Your relationship with God: Saying it’s personal doesn’t make it so

In Amateur Theology, Connecting to Communicate on February 8, 2010 at 11:48 am

Of all the Christian catchphrases – those rote phrases Christians use to profess their faith – the one that unsettles me most is, “personal relationship.”

First of all, we note that the phrase “personal relationship” doesn’t seem to appear in scripture (if some scholar of Biblical languages wants to set me straight, I welcome the input). Some theologians argue that it simply is not a Biblical concept, but, rather, an interpretation generated by a 20th Century people who are increasingly focused on themselves.

I’m willing to put those questions aside, though, because I do believe God wants a connection with His people (He demonstrates it in a number of ways, even if it’s not overtly stated). And while our interpretation of God does change with eras and generations (see paragraph 2), characteristics of God are constant and clear – including this desire for connection.

So, if I accept this notion of God wanting a “relationship,” why does it trouble me when people talk about having a “personal relationship” with God? Because too many Christians make the relationship anything but personal.

Consider the relationships in your life. No, not the ones simply based on work, marketplace interactions, kids’ soccer schedules, etc. – you might see people regularly through those connections, and you might know some details of their lives, but those are not what I consider personal relationships.

Think instead of your best friends, your family and others with whom you are closest. Now, look at one of those relationships and ask yourself, what makes it personal? An hour spent together once a week? A reluctance to publicly admit the relationship? Ritualistic activities that have lost all emotional impact? Hmmm: Is this a relationship, or a casual affair? (And, no, you can’t say “both.”)

Seriously, while Christians have learned to say “personal relationship,” what many of them have with God is a superficial connection, a casual acquaintance, an habitual crossing of paths.

Now consider a few characteristics of a truly personal relationship, and measure your relationship with God against that standard.

  • Time together. Let’s start with low-hanging fruit: Is a relationship really a relationship if it consists of an hour of togetherness once a week? No. Circumstances might occasionally reduce a personal relationship to this level, but a lingering desire for more contact eventually will win out. As such, one hour on Sunday morning will not sustain a personal relationship with God.
  • Superficial understanding. You know what your co-worker likes to eat for lunch. You know what music she likes to listen to. You know the names of her kids. You know what books she reads. Is that enough for a personal relationship? No. A personal relationship requires a deeper knowledge and a desire for more – an unthinking curiosity about “what makes her tick.” As a Christian, if you’re not intrigued by the character of God, if you’re not pursuing a better understanding of who He is, then it’s not a personal relationship.
  • Public displays of affection. OK, not all relationships include public canoodling, but real relationships usually aren’t hidden from public view. Too many Christians happily display their relationship with God in front of other Christians in a church on Sunday morning, but shy away from admitting that relationship on other days in other settings.
  • Conversations. If your relationship involves only the occasional contact (usually when there is a need or a problem), then it’s not a thriving relationship. Yes, we’re talking about prayer. Many professing Christians pray only occasionally, and when they do it’s either a superficial recitation or a plea in dire times.
  • Arguments. This is the point on which much of my ire is focused. Christians who meet every problem, no matter how grave, with, “Well, it must be God’s will” drive me nuts. People who console someone after a loss by simply saying, “He’s gone on to be with the Lord” confound me. Imagine a friend who has a great deal of influence over your life, but seemingly allows bad things to happen to you, or, worse, actually presides over tragedy in your life. Would you accept those actions without anger, without frustration or, at the very least, without asking, “Why?” No. If you have a relationship – a truly personal relationship – with someone who does such things, you don’t simply accept it. You confront. You challenge. You demand.

But can we do this with God (who, by definition, has a pretty solid influence over the things that happen to you)? Absolutely. And if you want guidance, look no further than the Psalms. They’re full of challenging questions: “Why?” “Where are you?” “How long?” They’re angry, they’re hurt and they’re confused. And they’re demanding, spiteful and contrary.

And, if you look at the way God treated David, you’ve got to believe that God accepts the belligerence. He welcomes the questions. He embraces the argument. Just as he accepts the love, praise, compassion, gratitude, grace, faithfulness and more that David displays in even greater measure.

So, before you allow yourself to mindlessly sputter something about your “personal relationship” with God or Christ, think: Is it really personal? If your honest answer is, “No,” then get to work. Dedicate more time to the relationship. Learn more about God and your faith in Christ. Be open and overt. Pray often. And argue, debate and challenge.

And bear in mind one final thought: As humans, we fail in every relationship. We make mistakes. We neglect someone for a while. We forget something important to that person, we fume silently rather than confront, we get distracted by someone or something else, and so on. Don’t expect to be perfect, don’t feel like you’ve killed the relationship if you fail it from time to time. God’s people have a long history of doing that, and God has a long history of forgiving them and welcoming them back to Him.

That’s how it works in a personal relationship.

  1. Thank you, John, for telling us that some things people say on behalf of God about his will “drive [you] nuts.” How do they know? But that’s another subject entirely.

    There is so much that I understand about God that is IMpersonal that I, for a long time, resisted the notion of a “personal relationship” with him. I don’t know how to have personal relationship that spans all time and all space, perhaps even other universes than the one we’re in. The universe itself seems indifferent to me, personally, and yet the universe is one dimension of God, or, at the very least, is included in God. I don’t know how to have a personal relationship with that. It’s like having a personal relationship with an earthquake or a tornado.

    On the other hand, I actually have had personal experience with several earthquakes, and one with a tornado. Two or three of those experiences so affected me that they have become part of my consciousness in a way that to some degree defines who I am. And, to some degree, I experience a sense of God in the integration of those experiences into who I am. The tornado was impersonal for the moment with regard to me, but meaning or value or import (or something) of the tornado has increased and endured through me. I have a personal relationship, including personal emotions, now with the tornado, even though I don’t imagine the tornado having had any personal emotions, in a conventional sense, toward me. (There is an emotional pole to all experience, even tornados, posited in A.N. Whitehead’s understanding of reality, which I consider important, too, but let’s discuss that elsewhere.)

    So I could have (and believe I do have) a personal relationship with God at least in the sense of the one I have with a tornado. Still, that’s not what we mean, I think, when we talk about that personal relationship. I think we mean one, as you describe, John, that has give and take, action and reaction, argument and sympathy, perhaps even connection and alienation (the latter being, perhaps, what prompts poetry from the imploring Psalmist).

    I do have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that is meaningful and real to me. I experience it most vividly when I do a sort of contemplation of a gospel passage when he’s doing something, like a healing (as opposed to mainly talking, as in the Sermon on the Mount). One step of that contemplative reading is to rewrite each of the actors in the story into the first person, so that “I” become, for instance, Peter, then James, then John, then Jesus, then the talking cloud. The story feels personal in many dimenions.

    The part I take as truly personal occurs when I close my eyes and let the next thing happen, which is usually Jesus coming to me (actually me, not me as another character) and I ask a question. At that point, I am deep enough into meditation that I am not aware that I’m sitting on the floor or a chair in my study but am aware of being at the setting for the gospel story, where there might be dirt under my feet and smells from cooking or from animals. I see and hear myself asking a question, then Jesus offering an answer. Usually we part at this point, and then I let my consciousness drift back to my study, my position, my body, my own breath.

    In my reflections on these encounters with Jesus, I feel as personally connected to him as ever I have to anyone of flesh and blood. It is a real personal relationship with Jesus, to me. This can easily (and maybe should) be explained as simply an imaginative projection, completely fabricated by me — something that has nothing to do with any real Jesus.

    Could be. But if that is so, then every relationship with Jesus claimed by anyone since his execution would be a fabrication of the imagination. For where else but in our imagination can we experience anything at all about Jesus? Even when we’re reading the gospel in worship on Sunday morning, each listener has in his/her imagination something individual and distinct as to what Jesus looks like and sounds like and is thinking and feeling.

    So my question is, am I the only one having a personal experience during these encounters, or is there some version of Jesus somewhere experiencing something and responding in some way? And if so, how do I know when it’s a true experience and when it is made up by me for my own purposes? I really never can know for sure. But what I do know is that there is a continuum of personality I know as Jesus Christ that lives and acts and responds to the continuum of my personality that is as real as my personality, to me, and to which I feel myself to be real.

    I find that explaining this to people is deadening to them (not to mention the conversation), which both saddens me and makes me feel inadequate. I just don’t know what else to do or say, because this is how I most intimately know God and find strength in my spiritual life. It satisfies the rational and naturalistic aspects of my consciousness bequeathed to me by the Enlightenment, and it satisfies the mystical experience of personal consciousness that stubbornly asserts itself to be experience as real as the chair I’m sitting on. It is how I escape the traps of religious orthodoxy on the one hand and of scientific reductionism on the other. It lets me read scripture as a participant. It gives me life and the hope of possibilities beyond the confines of anything and everything that has been thought of so far in Christian history and teaching.

    Thanks for listenting!

    • Christy,

      In just a few of your words, you exposed yourself to be the sort of person who is indeed capcable of a personal relationship with Christ: Contemplation. Meditation. Mystical. Good grief: For a moment there I thought you might use the “S” word (Supernatural, which has been so comandeered by “spiritualists” that many Christians seem to refuse it even in its most literal form). All words that I, as a younger man, thought had no place in Christianity (let alone the Presbyterian Church!). But now I know (to torture my blog’s metaphor more deeply) that no relationship is truly personal without quiet times when words are unnecessary.

      I envy your moments of connection, and intend to “steal” your approach as a means to pursue it myself. It reminds me of things I learned from a group of Carmelite nuns I used to visit from time to time. They were so matter of fact about their processes of contemplation. They know their lifestyle is unique, but they believe it can be emulated by anyone. To them prayer and contemplation were like air and water: Simply a part of life, simply necessary to survival.

      I am still developing my relationship with God, trying hard to follow the “guidelines” I offer in my blog. It’s like a new friendship, in which two people learn a great deal about each other in occasional bursts, but still have areas of uncertainty and strangeness. I expect this to be a lifelong process. And in that process, I have developed a personal relationship with God (he, it seems, already has one with me).

      Thanks for taking the time to read my words and, especially, to write.

  2. Actually, since reading a book by David Ray Griffin called “Reenchantment without Supernaturalism”, and another by Stuart Kauffman called “Reinventing the Sacred”, I’m less convinced of the notion of the supernatural or its value to faith than I once was. They’re both fairly dense, even frustrating, books to read, but they present arguments and data that cannot be waived off easily. What is refreshing about both is that they offer something constructive in the place supernaturalism has occupied in theology and philosophy. The critiques without constructive alternatives have given us Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris, who have been as polarizing from the position of intelligent realism as Christian conservatives have been with their “intelligent design”.

    It has been useful, for me, to follow the challenges to supernaturalism, and I suppose I should say why. Here goes.

    What has been the effect on us of our belief in the supernatural activity of divinity? It is, for one, that something wonderful occurs from time to time; the divine emerges within experience bringing changes and newness, bringing life where the mechanistic universe would otherwise grind its way to tedium and death. Also, by believing in the possibility of supernatural intervention into the universe of our experience, we may expect God to act in the world, in time. We like both of these effects on our consciousness.

    But if God can act in the world, in time, without supernatural intervention, we may still be enchanted—as much as ever, maybe more—with the wonder of both God and nature. There will be some very difficult rearranging of our ideas about how reality is organized in order for us to make the required shift in perception and consciousness that allows us to see God acting in the world without supernatural intervention, but we, I believe, not only should make that shift, we already have.

    Consider relativity theory, quantum theory and chaos theory. Consider the concept of emergence, which is what Kauffman works his way to explaining how the universe yields up novel delights worthy of our wonder (and, in my case, worship).

    The point is that we don’t have to limit our choices to scientific reductionism on the one hand and pre-Enlightenment supernaturalism on the other. Both, in my view, commit the same materialistic errors. I suspect there is not quite a middle way between the two, but I believe we may find a third way that will appear somewhere away from the crossfire between the two.

    (I never get to talk about this stuff to anybody. I hope I’m not driving your otherwise interested readers away.)


    • I’m glad to offer an outlet, and I can think of a couple of readers who likely will enjoy the thread.

      I think that, on the continuum of conencting brain to heart to soul to God, I’m a bit behind you … maybe a lot. (You’ve got a pretty big headstart on me … you know, that whole seminary thing). What I see in your explanation, as I grasp it, is, rather than supernaturalism perhaps a kind of ultranaturalism, which kind of makes sense. My thinking of God as supernatural is to accept His role in the magic of this world. My concern with those who fear the word supernatural is that they have taken much of the mystery and wonder of God out of our lives. They have found a comfortable place for God in their lives, and that comfortable place really includes little that is beyond comprehension. I can’t accept that. 95 percent (or more) of God is well beyond my comprehension, with the paradox being, of course, that the more I learn the less I know I know. But, as I’ve often said, it is through the wrestling, the pursuit, the desire for understanding that God draws me nearer. In part, I see that in you, too. He knows how to connect to each of us. For you, he is luring you to that third way. And, certainly, getting outside the crossfire is appealing.

      To return the earlier point, though, this ultranatural God does seem to illuiminate a new path. What can be more natural than that which has always been?


  3. (I’m back. Don’t groan.)

    There’s a very fine little book called “Wonder: from emotion to spirituality” by Robert C. Fuller (Caterpillar Professor of Religious Studies at Bradley University – That just cracks me up.) Fuller treats wonder more as a phenomenon of emotion, a state of consciousness. He’s very readable, though his prose is kind of dry. I like the book for its thoughtful reflection on some of the great wonderers: John Muir, William James and Rachel Carson. Very cool.

    Ultranaturalism! That’s good; I may just use that. Or, I suppose, metanaturalism. (You write your book, and I’ll write mine. Whoever gets interviewed by Diane Rehm first wins.)

    Rationally, my thinking reduces to this: If God reaches in and performs an act, the act occurs at some place in nature. So God is at that point part of nature, not supernatural, though not part of the cause/effect system we commonly imagine is at work. All the same, if God is part of nature and things move on from there, then we and God are all in it together.

    Scripturally, it goes this way for me: Throughout the Old and New Testaments, the sky was a dome (or firmanent, in older translations). Heaven was above the dome, and God was there. Heaven and earth were all part of the universe, not radically separated, just separated by the dome. Heaven was not a place that couldn’t be reached. That was the problem with the tower of Babel – not that it COULDN’T reach heaven but that it COULD. We were constructing our way to heaven when we weren’t allowed to. Very bad scolding for that!

    Now we know that the blue sky is a phenomenon of light in the atmosphere. After the atmosphere, things just go on and on for millions of light years. Either heaven is somewhere out there in the universe we know of, but just real far away and hard to find, in which case it’s merely the tower of Babel situation with a more difficult engineering problem to overcome, or God and heaven are not in the universe at all, in which case, how can God do anything in the natural order from there?

    Too many problems with supernaturalism, because of how we know the universe these days. We need to let our concepts change. When we do, it will all only become more wonderful, but only if we relax and let it come.

    To you . . .


    • Oh, why not keep this going? And why not continue to tilt at the tiny, insignificant windmills of faith … things like the nature of God and the relationship between Heaven and Earth (on these topics, I’m thinking Diane could interview us both for one whiz-bang of a show — or maybe Terry Gross).

      On the Heaven and Earth connection, or, I guess, God’s relationship to our world, I am informed best by NT Wright’s notion that Heaven and Earth overlap in a way that is imperceptible to those who refuse to see it but obvious to those who seek it. Still getting my head around that, but it is a lot more useful that the notion of a God SOMEWHERE OUT THERE who dabbles in our lives when he sees fit but otherwise sets us in motion and leaves us to our own sad devices.

      As for the Tower of Babel … your notion that their sin was that they induled in something possible is interesting. I had always assumed that their sin was simply hubris. Now I’ve got something new to ponder. Thank you.

      By the way, had lunch with Jeff Main today. When I described this exchange to him, he said that you and I have too much time on our hands.

      Meanwhile, I wouldn’t be surprised if Amazon sold another copy of “Wonder” this evening…

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