One of the things that I have found frustrating at various points throughout my life is how the language of “personal relationship” is used in (usually evangelical) Christian contexts. Often times, the end goal of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection was (and is) described as some variation of providing a way for human beings to have a “personal relationship” with God. What is needed, we are often told, is to invite Jesus into our “heart” to be our “personal saviour” and then begin cultivating our “personal relationship” with him via an amalgam of pious-sounding, mostly solitary activities. Of course this isn’t true across the board, but it’s true in enough contexts to have fairly broad traction in many denominational and cultural contexts.
The problem with this emphasis (aside from the fact that it never really seemed to work for me) is that it isn’t biblical. One searches in vain in Scripture for the terms “personal saviour” or “personal relationship with Jesus.” This isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be anything “personal” about how we live with, for, and through God. This isn’t even possible, much less desirable. But the result, at least in my (limited) experience of all this personal relationship language is that people sometimes feel like they have to attain to some (usually unspecified) quality of emotional attachment to God or to feel his presence and direction in unique ways. Or something like that.
Truth be told, I’m not sure that many people actually know what they mean when they use the word “personal relationship” alongside “God” or “Jesus” or how they would know they were getting it “right.” But they’re usually convinced that it is a vitally important (if often uninteresting) part of Christian life and that they should probably be doing more work on it.
Consequently, I found myself proclaiming a loud “amen” after reading this piece yesterday (h/t: Faith and Theology). The whole post is worth a read (as are many parts of Richard Beck’s excellent blog), but here’s a few quotes:
The trouble with contemporary Christianity is that a massive bait and switch is going on. “Christianity” has essentially become a mechanism for allowing millions of people to replace being a decent human being with some endorsed “spiritual” substitute. For example, rather than being a decent human being the following is a list of some commonly acceptable substitutes:
Going to church
Spiritual disciplines (e.g., fasting)
Going on spiritual retreats
Reading religious books
Arguing with evolutionists
Sending your child to a Christian school or providing education at home
Using religious language
Avoid seeing R-rated movies
Not reading Harry Potter.
The point is that one can fill a life full of spiritual activities without ever, actually, trying to become a more decent human being. In fact, much of this activity can distract one from becoming a more decent human being. Worse, some of these activities make you worse, interpersonally speaking. Many churches are jerk factories.
My point in all this is that contemporary Christianity has lost its way. Christians don’t wake up every morning thinking about how to become a more decent human being. Instead, they wake up trying to “work on their relationship with God” which very often has nothing to do with treating people better. How could such a confusion have occurred? How did we end up going so wrong? I’m sure there are lots of answers, but at the end of the day we need to face up to our collective failure. I’m not saying we need to do anything dramatic. A baby step would do to start. Waking up trying to be a little more kind, more generous, more interruptible, more forgiving, more humble, more civil, more tolerant. Do these things and prayer and worship will come alongside to support us.
Of course the goal of Jesus’ career wasn’t just to produce “decent human beings” either. There are plenty of decent human beings out there who couldn’t care less about God or his purposes. The point of it all is—and has always been—to participate in God’s mission of healing and redeeming a fallen world. Pursue peace, wholeness, goodness, forgiveness, justice. Love God. Love your neighbour.
Are activities such as private prayer and Bible study an important part of this? Absolutely. I am in no way advocating that Christians should abandon these activities or that they do not play an important role in Christian discipleship. But they are means not ends. And working on becoming a decent human being seems like a better start toward these ends than cloistering ourselves away in order to work on our personal relationships with Jesus.