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"Personal relationship with God?" Let's use better language

April 13, 2016
Benjamin Spalink

Can I have a personal relationship with God?

Constantly heard in evangelical churches is this idea: “You can have a personal relationship with God!” For many, this sums up the Gospel message. This is the reason Jesus died on the cross.  Megachurch pastors, televangelists, crusaders and regular church pastors alike are all claiming that through Jesus this is possible.

But is it true? 

A quick word search in the Bible will show that the phrases, “personal relationship with God,” “relationship with God,” and “personal relationship” never appear in the Bible. Think about that.  Nowhere does it say, “you can have a relationship with God.”  That doesn’t necessarily make it untrue.  However, the fact that those words don’t appear verbatim should alert the careful listener to the fact that when preachers talk about a “personal relationship with God” they’re obviously using a metaphor to talk about something else.  Anybody who’s majored in English knows that metaphors are useful, but that if you stretch it too far it stops working.  For many this metaphor has stopped working.

One of my fears is that too many people grew up in Christian subcultures being promised a personal relationship with God, and have found their interaction with God to be neither personal nor relational, and thus have jumped ship. Said a friend to me recently: “I’m a nice guy. I’m easy to get along with. I have relationships that are personal in nature.  If the church says we can have a personal relationship with God, I don’t know why it’s not working for me.  Am I doing something wrong? Why doesn’t God want to have a personal relationship with me?” After wrestling for some time, he came to the tentative conclusion that “personal relationship with God” didn’t work as a phrase to describe the promise of Christianity, and he began to question the veracity of Christianity in general.  If this were an isolated incident I wouldn’t be so concerned, but I’ve heard it before. 

Could it be that the church is doing more harm than good by trumpeting a personal relationship with God as the essence of the good news? 

The idea of a “personal relationship with God” is helpful in some ways but has severe limitations.  First of all, it doesn’t really sum up the Gospel.  The Gospel is not about you per se.  It’s about a new creation, an entire world that is remade with God at the center.  The good news is that God is creating a brand new state of affairs, completely toppling the existing world order. Amazingly, in this new domain, outcasts, sinners, fringe-dwellers and those crying out for God’s mercy are brought in and honored through forgiveness awarded them by faith because of Christ’s sacrifice.  God does indeed care about them - but they are not the focus.  The focus is God’s glory and mercy. Through his grace, people get to be witnesses and participants in his work of establishing himself as the head of a new creation. 

Another limitation to the idea of “personal relationship” is that it confuses God’s method of communicating to us. God’s primary way of relating to his people is through covenants.  God is a covenant-making God.  A covenant is a form of relationship, but in the case of God and people, it is a treaty between unequals.  Love and protection is offered while loyalty and obedience is demanded. The Gospel is good news because this vastly superior king allows us rebellious sinners to join his family as children and doesn’t obliterate us despite our sin and record of violating previous covenants.  The good news is that God is ushering in a new reality (the Kingdom), reaffirming the old covenant by fulfilling it through Jesus, and welcoming us into the pact. As God welcomes us into this covenant, he also brings about a total transformation in our hearts so that we desire to and can obey the terms of the covenant. “Covenant” is more specific and accurate than “personal relationship.”  To call it merely a personal relationship diminishes God, and perhaps causes us to forget that the primary affective response to God is fear. If a supreme and royal monarch gave me the privilege of coming into his presence without fear of having my head cut off, the last thing I would do would be to go around touting that I had a “personal relationship” with said monarch, especially if the monarch had paid some great price to spare my life. Rather, I would honor and revere this person and quietly rejoice in my heart at the privilege of being able to enter his presence and talk with him. 

Surprisingly, the Bible goes even further than “personal relationship” when Jesus calls his disciples his friends (John 15:15). But the idea of being God’s friend is so astonishing precisely because of how inappropriate the category of friendship is for describing this superior/inferior relationship. God is full of surprises, not least of which is his desire to know us and be known.  To tout around “friendship with God” is to risk communicating a kind of nonchalance in one’s relationship with God. One must be extremely grateful if claiming friendship with God, and never impose on God by presuming upon this awesome privilege. 

“Personal relationship” is potentially misleading, but also easily misunderstood, especially in a culture like ours.  What might people expect if told they can have a personal relationship with God?  Why was my friend so disappointed as he grew up not experiencing a personal relationship with God?  Accessibility and experience are the key problem areas.  I’ve been a Christian for 35 years, but talking with God is simply not anything like talking with a person sitting across from you.  You can “hear” God, but “hearing God” is a metaphor for something. Very few people I’ve met actually hear God literally in an audible way. So they’re using the metaphor of hearing to describe their experience. It was like they heard God.  I hear God in this sense, but not all the time.  Sometimes I can’t hear squat.  Why should I expect God to be as close and accessible as someone sitting next to me?  Don’t we believe sin or disobedience or God’s good pleasure might make him inaccessible at times?  Might personal relationship mistakenly convey the idea that God can always be sensed experientially, and that he’s here for us on demand? To say so is to ignore some of the richest writings of spiritual giants in various traditions (St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul or Gisbertus Voetius’s Spiritual Desertion) which claim that God can and does sometimes withdraw his felt presence from us for his own purposes.  By setting up a false expectation, we’re not preparing people for those periods of spiritual dryness. We’re making the walk with the Lord appear much easier than it often is. 

The idea of a “personal relationship” is somewhat deceiving. You might imagine yourself sitting down and having coffee with Jesus like he was your friend. (For some reason, coffee always enters the picture when talking about personal relationships).  Keep in mind that the one sitting across from you designed the process of evolution in his cosmic mind before coffee beans even existed.  Also keep in mind that that the one having coffee across from you, the king of the entire universe who brought it all about by the sheer power of his very word, shed his blood on the cross for you. He is the Word of God, the power and force that called the very world into existence.  If you were to see him, you would fall down on your knees like Peter and say, “Get away from me! I’m an unworthy piece of slime!”  Does personal relationship really do justice to his amazing grace poured out on a wretch like me?  

Having said that, I admit that the phrase has some value and conveys in a simple way one of the great truths of the Gospel - that former rebels, sinful prodigals like you and me, are given access to the Holy of Holies.  The temple curtain has been town in two and sinners are made clean and welcomed into God’s presence.  We are personally allowed to enter into his presence without fear and talk to God like a father.  It truly is a relationship.  It involves relating, talking, asking for things, worshipping, sharing space and time together. God opens himself up to us and enables us to know his character, his methods, his humor, even.  And, as one grows in faith over a lifetime, one gets to know God better.  Over the years, my desire to personally meet Jesus has grown as I’ve experienced him time and time again.  When I meet him in person, I suspect it will be like seeing an old friend, and I’ll have a kind of giddy excitement to see what he’s really like up close. 

Still, personal relationship conveys a sense of immediacy and intimacy that can take time to develop.  When people hear personal relationship, they think Facebook friends, texting, and coffee. Remember - this is a culture that thinks sex is not necessarily a part of a personal relationship.  It considers sex to be casual.  Nothing could be less casual than sex. The culture is confused about the very nature of personal intimacy and relationship. Intimacy and immediacy with God can happen, but not easily and not immediately. Usually, a person experiences a kind of emotional high initially upon putting faith in Jesus, but relationship really only happens after lots and lots of prayer and worship. Relationships take time to develop.  Lots of prayer won’t elicit any feeling at all, leaving a young person disillusioned: “Why isn’t God showing up? This doesn’t feel like a personal relationship.” They need to learn that God gives his Spirit to those who obey him and submit to him.  Only the pure in heart see God.  Faith comes first - not feeling.  Experience with God comes as one follows his leading.  And like any relationship it simply takes time.

If you are worried because you don’t sense a “personal relationship with God,” don’t panic.  There are other questions I would consider as well.  Do you understand that sin is considered rebellion against God and it alienates us from God? Light and dark can’t coexist.  Does it make sense that Jesus, the Son of God, has given up his life to pay the price for our rebellion, so that we can enter into covenant with God?  Do you understand that God calls us into a life of obedience to his commands, especially the command to love our neighbor?  God sends his Spirit to be alive in us and lead us towards the life he has for us.  Do you know that God loves you, even if you can’t always feel that love?  Do you know that God is everywhere, even though you can’t sense his presence all the time?  Do you pray and read the Bible?  If you can say “yes” to all these questions, you are well on your way to having exactly what people mean when they talk about having a relationship with God.  You may just be using different language. 

My recommendation? Let’s talk about knowing and experiencing God and being able to enter into a covenant relationship with the Creator, but let’s perhaps move away from the language of “having a personal relationship with God.”  It’s just too glib.  He’s not our personal genie.  What are your thoughts? Have you been disappointed by this phrase? Or have you, perhaps, found the phrase useful? 

Please look forward to an exploration of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit and what the Bible actually teaches about how the Spirit communicates the presence and leading of God to us.

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Comments

mark a nothnagel

May 09, 2018 6:12 PM

I acknowledge my belief in God, his death on the cross for my sins and his ability to grant me salvation. He doesn't ask much from us, However we always seem to turn our relationships into entanglements. There are plenty of reasons, given by so many religious authorities, that have made so many question their beliefs. Our religious world made up of entanglements with the Church and with God is our doing. Why does it seem to be a competition to help us find our way? I said earlier God doesn't ask much from us. If we truly believe, why is it so many are in disbelief? In place of teaching to believe and finding their path, we have elected to insert them in a maze. We can pray for God's guidance but we own the condition of Chritianity.

May God bless you and keep you in the Covenant of Grace, Mark    


Zack

April 20, 2018 1:34 AM

"As I have loved you, love one another."

"God is love."

These verses—our mandate from eternity—may have stronger sway among the pagan public. The secular world prides itself on an often fairweather yet zealous view of neighborly love. Better than the "relationship" campaign, we ought to be kind to the heathen. We ought to set an example of righteous, loving relationships with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. Let them be curious, awed, and attracted to the "light of the world." Let them long for a peek at our joy and our worship for an everlasting and loving Father in Heaven. Jesus' way (and he is the way) was to love the lost and correct the deceivers. Let's carry our crosses, worship our Father, love our neighbors, and be more like Christ everyday. The Father loves the righteous and forgives the sinner. Send glad tidings and good news to all the world. I'd run a thousand miles to tell somebody about Jesus' resurrection. Would you? I'd bear a thousand wounds and thorns and still keep my faith. Would you? In the Middle East, Christians bear the crosses daily. They're not worried about teasing unbelievers with marketing campaigns. They're worried for their lives. And still they believe. And still they worship. Because everlasting life is so much greater than succumbing to the intimidation of wordly thugs. Because God's love conquers all, and they love one another because God willed it.


Zack

April 20, 2018 1:24 AM

"The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom."

We worship and revere the awesome God of all creation who loves righteousness and hates the wicked. In our violent and corrupted state (See, e.g., human history), He loved us enough to send His one and only Son to die so that we may live. And His Son rose, again. We need to get back to the basics: believe, repent, and obey. Walk rightly so that you may be counted as a saint in the eternal God's kingdom. Warm and fuzzy messages may be tempting, but they have neither converted the unbeliever, nor ignited the commission of the faithful. I vote "No" on the Christian marketing campaign of "relationship." We already have a relationship. It's called the New Covenant. All that's left to do is to pray our will be aligned with God's and walk rightly towards his everlasting throne.


JP

March 01, 2017 7:58 PM

You made some great points about misunderstandings that might arise by the phrase, "personal relationship with God".  But I don't think you made the case for "let's move away from" that kind of language.   You noted that Jesus amazingly calls us friends.....a clear term of personal relatiionshop.   My suggestion would be to clarify terms....and you offer much that does.  And consider all of the ways God, Christ and the Spirit are described and the suiggested dynamics for "relationship".  Jesus is "prophet and priest and king". The Spirit is comforter.   The Father is, well, Father!   All of these have rich implications.  Expectations need to be fed and enriched by scriptures....and I don't think people will be dissapointed with God when they beef up their def. of "personal relationship" this way.   Sorry for such a long comment!  Love your prose!   Keep it going.....and blessings! 




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