C-File #97: On Relationships with God
October 30, 2003
(Note: The following C-File was presented at chapel on October 30, 2003, in London at the HUE Program. Because I knew I was going to be reading my devotional thought, I made sure to mark to make eye contact with the audience at key points.)
Ever since I was old enough to pay attention to an entire sermon without daydreaming about flying hippos, that is, sometime last April, I've noticed that the word "relationship" feels overused a bit, by which I mean to say, a whole heck of a lot. They say it all the time. Sermons, Sunday School lessons, devotional thoughts inspired by random garden implements, you name it. The words "close, personal relationship with God" will most likely end up in there somehow. (make eye contact with audience)
A relationship with God is to be our number one priority, they say. It is the most important thing ever. It is our sole reason for existence. It is VERY important, so important that nobody should be surprised if the Bible were filled with verses which read "And the Lord spake saying thou shalt have a relationship with thy God," as opposed to the actual number of times the word "relationship" shows up in the Bible, that is, zero.* A relationship with God is extremely important, they say. Quite frankly, I believe them. (make eye contact with audience)
I believe them a lot. A relationship with God is very important. It's just that, well, to be honest, I'm not always exactly sure what the word "relationship" is supposed to mean. The preachers I've heard weren't exactly forthcoming with further explanations either. They would say, "Go have a relationship. now!" and then act as if that settled everything, instead of opening a giant can labelled "WORMS" and dumping it all over my lap. I believe people when they say that a relationship with God is vital as well as important, but what the heck am I supposed to do about that? I want the worms back in the can.
The answer is clearly not to turn to 90's pop culture. So let's turn to 90's pop culture and see what sort of answers it yields. When the average teenager, whose name is invariably Jennifer, hears the word "relationship," that word sails into her ear carrying excess quantities of baggage, most of them related to, well, boy-girl stuff. That is, after all, what the word "relationship" means in a secular context. It is all about spending massive quantities of time with a member of the opposite sex, to the exclusion of studying and, on occasion, breathing. So, when the word "relationship" is not explained from the pulpit, we are left to turn to our meager understanding of the word from our culture, and the results aren't pretty.
I am not making up the following logical thought pattern, which I have heard in sermons numerous times. We are talking at least three times here. Step one in this thought pattern is to say that a relationship with God is vital as well as important. This is a piece of established, unquestionable dogma. Step two is to ask what that means. Step three is to answer oneself with "Let's find out," because it is a rhetorical question. Step four is to say, "Well, what do you do when you want to strengthen your relationship with another person?" Step five is to say, "Spend five hours on the phone with them nightly, talking about nothing, but refusing to hang up for fear that, if your phone conversation is one minute shorter than the previous evening's, the person on the other end of the line does not really love you." Step six is to say, "Well, what's the spiritual equivalent of lengthy, mushy phone conversations?" The answer is, naturally, prayer and Bible study. (make eye contact with audience)
Are these people wrong to recommend prayer and Bible study? Of course not. But there is a subtle fallacy there. We all agree that a relationship with God is the most important thing in all of existence. If a relationship is nothing but prayer and Bible study, that suggests that prayer and Bible study are the most important things in all of existence, and from my own personal understanding of scripture, I would call that into question.
Our cultural mindset tells us that the word "relationship" is all about two people to the exclusion of all others. If a boyfriend and girlfriend are in a relationship, that means they are deepening their knowledge of each other, as opposed to, for example, the garbageman or Jay Leno. Therefore, when we apply the word "relationship" to our understanding of God, we begin to see our relationship as something very one-dimensional, with God at the top (indicate with hand gestures where appropriate), you at the bottom, and a little line in between, with no garbageman or Jay Leno to be found. We know we should come to know God better every day, and surely that means prayer, Bible study, and heartfelt personal worship, accompanied with lots of warm fuzzies. We hear deep, personal relationship and we hear private relationship, because that's what we have been conditioned to think.
All of these things are good and necessary, but they are not the end of the story. We understand that a relationship with God means knowing God, but how do we know when we know God? I John gives us a clue, by which I mean, the definitive answer. I John 2:3-6: "We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says 'I know him' but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But if anyone obeys his word, God's love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did."
What are these commands that John tells us about? Well, he tells us later on, in 3:11: "This is the message you have heard from the beginning: We should love one another." And in 16: "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers." Jesus himself said that the greatest commands are love God with everything you are and, second, love your neighbor as you love yourself, which is just like it, that is, essentially the same thing.
These verses, as well as numerous others, indicate to me that if we really know God, we will love our brothers. A relationship with God is therefore not a one-dimensional concept, but a two-dimensional, or possibly three, or however many dimensions it takes to draw a diagram in which you love your brother. They tell us to have a "close, personal relationship" with God. The fact is that the closer and more personal your relationship is with God, the more you will share that relationship openly with others, in your love, and in all its qualities - in your patience, in your kindness, in your humility, in your gentleness, in your selflessness, in your self-control, in your forgiveness, in your trust and hope and perseverance. If you know God, you will love others. If you do not love others, you do not know God. You cannot have a private relationship with God. It is an oxymoron.
Prayer, study, and personal worship are means to an end, not ends unto themselves. So have a relationship with God. Have it, and translate it into the life that God wants you to have, into the nature that God wants you to assume, into the works that God wants you to accomplish. Galatians 5:6: "The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." (make eye contact with audience)
*Actually, you can see the popularity of the word "relationship" increase in translations as they become more modern. KJV and ASV use the word zero times, NASV uses it once, NIV uses it 4 times (but only once when speaking about man's relationship to God), and the Message uses it a whopping 24 times.