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.
I grew up with the kind of critique Beck offers. In the churches that I have been part of, and the seminary I attended, this critique was common. They had their own list for what it takes to be a decent human being and Christian. Some of them are the opposite of the ones Beck lists. For example, their list included:
Working for social justice, not evangelism
Voting for Democrats (in the U.S., of course)
Arguing with evangelicals and ridiculing their ways
Spiritual disciplines (e.g., frugality)
The result on me was fear of evangelicals, but also a fear that if I did not conform to Beck’s beliefs I would be criticized and cut off. Eventually I realized that there is much prejudice involved in Beck’s Christianity, much feeling of superiority, as much as in any other version of Christianity. Having a liberal understanding of God, a liberal theology, does not require embracing Beck’s version of Christianity nor his prejudices, even while it does not embrace evangelicalism.
I think it is possible to understand what evangelicals call a personal relationship with God, even if one does not speak in those terms, nor seek it, if one looks at it phenomenologically, rather than judgmentally. Of course, that is hard to do for those who have been injured by it. Perhaps Beck has been injured. I sympathize with that. I have been attacked many times for my deficiencies, my sins, my wrong beliefs, and my wrong ways of living, by Christians carrying a liberal banner. No doubt, evangelicals would have also bludgeoned me, if my fear had not kept me away from them.
In order “to participate in God’s mission of healing and redeeming a fallen world,” a huge element of inter-human relationships are required. The problem with solely focusing on the personal relationship with Christ is it becomes selfish and self serving. Repairing a fallen world requires this relationship while living socially. Essentially, we are called to live like Christ like not only because it develops the relationship with God, but living in his model also develops a relationship with each other.
“Here is the test by which we can make sure that we are in him: whoever claims to be dwelling in him, binds himself to live as Christ lived.” (1 John 2:6)
Accomplishing the personal relationship with God and repairing a fallen world are both down through the same action, living in the path Jesus forged.
If our first commandment is to love God with all our heart, mind and soul, how is this fully realized outside the context of a personal relationship?
If in loving others as ourselves we would subscribe to a personal relationship, why would it be different between ourselves and God?
Before beginning His ministry, Christ spent time alone in relationship with the Father. Like wise before Calvary there was Gethsemane.
I agree Paul. But as I said in the post, sometimes Christians confuse the means for the ends.
I can see both sides of the argument here, but I would have to say that our adoptions as sons (and daughters) of God, and the ability to call Him Abba, Father, would constitute a fairly intimate relationship, would it not? And, on the other hand, is it not James who said that faith without works is dead? As someone who often acts out of duty, out of “I should be a better person today, a kinder person, a more serving person” and quickly loses the joy in that duty, I think it does us a world of good to be in relationship with God, taking some time to speak and to listen to Him, and out of the rememberence of His amazing and sacrificial love for us and desire to be known by us to respond in service. Both have to be there (relationship and service), but one flows out of the other.
Thanks for the comment Kara—good to hear from you. I think you are right to point out the intimate nature of adoption and how easily “becoming a decent human being” can slide into duty rather than a joyful response to a relationship in which we are personally invested. I absolutely agree—doing flows out of nurturing the relationship and vice versa.
It really should bother you to see how many decent human beings there are outside of Christianity compared to how many jerks there are within it. That realization really bothered me, when I was Christian. If our claims were even halfway true, then that shouldn’t be the case — and yet I could see that it was. That’s not why I deconverted, but it sure was a stumbling block, so to speak. I wish Christians could behave like they halfway believed their own claims. The world would be so much better of a place. But I know exactly why they can’t.
I fully expect goodness to exist outside of Christianity just as I expect wickedness to exist within it, sadly. This is pretty basic Christian anthropology. Human beings are a rather mixed up lot, and rarely fully live up to their professed ideals, whether they claim to be Christian or secular or some other thing.