Awhile back I was having dialogue with someone from a different branch of Christendom. (There are 3 branches of Christianity: Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodoxy.) I happened to mention the concept of a “relationship with God.” This person asked me to clarify what I meant by “relationship with God”, and they also felt that having a “relationship with God” was a fairly recent and new idea promoted by evangelical Protestants.
I appreciated the comments and questions, because it forced me to think about the issue. In subcultures of any type, certain words and phrases can be thrown around so frequently that they can lose their meaning. We say the word or phrase without really thinking about what we really mean by it. It has just become a routine part of our vocabulary. So…what do we mean by a “relationship with God”? And is it a new concept?
I’ll first share some introductory thoughts, and will begin with a Philip Yancey quote:
Christianity claims a unique place among the world’s religions. Our faith tells of a God before whom the strongest saints took off their shoes, bowed down, fell on their faces, repented in dust and ashes. At the same time it tells of a God who came to earth as a baby, who showed tender mercies to children and the weak, who taught us to call him “Abba”, who loved and was loved. God is both transcendent and immanent, the theologians say God inspires at once awe and love, fear and friendship. – in Christianity Today, May 2005
I think that modern evangelical Christianity has done an excellent job at emphasizing the immanent aspect of God. God is personal and can be known. One of many ways this has been taught is through presenting the Christian faith as having a “relationship with God.” But every strength has a weakness.
We’ve emphasized God’s immanence, at the expense of God’s transcendence. We’ve too far reduced the distance between creature and Creator. We have lost a reverence or a healthy fear for God. Almost all mystery is gone. I fear we have brought God so down to our level, that we have almost created a false god of our own making. God is personal like we are, but unlike us God is great! God is majestic and some things about God are incomprehensible to our finite minds. It seems to me that other branches of Christendom or “high church” Protestants do a better job at emphasizing the mysterious and majestic aspect of God.
While I do believe that we can have a “relationship with God”, the way we have neglected God’s transcendence can give a false impression of what is meant by a relationship with God. We don’t have a relationship with God in the exact way we have a relationship with our spouse, parent, or friend. God doesn’t sit on the couch, and have a two-way discussion with us.
I’m reminded of a scene from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis. Upon first hearing about Aslan, one of the children asks if Aslan is safe. The reply is worth considering:
If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than me or else just silly.
Then he isn’t safe? asked Lucy.
Safe?, said Mr. Beaver. Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.
Our “domestication” of God has set people up for unrealistic expectations. I also think Christians can be set up for disappointment and discouragement, when they don’t hear personally from God the way they think some others do. Some Christians loosely and frequently say things like “God spoke to me” or “the Lord told me.” Often times, I think the person simply means that they were reading their Bible or listening to a sermon and God used the passage or sermon to convict them of personal sin or of a change they needed to make in their life. In other words, they learned something applicable to their personal life. They don’t literally mean that they audibly heard God’s voice, nor that God in some other way directly communicated with them. Saying “God spoke to me” is just a manner of speaking, and please note that I am not necessarily criticizing speaking that way. Yet it can give a false impression, and that does concern me. Myself…I avoid saying things like “God told me” and that would be another post.
(There are Christians who do believe they can get direct messages from God, but that is another issue to be discussed at another time. I am also not indicating that I don’t think God can directly speak with us. I have a high view of God, and am certainly not going to limit Him! Yet, I would argue it is the exception not the rule.)
The point is….I fear that the combined emphasis on a “relationship with God” along with a de-emphasis on God’s transcendence, majesty and greatness…has created a wide variety of problems within evangelicalism, as well as misunderstanding from those on the outside.
Next post here.