Poor Theology Could Be Keeping You From a Real Faith

Let's rethink what it means to be 'close' to Jesus.

"Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?"

Over the course of my life, I have been presented with this question hundreds (if not thousands) of times. Growing up in the church, having a “relationship” with Jesus was presented as the hallmark of an authentic Christian faith and the primary guarantee of personal salvation. To be “saved” meant that Jesus lived "in your heart" through faith, making a "relationship" with God possible.

But entering into a relationship with Jesus was only the first step of the Christian faith. According to my youth pastor, the ultimate goal of the Christian life was to draw closer and closer to Jesus, and that could only come about with time and serious effort.

Although “close” and “personal” were never really defined (and strangely subjective), one thing was clear: In order to have a close relationship with Jesus, I needed to do certain things that made God smile—things like praying, reading the Bible and regularly attending church. Most of all, I needed to not do the things God frowned upon—things like smoke, drink and chew or hang out with girls who do (you heard that, too, right?). The more faithful and committed I was to these things, the closer I could get to Jesus.

Or, so I was told.

Over time, I became convinced that my proximity to Jesus was somehow contingent upon the faithfulness of my spiritual devotion. What I mean is, when I was faithful in praying, reading the Bible and doing as I should, I considered myself to be “close” to Jesus. When I failed to do these things (which most often was the case), I found myself to be “far” from him. I jostled between feeling far from Jesus when I wasn’t doing as I should, and longing to be close still when I was. The spiritual roller coaster was nauseating (and exhausting).

It wasn’t until I came to the end of my striving that I stumbled upon the shocking realization that Jesus never wanted to be “close” to me in the first place.

Instead, he always longed to be “perfectly one” with me instead (John 14:20; John 15:5; John. 17:20-26; 1 Cor. 6:17). In other words, where I imagined a relationship between two individuals, God had something much more intimate (and close) in mind—a complete and perfect union with him.

That subtle shift in my thinking—from “relationship” to “union”—radically transformed the understanding of my relation to (and relationship with) God, myself, and those around me. It was then that I discovered, in the words of Phillip Yancey, “the Jesus I never knew.”

Before awakening to the freedom of my union with Christ, I spent two decades huffing and puffing to perpetually draw closer and closer to Jesus. While I experienced many sweet and memorable times with the Lord, many of my efforts backfired—leaving me feeling frustrated, disillusioned, and further from God than before.

While this is not everyone’s experience, it certainly was mine; and it might be yours too. If so, here are three ways that my relationship with Jesus nearly killed my spiritual life.

The goal was proximity instead of conformity.

In thinking about my relationship with Jesus, I pictured Jesus somewhere on the outside of me and me on the outside of him. My life, then, became one big attempt to achieve a closer proximity to Jesus rather than being conformed into the image of the One in whom I was already united. Phrases like, “chasing hard after God”, and “pressing into the heart of God” became commonplace—reinforcing the notion that Jesus was “out there”—impatiently waiting for me to draw close to him.

Prayer, Scripture reading, and the like became the ways I drew near to Jesus rather than the grace-filled resources to help me awaken to and appreciate what was already true of me IN Christ. Determined to be close to Jesus (and stay there), I joined a small group at my church. I soured Amazon and Barnes & Noble, crossing my fingers to stumble upon that irresistible devotion (you know, the one with a good cover). I attended Christian conferences and events, praying (and paying) to press into the heat of God. I even purchased a diary (excuse me, journal) to record my feelings! While all of these were helpful, none of them (not even going to church) bridged the gap for good. Jesus remained as elusive as ever, leaving me chasing after him like a child chasing a ballon in the wind.

The point was striving instead of abiding.

My proximity-based relationship with Jesus produced a life of striving not abiding, running instead of resting, and chasing after God instead of being “found in him” (see Phil. 3:9). To “abide” in Christ seemed lazy, apathetic, and unproductive. I was bound and determined to be as close to Jesus as possible. But the more determined I became, the more bound I found myself—bound by guilt, frustration, and an endless list of expectations I could never achieve. I was caught between wanting to please Jesus and not being able to.

Eventually, I became consumed with the fear of falling out of a relationship with Jesus altogether if I couldn’t get my “act” together. So “act” I did. In public, I acted like a peaceful, confident, joy-filled believer while secretly believing that I would forever be orphaned to that which I longed for the most—the love and acceptance of the Father.

The result was enduring instead of enjoying.

In the end, trying to maintain a close relationship with Jesus felt more like flossing my teeth or sitting through another Transformers movie. It was a task to be endured not a something (better yet, someone) to be enjoyed. After two decades, I came to the gut-wrenching conclusion that I would live the rest of my life as a flustered, defeated Christian who would never achieve lasting intimacy with Christ. I would never be good enough, faithful enough or committed enough.

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When I encountered people who seemed to enjoy their relationship with Jesus, I found myself feeling sarcastic, suspicious, and worse, envious. The abundant life Jesus promised seemed to be a mirage—a nice idea on a horizon I’d never reach. So, I tucked my chin, pulled up my spiritual bootstraps, and endured the never-ending journey towards a Life I would never experience this side of eternity.

How would you describe your relationship with Jesus? Does the thought of it bring delight, joy, and gratitude, or anxiety, gilt, and defeat? If the latter, maybe it’s time to try something new. Maybe God’s calling you to trade in your well-intended (but misguided) pursuit of him and embrace the fact that the pursuit is over, the journey has ended, and that you’ve been found in him.

How would your relationship with Jesus change if you believed that you are already (right now) as close to Jesus as possible? And what if the starting point (as well as the end goal), according to Richard Rohr, is not “out there” but one of being “already there?”

It just might save your relationship with Jesus.

Top Comments

Edmond Sanganyado

4

Edmond Sanganyado commented…

A year ago, I researched on how to became a good theologian and Kevin Vanhoozer asked me an interesting question: what does it mean to follow Christ in the 21st Century? Do we have to draw nearer to God or remain in God?

Yes, I agree that we might need to view our relationship with Christ starting at a place of union. But does that make the concept of drawing near to God in James 4:8 wrong? I don't think so. Like Paul, you and I still have to do some pressing on.

My point is this both drawing closer or remaining in Christ are sufficient images for describing our relationship with Christ. Neglecting one over the other, as this article seem to suggest, might not be wise.

The disciplines of grace help us to remain in Christ so that we don't drift away (Hebrews 2:1-5), or so that we don't fall (1 Corinthians 10:12). However, according to James 4:8, the same disciplines of grace help us to draw closer to God.

Ricki Lee Brooks

1

Ricki Lee Brooks commented…

Hi Dave, your thoughts are well said and well received. Your selection of descriptions superb. You are right...Jesus is close, very close. It only took believing in him, receiving him, placing my faith in him...and even this was the result of God's grace. So abiding is everything. However, maybe you fall short. Not wrong, just not complete. In the first four verses of 1 John, the apostle, inspired by the Holy Spirit, (1) described his past fellowship with Jesus--the flesh and blood, face to face fellowship prior to the ascension--(2) mentioned his present fellowship with the Father and the Son--obviously not the flesh and blood, face to face kind of fellowship prior to the ascension--and (3) offers that his readers can enjoy the same fellowship. The rest of 1 John then has much to say about what this fellowship looks like. This is a fantastic thing.

Imaginatively then, I might pose a question to John: "Wait, you're saying your fellowship with God is as real to you as was your pre-ascension fellowship with Jesus in the flesh? Of course not physically tangible, but in some way just as experiential?" And based on 1 John, I think his answer would be, "Yes, you got it!"

This, I believe, is what most people yearn for when phrases like "Grow closer to the Lord" pop up. This, I believe, is the missing peace. What does abiding in Christ look like? Is it just conformity? Is it just obedience? You are right on when you say a believer is "already (right now) as close to Jesus as possible." But what does it look like, feel like? What do we look for to see the evidence of this closeness? How do we rejoice if we do not know the evidence of his closeness? How do we say "Thank you" if we do not recognize him at work in our lives. The Apostle John made it a point to indicate such fellowship was knowable...experiential. Afterall, wouldn't it just make sense that union with the Savior, abiding with the Savior (bowing before the Father, walking with the Spirit) would be accompanied with the evidence of his very real and close proximity, presence...i.e. fellowship...real time fellowship?

In fact, I think this hunger to experience the presence of God in real time has been the unwitting motivation behind some unfortunate practices and some derailed doctrine. The music as worship mindset through which we often hear, "I so felt the Spirit of God during that last song" may very well (at least at times) provide counterfeit moments in which people believe they've experienced God since they were "swept away" emotionally. Some church practices, like charasmatic events or emotionally charged calls to service, may very well fall into this trap. There are others. They all have something in common...an emotionally satisfying something that we believe is the presence of God. It may be. It may not be. It's just not something the Bible points to as the evidence of the Lord's presence. However, in John 14 and John 16, Jesus pointed to a real time experience with the Spirit of Truth...it has to do with illumination. In the Psalms, David pointed to something similar..."I will hide your word away in my heart that I might not sin against you." And in real time, God's word became a light and lamp to his feet and path. Of course the Bible is filled with this kind of conversation. Moses, Joshua, David, Solomon, Prophets, Apostles...they not only received new inspiration, they were consistently reminded of previous revelation via illumination. In real time, God led them with his word hidden in their hearts now pulled up into their conscious thoughts.

In fact, these kinds of "reminders" fill the rest of 1 John. That which we have learned will be given to us in real time. When it happens, should we not say with excitement, "Oh Lord, thank you for that. Thank you for reminding me. Thank you for showing me your presence. It fills me with hope and joy."

In Matthew 4, Jesus, being led by the Spirit, went into the wilderness and was tempted by Satan. How did he respond? He quoted the Word of God...the Father's word, His word. the Spirit's word. In Matthew 10, he said to his followers, "When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour.
For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you."

So, forgive me for the length, but your great post prompted much contemplation, and let me end like this...

...could evidence of his presence in real time be what folks are talking about and hoping for when saying things like "Grow closer to Christ"?

,,,could it be possible that folks are attempting to fill the holes in their souls with the "things of God" (all good of course) when all that will really fill those holes is God himself?

...could it be folks simply don't know how "close" he is because they do not know what to look for regarding the evidence of his presence?

...could it be they do not really have any way to guage the difference between "grow closer" and "abide?"

Just some thoughts...some pondering. Thank you again for your post. It's moved me to both contemplation and prayer. Keep on keeping on. Ricki

11 Comments

PM

115

PM commented…

Thank you so much for this article. I've never liked the "personal relationship with Jesus" because I think it gives people the wrong idea about how God interacts with us and sets people up for feelings of failure.

Rachel Emhoff Ganther

1

Rachel Emhoff Ganther commented…

To the Editor(s): Go check the 2nd paragraph under topic about proximity and conformity. This is a great article overall, but in that paragraph, there are 3 typos :
soured should be scoured, heat of God probably was to be heart of God, and balloon instead of ballon.
Just trying to help,
Blessings!

Dave Hickman

2

Dave Hickman replied to Rachel Emhoff Ganther's comment

It's my fault! I'm a child of autocorrect!

Don Cornell

4

Don Cornell replied to Dave Hickman's comment

Oh, and I thought I saw "gilt" in there too. Guilt.

Margaret Nahmias

46

Margaret Nahmias commented…

I can relate to this. I always strugged with the idea of having a relationship with someone who was not visible I have began to question if the idea of a relationship with Jesus was biblical

Doug Barr

148

Doug Barr commented…

Theology is a collection of beliefs that have all been made up and this make-believe is keeping you from real life. https://thelastwhy.ca/poems/2010/4/4/jesus-song.html

Peggy Perry

6

Peggy Perry commented…

As I commented in my recent blog post "Conversations With God", I've always been in a pretty close relationship with God (I always use God when referring to the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit) but it has led to some uncomfortable moments when He demanded total submission to His will, which often meant doing something I didn't particularly want to do. But after 59 years, I learned to recognize He is always right, and it becomes easier each time. I think people who want to "have a relationship with" Jesus have to decide what kind of relationship they want. Some people are content with just being within sight of Him, calling on Him in emergencies, trying to follow His directions as often as possible. Others want to be like the original disciples, within touching distance daily, trying their best to understand what He says and trying to do what He does. A very few recognize that there is something more, something beyond the relationship of teacher and student. We have always been meant to be 'children of God', brothers and sisters to Christ. In order to be that, we must have God inside us, like the DNA of our earthly parents, creating the pattern of our existence and guiding the development of our minds and hearts like our parents combined DNA determines whether we are tall or short or blonde or green-eyed. I began to feel the most comfortable in my relationship when I began imagining myself as a glove on the hand of God. It does involve total submission, moving at His direction, saying what He tells me to say (which often surprises me and the listener, but always causes a result that you can see God's movement in), and losing all inhibitions when following His orders. I used to be severely introverted, until a dramatic evening when I finally accepted Him, and learned my first lesson in submission. Nearly 50 years later, I can stand in front of crowds and speak without notes, make a joyful noise without worrying if I hit all the right notes, and totally enjoy my life. I pray for others to enjoy this, too, and have been trying to show them how by my example. He came that we might have LIFE, and that more abundantly. I am not rich by earthly standards, but oh, my, what riches I have in my soul. May you find that same treasure, my friends, and hopefully, my brothers and sisters in Christ.

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