Friday, June 08, 2018

What does it mean to "have a personal relationship" with Jesus?

1. What does it mean to have a "personal relationship" with Jesus? Traditionally, I think that stands in contrast to dead formalism and liturgical churches. In contrast to the notion that salvation is mediated through priesthood and sacraments. You don't experience God directly but indirectly via rites and rituals. 

In addition, it stands in contrast to salvation or fellowship with God as an essentially corporate rather than individual experience. It's your membership in the group that confers salvation or percolates fellowship with God. Once again, you don't experience God directly but indirectly through the "community of faith". 

But ironically, "having a personal relationship" with Jesus is apt to replace one formulaic piety with another formulaic piety. Still ritualistic–just a different set of rituals, viz. the altar call, sinner's prayer.

2. Here's another perspective:

When I think back to the “ethos” of that American evangelicalism of the 1950s and 1960s one thing stands out to me as mostly missing in contemporary American evangelicalism—a fervent, passionate experience of intimacy with Jesus. Maybe that wasn’t true of all evangelicals, but it seemed so to me. Everywhere I turned in that evangelical world the one thing that stood out above all else was Jesus as not only lord and savior but also as friend.

“Friendship with Jesus, fellowship divine. O what blessed sweet communion, Jesus is a friend of mine” and “He’s a faithful friend, such a faithful friend; I can count on him, to the very end….” I could go on and on and on with the songs we sang in church (especially on Sunday evenings) and at YFC “rallies” and at summer “Bible camp” and that I heard on Christian radio which was always the background noise in our home—with my stepmother singing along or humming the songs to herself.

Jesus was a living presence in our home and the center of attention in every church service. People talked about Jesus a lot when they sat around tables in the church fellowship hall. “How is it between you and Jesus?” was a frequent question—especially if someone had a “downcast countenance.” Testimonies of Jesus’s faithful friendship and help in times of trouble and need were frequent. “Jesus will walk with me down through life’s valley; Jesus will walk with me over life’s plane…if he goes with me I shall not complain” and “Where Jesus is, ‘tis heaven there….”

Although I could not see him with my physical eyes, I knew Jesus was among us and with me—all the time and everywhere. And his presence was one of love and compassion as well as disappointment when I sinned.

The ideal of that possibly lost evangelical Christianity was something beyond discipleship; it was real friendship with Jesus. Discipleship was part of that. But above discipleship was friendship, intimacy, close fellowship, presence of Jesus in the day-to-day rhythms of life. I will dare to say that without something like this friendship with Jesus, discipleship is just duty and drudgery.

Where has that experience gone? I’m not talking about in my own personal life; I still experience it—even if I find it mostly absent in contemporary church life. But I have trouble noticing it as an emphasis in contemporary American evangelical life. It seems that we have put Jesus up on a pedestal which is not bad, of course, but does he ever come down? Do we encourage children and youth especially to experience him as living, dynamic, compassionate, guiding, comforting presence in daily life?
One aspect of that Jesus-centered evangelical Christianity was an emphasis on the name of Jesus. “Jesus is the sweetest name I know” and “Precious name, O how sweet, hope of earth and joy of heaven, precious name….” 

For some of you out there this all sounds foreign and strange, even weird. I understand that and yet I don’t—if you consider yourself evangelical in any sense of the word...Some will consider this sentimental clap-trap and that doesn’t bother me—anymore.

The problem with that paradigm is twofold:

i) This isn't actually experiencing the presence of Jesus in your life from day to day. Rather, it's make-believe. A conditioned feeling by constantly hearing and singing music about having a personal relationship with Jesus. The lyrics are an ersatz substitute for the experience. There's a fundamental difference between singing about an experience and having the experience you sing about. That's a way to cultivate the feeling that Jesus is present, but it's a psychological projection. Constantly telling yourself that's the case. 

ii) In addition, what many Christians actually experience is the apparent absence of God, especially in time of crisis. They desperately pray for divine intervention, but nothing happens. A piety based on hymns and choruses about having an intimate relationship with Jesus when that's put to the test during a personal ordeal. It's spiritually hazardous because it fosters a false expectation. What's there when the music stops? What's there to back up the lyrics? While the music promises a tangible presence, there's nothing tangible to fall back on when the edifying lyrics collide with unedifying reality. 

I'm not saying God never intervenes. In addition, what may seem pointless at the time, what may seem like divine abandonment at the time, can take on providential significance in retrospect. But the kind of gauzy spirituality that Olson hankers for can set up Christians for a crisis of faith when the promised experience amounts to a broken promise. Sometimes devotional music promises too much but delivers too little. 

3. Here's another viewpoint:

And then you have community. Community is incredibly important and then you have – like in so many faiths, you have a shared sociology. You have a shared history and so there are many elements that go into the Jewish worldview. Now in the Jewish religion, there are really only two major parts to it. It’s actually simple. One is belief and the other is practice. Now for a lot of evangelicals, a lot of Christians, belief is always the most important thing. And when we think about practice, we think about living out the gospel in the way that we treat one another, the way we treat the poor, the way we are stewards of our stuff, and et cetera. Jewish people, that’s not exactly what Jewish people mean by practice. You have belief, which has to do with your view of God, man, the future, the Bible, everything else, but most Jewish people done spend a lot of time on that. It’s not emphasized really in Judaism.

The question is how do they feel personally. Even though we are part of the people of God, if they’re adherent to the Jewish religion in some form, you don’t think about that as much. You don’t think about your personal relationship with God and you think about your corporate relationship with God. But Jewish people do not believe we need to get saved because there’s nothing wrong with our being born the first time. It sounds like a little bit of John 3 there and so this is really critical. A lot of Christians have a completely missed understanding of why Jewish people keep the law. Jewish people do not keep the law to get saved. Jewish people keep the law out of joy and out of a desire to simply be obedient. And you even have the understanding you’re gonna get forgiven for things you didn’t get forgiven of before, but it’s not for personal salvation. 

i) That definitely sharpens the contrast. If you think that you, as an individual, are at risk of damnation, then it's all-important to get right with God. In that case it's crucial that God be concerned with individuals; that God be concerned with what's going on in your life. Does God care you? Does he care about what happens to you? Well, if you're not in danger, there's nothing to worry about. The particular becomes urgent when your destiny is riding on how God views you and you view him. 

ii) And even apart from eternal salvation, people often find themselves at a crossroads where they're very isolated and vulnerable. For years they've be coasting, when it suddenly hits them how terribly alone they really are and always were. It finally caught up with them. The world is indifferent. People pass out of their lives. It's all so transient. When people feel lost, the question of whether there's a God, a God who takes an interest in individuals, becomes paramount.  

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