Pastor's Blog

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.  😊

God said and did things in the world in Jesus Christ.  Then through special witnesses (the apostles) God sent out a message to the world that consisted of
                (1) A recounting of what Jesus said and did – His miracles, His teachings, and most importantly, His death and resurrection and . . .
                (2) An explanation of what these things mean – that Jesus is not just a good teacher but the appointed king and judge of the final, the Christ;  that Jesus’ death was not merely a Roman execution, but was the appointed sacrifice for the sins of the world; and that Jesus resurrection means that He is still alive and will someday return, rid the world of the enemies of all that is right, and finalize God’s kingdom on the earth – a place and a time where what God wants will be what everyone wants.

God calls people to believe these things – and that means            
                (1)  Affirm that you believe them to be true and  
                (2)  Entrust yourself to the truth of those truths, i.e. live as though you believe they are real.

The choice to believe that way (and to continue believing and living that way) is faith.  And faith, evangelicals preach, is personal.  Neither your parents nor godparents nor your minister can believe on your behalf.  Every person, every soul, must personally make that choice to believe.

The Bible doesn’t use the personal terminology – personal faith, personal Savior, personal relationship with God.  Evangelicals added it to distinguish the saving faith of genuine individual commitment to Christ from empty lip-service to nominal religion.  And I believe that is correct.

But once the terminology of the “personal” was introduced, it seems it took on a life of its own.  People imported other aspects of the meaning of personal into their view of their relationship to God.  They started to think of their personal relationship with their personal Savior to be no different from their personal relationships with any of their personal friends.  It's personal and private -- just you and Jesus, and the cluster of experiences and interactions and feelings between you.

Since a personal relationship with friends means personal interaction with them, that, it is assumed, must be what a relationship with Jesus is.  He walks with you and talks with you along life’s narrow way.  You talk and He talks back.  You bare your heart and He bares His.  Some believe they hear Jesus’ voice responding when they pray – either in their heads or in dreams or visions – though most evangelicals I know believe it is more subtle – that Jesus talks mysteriously, almost indescribably, through your feelings, “in your heart”.  You just sort of sense in your gut that Jesus is communicating to you.  You feel good about certain thoughts or ideas that suddenly enter unbidden into your head.  You have a feeling of peace about certain ideas.  You just sort of know it’s not your imagination or your own feelings, that it’s Jesus communicating through the Holy Spirit.

You can just sense His presence -- usually described as a comfortable feeling of warm acceptance, the feeling that removes fear, that God is near, that you are not alone, that you feel loved and cared for.  You just feel that Jesus is there with you and for you in a very tangible way.  You just . . . know.  Many evangelicals talk about these feelings as being intimate with Jesus.  The more regularly you experience them, the more often you feel them, the more intimate you are with God.  Sometimes this intimacy is even spoken of in romantic or sexual terms – being held close, being hugged, being embraced.  Having this kind of intimacy is seen by many evangelicals as the pinnacle of spiritual maturity.  Having these feelings and sensations and experiences is what it means to know God.

I’m almost out of space – so let me sum up my thoughts on this.  I accept that faith is a personal choice.  But regarding a relationship to Jesus being "personal" in the sense that I've described here -- that has not been my experience, nor is it, as far as I can tell, the way Scripture characterizes a believer’s walk with God.

But more about that  next time . . .

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