Recently, a fellow Christian was trying to explain to me why the Bible and 2,000 years of Christian teaching are wrong on a number of important topics. The familiar ones: life, marriage, sex. Like so many other modern Christians, my friend had apparently discovered some great truth that had eluded every Christian before him, not to mention Christ himself, thus justifying massive alterations to the fundamental tenets of our faith. He couldn’t really explain this truth, or how he found it, but he was quite sure that, by the way, it also absolved him of the duty to go to church on a regular basis.
I’m not going to rehash all of these topics individually, but I do want to focus on one phrase he used to rationalize his conveniently customized religion. I’ve heard this phrase used in this context for this reason countless times. He informed me that he had a “personal relationship with Jesus,” and his relationship doesn’t happen to include all of the pesky rules and obligations that the rest of us rubes constantly fuss over. He doesn’t really have a religion at all, he told me. He has a relationship. And that relationship is totally chill, man. It’s more of an open relationship, you might say. I noticed that he seemed to emphasize one particular word: My. “My personal relationship with Jesus.”
Now, if you emphasize a different word in that sentence, specifically the last one, it appears to take on a whole new meaning: “My personal relationship with Jesus.” It is certainly true that we are called to have a relationship with Jesus. And that fact ought to fill us with awe and wonder. I can have a personal relationship with Jesus. The Risen Lord knows me and He is standing beside me, trying to guide me home. It’s almost inconceivable. Not because it speaks to my own esteem and importance, but because it reveals the impossible humility and mercy of God.
No, the Bible never mentions our “personal relationship” explicitly, neither did the Apostles use the catchphrase when they were out converting the masses, but a similar idea was expressed many times in Scripture. In James, for instance: “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” Or in Jude: “Keep yourselves in the love of God.” Or by Jesus Himself: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”
Indeed, the entire New Testament is the story of Jesus coming to Earth as a person and sacrificing Himself so that we could have salvation. The Bible tells us of a personal God so desperate to bring us into eternal life that He sent His son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. It’s clear that God wants an intimate connection with us, and that can only begin when we realize our need for Him and develop a deep desire to know and serve Him.
And therein lies the “personal relationship,” if you want to put it that way. Or you could put it as St. Augustine did: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” Maybe we came up with “personal relationship with Jesus” because we’re not as poetic or eloquent as the early Christians. It seems we often look for blander and broader language to convey the same ancient ideas. But however we phrase it, we do in fact need a personal relationship — an intimate connection, a deep bond, a true union — with Jesus. My friend was right about that much, at least.
The problem arises when we think we can have the relationship on our own terms; when we forget who is the master and who is the servant; when we get confused about who is the Father and who is the child; when we emphasize “my” and not “Jesus,” as if we’re the ones calling the shots. Notice that whenever the Bible talks about you and me, it uses terms like children, sheep, disciples, servants. The Lord is the Father, the Shepherd, the Master, the Savior. The relationship — our “personal relationship” — is defined for us, quite helpfully. Our roles are made clear. And we have to fulfill our role or the relationship cannot bear fruit.
Look at it this way. I want to have a personal relationship with my own children, but it only works if I’m the leader and authority figure in the relationship. If my kids try to change the relationship so that they’re in charge, or we’re equal partners, the relationship won’t function and there will be disorder and unhappiness in the home. My personal relationship with my children will suffer greatly if we have the relationship on their terms, according to their rules and their desires. For one thing, if they were in charge, all we’d ever do is eat ice cream and watch Paw Patrol, and we’d all be dead from malnutrition by the end of the month.
The roles need to be understood and respected in order for any relationship to function. Marriage is another example. I want to have a personal relationship with my wife, obviously, but it only works if we’re devoted to each other. If I tell my wife that “my personal relationship” with her must now include three mistresses, that’s just another way of saying I’ve dissolved our personal relationship and abandoned her. I can’t justify my infidelity by saying, “Hey, this is my relationship.” It isn’t mine. I don’t own it. It belongs to both of us, and it imposes certain obligations on me. If I’m not willing to fulfill those basic obligations, then the relationship is doomed, no matter how hard my wife may fight to maintain it.
If this is how it works for human relationships — if relationships among spouses and family members and friends and countrymen must come with laws and duties– how can we imagine that our relationship with God would be different? How can we suppose that our relationship with the Lord requires virtually nothing of us? How can we say that it necessitates not the slightest alteration in our behavior and lifestyle? How can we agree that their are obligations attached to our relationships with other mortals, but none attached to our relationship with the Creator of the Universe?
Or maybe that’s whole problem. It seems a lot of us don’t think there are any real obligations in our relationships with other people. This “personal relationship” concept creates such confusion not because it’s wrong, but because we live in a culture where there is a lot of fundamental confusion about the nature of relationships. You’re asking for trouble when you tell people in a country filled with divorces and broken homes and Tinder accounts to think of their faith like a relationship. “Oh, so you mean shallow, self-centered, and impermanent? Got it!”
Many of us tend to think of relationships as exercises in self-indulgence. The Other exists to pamper us and make us happy and stay out of our way when we’re not in the mood to deal with them. The moment they fail in their responsibilities (because it’s always the other person with the responsibilities, not us) they can be cast aside. This is how we see our spouses, our parents, our friends. Thanks to Roe v. Wade, our relationship with our children even comes with a 9 month return policy. Is it any wonder that God gets the short-shrift in our “personal relationships” with Him?
The fact is, all relationships require loyalty, devotion, honesty, humility, and active participation from both parties. A relationship with an authority figure, like a parent, requires obedience and a humble willingness to follow the rules. Our relationship with God is not an exception to this. It is the absolute prime example. Our relationship with the Divine does not give us a license to do whatever we want. It calls us to do what He wants.
In that way, it’s not nearly as complicated as our relationships with people. Yes, to be in a relationship with a person you must be devoted to them, you must be honest with them, you must be willing to serve them, but the other person is still just a person, so they can be wrong. A child should be obedient to his father, but his father is just a man and as a man he is capable of wickedness. In his wickedness, if he tells the child to do something evil, the child must disobey. So his obedience to his father on Earth cannot be absolute. Just as our loyalty to a friend on Earth cannot be absolute because the friend may ask us to accompany him into sin.
But with God it’s much simpler (although I wouldn’t say easier). God is always right, always just, always loving, always wise. He would never ask us to commit a sin for His sake. Whatever he asks us to do is the right thing, and wherever he asks us to go is the right place. All of the demands He makes of us — and He does make demands, many of them — are designed to bring us deeper into that relationship with Him. We don’t have the option to say, “No thanks, God, I’d rather keep it casual. I’m not ready for a commitment right now.” That’s not the kind of relationship God wants, and if we’re not willing to have the kind of relationship God wants, then we’re not willing to have a relationship at all.
That’s the problem with saying, “It’s a relationship, not a religion.” We modern Christians love our cliched slogans, but we rarely stop to think about them. If we did, we’d realize that the slogan should be,”The relationship is the religion” or “The religion is the relationship.” We can’t separate the two.
The religion — Christianity — tells us about God, and about the kind of life God wants us to lead. It’s in leading that life that we are drawn into a fuller and more complete relationship with Him. If we insist on living exactly as we please, we cannot experience God in His fullness because He cannot be found in our sin and in our selfishness, just as we can’t enrich our relationship with our parents by disobeying them, nor with our spouses by cheating on them.
That’s why, if you notice, Jesus spends a lot of time telling us what to do and what not to do and how to live and how not to live. He gives us prayers to recite, things to do, laws to obey. Do we imagine that He was wasting His breath? Do we think He was just saying a bunch of extra stuff so that it would make for interesting Bible trivia questions? Or do we think He was defining the relationship — and that definition, that structure, is our religion?
In a similar way, our wedding vows aren’t meant to be nice little soundbites to make everyone in the audience feel good (this is news to some married couples, I realize). We say the vows because the vows affirm what exactly it means to be in a marriage, just as God gave us the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount and all of the other instructions and moral “rules” found in the Bible because that’s what it means to be in a relationship with Jesus. Saying, “I want a relationship with Jesus without the morality” is like saying, “I want a marriage without the fidelity.” What you’re actually saying is, “I don’t want a marriage” and “I don’t want a relationship with Jesus.”
And, ultimately, if we really don’t want Jesus — even if we say we do — we won’t get Him. If we don’t want a deep and meaningful relationship with Him, we won’t have it. We can’t have it. Jesus can’t force us to love Him. If we do love Him, we will keep His commandments (John 14:15), or at least try. The moment we give up trying — the moment we throw away His commandments and try to have a “relationship” without them — is the moment we give up on the relationship completely.
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