A Holy Tension: Responding to Failed Expectations in the Already and Not Yet

Image by  Koichi Miyase

Image by Koichi Miyase

I don’t know about you, but my life hasn't always turned out like I anticipated. I didn't experience the bliss of motherhood that the baby shampoo commercials promised. My dream job wasn't such a dream after all. The house that was supposed to be better than the last turned out to be just as imperfect and broken. And no matter how many how-to books I've read, I still struggle in relationships, in my role as a wife and mother, and in organizing my life.

The truth is, life is filled with failed expectations. We pursue dreams only to find that they weren't what we thought they'd be. Relationships let us down. Our bodies let us down. We let ourselves down. That's because life is not as it should be. We live in a broken and fallen world where life is disappointing. It often doesn't “work” or go as planned. We sin and are sinned against.

When life is disappointing, I often ask myself, how should I respond? Do I make lemonade from my challenges and view life from Pollyanna-rimmed glasses, denying the harsh realities of life? Or do I fully taste the sourness of this fallen world and just accept it like it is? Do I demand life work my way, or do I lock myself in my house, fearful of the next disappointment and failure?

Or is there perhaps another way to view life altogether?

In many ways, our lives as Christians are like walking on a slackline.

Have you ever watched a tightrope walker? We once went on a vacation to the mountains of Northern California. While hiking in Yosemite, we came across a group of brave hikers. They hung a slackline across a deep crevasse and walked across it. One misstep and the hiker would fall thousands of feet to the ground below. I couldn’t even watch because just the thought of what they were doing made me nauseous.

Like someone walking across a rope, we live out a holy tension. We are called to live in the world without being of the world. Because of Christ's sacrifice on the cross for our sins, we are dead to the power of sin, yet not completely free from its presence. We are called to be both dependent on Christ (John 15:5) and to "work out our salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12).

In fact, as long as we live on this earth and until Christ returns, we live in what theologians call the “already/not yet." We are in an in-between time where life is not one-dimensional. It's not as simple as making lemonade from the bitter experiences of life. Rather, life is an intertwined experience of joy and pain, tears and laughter, beauty and bitterness. We can't accept things as they are, but we can't despair as though we have no hope. We cry in sorrow over the horrors that sin has brought, yet we have joy knowing Christ came to make all things new.

This is the reality of the Christian life—a co-mingling of seemingly disparate conditions, a holy tension of life lived in-between the already and the not yet. In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul described this holy tension:

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. (2 Cor. 4:8-9)

When I read Paul’s description, I wonder, how can that be? Because when I feel despair, that's all I feel. It overshadows everything else. When I am afraid, fear takes the driver's seat in all my decisions. And to be honest, joy seems all too far away to be co-mingled with anything else.

So how do we live out this holy tension? How do we live in this already/not-yet time in history?

We walk the holy tension through the power of the gospel.

It is through Christ's life, death, and resurrection that this holy tension makes sense. And it is through the power of the gospel that it is possible to live in the in-between. 

The gospel tells us that God became flesh and dwelt among us. The Maker and Creator of all things entered this sinful broken world and lived life as a human. He was tempted just as we are tempted, yet never sinned. He experienced all the heartaches and pains of this life, yet obeyed and glorified God in all things. Because he was sinless, he could take on our sins as the spotless Lamb of God. Christ was punished in our place and bore the full wrath of God for us. After three days in the grave, he rose victorious, ensuring our own resurrection at the end of days.

This is why we are comforted in the midst of affliction: because Christ was afflicted for us. Though we may be persecuted or rejected by others, we can stand confident knowing we are accepted by God because Christ was rejected in our place. We can have joy in the midst of our sorrow, because we know that the Man of Sorrows bore all our burdens at the cross.

We can face the disappointments of life with hope because we know that one day sin, sorrow, and disappointment will be no more. We can repent over our sin and feel freedom because we know Christ became sin for us. We can live without shame because we know God will never leave us or forsake us.

We continue on in this seemingly paradoxical life with sure hope.

Yes, life is disappointing. We can't deny it or pretend otherwise. Because of the Fall, we will continue to experience disappointments, sorrows, and failed expectations. People will continue to sin against us, and we’ll continue to sin against them. We will face hardships, challenges, and broken dreams. Yet, we do not live like those who have no hope. We continue on in this seemingly paradoxical life, walking a holy tension, balancing life in the already/not-yet, through the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Because of who Christ is and what he has done for us, we can live life in the in-between. Because we know whose we are. We know true and abiding joy is found not in circumstances or things, but in our Maker and Redeemer. We also know the end of the story; we know there’s more to come. In keeping our eyes focused on our hope in eternity, we can live in the in-between and remain “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair” (2 Cor. 4:8).

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:16-18)

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