Why Christianity is Not About Having a Personal Relationship With God
A few years ago, I saw a post on Facebook that asserted that what makes Christianity stand out from other religions is that Christian have a personal relationship with God. It irked me and I was ready to fire off a response but I stopped with my fingers hovering over the keyboard. There was no point in getting broiled in yet another fruitless Facebook dispute.
The idea that Christianity is not about having a personal relationship with God may seem controversial, but believe me, it’s not. It took me a real long time to figure this out, but when I did, it was liberating to find that Jesus was not my buddy.
There are many perks, no doubt, to having a personal relationship with God, but none of them seem to necessarily follow from the fact that Jesus taught his disciples to address God as Father. It would be wonderful to turn toward Father at each moment in the day for advice on how to manage things or to expect from Father that harm doesn’t come our way. But what advice did you ever get or what harm were you kept from? Really shoddy work there on Father’s part!
True, it must be wonderful to receive guidance from the Lord so as to know which decisions to make. Since I grew up in a faith community that took that exact approach, I had learned to seek the will of the Lord. In all honesty, however, the guidance I received only resulted in some of the most crucial mistakes I made in my entire life. I will spare the reader further details so as to save myself from embarrassment.
It must be wonderful to have Jesus as a kind of smartphone, ready at hand to provide spiritual gps. One must get a real kick out of having boyfriend Jesus to sing worship songs to. But I’ve come to see the kind of spirituality that enables this as providing placebos that cushion the hard impact of real life.
So what is Christianity about then? It is something nonreligious and life-affirming while completely transforming us into something we could not become out of our own resources. Christianity is the gift to live out of forgiveness and into forgiving others. Christianity is the gift of self-replicating self-giving in which that reality we name God manifests as love in human flesh and human community.
In Christianity God becomes human in the person and body of Jesus Christ. This self-descending phenomenon is called kenosisin which God, imagined as exalted and holy, divests of divine glory in order to be born in mud and become a servant of humanity.
According to Christianity, this God-Man walked the earth spreading a radical message in which human pride was consistently deconstructed, but in love. Jesus attacked all human pride, not just the private form but especially its public manifestation. As a religious teacher he attacked the very religion he belonged to, subverting it, turning it inside out, in order to show what it is all about: love for God and neighbor.
The Suffering God
The God-Man lived up to his own message and thus had to be murdered. In his suffering on the cross, accused of being a seditious criminal, something weird happened, according to Christian teaching. If you continue the logic of Jesus as God-Man, you could say that on the cross God suffered and died. This sounds controversial, but we do well to think this through.
Jesus, as God-Man, cries out to his Father: “Why have you forsaken me?” (So much for a heavenly Father with whom one has a personal relationship, by the way.) As a consequence of human evil, a breach comes to exist in God, as it were, God is torn apart, not just Jesus’ body. This is why Christianity teaches that all suffering and evil of the world was really absorbed by God in the God-Man.
What Christianity is about is that all the suffering of the world is borne by God in God’s very being. That all evil and violence is absorbed and nullified in the weak and vulnerable flesh of Jesus. Evil did not have the last word, though. Christ had to come back to life.
Christianity teaches that God accepts everybody in Christ. There is genuine forgiveness in the cross of Christ. And because there is genuine forgiveness and acceptance, we learn to forgive and accept ourselves. And because we can do so, we can admit our mistakes and failures and ask others for forgiveness. And because we can do so, others are forgiven and accepted.
According to Christianity, people who are transformed by this genuine forgiveness are invited to follow Christ and enabled to become givers of love, co-sufferers with the sufferers, and courageous resisters of evil.
But this following is not just some behavioral modification that is external to our core. No, this transformation into selflessness, which is not a human possibility—and here we get to the heart of the matter—is enabled through our genuine participation in God.
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According to Christianity, God is is a trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit. This sounds like an archaic religious idea. True enough, the terminology around the trinity was invented long ago by the Church Fathers who used a lot of philosophical terminology to do justice to a difficult subject. Today, we are more aware that the concept of trinity is a way of referring to the complex reality and relationality of God with God’s being and in God’s relationship to the world.
The whole idea of incarnation is only possible on the premise of trinity. The trinity is why the incarnation was possible and why on the cross the whole world’s suffering was taken up in God so as to become the pain of God’s very self.
The wonderful thing is that this taking up into God of the world’s pain was at the same time an opening for human beings to enter the space of God, to participate in God’s very being as followers of Jesus Christ.
God as Our Father
When Jesus teaches his followers to call God Father, it is not to say that Father is cradling them through life, or that Father behaves toward us as our earthly fathers would. Jesus also compares himself to a mother hen, which doesn’t mean he is mothering people into heaven at every turn. Jesus as mother hen, God as Father, these are metaphors to teach the incomprehensible. They point us to the unthinkable truth that we are taken up into God’s reality as much as God is taken up into our reality.
Calling God Father means that Christians acknowledge that the love and unity that characterized Jesus’ relationship with the Father and that led him to his selfless death on behalf of the world, should guide our lives.
Following Christ, we give ourselves away as divine love pouring itself out in the world. This love is not a human possibility. And that is why we continue to use words like God and Christ, lest we ever think this love is simply our own human potential.
That is what Christianity is about. And if you have a personal relationship with God, good for you. I don’t so much, although I wrestle with God a lot. I say a lot of angry things at God because of the messed up world we’re in. That’s a personal relationship of sorts, I guess. But Jesus ain’t my buddy.