Today’s post is by Amber Van Schooneveld. Amber is the author of Hope Lives: A Journey of Restoration (Group, 2008) and blogs regularly at Clever Phrase Here. She also has bad luck when travelling to Canada.
Recently, my husband and I said words that got people hopping at our small group. We were feeling ornery. I’ve never written about the topic because I don’t want to be stoned for tipping over a sacred cow. But in the interest of open and honest discussion, I’d like to broach the topic with you:
A close, personal relationship with God (or Jesus)
This phrasing is so very prevalent in much of contemporary Christianity. You can hardly go to a church, retreat or Christian bookstore without hearing about this close, personal relationship that we are told is the heart of Christianity.
Here is my bias so you can understand why such phrasing concerns me: I am a copy editor at heart. I highly value accuracy. Second, I’m a strong proponent for sola Scriptura. It’s the primary guide we have in a world of fallible humans and changing culture. So if it isn’t explicitly in the Scripture, I’m wary of it.
In the second half of the 20th century (as far as I can tell), we developed the vernacular around this concept that we can have a close relationship with Jesus or God. (I think it might date back to this video. ) This idea was extrapolated from many verses such as John 15:15, Philippians 3:8, Psalm 59:16-17, and many others. We didn’t really have one succinct way to express these concepts, so we developed a vernacular around it that, while not necessarily being incorrect is also not found in the Bible. (There is no verse in the Bible that talks about having a close, personal relationship with Christ or God the Father in so many words.)
I see this shift in our focus as a positive balance away from a focus merely on outward piety to a focus on genuine belief.
But here is the crux of the matter: Now, several decades later, this vernacular has stuck more than the original Bible verses it was derived from. This is always troubling for this reason: Rather than beginning with Scripture and deriving our meaning from it, we begin with the concept, a close, personal relationship with Christ, and then approach the Scriptures to derive meaning out of them that fits within our pre-constructed framework. We are not coming to the Scriptures empty-handed to see what they might teach us; we are coming to the Scriptures pre-loaded with our thesis and looking for verses to support it.
Any scholar could tell you that this is bad scholarship. And it leaves us so very open to read the Scriptures based on our own current culture and worldview.
For example, we live in a highly individualistic society. Individualism isn’t inherently good or evil, but we certainly can lean too far in one direction. Our culture tends to be self-interested rather than socially-minded. We look out for ourselves first. We ask the question, “what do I get out of this?” more than some other cultures. This can lead us to an unhealthy inward focus in many aspects of life.
I believe the negative effects of this can be seen in our concept of what it means to “know Christ.” Oftentimes in discussing our “relationship with God,” we can focus on our own individual, personal experience in life. We can begin to view our “relationship with God” as a means to our own cozy psychological experience. It can become very focused on how we are feeling. It can become very focused on our individual quest for a pleasant experience in this life.
It is true from Scripture that God comforts us (2 Corinthians 1:3-4) and Jesus came to give us rest (Matthew 11:28-30). Clearly, God cares about our inward struggles. But has our contemporary culture that can tend toward individualism and inward focus allowed us to focus on some verses far more than others?
Does our preloaded bent of a “close, personal relationship with God” cause us to read this passage and focus on “knowing Christ” (by which we often mean having a quiet time) at the exclusion of “participating in his sufferings” and “becoming like him in his death”?
Does our culture cause us to read this passage and focus on “the knowledge of the Son of God” at the exclusion of “works of service” and “becoming mature”?
Moreover, do we read phrases such as “knowing Christ” and “the knowledge of the Son of God” and interpret them in light of our pre-loaded concepts rather than understanding them in light of the original language and context? Do we see “knowing Christ” or “having a personal relationship with Jesus” as more than just having a quiet time, but being amazed at the “surpassing worth” of who He is and what He has done? Does our “personal relationship” fill us with wonder or is it just an item on the checklist?
I’m definitely not suggesting we chuck “knowing Christ” (a far more comfortable term to me than “a close, personal relationship with God” simply for the fact that it is in the Bible) for “works of service.” It’s not a matter of faith versus works.
It’s a matter of recognizing that we are, nearly at every turn, influenced by our culture and by our presuppositions. It’s a matter of being willing to come to the Scripture, as much as we humanly can, not subtly trying to fit it into our comfortable preconceived notions, but with a mind humbly willing to admit and consider what it finds.