Saturday, April 01, 2006

Your Own Personal Jesus: Is the language of "a personal relationship" biblical?

Evangelicals generally insist that “the meaning and purpose of life is to have a personal relationship with Jesus.” That’s how a Methodist pastor I was listening to a few months ago put it. Philip Yancey says it another way in his Reaching for the Invisible God (Zondervan, 2000): “getting to know God is a lot like getting to know a person. You spend time together, whether happy or sad. You laugh together. You weep together. You fight and argue, then reconcile.”

But we also confess that Jesus is not physically present on earth. So how does one have a personal relationship with someone you can’t talk to, share a glass of wine with, or even email? We need to do some fundamental reflection on the whole notion of having a “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ. While, on the one hand, I respect the longing for intimacy with God that these words reflect, they also concern me because they betray a creeping sort of secularization of our language about God.

The phrase “a personal relationship with Jesus,” is not found in the Bible. Thus, there is no sustained systematic theological reflection on what the phrase means. In fact, people experience the personal presence of God – in a wide variety of idiosyncratic and highly personal ways. Publicly, however, when people say they have "a personal relationship" with Jesus, it sounds like they are saying they have a relationship characterized by face-time, by talk-time, by touching, by all the things – and especially the intimacy – we usually associate with having a personal relationship with another human being.

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