“Yes, but do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?”
How many times have you heard this, or if you are or were formerly a Christian, uttered it yourself?
In the Christian communities I have been part of, this seems to be the ultimate point of the faith. If you don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus, then you’re just going through the motions. If you don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus, what you have isn’t faith, it’s “religion” (bad!). If you don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus, you are missing out on the abundant life. If you don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus, you are probably not a Christian.
From a historical perspective, when and why and how did the idea of a “personal relationship” with Jesus come to the fore? The phrase itself appears nowhere in the Bible, and I feel pretty certain that Luther & Calvin weren’t tossing it around back in the day. Anybody know?
I must admit that cultivating this personal relationship with Jesus has always, always been a struggle for me. How can you have a personal relationship with an invisible God? Humans in relationship are, first of all, in physical and verbal contact with each other. There is a very clear two-way directionality about it; you say something, and the other person speaks back to you. You have conversations. You make eye contact. Maybe you hug each other. But I can’t cuddle with Jesus. When I have a bad day, or am crying, there’s no Gentle Shepherd waiting at home to make me dinner, talk me through my upset, give me advice, or just listen to me.
When I was a Christian and heard this argument from someone else, I would argue (patiently, perhaps patronizingly) that Jesus does listen to us, does draw close to us. And that he uses other people and circumstances in our lives to provide comfort – friends and family become instruments of Jesus’ love. This sounded beautiful, at the time.
But I now see at least two problems with it. One, in that model, Jesus is using surrogates – substitutes – for himself. It would be like me having a boyfriend but telling him to go to my friend Lydia with his needs, because I’ve set her up to be my eyes, ears, and arms for him. What’s the point of that? If my boyfriend has even half a brain, eventually he’ll dump me and just start dating Lydia.
Two, non-Christians get comfort and succor and love from other people and circumstances all the time, without benefit of a personal relationship with Jesus. For all intents and purposes, what they “get” from these truly human relationships is indistinguishable from what Christians get from their surrogate-Jesus-human relationships. So again, what exactly is Jesus doing that’s special or different?
The idealist in me wants to believe that a mystical, beautiful personal relationship with God-slash-Jesus is possible. That said, I have always thought the idea of being "married to" Christ (a la Song of Solomon) as extremely creepy. Plus, in all the years I've tried to get closer to Jesus, I just haven't sensed him personally coming closer to me. Which is strange given how much Jesus supposedly loves me.
So what am I missing out on by not cultivating a personal relationship with Jesus? Sadly, I’ve come to believe, not much.