There was probably nothing wrong in striving for a personal relationship with Jesus, at least until we began to emphasize “personal” over “Jesus.” It was a temptation we should have anticipated: The rise of this phrase in the American Christian vocabulary, after all, coincided with the emergence of personal bankers, personal computers, and other individualized services. The word “personal,” which once meant “between persons,” came to mean “personalized.” I’m afraid some of that definition has crept into our relationship with God.
I remember, for example, moving to a new city and searching for a church. I ventured out like a student considering colleges. I rejected one because the preacher’s wife seemed to stare angrily at him throughout the sermon. How could he shepherd the church if his own family lacked harmony? I rejected another because the meeting hall had a large portrait of the preacher, and his father, and his father before him. It felt too dynastic. The third I left because the music was too stuffy, a fourth because the music was too trendy, another because the preaching didn’t seem inspired, another because I disagreed regarding some small matter of doctrine that eludes me now.
Some of my reasons might have been good ones, but my attitude was not, because I thought like a consumer rather than a worshipper. I made myself the purpose—what I get out of church, how it makes me feel, what it will do for my spiritual growth, my life, my happiness.
Now, hear me: Spiritual growth, fulfillment, and happiness are good things. It was my sense of entitlement that was wrong—my notion that in a personal relationship with Jesus, I am the person of import, and He, my servant; my belief that a church’s merit stems from how well it delivers these goods, rather than the fact that God is present within it. What President John F. Kennedy once said about our country can certainly be said of our places of worship: Ask not what your church can do for you; ask what you can do for your church.
Ask not what your church can do for you; ask what you can do for your church.
We can say the same of our God, and many of us do, but sometimes our hearts don’t align with our words. At least, mine don’t. No matter my intention, it’s so easy to make my relationship with Christ about me. I specify for Him, in my prayers, who needs what kind of healing, what I need in my own life, and how He should move in the lives of all around me. I come to Him when I need Him or when I am moved to sentimental affection, such as to praise Him for a beautiful sunset, or for my children, or for some other good thing.
We should come to God when we need Him, and we should give praise to the author of every good gift (James 1:17). But what drives me to Him are my feelings and needs, not my sense of relationship. That’s how we treat a personal banker, or a therapist, maybe, but not how we should treat a friend. Or a Father.
Little wonder, then, that sometimes He seems silent—I scarcely make time to listen to Him. I prattle on about what I want Him to do for me, but rarely do I listen. Rarely do I even come to Him, full to bursting with all the words I should be pouring out in His direction with a genuine desire to submit my life to Him.
It is said that Herod Antipas wanted to see Christ for years, imagining the One whom his superstitious father, Herod the Great, tried to assassinate was really just an amusement (Luke 9:9; Luke 23:8). But exemplifying His own teaching, Jesus was silent in the face of Herod’s interrogation. For years, this man had been unable to see Christ, and in the end, he could not hear Him. Isn’t this true of all who approach God with demands rather than reverence? We cannot see Him because we are too busy regarding ourselves; we cannot hear Him because we are too busy telling Him what we want.
In this, Herod was like many of the 5,000 fed by Christ after He crossed the Sea of Galilee—the ones to whom He said, “You seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate the loaves and were filled” (John 6:26). The crowds wanted bread, and Herod wanted a circus. Neither desired the Christ who came to feed them His own flesh and blood, the one who was willing to be consumed so that we, by taking God into ourselves, might be brought back into communion with Him.
God came offering a truly personal relationship—a relationship with Himself as intimate as the one between the Persons of the Trinity—and maybe that was the problem: It was too personal. It entailed connection. Obligation. Being known as well as knowing.
Perhaps hardest of all, it meant we had to take our eyes off ourselves. The Greeks had a myth about a vain, coldhearted young man named Narcissus, who loved himself above all. He was led by his enemy to a pool where he saw his own reflection, couldn’t look away, and eventually drowned himself because he could never have the thing he most desired.
We take from this tragic story the word narcissist—a useful term in an age that’s coined the word “selfie,” and in a country which Nazi-concentration-camp survivor Viktor Frankl once observed needs a Statue of Responsibility to balance its Statue of Liberty. But narcissism isn’t unique to our age or country; theologians in the earliest years of the Christian church warned against it. They believed that prideful and self-regarding people blind and deafen themselves to God.
Thus, in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, do we read that the Pharisee “stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people, swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector’” (Luke 18:11). Notice how he prayed this to himself (some Bible translations read “with himself”). There was no room on that pew for the Lord; the Pharisee and his enormous ego took up all the space.
I’m often narcissistic, but I tell myself I want a personal relationship with God. I have many needs for Him to fulfill, after all. But the truth is, while I’m pretending to draw close to God, I’m really staring into the pool of water that’s liable to drown me.
The Bible tells us, however, that we are the mirrors: “He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the Lord offerings in righteousness” (Malachi 3:3). The refiner used fire to burn away the impurities in precious metals, and he didn’t stop until he could see his reflection in them. Here I am, gazing into the fragile little mirror of my self-perception, and there is Christ, calling me to turn from myself, to gaze Godward, to submit to the Refiner’s fire.
God’s love burns away our frivolity and selfishness and hatreds, if we will only receive Him as One who comes not to make things better for us, but to make us better.
When I was a child, I wondered how God could be both love (1 John 4:8) and a “consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24). I’ve come to understand that these are one and the same, that in His love He desires our whole being, and that this love is so great it changes everything. It burns away our frivolity and selfishness and hatreds, if we will only receive Him as One who comes not to make things better for us, but to make us better. To make us whole. To restore in us what was lost the day Adam and Eve were deceived by the most narcissistic of creatures, the devil.
Every day that I make my relationship with Christ about me is another day of self-exaltation, but on judgment day, “every knee shall bow” (Romans 14:11). On that day, the Bible teaches, some of us will be declared good and faithful servants (Matthews 25:23), but others will be told “I never knew you” (Romans 7:21-23).
That passage has always frightened me. I suppose that’s a good thing; we’re enjoined, after all, to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). In my fear, I try to reason with myself that I won’t be one of those cast out. I mean, look at how many Bible verses I know. Look at how hard I’ve studied, how often I’ve prayed. I’m tempted, in other words, to think I have a personal relationship with Christ because I have accumulated knowledge about Him, and that because of this, He will say He knows me.
“Knowledge makes arrogant,” wrote Paul, “but love edifies. If anyone supposes that he knows anything, he has not yet known as he ought to know; but if anyone loves God, he is known by Him” (1 Corinthians 8:1-3).
Love God. That is the path to a personal relationship with Christ—and this shouldn’t surprise us, because love is how to have a meaningful connection with a spouse or parent or sibling or child. Loving God is how to be known by Him, same as anyone else.
Looking at things in that light, I realize what a terrible friend I’ve been to Christ. I’ve made it about me, and what I think I need from Him. I rarely call on Him unless I need something. When I do seek Him out, I do all the talking. Who would want to have a relationship with someone like that?
Only Christ could love us as He does, despite how we treat Him. Only He could have descended into this hell we’ve made of earth, into all its torments, for the love of us—even as He foreknew how we’d treat Him, how we treat Him still.
Maybe that’s the place to start. To quiet myself, to come to Him in silence, on my knees, and ponder His love which is so vast and so deep that it persists in spite of me, for me—for us all.
Photography by Ryan Hayslip