Evangelicals generally insist that “the meaning and purpose of life is to have a personal relationship with Jesus.” That’s how a Methodist pastor I was listening to a few months ago put it. Philip Yancey says it another way in his Reaching for the Invisible God (Zondervan, 2000): “getting to know God” is a lot like getting to know a person. You spend time together, whether happy or sad. You laugh together. You weep together. You fight and argue, then reconcile (108).
But as Evangelicals, we also confess that Jesus is not physically present on earth. So how does one have a personal relationship with someone you can’t talk to, share a glass of wine with, or even email? Yancey is sensitive to such objections. So he backtracks a bit from his first assertion. He says that with God we shouldn’t expect a relationship between equals. The problem, he says, is that we want God to be like us–tangible, material, perceptible, audible–while God “shows little interest in corresponding on our level” (110). But if God “shows little interest in corresponding on our level,” how do you spend time together, laugh together, weep together, fight and argue and reconcile together? Why would you call such a relationship a personal relationship?
Yancey feels the weight of these awkward questions. He tries to resolve the problem through indirection. A relationship with God, he says, is like a relationship with a spouse you love but are not with. You miss your spouse; your heart grows fonder–so much so that the absence of the spouse is felt as a sort of presence. I know what Yancey means, since as I write this, my spouse is 7500 miles, a continent and an ocean, away from me!
But again, the absence of someone you love becoming a mysterious presence sounds more like postmodern rhetorical criticism, like a search for something hidden in the traces, than the sort of “personal relationship” Yancey began with.
So finally, as if exasperated by his objections, Yancey resorts to a brief summary of Alvin Plantinga’s notion that belief in God is “properly basic.” Now, Plantinga’s work is persuasive. Even so, a dense, closely argued, erudite justification for the rightness of belief in God seems a poor substitute for a personal relationship with that God the way Yancey first described it, don’t you think?
We need to do some fundamental reflection on the whole notion of having or pursuing a “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ. While, on the one hand, I respect the longing for intimacy with God that these words reflect, they also concern me because they betray a creeping sort of secularization of our language about God. I’ll lay out the reasons for my objections and then conclude with some suggestions for an alternative way we should speak of our relationship with God.
The Bible on Personal Relationship
Scripture speaks powerfully about the providential nearness of God. God is David’s shepherd (Ps. 23). God promises Israel that when she passes through waters or fire, he will be with her (Isa. 43:1-5). Jesus promises that where two or three come together in his name, he will also be there (Matt. 18:19).
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” That’s me Jesus is speaking about. Of course, such passages are somewhat ambivalent too. God’s presence to David was not so personal that God was able to advise him about Bathsheba, or counting soldiers, or how to deal with Absalom. And the prophets insist on God’s providential presence in Israel in part because the Israelites themselves cannot sense it as they stumble from one disaster to another. And God’s presence to the apostles, after his ascension, comes (as Moses promised in Num. 12:6-8) only via visions like Peter’s in Joppa or John’s on Patmos. In one such vision, while Paul is in prison in Corinth (Acts 18), Jesus assures Paul that he is watching over him–something, one supposes, that needed to be said because otherwise Paul might not sense Jesus’ presence.
The gospel of John actually wrestles with what the personal absence of Jesus will mean for his followers. “I am with you for only a short time,” says Jesus, “and then I go to the one who sent me. You will look for me, but you will not find me; and where I am, you cannot come” (John 7:33, 34; John 8:21). Jesus shows himself personally to Thomas, but you can almost hear the ache in Jesus’ voice when he speaks of us who have not had the sort of personal encounter Thomas did. “You believe because you have seen”–because, we might say, you have a personal relationship with me. But Jesus goes on to say, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” That’s me Jesus is speaking about.
In Jesus, God came to humans in the flesh–so ambiguous a presence that while Jesus walked on earth, few recognized him. Even the disciples–who had the closest of personal relationships with Jesus–barely understood him until after the resurrection. Even then, Jesus was recognizable as God only intermittently, as in the breaking of the bread in Emmaus, or to Thomas in the upper room. Paul notes that before his ascension, Jesus appeared to just over five hundred people, and finally after his ascension, to him “as to one abnormally born” (1 Cor. 15:7).
We do have something else, of course–the presence of the Holy Spirit, which was made known to us at Pentecost. “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you,” he says. A chapter later, Jesus explains, “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me” (John 15:26). The Reformed doctrine of the testimony of the Spirit turns on such texts, insisting that God is most present to us through the illuminating work of the Spirit as we search God’s word, scripture.
But as a spirit, the Holy Spirit’s interaction with us is also mysterious and ephemeral. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). All of which is both wonderful but also achingly leaves us wishing for more. So, when I read in Luke 9 that Peter was afraid of Jesus, I wish I knew what Peter felt, and what Jesus’ words, “do not be afraid,” cured.
Ultimately, the phrase “a personal relationship with Jesus,” is not found in the Bible. Thus, there is no sustained systematic theological reflection on what the phrase must or most likely means. In fact, people experience the personal presence of God–if that is what they are really experiencing–in a wide variety of idiosyncratic and highly personal ways. Publicly, however, when people say they have a personal relationship with Jesus, it sounds like they are saying they have a relationship characterized by face-time, by talk-time, by touching, by all the things–and especially the intimacy–we usually associate with having a personal relationship with another human being.
As a result, using the language of personal relationship is bound to lead to all sorts of confusion. As a pastor I met more than a few people who experienced doubt, or perhaps anger, because they didn’t experience Jesus the way their Christian friends claimed to. Not having felt his presence, or listened to his voice, or done any of the things that Philip Yancey starts off saying a personal relationship entails, they begin to feel like they don’t have what others have. If they continue going to church they may even begin to feel like frauds, because the very frequency and off-hand familiarity with which so many Evangelicals speak of such a relationship creates social pressure to conform, to nod, “yes, I know what you mean,” and to act as if such a relationship is their reality too.
This sort of talk is sure to be misunderstood by many non-Christians too. They know Jesus hasn’t walked on the earth for nearly two thousand years. Even if they were to grant the possibility of what we confess, namely that Jesus is now in heaven sitting at the right hand of God the Father, unbelievers also know that there isn’t any mail or phone service between God’s throne and our homes. For most such people, talk of a personal relationship with Jesus must seem as unlikely and strange as New Age talk of channeling spirits from other planets or dimensions–unless you are one of those people into such things!
On the other hand, if you Google “personal relationship with God,” you will discover that people from many religions use this same, or similar, language. Muslims, Baha’i, Hindus, and Mormons all claim personal relationships with their gods. So, for example, a recent Newsweek article quoted Megan Wyatt, a blond Ohioan who converted to Islam, as saying, “There are many ways to be spiritual. People find it in yoga. For me, becoming a Muslim gave me the ultimate connection to God.” (www.msnbc.msn.com/id/9024914/site/newsweek/)
So where does this fascination with the language of personal relationship come from? Robert Bellah dates it to the nineteenth century, when “science seemed to have dominated the explanatory schemas of the external world, [so that] morality and religion took refuge in human subjectivity, in feeling and sentiment” (Habits of the Heart, University of California, 1985, 46). By this account, the triumph of science meant that faith had to make a strategic retreat to private experience or morality.
More recently, the language of personal relationship with God has become popular due to the pervasive influence of the language of secularity. So Marsha Witten cogently argues in her book, All is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism (Princeton, 1993), a close textual analysis of fifty-eight sermons on the parable of the prodigal son as found in Luke 15:11-32. Twenty-seven of the sermons were preached in mainline Presbyterian churches, and the rest to conservative Southern Baptists.
When I read in Luke 9 that Peter was afraid of Jesus, I wish I knew what Peter felt, and what Jesus’ words, “do not be afraid,” cured. In both traditions, Witten discovers, preachers respond to secularity in part by accommodating their language to it. Biblical language that emphasizes God’s transcendence is replaced by language that emphasizes God’s immanence. Jesus is not in heaven, at the right hand of God; he lives in our hearts. God is primarily seen as a “daddy,” as sufferer on our behalf, and as extravagant lover. In these sermons the traditional language for God is accommodated to the human desire for connection and intimacy.
Likewise the stress on practical rationality. Witten’s preachers are mostly concerned with giving the audience some everyday cash value for their religion. “Spirituality may take a back seat to pragmatism” in these churches, and “the language of technical proceduralism replaces that of poetic evocation” (134). In this connection Witten points not only to the raft of self-help titles available at religious bookstores but to the way sermons are structured “in a series of steps, or items on a list” (24). Thus is “modern culture…elbowing religious tenets and pronouncements into increasing conformity with the norms of the secular world” (6).
Furthermore, these sermons lack much sense that Christianity has anything to say beyond one’s personal relationship to God. “Only in a tiny minority of sermons is the world a place of social concerns and interactions, in which choices made about behavior have to do with social issues such as justice or equality” (57). Ultimately, Witten argues, the language of religious conversion, the language of sin, repentance, of principalities and powers has been traded in for something else. Now in both conservative and liberal denominations, the language of conversion has been replaced by the language of personal relationship. The language of personal relationship fits with secularity; the traditional language of conversion, of trading faiths through a dying to self, does not.
One cannot fail but recall David Wells’ warning:
There is an irony in all of this that appears to be entirely lost on those at the heart of it. They labor under the illusion that the God they make in the image of the self becomes more real as he more nearly comes to resemble the self, to accommodate its needs and desires. The truth is quite the opposite. It is ridiculous to assert that God could become more real by abandoning his own character in an effort to identify more completely with ours. And yet the illusion has proved compelling to a whole generation. (God in the Wasteland, Eerdmans, 1994, 100-101)
Is this possible? Do many Christians have a personal relationship not so much with Jesus, or God, but with something in their heads, with something that they’re comfortable with, a social construction driven by their need to go easy on themselves? I’m sure this is not the intention. I’m sure that the presence of the Spirit that testifies to the truth prevents many Christians who use the language of personal relationship from falling prey to its worst temptations. Still, given the repeated and serious warnings against idolatry all through the Bible, we ought to be very, very careful when it comes to imagining the God we say we’re in a personal relationship with.
What sorts of language should we use instead? First, we can take a hint from the Psalmist: no matter how comfortable the language of personal relationship is, the more pressing need today is to come to grips with God’s seeming absence.
I’ve tried to pastor parents who just gave birth to a child with Down’s syndrome. After a car accident, once, I buried a man’s wife and only child. I’ve seen hundreds of rotting bodies in a little church in Nterama, in Rwanda–victims of genocide. I have a foster daughter who gets calls from her real parents in Zimbabwe saying that their whole neighborhood has just been bulldozed by Mugabe’s henchmen. Everyday I go to work, here in Manila, I see malnourished street children begging for coins.
In such a world I think that rather than focusing on “personal relationships,” we need to recover the Psalmist’s language of lament because it fairly represents how we ought to feel about Jesus’ absence until he comes again to make all things new.
Second, in thinking about how we actually do relate to God, we need to revisit scripture’s assertion that we are “in Christ.” In this regard, we would do well to re- In both conservative and liberal denominations, the language of conversion has been replaced by the language of personal relationship. Part of what Smedes argues there is that being in Christ–even if it isn’t a personal relationship–is a wonderful and cosmic reality that is most real to us in that we do all we do as participants in the new history begun in Christ. This new reality can–and should–become most tangible and comforting in the church.
But a further consequence of being in Christ, Smedes argues, is that it makes us “part of a program as broad as the universe,” as opposed to a narrow, pragmatic, and personal program of the type described by Witten. Smedes writes that:
The design of Christ’s new creation is far too grand, too inclusive to be restricted to what happens inside my soul. No nook or cranny of history is too small for its purpose, no cultural potential too large for its embrace. Being in Christ, we are part of a new movement by His grace, a movement rolling on toward the new heaven and the new earth where all things are made right and where He is all in all. (92)
This sort of language is fit for Christians who want Jesus to claim more than the limited real estate of the heart, but want Jesus to inspire them to take on principalities and powers.
I’m not suggesting here that Reformational activism is a wiser and happier alternative to Calvinistic pietism. And I admit that those of us in the doctrinalist or Kuyperian camps of Reformed thinking have sometimes messed up here, short-changing the call to root ourselves ever more deeply in prayer, in spiritual disciplines, in worship and Bible study. But it is also undeniable that when we are busy with a project–especially a project as exciting as being ambassadors of reconciliation for the King of the Universe to earth–it is then that faith becomes sight. For as Paul said, “the righteous will live by faith.”
This mention of faith brings us to the most important point. Rather than saying, “I have a personal relationship with Jesus,” why don’t we say instead, “I have faith in Jesus,” or “I believe in Jesus.” Where the language of personal relationship has a very questionable pedigree in secular pressures, amidst a therapeutic culture, to cut God down to a manageable size, the language of faith is deeply rooted in scripture. Where the language of personal relationship is always ambiguous and inexact, meaning whatever the speaker happens to privately mean, the language of faith has been deeply examined for more than two thousand years. Where the language of personal relationship sounds implausible or perhaps even impossible, at least as far as the plain sense of such language goes, the language of faith serves as an invitation to ponder mystery and overcome unbelief. The apostle John put it this way: “This is [God’s] command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us” (1 John 3:23). That seems, to me, the real meaning and purpose of life.