will we navigate this space?

The answer is: We partner with God now, as his ambassadors, in caring for and loving people, in sharing the good news, in working to bring justice and mercy to situations and systems which desperately need to change. At the same time, we understand that no political party, leader, country, or anything else will be able to fully fix this broken world. Ultimately, our hope is in Christ, in the “one day.” This is the tension of being a follower of Jesus.

May I encourage us today to embrace and lean into this tension, the stretching, the tugging, the pulling, and the sometimes-discomfort of the Christian life? I’m not saying to actively seek out suffering or hardships. But we’ve already been warned this life will not be easy. I think in actively running from tension and seeking a comfortable, easy life, both individual Christians as well as the American Church, have neglected to see the needs around us. We have overlooked ways in which we can point others to the true hope Jesus promised us. What is that true hope? “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).