A Personal and Biblical Relationship

My ChristianityToday.com “Connection” e-mail brought me a link yesterday to their blog Out of Ur. The specific entry was an excerpt from an article by John Suk from an essay in Perspectives, A Personal Relationship with Jesus?. The Christianity Today discussion is at Your Own Personal Jesus: Is the language of “a personal relationship” biblical?, and the topic has generated some substantial discussion.

I found myself quite annoyed while reading this article, and it took me a few minutes to understand why. After all, I prefer to read material with which I disagree, so I spend many unannoyed hours every day reading things that express a completely different viewpoint from mine. Here, however, I think the problem is simply the tone. This article carries exactly the tone of the older church member who comes to me to bemoan the deterioration of the modern church, and to inform me of how much more holy and righteous everyone was when he or she was young. But it also has another overtone: The expert whose views and processes have been bypassed by upstarts who just haven’t paid their dues. In the middle of all this, however, the author expresses a couple of quite appropriate theological and especially pastoral concerns.

The elements of this condescending tone are illustrated by the following:

Ultimately, the phrase “a personal relationship with Jesus,” is not found in the Bible. Thus, there is no sustained systematic theological reflection on what the phrase must or most likely means. In fact, people experience the personal presence of God–if that is what they are really experiencing–in a wide variety of idiosyncratic and highly personal ways.

Heaven help us if we come close to God without “sustained systematic theological reflection!” The fact is that most people who do have a relationship with God are going to live their lives without what the average evangelical theologian would call “sustained systematic theological reflection.” I’m not really against such reflection, but as a criticism it reflects more elitism than either a Biblical sense of conversion and putting one’s trust in Jesus, or of serious discipleship. Some of the strongest statements of commitment and discipleship I have ever heard have come from children who have spent little or no time in reflection about God, and certainly done nothing that could be regarded as “systematic theological reflection.”

I have never managed to improve on the statement of God’s grace and the call to discipleship that I made to my mother when I was eight years old. My mother tells the story in her book Directed Paths (one risks such stories when encouraging one’s mother to write!):

At the time, Henry was only eight but he begged for permission to go help. I knew he could be useful in helping to carry food, water and run errands, but he had never had the measles.

He kept saying, “Mama, please let me go. Patty is helping and I want to help, too.

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  1. Henry, I admit to being bothered at times by the phrase “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” not that I didn’t believe such a relationship was important, but because it seemed to have become trite, cliche, and in becoming cliche losing the very relationship it refers to. Your post puts the reality back in the words. Thank you for such a good post.

  2. Wayne,

    Thanks for your kind comment. There is a point to making sure a “personal” relationship is not an empty one, i.e. that it is more than just personal.

    It’s interesting to watch the comments over on the CT site. I thought I responded vigorously, shall we say, but I see some comments over there that are calling Dr. Suk an unbeliever. That’s just a bit intemperate, to say the least!

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