Did you ever make a tin can telephone as a child? Take 2 cans (or Dixie cups if you were like me), put a small hole in the bottom of each, connect the two with a string, and then you and your buddy can pass secret messages to one another from totally different rooms. It was a fun little toy, and probably mind blowing when it was first invented (the first evidence of a wire-tension telephone was by scientist Robert Hooke as early as 1667!). The thing about tin can phones, though, is that they would not work well unless you kept a certain amount of tension on the string, as a loose string cannot effectively transmit the sound vibrations. Tension is necessary for its proper function.
I think there is a certain lesson here that maybe applies as well to all of life, especially theology. First, think of all the dichotomies in a person’s life. There’s work/life balance. There’s the interplay between focusing on being a good parent and a good spouse. There’s doing good for others and making sure you still do good for yourself. If we let these swing all the way to one side or the other, bad things generally happen. The man who works 90 hours a week does as much disservice to his family as the lazy man does to his boss. The parents who pour all of themselves into their children and leave no romance are as bad off as the parents who care only for each other at their children’s expense. The totally giving, 100% of the time selfless person will eventually burn out and crash, but the egomaniac is no better off. Often the middle road is best. In other words, life must be lived in the tension.
The same is true for much of theology. If you walk through the campuses of seminaries across America, the most commonly debated idea these days would almost certainly be the doctrines of God’s sovereignty versus man’s free will in salvation. Calvinism vs. Arminianism. Has God in his sovereign greatness foreordained everything that is to happen, such that he knows everyone who will be saved and everyone who will not? Do we even have a choice in the matter then? Or do I as a free agent have the ability to decide my own fate? Can I consciously turn towards or reject God? There are those who would answer these with a resounding yes, no, no, no! And there are those who would say no, yes, yes, yes! I can guarantee that this debate has led to bad blood between classmates, if not full blown destruction of friendships.
The thing is, biblical evidence exists to support both sides. Is God Sovereign? Yes. Does God know what will happen in our lives? As often as the Bible uses the terms predestined, foreknew, and ordained, absolutely. Do humans have free choice? Yes, otherwise Jesus would not call us to preach the Gospel and call people to repentance. Of course there are many positions that attempt to reconcile the biblical account of how it all works. And of course as long as you have solid biblical foundation for your belief, you can land in whichever camp you think is best. My point here is not to debate the five points of Calvinism (there’s plenty of that out there on the internet already). My point is that sometimes things aren’t cut and dry, but instead they’re messy. There’s a tension going on, and we’re called to live in it.
By no means is this the only tension, either. If God is sovereign then what’s the point in us praying and asking for things? How is the Trinity even possible? How can someone be three persons in one at the same time? Even better, how can God the Son come down as flesh incarnate and live a human life as a fully human man, yet still be fully God at the same time? How can God be perfectly holy and just such that all sin against his nature deserves full wrath and destruction, yet still merciful and loving to forgive? How can God use something as horrible and accursed as crucifixion to accomplish the feat of glorious salvation for all of humanity? And those don’t even touch the contradictions of practical Christian faith and social norms: whoever would save his life would lose it, but whoever loses his life for Jesus’ sake will find it (Matt 16:25); in the Kingdom of Heaven, whoever is first will be last and the last will be first (Matt 20:16); the poor in spirit will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven; those who mourn will be comforted; the meek will inherit the earth (Matt 5); we’re supposed to have humble faith like a little child (Matt 18:3); and on and on it goes.
We are all too arrogant as human creatures, thinking we have a birthright to all that can be known. We refuse to admit that sometimes things just remain a mystery to us. Instead, let us rejoice that the infinite and illimitable God has shown us the grace to reveal even just a portion of his goodness. Now of course I’m not saying any time we come up against some tough thought we should throw up our hands and say, “It’s a mystery!” But let us not be quick to presume we definitively have all the answers.
We live in the tension. We’re pulled between conflicting realities, but the tension between them does not cease to make them real. Instead of scoffing at the idea, seeking some sort of settled relaxation, let us embrace the tension. It’s okay. It won’t hurt. Instead of arguing or fretting over what we may not fully understand, let us instead turn to what we do know. We may not fully grasp the intricacies of God’s sovereignty and man’s will, but we know that Christ called us to go and make disciples of all nations. We may not understand how God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit mesh with one another, but we do know all of their roles in our spiritual lives. We may not understand how the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, but we do know that Christ calls us to deep, vibrant faith in Him. We may not fully understand how a man dying in such an excruciating way can be construed as the greatest victory in the history of creation, but we do know that’s the way God chose to bring about our salvation.
This world is messy. Life is messy. Theology is messy. And that’s okay. It’s through the mess, through the tension, through the stretching and twisting that we grow the most. Like the tin cup telephone, life without some tension is simply empty. So embrace it.
Now all has been heard;
Here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
For this is the duty of all mankind