A Relationship with God? (Canterbury Trail Series)
It’s been two weeks since the last post in this Anglican series and I’ve tried to sit down and write the next part about ten times. I’ve found these autobiographical “My Journey” posts to be incredibly difficult to write. They’re emotionally draining. Yesterday afternoon, however, it occurred to me that one of my posts from this past December entitled ‘A Relationship with God?’ was almost exactly what I wanted to express next. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ve decided to reuse it for this series, though I’ve significantly edited it for my purposes here and added new material throughout. For anyone who’s already read the earlier version, please read at least the four final paragraphs as they’re new. Thanks.
“With everyone’s head bowed and eyes closed, I invite you to trust in Jesus, ask Him into your heart, accept Him as your Lord and Savior, and begin a relationship with the loving God who died for you. Just slip up your hand if you feel the Spirit calling you.” In some sense, I’m infinitely grateful that I heard this so many times. My stubborn nature led me to resist multiple evangelism invitations each week for 14 years. In another sense, as I’ve grown in my faith I’ve become skeptical of this evangelistic axiom. I’ve begun to question the conception of Christianity within which it grounded me. Not the least of my questions has been this: Are we supposed to have “a relationship with God”? Given the sensitive nature of this subject I will make every effort to exercise humility and grace in the way I explain my thoughts.
More than anything, I’ve wanted to have a relationship with God such as my pastors invited me to begin a full decade ago. During a prayer retreat several years back I remember the leader instructing us to find an isolated place in the woods and wait there until we heard from the Lord. That afternoon people trickled back to the cabin with amazing stories of things God has spoken or revealed to them–words of peace and comfort, areas of pride and rebellion, relationships that need restoration, etc. Some said that quietly waiting upon the still small voice of the Lord had made them the most aware of Spirit’s indwelling presence that they’d ever been. They spoke about how they felt that it was an experience that would forever alter their spiritual lives.
If I may be brutally honest, my experience that day was one of frustration and despair leading to sin. I sat there praying hour after hour, patiently waiting for God. After about five hours I told God that I couldn’t sense His presence or hear His voice, and I asked why. Still nothing. After another hour I wept almost hysterically. ‘Why God? Why can’t I know you’re here? Why can’t I hear your voice? What’s wrong? Is there sin in my heart? I’m trying, but am I not listening enough? Please, please reveal yourself to me. I trust you. I love you. I just want to know you’re there.” Nothing. I went back to the cabin already frustrated that I’d failed. As I heard these amazing stories from my friends I felt more than embarrassed. I felt humiliated. So I lied. I made up some great story about how God had touched my heart and remember quite vividly the leader saying, “See? That’s the power of God. As I said, all you have to do is wait on Him.” The events that day set off a chain of events that would transform my spiritual life.
Three years later I was living in Georgia attending a small Bible college. In the years since that day in the woods I’d doubted God’s very existence, the truthfulness of Christianity, and much else. I remember being so frustrated one day after a class that I told my wife, “I don’t know if I love God.” As one might imagine, she was alarmed and perhaps a little angry, but to her infinite credit she listened to my heart and tried to understand why I was thinking what I was. I asked, “How can you love a God that you can’t see, touch, hear, smell, or taste?” As the conversation went along my repressed emotions began flowing. Through tears of anger, sorrow, and fatigue I asked, “What the hell does it look like to love a God who is wholly beyond our senses? I keep having people tell me that I just need to hear God’s voice and sense His presence. Yeah, tried that, and it ain’t happening!” In Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, he writes about a pastor who began to cry when someone simply asked him what Jesus meant to him. He absolutely lost it. Miller says that he wants to love God that much. Love God to the degree that the very mention of his Savior’s name brings him to tears. Most of the book resonated with me deeply, but this portion just plain infuriated me. I desperately wanted to have that sort of love for God, but it just wasn’t happening.
That fall and winter I’d worked through the most profound spiritual crisis of my life to that point, which was resolved when I read Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Far from settling my faith and providing comfort, it merely opened the doors for another crisis shortly thereafter. I’d learned that Christians can and should worship God with their minds, but that meant I could no longer lie to myself. I could no longer accept cognitive dissonance. I had to work through the issues that had plagued my soul.
That spring I became engrossed with an online philosophy discussion board. In one of the threads I explained the discrepancy between the expectations for my spiritual life that I’d gained at church and the reality of my experience. One guy said he empathized with my struggle and recommended I read Philip Yancey’s Reaching for the Invisible God. I’d only recently heard of Yancey from my wife’s grandma and had never read him, but thought I’d give it a shot. I’m infinitely glad that I did. Yancey hit upon the exact sorts of questions that I was asking. He dealt with them honestly, certainly with his heart but not to the exclusion of his head. This doesn’t do it justice, but Yancey helped me to re-frame my whole conception of what Christianity is and what my expectations are of God. I came to see that my “love” of God is rather unlike Don Miller’s pastor’s love of God. Neither is right or wrong, just different. My love of God has far less to do with being intimately connected to Him on an emotional level and far more to do with devotion to a worthy Lord, cherishing what He did in saving me, being thankful for His care and provision, and being willing to sacrifice my wishes and desires to serve what I think is His will. That is, I had to redefine all my expectations for what it means (for me) to love God. Occasionally I experience a profound sense of emotional connection with Him, but that truly is the exception rather than the rule. I came to see that despite what the pious church culture around me said, my love of God is no less sincere because I’m not crying all the time. The transformation of my faith didn’t end there, though. As I followed down this path, it wasn’t long before I ran into a sacred cow.
Where in the Bible does it say we’re supposed to be in “a relationship with God”? I stewed on this one for a couple years before sharing it with anyone. I feared that voicing this question would harm those with simpler, but no less sincere, faith as well as incur the wrath of the fundamentalist polemicists. After all, this idea of having a relationship with God is perhaps one of the few things that unites Protestants, overcoming the division between even mainliners and fundamentalists. It even transcends the generational gap. Regardless of whether a person is a 83-year-old modernist who loves Billy Graham or 18-year-old postmodernist who loves Brian McLaren, everyone seems to agree that the purpose, even the essence, of Christianity is the restoration of our relationship with God. But, again, I would ask: Where is this in the Bible? The first and only person I’ve seen pose this question in print is Rob Bell, but he was only using it as an example of things that people believe without questioning.
A while back I shared this question with a mentor. As the first to hear it I half expected him to question my salvation. I thought, ‘This is going to be where he thinks I’m off my rocker.’ After considering it for a few moments, his response was startling–comforting, but also startling. He said, “You know, I’d not heard anyone ask that until just last year. Since then you’re probably the seventh guy to say that to me.” He went on to explain that all the others were guys in their mid-40s and had been saved since their teens or early 20s. Despite their various church backgrounds, all had basically been taught the same conception of what Christianity is. They’d all responded to the same sort of invitation about entering into a relationship with God. And two decades in they’d separately come to the same point of disillusionment. All were sincere Christians and none were doubting their faith, but for each man his spiritual life was nothing like he’d been taught it’d be like. Their experiences failed to meet their expectations, and they were disappointed. It was an albatross around each of their necks. They felt guilt for not being as close to God as they ought to be, but more than that they felt like they were letting their families down. They felt they weren’t being the men of God that they were called to be. Despite their efforts to seek God’s face all the more their struggles only worsened. Finally they voiced these concerns and found out they were all in the same boat, so they started meeting about it one morning a week. After a year of those meetings they’d collectively come to believe that a Christian’s spiritual life is usually far different than what any of them had been told by evangelists, pastors, Bible college professors, radio preachers, and Christian Living books. They believed that a “relationship with God” is less about these existential, mystical experiences and more about faithfulness, devotion, reverence, and submission. On hearing this I felt a great burden lift.
Do you remember when Mother Theresa’s journal was published? It was shocking. She was revered by Christians of all traditions all around the world for her selfless work among some of the world’s poorest people in Calcutta. Everyone seemed to have had this assumption that what sustained her through all those years was this deep sense of God’s presence and an intimate relationship with Him. Instead what her journal revealed was decades of wretched loneliness. She had no tangible sense of God’s presence and had often found herself frustrated, feeling like she was praying to the wall. I can relate. I wonder how many other Christians secretly experience this frustration?
When I’ve shared these sorts of thoughts with people, I’ve gotten every response you can imagine: relief, intrigue, confusion, shock, annoyance, anger, and even threats. Seems it’s a novel concept to most people. The most common response, however, has probably been a defense of the idea. “Of course a relationship with God is biblical,” said one guy. “It doesn’t have to be said explicitly ‘cuz it’s implicit all throughout Scripture!” He pointed to passages like Jesus’ addressing God the Father as “abba father,” best translated “daddy” to us. He talked about how God strolled through the garden with Adam and Eve, how Jesus had built relationships with His disciples, how He said that He’d send the Holy Spirit to comfort them, and even the nature and purpose of the indwelling Spirit. None of which I’d argue against. Nevertheless, if restoring our “relationship” with God is the, or at least one of the, central theme(s) of Scripture isn’t it strange that the Bible never comes right out and says it? When I read the Bible I don’t see a lot of key points left unsaid. Moreover, if God is completely beyond our five senses, then wouldn’t any “relationship” we might have with Him be completely unlike our relationship with any other person? And if that’s the case, is it even a “relationship” at all? Does the term even apply?
I’ve often heard it said that this idea of relationship is the thing that separates genuine Christianity from cold, dead orthodoxy. “It’s not first and foremost about a set of beliefs, but an intimate relationship with our Creator, Savior, and Lord.” Asked what that means in practice, most people I’ve asked give these vague descriptions about God’s presence, hearing His still small voice, being able to tell Him anything, having a confident sense of His will, and so on. Maybe I’m an oddity on this one, but with the exception of the being able to tell Him anything (I often pray about things that I’ve never even told my wife) that sounds quite unlike any relationship I’ve ever had. When I’m talking to someone, I have no difficulty telling if he’s present. When someone says something to me, unless we’re in a library or he has laryngitis I have no trouble hearing his voice. When someone has a desire, I generally have no trouble grasping it. I’ll say it again, whatever a “relationship with God” might mean it certainly isn’t like any relationship between people I’ve ever seen or experienced.
Some people say that “a relationship with God” is all about those deeply emotional and profoundly spiritual experiences. As for me, I’m thankful for those things when they happen but I often wonder if our expectations haven’t become skewed. It seems to me that we’ve bought too much into this individualistic, existential form of uniquely North American Christianity and forgotten the more subtle, day-to-day disciplined life. Theologically, I’ve got a theory that this stems from a deficient understanding of the incarnation. We think of Jesus as primarily a man without remembering that God almighty condescended Himself in order to become one of us. Unwilling or unable to accept the complexity portrayed in the Bible, we’ve emphasized Jesus’ love, compassion, and grace in the New Testament to the neglect of God’s power, glory, and even awesome fear exhibited toward Him in the Old. That is, we prefer a God who weeps over our rebellion to the God who gets angry when we turn away. We can related to Jesus’ humanity but don’t quite know what to do with His divinity, so we end up a friendly, personalized, relatable God who is perhaps typified in the “Jesus is my homeboy” paraphernalia that dominated youth groups everywhere a few years ago.
I find the term “relationship with God” to be exceptionally inadequate. As much as I desire to chuck it, however, I can’t because there’s an element within it that rings true–something which I sense goes straight to the heart of what’s best about low church evangelicalism. There is within us all a desire for spiritual connection with God. I feel certain that, in my own spiritual life, it’s supposed to be much less buddy-buddy and much more submission to the will of our King, though both extremes obviously fall short of the Edenic ideal. What is needed is a way of existing as spiritual beings that simultaneously preserves our sense of God’s power and nature as wholly other to which we ought to submit while also maintaining the loving intimacy that once was and will be again when God sets everything to rights.
In the book Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, the late Robert Webber wrote that he’d never met an evangelical who became Anglican without one of the main reasons being a desire for sacramental worship. Truth be known, I’m probably one of the least sacramental persons to ever have completed the Canterbury trail. I have a great appreciation for the awe and reverence within Anglican worship, but thus far I’ve been unable to get my mind around sacramentalism–this idea that in the sacraments the wall between the physical and spiritual is torn down. Yet I remain open to the idea. That being said, over the past several months I’ve been playing with the idea that these two separate ideas of a low church “relationship with God” and high church sacramentalism may be linked. I’m nowhere close to having put the theoretical framework in place in my head–much less being able to offer a coherent explanation–but perhaps that strong element of truth within the “relationship with God” concept will in time find fulfillment in the sacramental life. Maybe I remain way off, but that’s as close to a constructive alternative as I can offer at this point.