I learned, at the church where I came to faith in Christ and was baptized, that being a Christian meant having a personal relationship with Jesus. That is, being a real Christian meant having that relationship – as opposed to nominal Christians for whom Christianity meant going to church, doing good works, and believing certain doctrines, but they either didn’t understand or didn’t care about the reality of salvation through putting one’s personal trust in Jesus as Savior.
So I learned to say I had such a relationship, and to believe it, even if it felt nothing like having a personal relationship. I envied those Christians who did seem to experience such a relationship, and spoke of Jesus as a close Friend. I spent a good deal of time worrying that I wasn’t really a Christian at all, since if I were I would have such a relationship. What good was a relationship that I knew I had only because I had been taught that I did?
Those weren’t doubts I voiced regularly, however. Only rarely, with people I had come to trust, did I mention such things. In my early twenties, I fell in love with a man at church and within a few months he asked me to marry him. Shortly after that, wanting to be fully honest with my husband-to-be, I admitted those doubts. He promptly broke up with me, explaining that he wanted to be a deacon in the church someday, and he needed to marry someone who could be a good deacon’s wife.
I eventually learned to live with such doubts without letting them trouble me so much. Jesus said that whoever came to him, he would not drive away (John 6:37). I came to him, and whatever the reason that I do not have the same experience as my Christian friends, it wasn’t because God rejected me.
But every once in a while it does still bother me. Like this morning, when I read something on the Web that talked about getting rid of religious baggage, all the lists of do’s and don’ts and rituals and church activities that get in the way of what really matters, which is one’s relationship with Jesus Christ. I wondered if maybe somehow I really had missed something essential to Christianity, and asked Jesus that if I had, to please show me the right way.
I’ve had lots of conversations with lots of people about it over the years – friends, pastors, counselors. When I was a young Christian, the answer was often to try saying the “sinner’s prayer” again, just to be sure. Later, I was more likely to hear that there was some sin in my life I needed to repent of and forsake, or else that it was the devil trying to make me doubt.
This morning I tried doing a search on the internet, not really expecting to find an answer that way, but wanting to do something. But with all the zillions of pages about faith on the Web, from a simple “how to be saved” to an atheist’s reasons not to believe, what kind of search terms could I enter in google to find something helpful?
Remarkably, I found something within the top 20 hits (I googled the words relationship Jesus don’t feel). This essay (by a theology professor at a seminary in the Philippines) presents the use of “relationship with Jesus” vocabulary as an accommodation to the secular value of making religion “useful” (by giving people something satisfying in return for their faith). Suk quotes from someone who traces this emphasis on relationship to the rise of modern science, which seemed to depersonalize the world. I had previously read that it (the emphasis on a personal relationship) was a reaction against forms of religion which required only an outward show of piety and did not require heartfelt personal commitment.
Probably both had considerable influence. In any case, people found comfort in the sense of a personal relationship with God. Unlike Suk, I do not see the language of relationship opposed to the language of conversion, as every church I have been in that talks about a relationship with Jesus emphasizes that it comes only by conversion. And in churches that emphasize the need for conversion, I would hope that the tendency toward idolatry (in imagining God the way you want Him to be in your cozy relationship) is far less (though a temptation to all of us to some degree).
Still, I do like his recommendation to speak of “having faith in Jesus” instead of “having a personal relationship with Jesus.” I do not doubt the friends who have told me they have experiences of Jesus as Friend that are even more real and intimate than their experiences with flesh-and-blood friends. God relates to us in different ways, and while that does not mean that any way we think we relate to Him is as good as another, it does mean that we will have distinct experiences that others will not have.
So in whatever sense I may “have a personal relationship with Jesus,” it is not an experiential one. I do sometimes imagine conversations with Him, but I am very much aware that it is my imagination, and while I believe God works through our imagination, it is also notoriously prone to flights of fancy which bear little relation to reality. So no matter how comforting I occasionally find my imagined conversations, I do not let myself think that they constitute a relationship, only one means by which I share my thoughts with God and try to “listen” for any insights into my situation.