Many of the most iconic and famous religious figures in history are those who committed extreme acts whose stories have circulated well beyond their death, immortalising them as enduring symbolic figures. Whether it be a reverence for the dedicated monks of the mountains, the pious and ultra-religious Pharisees of Second Temple Judaism, or those who fought in war on behalf of their faith, we often see these people and groups as ideal models of religious behaviour. In reality, they portray a shallow and superficial understanding of spirituality and faith, and demonstrate an intriguing principle: that extremism is most often the easy option.
Tension VS Extremism
The Christian life is most often not described by the apostles as one of extremes, but rather one of tension. Paul writes in Romans that God’s people have bee saved from the Kingdom of Sin and brought into the Kingdom of God, but there is just one problem. The complete reality of this new citizenship has not been fully realised. Every Christian still has a sinful flesh that they war against, and so there is a tension as they live in God’s Kingdom while still struggling with sinful flesh, until the Second Coming where we receive a new body (1 Cor. 15:53).
Paul implores his readers to ‘not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey its lusts. And do not present yourselves as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as members of righteousness. (Romans 6:12,13).
But when you read further into his epistle, Paul appears to be struggling to adhere to his own standard! Paul states that his sinful nature compels him to do the things that he knows is wrong, as well as prevents him from doing the righteous things he knows he should do (Romans 7:18-20). But Paul’s hopeful conclusion, is that any and every sinner can have victory over the flesh through Jesus Christ (Romans 7:24,25). Thus, the Christian life is not characterised by bowing down to extremes, but rather living a life of tension, pulled between the flesh and righteousness, in which ultimately Jesus gives us the victory to live a life pleasing to God.
Modern Day Examples
But how does this notion of tension, apply itself practically into the life of a Christian. Let’s run through some examples and see how in each case, the extreme option is always the easy way out, while living the life of tension is not only the right way, but the one more difficult.
Where in the World?
Extreme 1: Be an ascetic and live in isolation as a hermit so that you cannot be temped by the sins of the world.
Extreme 2: Live and participate in society by conforming to the moral standards of culture and lose your unique identity and faith.
Tension: Live a life in the world, but not of the world (John 7:16). We are called to actively participate and contribute to society, as well as reach those who have not heard the Gospel, which is impossible if one lives in isolation. Similarly, we are called to be a light to the world (Matt. 5:14-16) and a peculiar people who stand out (1 Peter 2:9) and not conform on our morals.
Extreme 1: Acting naïve to the spiritual battle surrounding your work.
Extreme 2: Being so afraid of the spiritual battle around you that you neglect the very people you are trying to save.
Tension: Be as innocent as doves, but as cunning as serpents (Matt. 10:16). Being able to be aware, vigilant and prepared to engage in spiritual battle, but also having a gentle, kind and loving spirit in ministering to others, just as we see Jesus portray in his earthly ministry.
Extreme 1: Picketing, protesting, and rallying against homosexual people (e.g. Westboro Baptist Church).
Extreme 2: Conforming to popular opinion and endorsing homosexuality and other condemned sexual practices (e.g. select Anglican and Lutheran churches).
Tension: Standing firm in Biblical principles of marriage, gender and sexuality and not conforming, whilst also demonstrating love to homosexuals as one would to any sinner, whilst not endorsing the sin in their lives. I am hesitant to quote ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ as it does not appear in the Bible, so I would simply point to how Jesus interacted with sinners, tax collectors and prostitutes (John 8:1-12; Mark 2:15-17).
Extreme 1: Any activities beyond the boundaries of church, reading the Bible and worship, is not allowed on the Sabbath.
Extreme 2: Treating the Sabbath as though it is just like any other day of the week, and engaging in any and all secular activities.
Tension: Do not work on the Sabbath (Ex. 20:9-11). It is a sacred day, set apart as holy, and should be treated differently from the other days. How that looks in the life of each individual, God has left to their conscience and their discretion, as it is a day made for humanity to enjoy with God (Mark 2:27).
Extreme 1: Christians should strive towards a theocratic government in which Biblical values are the Law of the land.
Extreme 2: Christians should not be involved in politics at all, and focus only on the Gospel and evangelism.
Tension: Christians by nature of being citizens of a country are involved in politics, and are called to respect and submit to the government, even through paying taxes that may contribute to unjust causes (Rom. 13:1-7; Mark 12:17). But, we are also called to serve God rather than men (Galatians 1:10), and just as the Old Testament prophets encouraged the Jews to support the country of Babylon in their exile, we too are called to be loyal to the country we live in, but to also subvert and protest against the sin and evil practices we find in our culture.
Extreme 1: Emotions are irrational and evil, and should be ignored when attempting to make rational decisions.
Extreme 2: Reason is cold and calculated, and neglects the importance of following your heart and embracing how you truly feel.
Tension: Being made in God’s image we have the ability to reflect positive emotions such as love (Genesis 1:26; 1 John 4:8). However, this image has been tainted by sin and endowed us also with negative emotions such as: jealousy, pride, and hatred, and we can no longer trust our emotions as a good guide because our hearts are deceitful and lead us into further sin (Jer. 17:9; James 1:14,15). However, it is also naïve to believe that the mind is not also unaffected by a state of sin. Thus, we should be cautious when handling our emotions and reason, and make sure that our decisions are ultimately based on God’s word and wisdom, rather than our own (Prov. 3:5-6).
Morality and Freedom
Extreme 1: Morality is black and white and only strict adherence to God’s law can ensure salvation.
Extreme 2: There are certain areas of moral grey, in which I can use my Christian liberty to do whatever I want irrespective of God’s law.
Tension: There are absolute and objective moral standards of morality derived from the very nature and character of God, expressed as law to humanity through which we can live a righteous life (though these works do not contribute to our salvation [Ephesians 2:8,9]). However, due to the complexity of living in a sinful world, there are occasions in which our God given conscience will influence our moral decision making, but we fool ourselves if we allow that liberty to lead us to expressly disobey God’s law (1 Cor. 8).
To be extreme is too often the easy option. In fact, I can really only think of one area in which the life of the Christian should be extreme: in loving God and loving one’s neighbour. If this is done, all the other decisions and scenarios of life will fall into place, and as demonstrated above will often lead to living that life of tension. If we love God, we will love his lost sheep enough to go and search for them regardless of their sin, our evangelism shaped by tension. If we love God, we will keep his laws, his Sabbath, and do so in the proper way of tension. If we love God, we will involve ourselves in our community to help our fellow man, engaging in a worldly system as a heavenly citizen in tension. So, let us be extreme in our love, and live the Christian life of tension until the day Christ returns and frees us from our sin, and gives us the final victory.