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Kingdom at War: Or, How to Balance Contending and Consenting

OK, insert here [right here] your favorite illustration about the need for balance. Something about riding a bike, learning to walk, or Luther’s example about not falling off a horse, or stacking rocks.

Because that’s what I’m talking about here—the need to balance contending for the kingdom and consenting to the kingdom.

In different church traditions there are different ways of understanding how God’s kingdom comes.

Contending For…

On the one hand, as Jesus reminds us, “the kingdom of heaven has forcefully advanced, and the strong take it by force” (Matt. 11:12 MEV). The kingdom comes through those who strive, work, contend and take it by force. After all, “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against” the church (Matt 16:18 MEV).

Jesus, after all, didn’t come to bring peace, but a sword (Matt. 10:34)!

The more charismatic and pentecostal interpretations of these verses think of spiritual warfare, personal evangelism, revival nights and power encounters.

The more activist minded think of combating structural injustice, neighborhood outreach and support, and street protests.

For those who contend, if you aren’t doing something then you are part of the problem.

Consenting To…

On the other hand, as Jesus also says, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me. For I am meek and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt 11:28-30).

Indeed, Jesus is Prince of Peace, the one who is our peace, making peace between all who war (Eph. 2:14-17).

The more contemplative and liturgical view these verses as a call to rest in God, to consent to God’s will and ways, to lay down and let go.

The more anabaptist and peace-church traditions see this as a call to give up all violence, all attempts at control, coercion and power.

For those who consent, if you are striving then you are part of the problem.

Let’s break this into lists…

Contending is…

  • for the Kingdom.
  • against the flesh.
  • pressing forward.
  • in the power of the Spirit against kingdom of darkness.
  • warring in the Spirit.
  • for the charismatics, pentecostals and activists.

Consenting is…

  • to the Kingdom.
  • to God.
  • resting in.
  • by the peace of the Spirit within kingdom community.
  • waiting on the Spirit.
  • for the contemplatives, liturgical and anabaptist.

Problems when out of balance

For those who contend

Those who emphasize contending, who focus on warfare imagery, who dwell on pressing in and striving for, problems arise when our work for God begins to work against the ways of God.

  • This happens when in worship we subtly manipulate people, when we seek to manufacture experiences of God’s presence, when we have to make IT happen (whatever “it” may be).
  • This happens when we pray for healing and seek deliverance, and then blame those we are praying for when something doesn’t happen (something, anything!).
  • This happens when we align ourselves with violence for the sake of peace.
  • This happens when we seek to control God’s plans and purposes for us, others, our churches or our country.
  • This happens when the complexity of life is too easily forced into crude categories of good and evil, forgetting that Jesus came to seek and save the lost, and lost his life in the process.

For those who consent

For those emphasizing consenting, who focus on waiting, who seek to dwell in God’s presence, problems arise when our longing for peace is less peace-making and more conflict-avoiding.

  • This happens when resting slips into resignation, that things will never change, that God wills as he wants.
  • This happens when seeking authenticity becomes a call to comfort and an abdication to challenge ourselves and others.
  • This happens when a casual acceptance of difference and division replaces the hard work of discernment.
  • This happens when a call to slow down keeps us from making necessary decisions.

A community of those who contend & consent

Individuals and churches are wired differently, have different life experiences, and different hopes and expectations. But we must learn to balance these impulses and kingdom callings, otherwise our churches—and we as individuals—will miss the high calling of following after, and resting in, Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.

Let us learn to say with Paul, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me” (Phil. 3:12 NIV).

This article originally appeared here.

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Geoff is a pastor, a professor, and co-hosts the God With Us Podcast, exploring how God's presence & purpose transform everyday life. And check out his new book, Does God Really Like Me? Discovering the God Who Wants to Be With You.