During my week as a single parent (Shauna will be home in a few hours, YAHOO!), I’ve been surprised by a divine peace and contentment. From this posture of sacred silence and calm, I’ve taken a step back to ponder the nature of stress.¬†First, I looked up the definition in the dictionary. It came out like so:

1. Pressure or tension exerted on a material object.

2. A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.

3. Particular emphasis or importance.

Let’s take the first definition, the one relating to pressure and tension. When we feel pressure, it tends to come from the expectations others place on us, or the ones we foist on ourselves. We feel the pressure to measure up, to impress, to succeed, to improve, to overcome, to be seen in a certain light. This is stressful.

The problem is, expectations often collide with limitations. I want to hit a home run, but I’m not a good enough hitter. This creates a tension between what I want and what I can reasonably achieve. This is stressful too, but it’s different than pressure. It’s tension. The greater the potential gulf between what’s expected and what I can deliver, the greater the tension. This means I can reduce my stress by adopting realistic expectations for myself, expectations in line with my limitations.

Tension is everywhere. Tension between doing the right thing and taking the easy way out. Tension between playing by the rules or trying something creative. Tension between work and home, self care and selfishness, giving and receiving, inhaling and exhaling.

Tension isn’t bad. It keeps us sharp, keeps us on the ball. It’s the unknown, so it creates the need for faith.

Now let’s take the third definition, the one relating to placing particular emphasis or importance on something.

I think the Bible is pretty clear that God has no problem putting us under pressure or creating tensions for us to navigate. He’s not doing this to stress us, but to stress something about us. He knows the pressure will cause cracks in our resolve and force us to our knees. He knows the tension between good things will make us think. He even knows which trials will force ugliness in our hearts to the surface so we are more likely to deal with it.

This past August I heard Andy Stanley speak about problems vs. tensions. Problems can be solved, he noted, but tensions often can’t be (and shouldn’t be). The trick is to know which you’re dealing with. There is an inherent tension between grace and works, for example. Trying to “resolve” this tension often results in imbalanced theology. The tension is supposed to be there.

Tension can be a sign that my values are alive and well. For example, if I never feel the tension between home and work, it probably means one or both are suffering. The tension means I value both parts of my life and must work continually to give each the priority they deserve.

Tension can also be a sign that my values are skewed. Temptation is the prime example. Maybe I want to remain pure but I feel a tension between what I want to do and what I ought to do.

Now I’m feeling the tension between writing a clever ending and my need to go to bed.

Bed it is. Tension resolved.