Pastor's Blog

Evangelicalism tends to call people to “a personal relationship with Jesus”.
The main concern of the gospel presentation is personal:  your eternal destiny.  Are you going to heaven or hell?  Are you going to ask Jesus to rescue you?
When you pray and ask Jesus to rescue you, the resulting relationship is personal.
So is the resulting “religion”.  Everything is highly individualized.
You have “personal devotions”.  Private Bible reading.  Private prayer.  You can worship Jesus if you want, when you want, and however you want.
Connection with others might be desirable, but it’s optional.  Your relationship with Jesus is personal.  Others aren’t in on it and don’t need to be.  Connection with others, accountability to others, working toward a goal with others – that’s all optional.  If you find it fulfilling – connect with others.  If not – you still have your personal relationship with Jesus and that’s what REALLY matters.

That’s very American because individualism is very American.  But I don’t think these ideas represent at all what Christianity was intended to be.

God always builds a covenant relationship with a group of people.
It is difficult for spiritual growth to take place in isolation from others.
It is not good for man (or woman) to be alone.  (And God said this when he and Adam had a “personal relationship”;  Adam was still seen as being alone and in need of others.)
The greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all that you are – but Jesus insisted on connecting a second commandment to it and said that commandment was “like” the first: love your neighbor as you love yourself.
By this will all men know that you are my disciples – if you have love for one another.

Love, by default, requires interaction with other people.

When God created the nation of Israel, He gave them the law – governing how they were to be a good and godly society amidst ancient near eastern culture;  governing not only how they lived toward God but how they lived with respect to one another.  And God wanted to dwell in the midst of them.  He was the center and the core, the hub of life, that directed all other relationships.  It wasn’t optional.  The entire design was oriented to that purpose.

When God created the church, He gave us the new covenant and writes the law on our hearts – not so we can feel spiritual, but so that we can obey and do what is right and be a "right society".  God dwells in OUR midst – not just in MY heart.  It is when the church is gathered that there He is in the midst of US.

The church is not merely a philanthropic organization that raises money for the poor or an institutionalized corporation that produces self-help and child-care products that you purchase and use at your leisure -- a "spirituality mall".  The church, each church, is supposed to be a society in and of itself, a sort of counter-culture standing for the things of God even when the surrounding culture doesn’t.  The church is supposed to be a society bound together by a common commitment to Jesus Christ.  We Christians are related to one another by what we believe.  We are related by commitment to the same truths that come from the one true God.

The church is supposed to be a society that wants God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven, and it is supposed to be the society that strives to do that now – in preparation for the society that heaven will one day be.

We are supposed to be committed to Christ – and to the group.  God works on the individuals in the group through the interactions and functions of the group.  Luncheons and picnics and Sunday school programs and AWANA and worship teams aren’t just functions and events in themselves.  Each one is an opportunity for differing people to work together – and more importantly, to learn how to work together – to learn how to be patient with and put up with people who are different from you, who do things differently than you do, who have different expectations and understandings.  The interaction is supposed to broaden us if we are too narrow and focus us if we are too broad.  We influence and build each other -- and we are open to being influenced and built as well as building and influencing.

This is what love does and it is how the "believing society", the Bride, is formed.  The Spirit of the loving husband, Jesus, flows from Him and through the connections of the body of the Bride.  As her members grow in love, he is “sanctifying her” – teaching her, showing her, making her holy – “so that he might [eventually] present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, so that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5.26-27).  This is why He gave himself for her (Ephesians 5.25)!

When you remove yourself from this connection to others – when you refuse to connect, when you disconnect, when you quit, when you give up – thinking that’s acceptable because all that matters is your personal relationship with Jesus – you remove yourself from the locus where He does all of his work.

If you cut your finger off, it doesn’t grow.  It dies.  For me, that illustrates the importance of covenant relationship.  For thirty-plus years of ministry I have been trying to convey this concept.  I have found it an almost insurmountable task to overcome the idea of personal relationship with Jesus.  Evangelical is thoroughly American, and American culture is thoroughly individualized – and just seems to struggle with the idea of being a church rather than going to a church. 

Many of my other ideals I have abandoned or altered for the sake of connection with other people.  But this ideal – covenant relationship -- is so much the core of the biblical message that I cannot bring myself to let it go.  We won’t reach it in this life, but I will fight to see as much of it as possible realized until my dying day.

Some people think I don’t believe you can have “personal experiences” with Jesus.  I don’t deny that you can.  I’m only saying that (a) a relationship with God through Christ is built, not on personal experiences with the person of Jesus but on a personal commitment of faith to the Christ presented in the gospel message and (b) one’s personal experience has little meaning apart from whatever personal benefit one derives from it. 

God’s “relationship” with humanity is depicted more regularly as a relationship with a group of people.  In the OT, God related to Israel.  The constant refrain through the Scriptures is “I will be your God and you will be My people.”  Likewise, in the NT, the relationship is between Christ and the Church.  Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her.

It’s not that each Christian individually is the bride of Christ.  WE ALL TOGETHER are the Bride of Christ.  Individually we are depicted as body parts of the Bride;  none of us alone, in isolation, is the Bride.  So I don’t say that I love my wife’s gall bladder.  I love my wife -- ­as a whole person.  The parts are loved as I love the whole.  The same is true of God relating to His people.

Some protest that the Bible depicts God’s relationship as a marriage, and what relationship could be more personal than that? 

But that is a modern view of marriage being read back into the Bible.  Though there certainly could have been personal aspects to marriage in both the ancient near East and the Roman world, marriage itself was more like a contractual agreement that clarified the legitimacy of children and rights to inheritance.  Arranged marriages worked more like a contract.  Feelings had little to do with it.  You kept your part of the bargain because it was your responsibility, your obligation, and your duty to do so.  Having romantic feelings for your partner was irrelevant.  If there were warm feelings – well, so much the better for you!  But warm feelings weren’t required to make the marriage a legitimate marriage – or even a good marriage.

Perhaps our failure to understand this truth is why marriage is so damaged an institution today?  We build everything on our feelings – our inner experiences.  People feel romantic and have sex, enjoy it, and move in together.  Nothing obligates them to stay together.  They do so if they feel like it, or until they tire of each other or until they develop feelings for someone else.  Then they move out, often leaving behind not only a broken heart – but broken children – who are then passed around to be cared for as though they are finger foods on an appetizer tray.  We live by our feelings and experiences – our ever undulating and transient romantic feelings – and I think we’ve lost something precious in doing so, something that is more solid and stable when the role is given to a sense of responsibility and dutiful obligation.

When God depicts His relationship with Israel and Christ’s with the Church, it’s depicted as a marriage covenant – a contractual agreement in which God promises to provide certain benefits and prescribes certain behaviors and His people as a body agree to love, honor, and obey Him.  The obedience demonstrates the love and honor.  Failure to obey is a failure to love and honor. 

“And by this we know that we have come to know him – if we keep his commandments.  Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected.” (1 John 2.3-5a)

In the Old Testament God gives the nation of Israel the law.  That’s the covenant relationship.  The history of Israel is a history of violation of that covenant and those violations – even non-sexual violations like mistreating orphans and widows -- are depicted by the prophets as the nation’s fornication, adultery, and prostitution.  She cheated on her covenant partner.

So God made a new covenant (Jeremiah 31.31-32).  Hebrews says it is a new and better covenant with new and better promises, not so individuals will have experiences that make them feel loved and special, but so that they – as a people – would be made more obedient.

“And I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36.27)

Obedience to God’s terms is what is important in a relationship with God.  All the mystical experiences in the world mean nothing without obedience.

Many of my evangelical friends who emphasize “having a personal relationship with Jesus” are not sure what to make of me when I downplay “having a personal relationship with Jesus”.  All I can ask is that you hear me out.

Proverbs 14.10 says:  "The heart knows its own bitterness and no stranger shares its joy."  The simple truth there is that your internal feelings and experiences are yours and yours alone.  Only you can know them and understand them.  No “stranger” to you – someone who is not you – can say they perfectly understand.  Because your experience is yours – and mine is mine.  And we can never be sure that our experiences are identical.  We can’t crawl inside each other’s skins.  To some extent, we are islands isolated from each other in the enormous ocean of the universe.

Since we can’t exhaustively compare experiences, it makes it difficult to assess each other’s experiences.  If you say you’ve had an experience with Jesus – far be it from me to deny it.  I don’t know what you’ve experienced.  Maybe it was genuine and maybe it wasn’t.  I can’t judge what went on nor can I interpret it for you.  I can only decide how I am going to understand it and how I am going to respond to it.

Personal feelings and experiences of God may be important to you.  But they are difficult to use as building blocks for relationships with others.  You experience them in isolation.  So, when someone tells me they were discouraged and then suddenly felt the presence of Jesus as they prayed, and they felt encouraged to go on – what am I to say?  Maybe it was from God;  maybe it wasn’t.  What matters is that you did the right thing and moved beyond your discouragement.

Well and good.  But what of the person who tells you that in their morning devotions that Jesus confirmed their feelings that they should abandon their marriage?   Or that they felt the presence of Jesus approving their sexual perversion?  Or that Jesus told them to abandon their children?  Over the years well-meaning Christians have expressed all these things to me on various occasions.  So what do I say to them – that it was born of their personal relationship with Jesus and therefore it must be true???

I don’t believe the Lord would command us to do what He expressly forbids.  Were these wonderful experiences from God because they felt so warm and personal?  Or might they have been self-generated (for self-justification), or worse, born of darker powers?  The devil is a spirit, as are his minions, and experiences with him are spiritual as well.  Paul depicts the enemy as “dark” and as “angels of light”.  Just because a spiritual experience feels good doesn’t mean it is. 

I can’t pass final judgment on your experience;  but I can tell you that if your personal relationship with Jesus affirms disobedience to God, you’d be wise to question your experience.  Your experience might work as an authority for you, but it carries no weight with those who are “strangers” to your heart (Proverbs 14.10).  At least it shouldn’t when it opposes God’s commands.

But if our respective “personal relationships with Jesus” are the most important thing, then our experiences can’t be judged by anything – including God’s Word.  My personal experience becomes the authority for me and yours becomes the authority for you.  Nothing can be shared among us.  That way, I believe, lies madness.

The apostle Paul never denied people’s spiritual experiences.  Nor did he pass judgment on their origins.  But he did pass judgment on the truthfulness and usefulness of personal experiences.  His counsel to the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 12-14) was that unless your experience can be used to strengthen others, it serves no practical purpose to anyone but yourself.    

Good for you. You had an experience.  So what?  The hallmark of Christianity is not glorying in personal spiritual experiences but acting in love toward others (John 13.35; 1 Corinthians 13).  Deeds that bless others are spiritual and are what really matter in the Christian church.  Making a big deal of your own “experiences with God” for their own sake Paul treats as spiritual immaturity and arrogance (cf. also 2 Corinthians 12.1-10) – the opposite of love.

That’s enough for this bite-sized chapter.  Chew on it, and I’ll cut another forkful next week.  😊

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