July 10th, 2010 | 5 Comments
“God desperately wants an intimate relationship with you!”
Relax, I’m not going to spend the entire post bagging on this claim and those who make it. I will spend the greater part of this post explaining the problem that many Christians have with that statement, but you might be surprised where I end up — I certainly am.
Recently a friend pointed out how frustrated he was with this particular evangelical meme. I, too, have been annoyed by just such claims before. “Cerebral” Christians like myself are usually critical of those who simply trust what they think they know about God, since we have – not infrequently correctly – identified many of their beliefs as erroneous understandings that are sometimes counterproductive to the Christian mission. Surely no small part of the disgust that many feel toward those who typically speak of an “intimate relationship” with God issues from a sense that these evangelicals are stereotypically not as close to God as they seem to think they are: for these, daily prayer times, emotional worship services, and a commitment to avoiding “the world” seem to be the central components and hallmarks of a robust “relationship” with God, but this more often manifests as a general out-of-touch heaven-mindedness. In effect, it all sounds so make-believe, and a disappointing deficit of healthy fruit this type of “relationship” seems to produce bears that out.
Many of us shake our heads when we hear someone make the above “intimate relationship” claim because it seems so self-centered. In contrast, biblical worship consists of more than nice, positive feelings about God, immaculate and unquestioned doctrine, a disgust with grave moral sins, and the fond, firm conviction that we are buddies with Jesus. It is also characterized by a resolve to whittle away at the small niggling sins, such as bad attitudes, selfishness, gluttony, judgmentalism, etc. and to develop Christ-like attitudes such as a genuinely passionate compassion that begins with a profound awareness of the most tangible needs among humanity. The Gospels present Jesus’ teachings as preoccupied with righteousness, which, far from merely harping on the importance of some ritually distinctive and esoteric moral code, he instead fulfilled by spending the rest of his time meeting the physical needs of the destitute and railing against unproductive religiosity. Consulting the life of Jesus as displayed in the Gospels, we come away with the impression that both personal holiness and active participation in somehow bringing about God’s ideal world order of peace and love are the most recognizable characteristics of God’s kingdom. And yet evangelicals are, as a group, among the least concerned with meeting physical needs among Christians, due to an unnerving conviction that what sick, poor, and hungry people really need is to repent and get in on that “intimate relationship” with God.
Another important reason some Christians look askance at the statement in question is that the claim is being made that God is pursuing a relationship with us in a way that is not at all likely if we understand “intimate relationship” in the same way we mean that phrase in human terms. However immanent we believe He is, God is undeniably also transcendent, and not likely to engage in even the most metaphorical sort of “pillow talk” with us, except perhaps through media such as Scripture or through the encouragement of one another. He interfaces with us in a much less direct fashion than we are taught to approach Him; the statement should perhaps be more accurately phrased, “God wants you to pursue a relationship with Him in which you want desperately to be intimate with Him.” He is God, so if He really did “desperately” want a relationship with us, surely He’d be more successful at performing His side of the bargain. As a frank Catholic friend of mine likes to point out, “What’s up with this ‘personal relationship’ deal? I can’t pull up a chair and have a chat with Him like I can with a human being. I can’t hear Him talking the same way He can hear me.” It seems one-sided: He knows every thought, emotion, and unseen desire of ours, but we strain to discern His thoughts about everything relevant to the living out of our lives, our future plans, etc. There’s something about the “intimate relationship” expression that would have to be considered metaphorical in a way that doesn’t seem to be recognized among those who are wont to use the expression.
Surely it is telling that some of the kindest and most godly people I know would speak of their relationship with God in just this way. As I become more convinced that Jesus modeled our ideal relationship with God, I begin to see that our pursuit of holiness and a singleminded determination to actualize the Kingdom of God through our righteous acts should indeed be motivated and characterized by a desire for “intimacy” with God in the sense of a oneness of purpose and a carefully cultivated love for His ways. I have come to the conclusion that there is something important missing when we go about doing good deeds and fulfilling righteousness without a personal dimension and a recognition of the initiative God takes with us, calling us to understand what MacDonald called God’s “fatherheart” and thereby motivating our actions beyond rote legalism. It’s not enough to either just believe the way God wants us to believe or to do what God wants us to do — our righteousness should be undertaken as a response to God’s love for us and an attempt to develop the love in ourselves that motivates God Himself.
I’m not really talking to anyone but myself in this post. I am a mostly “cerebral” Christian who has recently come under the conviction that God is indeed pursuing me in ways beyond the ethical or the intellectual. He wants us to participate in His plans for the world, behaviors and attitudes that aren’t simply a divine demand motivated by abstract principles, but are foremost an expression of His love for us. When I recognize God as the Father who revealed His Word to us in the person of Jesus, who desires all sin systematically and surgically purged from my life so that I can be ever closer to Him, how can I come to any conclusion other than that God does desperately desire for intimacy with us?
Yes, granted, it’s a less blithe and more costly brand of “intimacy” than is often conceived by those who use the expression above (and we are right to call them on this), but it’s the kind of relationship I recognize that I most desperately desire and need.