Some things are obviously mutually exclusive (e.g., heads or tails, east or west, dead or alive, day or night, heaven or hell, etc). To accept one of these is to automatically and necessarily reject its opposite. There are, however, many more things that can and should be embraced together, even if it takes some careful nuancing to do so (e.g., tenderness and toughness, sorrow and joy, faith and works, etc). The problem is that embracing two things that feel like opposites creates tension. And most people do not like tension. It isn’t comfortable or easy; it takes conscious and constant effort to hold it. And yet it’s often necessary, good, and right.
For example, we should be both uncompromising on truth while also being humble and teachable and kind. It is not a contradiction to be clear, confident, and unapologetic regarding what God says in His Word while also refraining from being an arrogant jerk. This is not only possible, but preferable. Holding the tension between them is what we should aim for.
We should never think that we need to be less devoted to truth in order to be more humble and kind to others. This would be committing the Either/Or Fallacy. Instead, we should seek to be both firm and gentle with our children, full of faith and wisdom, humble and confident in the truth… all at the same time. This is holding the tension, and it is absolutely necessary.
Tension is necessary not only for how we live, but also for how we think and speak about God and culture and nearly everything. Is God sovereign over all things or are we responsible for our own actions? The answer, of course, is yes! It is both/and, not either/or. Is Jesus Divine or Human? Was the Bible written by men or the Holy Spirit? Is God One or Three? The way we are meant to understand these issues is by way of tension. We must hold tightly to every truth of Scripture, seeking to understand and affirm them all.
We must also seek to understand the careful nuances that show that there are no contradictions between any doctrines of Scripture. For instance, it would indeed be contradictory to say that there is only one God and that there are three Gods. These both simply cannot be true at the same time and in the same sense. However, it is true and without contradiction that there is only one God who exists as three Persons. This is the Biblical doctrine of the Trinity. It is true and logically consistent, even if it is difficult to understand. The Bible (and really much of life) is full of these complex and challenging truths that may at first seem like they are at odds and don’t fit together, but after much prayerful study and careful thinking they can be found to be better friends than we could have imagined. And so we must hold both truths (i.e., there is only one God and God is three persons) in constant tension. This is necessary.
The problem is that too often in our culture today, even though tension is necessary, it isn’t allowed. We are not even allowed to prayerfully study and carefully think before we come to a conclusion about many things. That is, the media, our friends and family, and even our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ can make us feel like we have to make up our minds immediately, coming down fully on one side or the other. No time, nuance, balance, or tension is allowed. This is true with issues like Covid-19, civil protests, police shootings, political candidates, and countless strategies (e.g., for reaching the lost, caring for the poor, keeping or promoting justice, racial reconciliation, fighting abortion, schooling children, etc). Furthermore, too often it is assumed that if you speak for or against Thing A, that you must then automatically and completely be against or for Thing B. But this is not necessarily true, and often shouldn’t be true.
For instance, when you speak out against abortion, many accuse you of being uncaring toward the often scared and confused, unwed teenage mothers. But when you speak about the need for compassionate care for these young women, you can be accused of being too soft on the truly heinous act of murdering babies in the womb. But surely, both the unborn baby and the unwed girl must be cared for. This is a matter of necessary tension, and we must keep the tension even when it isn’t “allowed”.
Regardless of whether the corrupt political, cultural, or philosophical police want to write us a citation for holding the tension, we must do it anyway. Even those who are “on our side” on a particular issue can get scared when we concede that our “opponents” make a valid point or two. “That is not”, they shout, “the way to win this holy war!”. But what if it is? What if holding the tension between being humble while also being unyielding on truth and morality is the way to win the war? And by winning, I don’t necessarily mean convincing everyone that they’re wrong and we’re right (even when that might be our desire and prayer). No, to win in this war, we must first understand that our battle is not against flesh and blood (Eph. 6:10-18), and secondly, we must fight as Christians whose main objective every day is to glorify God (II Cor. 6:1-10; 10:1-5; I Cor. 10:31). Holding the tension between two good and right and true issues isn’t compromise, it is faithful Christian witness.
So, we must be examples in our speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity (I Tim. 4:12), standing uncompromisingly on God’s Word, carefully thinking and speaking while holding the tension between all things good, right, and true, no matter who disapproves. And when our culture is putting forth ideas like CRT (Critical Race Theory) as the answer to the social ills and injustices of our world, we can (and should) strongly reject it, while at the same time we should seek to communicate clearly and compassionately that we also strongly reject any and all forms of sinful partiality and ethnic hate. We must hold the tension of a gospel of grace for all kinds of sinners, seeking to love those who are the “younger brothers” in our eyes, while at the same time being unwilling to budge on Biblical truth and morality. We must resist the growing demand to affirm homosexuality and transgenderism as good, normal, or acceptable, and we must resist the urge to withdraw from or spew hatred toward those who fight for or even live as if homosexuality and transgenderism are good, normal, or acceptable.
Husbands are called to be leaders in their homes and to be so selflessly sacrificial that they serve and nourish and cherish their wives as Christ does the Church. Wives are called to be submissive to their husbands and to be helpful to their husbands by giving him their prayerful and wise counsel. Christians in America must care about politics, voting for, speaking up for, and praying for the policies and politicians they believe are best and we must remember that our true and permanent citizenship is in Heaven, that God is sovereign over all things, and that the gospel is ultimately the only hope for this world. The examples of needing to hold the tension are nearly endless. But hopefully the point is clear: tension is necessary.
And even when our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ get scared that we are giving in because we don’t emphasize the same things or to the same degree as they do, we must be willing to hold the tension where God calls us to in His Word: love and truth, justice and compassion, righteousness and humility.
Holding the tension isn’t comfortable or easy, but it is necessary in order to be faithful witnesses for the glory of God.