Every once in a while, it might be good to ask ourselves why we use particular phrases. For that matter, we should also ask whether it is a good idea to continue using them. For the sake of discussion, I’d like to propose laying to rest the “personal relationship with Jesus.” Before you gather the lynch mob, please allow me to explain.
I understand the phrase. I’ve used the phrase. As time has passed, though, I’ve come to see possible issues with just tossing the phrase to the masses without qualification.
To clarify, I love the “relationship with Jesus.” Without question. By grace through faith, the relationship with Jesus is the key matter of every individual’s life. We will all one day stand before the Lord to answer the question he posed to his friends long ago, “Who do you say I am?” It is my hope, my prayer, that countless saints will stand before the Savior with submissive, adoring hearts and declare him to be the Christ, the Son of the living God. The relationship is critical.
My issue, then, lies with the personal aspect.
A quick search of the term online yields an expected definition. “Of, affecting, or belonging to a particular person rather than to anyone else.” Scanning the results of the search uncovers additional insight to our cultural understanding and application of the word. I found other terms and ideas in the website bylines… private, user-centric, “maintained for personal use”. Personal ads for companionship seem to frequent the list. Again, none of these terms or ideas are unexpected from the search. After all, it’s personal.
But now apply them to the Christian faith.
Maintained for personal use.
SWM seeking savior who will carry through sand.
These terms don’t line up with the biblical description of a relationship with Jesus. Communal. Christ-centric. Other-centric. Maintained for God’s use. Following his footsteps rather than asking him to follow me around and pick me up in the midst of mine. Submission to the Creator of the universe according to his terms, for his purposes, for his glory alone for all eternity.
The more personal the relationship, the more likely the person has injected their own personality into the equation. The trouble with injecting a faith relationship with boatloads of personality is that our personalities are all fatally flawed. It’s a lethal injection.
The terms of a relationship with Christ are spelled out in the Scriptures. The Bible. The Word of God. The terms are completely external to ourselves. They are not entry points for negotiation, they are terms to which we must surrender. The first step is waving the white flag. There is no room for personality in the terms of the relationship. Obviously there is plenty of room for the expression of personality within the boundaries of the relationship, but on a paper diagram, this is secondary.
Perhaps a more useful term might be a biblical relationship with Jesus.
Why quibble over words? Does this really matter?
Consider one of the current diagnoses plaguing the church today: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. According to this diagnosis, God is one to whom we turn in order to do good (moralistic) and feel good (therapeutic), but we want him to stay out of our business (Deism). MTD is an unsatisfactory picture of God. His ultimate aim is not simply that we do good & feel good while he remains a cosmic spectator. His aim is surrender. Jesus, God in flesh, came to live a perfect life on our behalf, die a sacrificial death for our sin, and come intimately into our very hearts to bring the gift of life. This comes by surrender. Total and unconditional. Our doing good comes by his grace & the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Our feeling good is the result of the joy and peace we find in knowing and being known, in trial and triumph, by the One responsible for knitting together our very souls. The Lord remains transcendent (above creation – which, if left alone, leads to Deism), but he is also immanent (in creation – which, if left alone, leads to God who is experienced and defined by our feelings).
Is it possible that MTD has gained prominence, not because it is the exclusive explicit message of the church (I don’t often hear God specifically presented this way – though maybe I’m wrong!), but because the primary message of the church has been an invitation to a personal relationship, delivered to a culture that believes truth is subjective? After all, if I could design my own, personal God, he would probably look a lot like the God of MTD.
Relativism presents a unique challenge to the gospel, because the biblical terms of surrender are the same for every human who has ever lived: often simplified as 1) repent of sin (sin as defined by God, not by our opinions) and 2) trust in Jesus (the Jesus revealed in the Scriptures, not by the media or even by many of his followers). Surrender. This is why Christians are a community. We are all recipients of the same grace. On the same terms. With the same God. The ground is level at the foot of the cross.
Somewhere along the way, some folks thought this communal expression of faith in Jesus became too dogmatic. Too traditional. Too corporately expressed. The personal touch was lost. Christians sought to be part of the group rather than knowing Jesus intimately through personal surrender. So Christians did what Christians do, particularly American Christians. Rather than stopping the pendulum, they swung it hard in another direction. (The beautiful thing about a pendulum is that you can swing in 360 degrees of possibility… the frustrating fun is waiting to apprehend the next direction) The focal point became the personal relationship. Going to church isn’t enough. The faith of your family isn’t enough. It’s got to be personal. Let’s talk about Christianity in terms of the personal relationship.
The heart of the expression is correct. The over-application in the midst of cultural relativism, I believe, has been harmful.
Couple the seemingly exclusive use of the term (how often have you heard someone invite a non-believer to join the covenant community of faith?) with our cultural excitement for individuality, and you have a taste of the current nature of the personal relationship: My Jesus. My faith. My relationship. Our me culture distorts the biblical relationship by way of lethal injection.
I know what the Bible says, but my Jesus wouldn’t say that…
My relationship with God is different…
It is the opinion of this redeemed sinner that if we simply toss the personal relationship to the masses without qualification – particularly in our post-modern, post-Christian, post-everything society – we are asking every individual to come to individualized terms of what it means to know Jesus. We remove the Word of God as the authoritative source of truth, and we lead many to believe that their drive-thru, have-it-your-way relationship with God is OK.
As one who will be held to account for my stewardship of the good news, I think about issues such as these. I long for the pendulum to stop, for balance to remain. When I step to the pulpit, I pray that I might present the relationship as biblically given as though God’s Word is actually authoritative. Yes, that means talking about the holiness of God and the reality that sin is deserving of eternal judgment, clarifying that the personal aspect looks like personal surrender – not personal terms, extending the invitation without reservation to be part of the covenant community of sinners on level ground, to walk together in faith and humility under the Lordship of another who is far more deserving of the sovereignty he boasts.