Friday, March 13, 2015

Should you have a "personal relationship" with Jesus?

It's often said that many men are turned off by church because many churches have become too feminine in terms of sermon content, "praise songs," and the like. In the same vein, I wonder how many men find the phrase about "having a personal relationship with Jesus" off-putting. 

Of course, the fact that something is off-putting doesn't make it wrong. But this isn't a Biblical formulation.

To be sure, a concept can be present absent a particular form of words. But is this "relational" language Biblical?

In fact, this is more than just a popular evangelical phrase. It's becoming a theological paradigm: relational theology–in contrast to Reformed theology and/or classical theism.

In fairness, I believe the "personal relationship" slogan was introduced to counter nominal Christianity or ritual piety. The notion that we relate to God primarily through the sacraments, or liturgy, or that church attendance makes you a Christian. It's a corrective to that outlook. 

But an on obvious problem with the "personal relationship" language is that it has the wrong connotations. Take a recent illustration by William Lane Craig:

You don’t communicate with another person through a third-person relationship. You enter into what has been called an “I-thou” relationship. You speak to another person, not just about that person. Your girlfriend or wife would be decidedly unimpressed if you rationalized never telling her “I love you” on the grounds that she already knows that! Anybody that obtuse is on his way to a break-up! Two people who are in love with each other want to speak to each other, to build an intimate relationship with each other.

A "personal relationship" has romantic connotations. Boyfriend/girlfriend, husband/wife.

At least in my experience, normal men wouldn't use "I want a personal relationship" in any context other than a romantic relationship. It's not something they'd normally say in reference to their father, mother, sister, brother, son, or daughter.

Imagine if one teenage boy told another teenage boy: "Ryan, I want to have a personal relationship with you!"

That's just not how two straight males communicate with each other. Even if the teenager in question wants to be friends with Ryan, that's certainly not how he'd put it. 

Also, many men express affection less by what they say to others than what they do for others. Love in action rather than love in words. Even if they want a personal relationship with a woman, this doesn't mean that's what they'd say to her. 

The incongruity is compounded by the fact that Jesus isn't God in the abstract, but God as male. The Son became Incarnate as a man.

We have that mental image of Jesus. To tell a normal man that he should have a "personal relationship with Jesus," when "Jesus" naturally evokes the image of an adult male, cuts against grain of how God created men to think about other men–at least in colloquial English parlance. 

Although Scripture uses marital theological metaphors, these are corporate metaphors. They were not designed to operate at an individual, one-on-one level. 

Another problem with that lingo is that God isn't ordinarily available to Christians in that tangible, audiovisual respect. God won't hug you. 

That linguistic conditioning can accentuate a sense of divine abandonment if you expect God to "be there" for you. It's not so much that God is absent in times of trial. For God was never present in that sense in the first place. It isn't physical. 

Up to a point, I don't think it's wrong for Christian men and women to have different ways of "relating" to God. Men and women are psychologically different from each other. A metaphor that's suited to one sex may be less suitable to the opposite sex. The problem is when a feminine paradigm gets imposed on men. That rankles. 


  1. It is also interesting how the NPP sort of comes at it from this angle as in relationship = covenant and vice versa, as opposed to the idea of reconciling a law breaker or someone really deep in debt. Covenant is there but they don't seem to explain (other than Tom Holland and some others) that it is also a 'covenant law' which has been transgressed. Michael Bird in his Evangelical Theology also keeps saying that Adam broke a relationship not a law. This is true but a false dichotomy. How was this relationship broken? He transgressed a command! The relationship is far more than one between friends but between God and man, something I don't think broad evangelicalism or the NPP incorporate.

  2. Most men express love for each other by doing something together. There's a very practical aspect to the relationship, though reaching conclusions based on that should be tempered with the understanding that the way we relate to each other is only loosely analogous to the way we relate to God. There is a sense in which men bond by deriding each other that simply doesn't seem appropriate with God. Many men in the course of doing something together can remain perfectly silent for long periods of time. Perhaps that's where many of us get our prayer lives and may be a point where we can learn something valuable from women.

    So I think it is a mistake to try to relate to God the same way that we relate to each other. Perhaps that was what part of the purpose was behind the incarnation of Christ, but I suggest that if we stop with Christ's physical nature when relating with God then we behave practically as though we are some kind of monophysite. Though indwelt with the Holy Spirit such as to experience some level of intimacy with him, we necessarily must recognize God's transcendent otherness in relating to him appropriately.

  3. I dunno. I think it's very important Biblically speaking for people to clearly understand that everyone has "a personal relationship with Jesus" for better, or for worse. He's either one's Savior, or else one's Judge at the personal, individual level, and there's no escaping this reality.

    1. You can say that he's either your Savior or your Judge without any reference to having "a personal relationship with Jesus." Indeed, that's far more specific, far more informative, than having "a personal relationship with Jesus.

    2. I agree that "a personal relationship with Jesus" can be a vague slogan. It does in a sense speak to a desire that the Holy Spirit can awaken in the heart. A desire to be closer to the God who is drawing us closer. I agree that the formulation that you have identified is more accurate and Biblical. Hopefully, the less accurate "slogan" is discarded as we grow in maturity and righteousness through His mercy and grace.

    3. I don't disagree with your formulation, my thinking on the subject is along the contours of shaking sinners out of their false sense of autonomy.

      Although anecdotal, in my experience because of their false sense of autonomy many, if not most unbelievers think of "a relationship with Jesus" (however they may formulate what the phrase might mean) is entirely optional. One may choose or reject "a relationship with Jesus".

      Because of the ubiquity of the slogan, at least in American evangelicalism, there's a built in "brand awareness". Most folks have heard it, and for most folks it's something they probably realize they don't have. They don't think they have any type of discernable "relationship with Jesus".

      So to me there's rhetorical capital already in the bank to be drawn upon by surprising rebel sinners with the news that they do indeed have a deeply personal and inescapable "relationship with Jesus" as outlined in my comment above with the intent of attacking their false autonomy.

      I'm not suggesting this is normative, I'm just saying that I've personally employed this type of reasoning during evangelistic conversations when the discussion went in such a direction and I've seen the surprise register on folks' faces when confronted with the extent of Christ's claim upon their lives, even as unbelievers who believe in their false autonomy that they are the "decider" as to whom they choose to enter into a relationship with, when in fact there is an absolutely sovereign Creator and Judge of the universe with Whom they have to do, Who is angry with them every day, Whose blood of the covenant they trample under foot daily, and Whose Spirit they thereby outrage.

      And they think they don't "have a relationship with Jesus"? Wrong. Dead wrong.

    4. Spot on: the covenant defines the relationship. Gets rid of girl-talk but is undercut by the church's homoerotic hymns like "Fairest Lord Jesus" or the infamous "I come to the garden alone." Barf....

    5. Just curious steve, what's your exegetical take on the Song of Solomon?

    6. I think it's about romantic love.

    7. Me too. Some commentators have also applied Song of Songs to Christ and His love for the church. I 'm not suggesting this is valid or invalid, but it's not a novel concept. One might argue this is corporate language as touching the church (bride / bridegroom), and there is that dimension certainly, but Paul also exults in Christ loving him and giving Himself for him which is deeply personal and intimate language.

      I wonder how much we may have lost culturally with regard to deeply loving masculine relationships such as David and Jonathan. Surely Christ's love surpasses the love of women.

      It's probably to our poverty that we shrink back from the kind of passionate agape love that God displays in His Word, and demonstrated so clearly in the Person and work of Christ Jesus.

      The Apostle whom Christ loved rested his head on Jesus' chest as they reclined at the table. I hope no Christian would view this type of affection as homoerotic.

      I guess I'm just not convinced about the impropriety of the "personal relationship with Jesus", or the need to jettison it from the Christian lexicon. Certainly some clarity and definition of terms would be helpful, but this generally applies to all sorts of communication.

      Just my two cents worth.

  4. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

    1. That's a good verse, Alex. What is in question here, however, is whether that knowledge implies the kind of relational knowledge that came into vogue in the romantic period and that pervades Western thought to this day. The alternative I think is more the kind of knowledge that John talks about, particularly in his first letter, where he often writes things like "I write this so that you may know that you have eternal life" or "by this we may know that we are in him". This kind of knowledge necessarily entails "fellowship" and "joy" (1:3-4), but these concepts were a little different in pre-romantic times. So it's more of a "how do I know these things are true" versus a "let's develop a better relationship with God" kind of mentality. I suggest that too many people are getting to know God better relationally without knowing the true God in the first place. That's a dangerous place to be.