When I was young I would go to camp or a youth service where I was told that what I needed was a personal relationship with Jesus. It made a kind of sense as a lot of things do for children because I was still relying on other people to teach me how to make sense of things. So I agreed, with no regrets.
However, I happen to be the kind of person, and have been since childhood, to throw myself headlong into the task at hand whatever it may be. So I was bound and determined to have the most personal relationship with Jesus a person could have. This is a dangerous prayer. The trouble began when I took it so seriously it started to take my life in some surprising if not shocking directions that none of my youth pastors had anticipated. As life pushed me a little further along and I had to start asking different questions: Is everyone at the Grammys who thanks God a Christian? Do gays and lesbians only think they have a personal relationship with Jesus, but can’t because they are gay? If anyone, like gays and lesbians, can be deceived, how do I know if I have a, “personal relationship?” Ack. Exhausting.
That just opened the floodgates of the questions. As the phrase that is widely accepted in the American religious culture as the litmus test of faith, it seemed to make increasingly less sense to me. I couldn’t even find that phrase in Scripture or in centuries of early Christian theology and devotions that said anything like a “personal relationship.” I did find out some other stuff. It was stuff that initially troubled me deeply.
In North American culture we say, “Don’t ask me that, that is personal.” Or we say, ” Let’s try to keep that a personal matter.” The word, ‘personal,’ as I understood it meant ‘private.‘ The Bible and the Church founders were telling me ssomething different. I read that being a Christian had implications for every part of my life: sex, money, food, time, love, desire, respect, and even forgiveness. As it happens, the most personal stuff is not the stuff that happens inside us, but between. Make no mistake, Jesus wants to get into the middle of our relationships. Here is some of the Bible stuff:
Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. I John 4
The most personal things in life, the stuff that cuts deepest, is the stuff that happens in relationships. That also means that the most personal stuff of life is where we have the least control. Unlike a private faith, a truly personal faith necessarily loses hold of the reigns of exactly how life will unfold.
A private faith is fairly safe. We can so easily deceive ourselves or just cleverly disregard the parts of God we do not care for. We become consumers picking and choosing from our list of tastes of what role we want God to play in our lives. A private faith is a controlled faith. A controlled faith is an oxymoron.
As a Christian I can not make use of religion for my own good. My faith is always at the service of others including and especially my enemies. I am more or less limited to the kinds of means that Jesus used, and those means are personal: heal the sick, confront evil, persuade, feed the hungry, comfort the hurting, clothe the naked, pray, teach, and -God help us- forgive. The works of mercy are as personal as one can get. And we know where it got Jesus. Surely we are out of control.
This is why things like private prayer, silence, study, reflection and meditation are still so essential. I am going to have to know as much of God as I can from this story both to live this well and have the strength and courage to go on. The section of Scripture I quoted above from I John actually starts by saying in the previous verse, “We love because God first loved us.” In the gospel of John, Jesus says, “Here is how people will know you are my disciples, by the way you love.”
So do I have a personal relationship with Jesus? Well, hm. …You tell me.
This post is part of the Faith for Reasons series.