Skip to content

Honestly, My Faith Is Doing Just Fine Without a “Personal Relationship with God”

by Carson T. Clark on November 21, 2012

I need to clarify something regarding this whole “personal relationship with God” issue I’ve been publicly delving into the past few days.1 I’m not down in the dumps. Unlike past seasons of life, this time around I wouldn’t say I’m struggling. To the contrary, I’m feeling increasingly comfortable in my own spiritual skin.1.Links to the last two posts:
Miniblog #148: According to NPR, I Don’t Have a “Relationship with God”
Miniblog #149: I’ve No Good Answers for How to Replace a “Relationship with God”
It seldom bothers me anymore that I don’t “sense the Spirit’s presence” when I pray or “hear God’s voice” when I read Scripture. Seemingly with each passing month I’m coming to greater peace in that the Lord instead communicates with me primarily through the Body of Christ, providential circumstances, and a sort of unusual intellectual intuition/mysticism. No, the primary issue is that my faith experience doesn’t fit the virtually unquestioned schema of most American Christians: the personal relationship with God.22.That is, my communion with God–for lack of a better description–doesn’t comport with the typical conception within contemporary American Christianity.

In and of itself that’s not really a problem. I’m an oddity. Nothing newsworthy there. Where the difficulty arises, however, is the cultural expectation. Having this “personal relationship with God” has truly attained sacred cow status.33.Throughout this post I’m using quotations not as scare quotes, to belittle others, or the like. My intention is to accurately represent the exact terminology I commonly encounter. People not only assertively question but aggressively attack other faith narratives as corrosive, disingenuous, immature, inadequate, and even vile. Think I’m being hyperbolic? On an emotional level, what’s your immediate, gut reaction when I say that I don’t have a “personal relationship with God” and, Lord willing, will be ordained soon? Few will likely admit it here, but experience tells me most will immediately cast judgment. Their unflinching belief is that I have no business being a spiritual shepherd, all because the expression of my faith differs from the widespread assumptions of what it means to be a follower of Christ.44.It remains bizarre to me that this has become such a litmus test of genuine faith despite the fact Scripture never (explicitly) talks about having a “personal relationship with God.”

In conclusion, what I’ve been wrestling through these past few days is four-fold:

  1. Figuring out how to intellectually, psychologically, relationally, and spiritually live into who God has made me to be regardless of others’ expectations.55.Being myself ain’t hard. Dealing with people who are quick to accuse and slow to listen, that’s the hard part.
  2. Figuring out how (most) others perceive the world around them so I know where they’re coming from and how to serve them even as my faith is obviously quite unlike theirs.66.This may sound funny, but I really, truly don’t get how most people are wired or how they function as they do.
  3. Figuring out an effective rhetorical approach for explaining my spiritual life in such a way that it mitigates confusion and doesn’t place a stumbling block before other Christians.77.I have in mind those who are well-intentioned but aren’t particularly discerning.
  4. Figuring out how to challenge, encourage, and perhaps even protect those like me who so often feel accosted and lonely because their spiritual life doesn’t fit the status quo.88.Few dare admit it publicly, but I know a lot of devout Christians whose souls are in a perpetual state of turmoil because their faith experience doesn’t match that they’re told it should be.
  • Adam Cirone

    As you have been writing these posts, I have begun to think about what it means to me when I say that “I have a personal relationship with God.” I am actually finding it quite hard to define. I don’t hear God’s voice or get real strong “feelings” from the Holy Spirit or anything.

    I guess how I think about “having a relationship with God” can be explained by comparison to how I might have a relationship with another person. I would listen to him, spend time with that person, ask him questions, get to know his character and personality, and hear what he has to say about me (advice and such). I might ask him to help me out when I am in need too, or at least be someone with whom I could share my frustrations.

    I think about my “relationship with God” in the same manner. I spend time getting to know him by reading the scriptures. I listen to what he has to tell me through leading from the Holy Spirit (sometimes more direct than others) or especially from the advice of other believers in my community. I get to know him better too by experiencing fellowship with other believers and experiencing the blessings of their unique spiritual gifts in my life. In addition, I spend time talking to God in prayer, putting before him both my requests for help and my frustrations with life. In all of these things I believe that God is truly listening and interacting with me either through the Holy Spirit or through other believers, and that he has the power (and does use it) to affect the world around me.

    So that is the best I can do to explain what it means to me to “have a relationship with God.” Whether that will help you, I don’t know. I would imagine that many Christians would give very different explanations when confronted with a question of what a “relationship with God” actually looks like.

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      Haven’t yet gotten to this, but you’ve not fallen off my radar…

  • Jay

    I do think this is a helpful discussion for helping people figure out what they mean by “personal relationship with God.” I too use that phrase, but I’m sure I never gave it the thought it deserves. I think part of the issue is that this relationship we speak of is bound up in our definition of faith. In other words, though we can experience God through our relationships with others (things, I grant, we Protestants put too little emphasis on), we know we have faith when we can experience the presence of God without such intermediaries. I’m not saying it’s best, just that it happens. The immediacy of the experience of God in silent prayer or scripture reading gives us confidence that He really is there. A second point I’d make is that I’m willing to bet that your intuition/mysticism is pretty darn close to what most people describe as a personal relationship/experience. You may not be as far removed from the rest of us as you think. I’ll let you decide if that’s good or bad.

    Finally, a little gentle push back as to your becoming a priest. I recognize that you will be an invaluable spritual guide for those who find themselves outside the usual Christian experience, but can you also see yourself shepherding those whose experiences are, by your own admission, simply beyond you? If a personal relationship with God is a legitimate expression of one’s faith (which we may differ about), how would you encourage your congregation in its practice?

    All the best, and happy Thanksgiving to you and Sarah.

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      “I think part of the issue is that this relationship we speak of is bound up in our definition of faith.”

      Agreed.

      “In other words, though we can experience God through our relationships with others… we know we have faith when we can experience the presence of God without such intermediaries. I’m not saying it’s best, just that it happens. The immediacy of the experience of God in silent prayer or scripture reading gives us confidence that He really is there.”

      Yeah, I get that. It’s just a less overt expression of the same cultural phenomenon I experienced growing up within Pentecostalism. (Although clearly the two aren’t mutually exclusive since Pentecostals emphasize the personal relationship with God language perhaps more than any others.) On a psychological level, I get it. People want to see, or at least feel, *something* to provide confidence that their faith is grounded in reality. Makes sense. Yet on a theological level, I’ve got the same problem with this as I had with Pentecostals who emphasized the “baptism of the Holy Spirit with evidence in speaking in tongues.” Namely, Matthew 12:38-45. Though the two are closely related, it seems to me seeking confidence is one thing but seeking assurance is quite another. Though careful not to cast judgment, I cannot help but wonder if those who seek such assurance truly have (much) faith. I can only speak for myself, but I know that when I sought such things my faith was immature at best.

      “A second point I’d make is that I’m willing to bet that your intuition/mysticism is pretty darn close to what most people describe as a personal relationship/experience. You may not be as far removed from the rest of us as you think. I’ll let you decide if that’s good or bad.”

      I’ve often suspected that. However, the vast majority of the time when I ask people to describe what they mean when they say, “I have a personal relationship with God” they describe a set of experiences almost wholly foreign to my faith experience. So I’m continually going back and forth on that.

      “Finally, a little gentle push back as to your becoming a priest. I recognize that you will be an invaluable spiritual guide for those who find themselves outside the usual Christian experience, but can you also see yourself shepherding those whose experiences are, by your own admission, simply beyond you?”

      In short, yes. That having been said, let me clarify and nuance that. In my experience, the vast majority of clergy have (at least) some difficulty knowing how to shepherd the oddities such as myself. If I may arbitrarily quantify it, we’re the 5% that befuddle most pastors/priests. As one of those oddities myself this used to frustrate me to no end, but I’ve come to see that they were simply taking care of the vast majority of their flock. I now understand that. The question I’ve always asked, however, is what about those 5%? Where do they go to be shepherded? Who is making disciples of them? Honestly, those persons are and likely always will be my priority. Yet in the same way the typical pastor cannot simply dismiss or ignorance the oddities, so I cannot dismiss or ignore those with the usual Christian experience. Just as that poses a challenge to the typical pastor, so this poses a challenge for me. That’s why I’m trying so hard to understand others on their own terms. My goal as an ordained clergyman will be to help all Christians live into who God has made them to be, not to make people relate to God as I do.

      “If a personal relationship with God is a legitimate expression of one’s faith (which we may differ about)…”

      It’s important I be precise on this point. While I do have certain concerns/hesitations about the cultural and theological dimensions of what most people seem to mean by a personal relationship with God, on the whole I do affirm its validity. That is, I readily acknowledge it to be a genuine faith experience even if my own is quite different. Generally speaking, I’m not one to project myself onto others. <– This is yet another area in which I'm an oddity.

      "…how would you encourage your congregation in its practice?"

      Holy immense question, Batman! For now let me just say this: My wife has what you and others would likely describe as a personal relationship with God, and I've long encouraged her in this. If I do it within my family, I think that's a pretty good indicator of what I'd do in a congregation. (Shoot, I'm constantly trying to mooch off it!)

      "All the best, and happy Thanksgiving to you and Sarah."

      Backatcha.

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      Hahaha… Sarah just said I’m like Arthur Weasley with Muggles. He’s always trying to understand them and is genuinely interested/delighted in the way they do things. Not at all condescending.

    • Jay

      That makes perfect sense to me.

  • Seretha Curry

    It still seems to me that you are reacting against terminology (and, understandably, other people’s expectations), but still experiencing what anyone might call a relationship with God: you know and understand that God loves you and you try to love God back. You just tend to experience different means of grace than others do–communion, sacraments, providential circumstances. Why fight with people about words when the thing is the same? “Relationship with God” is sacred cow evangelical language because that is what evangelicals have used to distinguish living or lively faith (James through Cranmer ) from dead faith for the last 50 years at least. Peeps want to know that they have a spiritual mentor who can be moved by the Holy Spirit (through whatever means). If you can assure them of that and teach them that God speaks to different people through different means, I’d be interested to know if people still resist you. But if you try to fight the whole world about the usage of words, you’re probably going to lose. This is far too ingrained at this point in the evangelical subculture. I’d love to see our definition of relationship with God expanded and deepened (the Jesus is my boyfriend model I hear on Christian music stations will only take you so far in life as an adult) with real pastoral and mystical theology.

    • http://twitter.com/carsontclark Carson T. Clark

      A friend of mine wrote the following:

      “I discern your concern is not with the phrase ‘relationship with God’ as such but with its association with Christianity understood as a mystical, individualistic, revivalistic conversion experience and comparable subsequent experiences sustaining the faith.” – Brendan Payne

  • katie0873

    When I read this, I think of, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”

    – I like that it seems you want to understand the point of view of the person who may have a distorted point of view of God (perhaps due to their early parents, etc).

    In my experience of being ministered to in my hurts/faults, the people who have helped me most are those who have “been there”; they have been able to be vulnerable in sharing who they truly are too — humble and with empathetic words because they can relate to the struggle and pain.

    I think pastors who go through “recovery” — open to the idea that they have at least one flaw, and are able to sit in a group of people that they feel “safe” with (because there is confidentiality established, etc) that it creates many things: humbleness, empathy, growth, accountability and depth in relationships.

    When I mention “recovery” it do not the typical drug/alcohol that we normally think of — it’s recovery from any hang-ups/dysfunctions that we have, as people who are affected by sin, or sins of our family.

    Really good book to do this in:
    Power to Choose: Twelve Steps to Wholeness (Author, Mike O’Neil)

  • http://www.facebook.com/leostaley Leo Staley

    Okay. So We’re gonna dive deep into these when i come out in a couple weeks. I have so many ideas.

%d bloggers like this: