“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.
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.