I’ve been reflecting recently on the concept of relationship that seems to be rampant within Christian circles. Somewhere along the way, we’ve created the false dichotomy of religion vs. relationship, something I addressed in this post.
One of the neat things about God’s revelatory process is that he contextualized himself to the culture of the ancient Near East, adopting the various symbols, structures and norms but doing something unique to show that he is the one true God. This is no different when he established the covenant with Abraham, Moses and David (some would say Noah) to secure relationship with his people. Based on what a covenant was in the ancient Near East, there was both promise and expectation.
Looking at the breadth of 66 books, the fulfillment of covenant relationship in Christ was of course the whole point. One only need look at the book of Hebrews to understand that the “better way” foreshadowed in the Old Testament was Christ himself, establishing a new covenant (cf Jeremiah 31:31-34), thus fulfilling previous covenants…
The main point here is that this was the means by which God established relationship. It was not just some willy-nilly, feel good, “being in love with Jesus” type of thing that typically gets associated with our Christianity. Relationship with God is governed by promise and expectation specified in Scripture. We can expect for him to be God based on his promises to us ultimately found in Christ. There is expectation for us to love him with our heart, mind, soul and strength and to love neighbor as ourselves. There is expectation for us to walk in his ways. I think that is an accurate depiction of religion based on its own definition.
I think the problem is that we’ve taken the concept of relationship further to define what that relationship must look like and often it is according to what we expect from our earthly relationships. We’ve imposed these expectations on Christianity. Imposed is a good word, I think, when we dictate the terms. So when we say that God is relational, it has come to mean in many cases a relationship that are emotionally satisfying to us.
It’s no wonder to me that over 9 million copies of Jesus Calling has been sold. The author’s premise is that direct communication is indicative of a real relationship with Christ, where he speaks directly with his people. Never mind that this completely ignores how God spoke and the parameters for his mediated speech through designated means but now through the Son, the incarnate Word to whom the written word testifies (Heb. 1:1-3). God speaks through his Word, through which we hear his voice. Some good food for thought here. Say what you want about the miraculous events in Scripture, but these were not common everyday occurrences and the focus was always on the promises through Son, not experience.
Nonetheless, the pushback to these parameters is quite common. I’ve even heard the retort of Deism, which is completely antithetical to a God who became us, to save us and leave us with the person of the Holy Spirit and His word so that his body can grow into a holy temple. God’s revelation through the Incarnation was far from Deistic! Our gathering together as body, to be strengthened and encouraged through the Word, sacraments and fellowship is indicative of a relational God. Our ability to pray and get nourishment from a God who speaks through his word for our personal lives is based on a relational God. Somehow we have deemed that to be insufficient for a real relationship and insist on direct encounters and other ways that meet our relational standards.
But do you see the problem? We are saying what relationship must look like. But God has set the terms of what relationship means based on the covenant he established with his people. He is the one who has provided the means through which we relate to him. He is the one who has given what we need for life and godliness. The Father’s reconciliation of his chosen people through the Son and sending of Spirit is confined to parameters that have been established.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that experiences are bad. Experience is endemic to our human nature and I do believe there are times when God works through experience. But it goes wrong when we insist that certain experiences should exist when we’ve imposed a definition of relationship onto our Christianity.