Re-fashioned Relationship: Creating an Emotionally Satisfying Christianity

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.

5 thoughts on “Re-fashioned Relationship: Creating an Emotionally Satisfying Christianity

  1. Hazel Davis November 13, 2013 / 8:38 am

    By virtue of His being God, we are unable to design any format or standards for His behavior. Yes we can look at examples in the Bible (that are within that cultural context) of how he has engaged with mankind, but He is God. He is beyond scripture in terms of what he does and how he does… The takeaways from scripture are not the culturally entrenched stages and processes or terminology (even though they validate prophesy), we takeaway that God is all powerful and he loves us. We don’t have the capability to conceive of His infinite ways. I believe that this is where the immense benefit of a personal quiet (so you can hear) relationship with Him comes in. He does engage with us but we miss it in many cases because we are looking for Him to do what we expect Him to do. As you said because ‘we want to impose a definition of relationship onto Christianity’. In essence, we want to create our own God, sometimes even based on our limited understanding of the Word.

    • Tiribulus November 17, 2013 / 9:38 pm

      I tried to resist, but I’m just gonna havta go ahead and state that this is a very dangerous way to pursue the God of the ancient Christian Scriptures. Unless the many definitions and qualifiers you’ve left hanging here all fall out to the correct side of this tightwire you’re trying to walk which I cannot help doubting.

  2. Dinah C. November 13, 2013 / 4:12 pm

    This is surely another case of both/and and not either/or ….. having grown up in evangelical, cessationist churches … what I found there was far too many “cold” Christians, those whose faith was largely a matter of believing certain propositions and keeping certain rules …. there seemed little sense of a living relationship with Christ at all …. Christ was a truth to be believed – yes, definitely …. but Christ was not a Person to be known and loved – which is not right, it is not enough. ….
    I agree completely, we cannot insist on a particular experience … because it is God Who drives this relationship …. but a hunger to know God more and more deeply must be there, and this should not be damped down with teaching such as “oh experience is not needed, and may be dangerous” (or words to that effect) …. which far too many “Reformed” type churches teach.
    When I asked a pastor why he did not teach on the Holy Spirit, his reply was that he did not want to expose his people to danger !!!!! …. must say he left me without a word to say.

    • Lisa Robinson November 13, 2013 / 4:39 pm

      Hi Dinah, thanks for stopping by the blog. I’m a little puzzled by how you see an either/or here. I’m just curious. Also, while I’m sure that some cessationists come across as cold and only interested in propositions and obeying rules, that certainly doesn’t speak to all cessationists. Nor does it mean that all cessationists have such a limited view of the Holy Spirit like the pastor you interacted with. If you came to my Reformed church, you would hear a pastor who speaks generously of the Holy Spirit, whose name comes up frequently in our corporate prayer.

      I hope you can appreciate that I wasn’t necessarily saying that experience is bad (in fact I mentioned that God does use experience), but that we can’t define a relationship with God based on our own terms. It sounds like you agree with that.

      • Dinah C. November 18, 2013 / 4:58 pm

        Oh I do …. what I was trying to get across is that preaching and teaching should feature both experience and right cognitive belief (which is what I so seldom heard in the Evangelical churches I grew up in) … the impression I received was that they did not want to talk about/teach about experience in case their flock fell into the Charismatic error.
        You see, I did have an overwhelming experience of God’s presence, and it was as I tried to talk about it, and ask about it that I came up against this “wall”.

        That is why I think both/and are so important … but I don’t think experience on its own is enough, what it should do is drive us to the written Word, to read and to study and to learn all that we can about our amazing God. ….

        However, there are also the far too many stories of reformed/evangelical/conservative ‘Christians’ who begin to study and who lose their faith … current high profile example is of course Bart Ehrman …. my theory is that it is precisely because they were taught a congnitive faith combined with rules combined with effort … which sadly never developed into a living knowledge, a living relationship with God. (mind you there is also the story of those whose faith was based on experience alone, who found they had no answers to the problems of life in a fallen world).

        my observation is that we as human beings find it so hard to keep a healthy balance, we tend to veer from one opposite to another, we live too much in the ‘either/or’ and not enough in the ‘both/and’. (of course I am not speaking of the essentials of Christianity)

        blessings … Dinah

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