March 24, 2006
Your Own Personal Jesus: Is the language of "a personal relationship" biblical?
The song "Personal Jesus" by Depeche Mode describes the faith of many: "Your own personal Jesus. Someone to hear your prayers. Someone who cares." In this post, John Suk, a professor of homiletics at Asian Theological Seminary in Manila, The Philippines, challenges popular evangelical jargon by questioning whether having a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" is poor theology or, worse, a capitulation to theraputic secular values? Below is an excerpt. You may read Suk's full article at Perspectives Journal's website.
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.
As a result, using the language of personal relationship is bound to lead to all sorts of confusion. As a pastor I met more than a few people who experienced doubt, or perhaps anger, because they didn't experience Jesus the way their Christian friends claimed to.
The language of personal relationship with God has become popular due to the pervasive influence of the language of secularity. So Marsha Witten cogently argues in her book, All is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism (Princeton, 1993), a close textual analysis of fifty-eight sermons on the parable of the prodigal son as found in Luke 15:11-32. Twenty-seven of the sermons were preached in mainline Presbyterian churches, and the rest to conservative Southern Baptists. In both traditions, Witten discovers, preachers respond to secularity by accommodating their language to it. Biblical language that emphasizes God's transcendence is replaced by language that emphasizes God's immanence. Jesus is not in heaven, at the right hand of God; he lives in our hearts. God is primarily seen as a "daddy," as sufferer on our behalf, and as extravagant lover. In these sermons the traditional language for God is accommodated to the human desire for connection and intimacy.
Furthermore, these sermons lack much sense that Christianity has anything to say beyond one's personal relationship to God. In both conservative and liberal denominations, the language of conversion has been replaced by the language of personal relationship. The language of personal relationship fits with secularity; the traditional language of conversion, of trading faiths through a dying to self, does not.
One cannot fail by recall David Wells' warning:
They labor under the illusion that the God they make in the image of the self becomes more real as he more nearly comes to resemble the self, to accommodate its needs and desires. The truth is quite the opposite. It is ridiculous to assert that God could become more real by abandoning his own character in an effort to identify more completely with ours. And yet the illusion has proved compelling to a whole generation. (God in the Wasteland, Eerdmans, 1994, 100-101.)
Is this possible? Do many Christians have a personal relationship not so much with Jesus, but with something in their heads, with something that they're comfortable with, a social construction driven by their need to go easy on themselves?
I've tried to pastor parents who just gave birth to a child with Down's syndrome. After a car accident, once, I buried a man's wife and only child. I've seen hundred of rotting bodies in a little church in Nterama, in Rwanda ? victims of genocide. I have a foster daughter who gets calls from her real parents in Zimbabwe saying that their whole neighborhood has just been bulldozed by Mugabe's henchmen. Everyday I go to work, here in Manila, I see malnourished street children begging for coins.
In such a world I think that rather than focusing on "personal relationship," we need to recover the Psalmist's language of lament because it fairly represents how we ought to feel about Jesus' absence until he comes again to make all things new.
Second, we need to revisit Scripture's assertion that we are "in Christ." Being in Christ ? even if it isn't a personal relationship ? is a wonderful and cosmic reality, the new history begun in Christ. A further consequence of being in Christ, Lewis Smedes argues, is that it makes us "part of a program as broad as the universe," as opposed to a narrow, pragmatic, and personal program of that type described by Witten.
Rather than saying, "I have a personal relationship with Jesus," why don't we say instead, "I have faith in Jesus," or "I believe in Jesus." Where the language of personal relationship has a very questionable pedigree, amidst a therapeutic culture, to cut God down to a manageable size, the language of faith is deeply rooted in Scripture. The apostle John put it this way: "This is [God's] command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us" (1 John 3:23).