Divine Tension

Often, the most soothing music is a product of tension. Just look at the strings on a guitar, violin, harp, or piano. Each string has the precise amount of tension needed to create the perfect pitch. A little more or a little less, and the note would be off-key. But stretched straight and true, the strings produce soaring sounds that belie the stress they bear. Even the human voice itself creates sound because of vocal cords held in tension.

God orchestrates His World with the same kind of Divine Tension, playing a Love Song for His Creation that resonates in perfect pitch for all eternity. Like a six-string guitar, I see six strings of truth, each held in Divine Tension on one end by God Himself, like the bridge of the guitar, and on the other end by His human creation, like tuning pegs.

1. God’s Sovereignty and Man’s Responsibility

This particular string has produced a lot of disharmony among Christians through the centuries, and still is today. In fact, our own Southern Baptist Convention has grappled with it for decades, and it seems to be a thundercloud looming on the horizon that’s threatening to bring more darkness and storms into our churches. How delighted our enemy must be. The mind-numbing question of Calvinism vs. Arminianism has been debated ad nauseam, and it’s certainly not my intention to try to settle it here. I know and respect people on both sides of the fence. I’ve studied the thorny issue six ways to Sunday, and tried to wrap my head around Supralapsarianism, Infralapsarianism, and Sublapsarianism until my head spins. But I’ve come to peace on the issue: When the Bible teaches that God is 100% sovereign, then teach that. And when the Bible says “whosoever will” may believe, then teach that. We’ll never reconcile the two any more than you can pour the ocean into a thimble because God’s “brain” is infinite and ours is quite finite. That’s not a cop out, and, no, I don’t think He ever intended us to comprehend it all nor reconcile it all. “For now we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). It’s a Divine Mystery, and that’s part of the Divine Tension that I’m writing about.

I do believe, however, I can understand why we can’t understand it. The whole issue from man’s perspective is immersed in the dimension of “time.” We can’t think outside the dimension of time any more than a fish can imagine life outside of water. That’s the element we were born in and exist in. But God is outside of time. Take your timeline and turn it 90 degrees on end, so you’re looking not at a line, but at a single point. That might give you some small idea of God’s perspective. All time is collapsed into a single simultaneous reality. So the precise “order of decrees” and whether God gives grace one second after man believes or whether man believes one second after God gives grace is all a moot point. God isn’t restrained by time. He operates in a qualitative realm that lies beyond the quantitative limitations of time and space. Yet, we cannot think in this realm. So the best we can do is imagine Him reaching down with His hand of grace as man reaches up with his hand of faith, and the two connect eternally—past, present, and future collapsed—forming an unbreakable string, tuned perfectly by the Divine Tension of God’s Sovereignty and Man’s Responsibility. “Saved by grace through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). Beautiful! We can turn the tuning peg all we want—sharp or flat—reformed or 1-point Calvinist (my personal position) or on and on ad infinitum—and you won’t improve on the perfect pitch of God’s finely tuned Word.

2. God’s Revelation and Man’s Senses

While the first string produces dissonance primarily inside the church, this string produces discord inside and outside the church. Mankind—churched and unchurched alike—is increasingly putting more and more faith in their senses, namely science, and less and less in God’s revelation, namely the Bible. For the purposes of this post, let’s leave metaphysics to the arena of philosophy, and limit our definition of science to empirical science. Science is essentially the knowledge that we acquire through our senses. Science has become god in our modern world. But true science isn’t the enemy of the Bible. All science, properly interpreted, supports the Bible. But science has limits, as does human reason, modern man’s other authority. We ordinarily cannot experience the supernatural through our five senses, so it is dismissed as myth, fantasy. God’s Word records events we’ve never seen: a universe forming in six days, a sea parting and exposing dry land, an ax head floating, a man getting swallowed by a great fish, 5,000+ people getting fed with two loaves and five fishes, a life-long blind man made to see. We cannot see. So mankind rejects the supernatural. Or tries to twist the tuning peg his way, inventing naturalistic explanations, such as Theistic Evolution. Enlightened rationalism. But the guitar string just goes out of tune. And then after rejecting all these manifestations of the supernatural, some still claim to swallow the one Supreme Miracle, the Resurrection of Christ, while denying all the rest. And well they should. Because if one doesn’t believe that He lives, then one has no hope of living eternally.

But enough about the controversy. I want to focus on the beautiful music. This string, precisely stretched between God’s Revelation and Man’s Senses, produces a particularly lovely strain of music that swells with faith and love for God. Why? Just think: If God really wanted to, He could manifest Himself in much more obvious ways that would be clear to our senses and to the masses. He could ride across the sky on a white charger every afternoon. (Or could that be the sun?) He could write John 3:16 in one’s mother tongue right on each individual’s forearm. (Or would that be any different from the Bible?) He could send an angel down in the midst of each church service to declare the Words of God. (Or is that what a preacher, God’s messenger, is?) He could manifest Himself in any number of ways in such an obvious manner that perhaps even the most hardened atheist would have to say, “OK, that’s got to be God.” Why doesn’t He? He wants people to believe, doesn’t He? That question used to bother me. I would say, “God, please, come down here and just show off some. You alone have the right to. You’re our Creator. Show off. Show them!” Well, forget for a moment that He’s really already revealed Himself in quite a few convincing and compelling ways. As He said to the rich man, “‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be persuaded if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:19-31). There’s an even more glorious reason why He doesn’t go overboard appealing to our senses. It’s because when man uses his sixth sense, his supernatural sense, FAITH, in order to know and trust God, then God gets all the more magnified glory. After all, soulless animals could use their five senses to become aware of God, if He were to rely solely on natural senses to reveal Himself. But God has chosen to reveal Himself in supernatural ways that we can experience and believe only through the special sense with which He graced man—FAITH. That string stretched between man, made in His image, and God, our Maker, produces a sound that cannot be heard with natural hearing, but only through supernatural listening. And when we see and hear with our supernatural senses, our praise rises to exalt Him in an extraordinary way.

Most people in today’s post-modern world ignore or deny everything in the purple circle, even the part that intersects with the natural world, including the historicity of Christ and the miracles recorded in the Old and New Testaments. Some Christians try to minimize the intersecting portion, force fitting natural explanations on supernatural events and “spiritualizing” the Bible until their own vain imaginings are less plausible than the supernatural God Himself.

3. God’s Saving and Man’s Witnessing

God made man a partner with Him from the beginning. God put Adam and Eve in the Garden and gave them jobs to do, even before sin entered the world. He told them to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the creatures, work the garden, and watch over it—all before the Fall. So it’s no wonder that when it came to the job of revealing Himself to all of mankind and of making disciples of His Son, God also hired man as His partner. “Then Jesus came near and said to them, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” (Matthew 28:18-20). That’s the Great Commission. But it’s really a great privilege. Imagine if Bill Gates called you up and offered you the job of Chief Marketing Director for Microsoft. Never mind that you might hold out for the Apple job, the point is that it would be a great honor. Infinitely more so is it an honor for us to be holding the other end of the string that plays the Gospel melody all around this globe. He didn’t need us, but He chose to use us. And now we’re essential to His plan: “But how can they call on Him they have not believed in? And how can they believe without hearing about Him? And how can they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14). You’re probably beginning to see the pattern develop here in the Divine Tension between God and man that fills the universe with His praises.

4. God’s Forgiveness and Man’s Repentance

This string forms a tight chord with point #1. Repentance and faith are two ends of one string. Two sides of one coin. When we turn to Christ, we turn away from our sin (repentance) and towards our Savior (faith) all in one grace-full movement. He forgives the instant we repent. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). “Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, sinners, and purify your hearts” (James 4:8). It’s a kind of Divine Dance in which He leads, we follow, He rejoins, and we respond. (See Psalm 51.) It’s beautiful music that begins the moment we believe and become His, and it continues throughout our life here on earth, every time we fail Him and He faithfully forgives. It’s how an adulterer and murderer named David became a “man after God’s own heart.” And how a cursing, denying ol’ salt named Peter became “the rock.” From David the harpist to Peter the “rocker,” there’s plenty of tension there to produce some soulful praise music.

5. God’s Blessing and Man’s Obedience

In perfect harmony with the low note of #4 is the high note of #5. ““If you carefully obey my commands I am giving you today, to love the Lord your God and worship Him with all your heart and all your soul, I will provide rain for your land” (Deuteronomy 11:13-14). “‘If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,’ the Lord said, ‘you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you'” (Luke 17:6). God’s Word is full of conditional promises. If you do what I tell you to do, I will bless you. If you don’t, you’ll pay the consequences. This string isn’t too hard to tune. It’s pretty straightforward. That’s not to say that obedience itself is easy. But at least He has made it abundantly clear what He expects. It’s all for our own good, after all. As Pastor Adrian Rogers said, and I’ve quoted many times, “When God says, ‘Thou shalt not…,’ He’s really saying, ‘Don’t hurt yourself.’ When God says, ‘Thou shalt…,’ He’s really saying, ‘Help yourself to happiness.'” He created us, so He knows what will hurt us and what will help us. More often than not, obedience bears its own reward, and sin is its own punishment. You reap what you sow. Sowing and reaping are another example of God and man working together. And whether it’s positive reinforcement or negative disincentive, it’s all about our good and His glory. Beautiful.

6. God’s Will and Man’s Plans

“A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord determines his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). While point #1 is concerned primarily with man’s eternal destination, this string relates to man’s plight while still on earth in time and space. No doubt God rules and overrules man’s plans, and often I’ve felt like a man walking southbound on a northbound train; no matter how fast I walk, I’m still heading north. But there’s a mystery in how God’s directive will and His permissive interact, and how prayer changes the equation. There’s much I don’t understand about prayer, but I take comfort in knowing that the Holy Spirit intercedes where my feeble prayers fall short. (Romans 8:26) I know that God has a firm grip on His end of the string, and as I fumble and stumble my way through life, making plans and praying for what seems best, I’m so glad that He takes up the slack to make beautiful music out of the sour notes that I so often hit. How often He has taken something that was meant for bad, and turned it into something good. He gives only good gifts to His children, and so I praise Him that His sovereign will means that He has a wonderful plan and future for me that involves his loving discipline at worst and his abundant blessing always—His glory and my good. He always connects the dots.

There you have it: six strings of Divine Tension strung between God and man, making beautiful music with the Creator. Why all this free will for man? Why does He give us so much responsibility and freedom? It all comes back to what brings Him the most glory. Without choices, there could be no genuine love, only robotic love. So He gives us freedom to love Him, and the unspeakable privilege of being in relationship with Him, being connected to Him, being used by Him. He didn’t have to use us or choose us. He’s God. He didn’t need a little boy’s two loaves and five fishes. He could have fed 5 million by simply speaking a word. But He chose to use us. To make music with us. He chose to become one of us. He chose to lay down His life for us—by His own free will. So we could live with Him forever. He chose to reveal Himself to us. He chose to forgive us. He chose to bless us. Now we, made in His image, have choices. To believe. To reject “Seeing is believing” in favor of “Believing is seeing.” To witness. To repent. To obey. And as we do, oh, what melodious praise we produce as we lift praises to the One Who gives us our song. Simply Divine!

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