Saturday, November 08, 2008

Not a Mutual Affair

I'm anticipating some flack on this one, because it is well-used and well-loved, but I have to do it. I can't find a legitimate reference in the Bible to having a "relationship with God." By legitimate, I am not counting the 11 times that this concept shows up in the NLT, and 16 times in the Message. No where else is this phrase found, in the NIV, NASB, ESV, NCV, Young's, CEV, KJV, NKJV or 21KJV, except Romans 2:17 in the NIV - "Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God..." Note: to God, not with God. And nothing to brag about. What has been the effect of this term on how we understand ourselves before God?

If we are going to use the word "relationship," we need to understand that we must be speaking of something less than a mutual relationship with God. There is much in our current books and music that suggests that God is our friend. Practically every movie where God shows up, he is portrayed as a friendly old man, and for some reason usually black. But take a look at what John, the one whom Jesus loved, says about this, and tell me how mutual it sounds:
  • We love because he first loved us.
  • If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth.
  • You are my friends, if you do what I command.
  • Those who say, "I know him," but do not do what he commands are liars, and the truth is not in them.
  • This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
  • No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only,who is at the Father's side, has made him known.
And that's just John. Paul says, "Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?" He has no need of us as he is entirely self-sufficient; we are desperately in need of him as we have nothing. He exists whether we acknowledge him or not; we despair the moment we lose hope in him. His love and grace are unfathomable: we will never repay him or worship him enough. He yearns jealously for us, but if we do same toward him we become the devil. We might question him, but we will end up repenting in dust and ashes, because he never fails.

He can call us his friends, but do we dare call him our friend? I wonder...

However, if this "relationship" is much less than the mutual thing the word suggests, it is also much more than a Creator/creature relationship. Think of the word pictures God uses to describe himself to those who have faith in him: Father, Lord, Helper, Comforter, Provider. The Diest is wrong to think of God as having wound up this world like a watch and left us to run on our own. He is everywhere, in everything, intensely involved in every aspect of his creation. In him all things hold together; in him we all have our being. He has chosen to love us, but also to be grieved by us, quenched by us, put on a cross by us... for us...

No, I'm sorry: "Relationship with God" will not do at all. No wonder real translations of the Bible never use the term. So what terms do they use?
  • Fellowship with God: More than cookies and church juice after the service. This is to "have things in common;" it speaks of intimate participation and communion. And it's a one way street - we must have things in common with him, or there is no fellowship.
  • Walk with God: Again, to walk with God means to go where he goes. He never tags along with us. It is a lifestyle of following him.
  • Godliness: That consciousness of God that molds our character, values, principles and desires to his. An "old-fashioned" word that is a great loss to the modern church.
  • Knowing God: So deep, no room to describe here.
  • Loving God: Deeper still. And impossible until we have come to know his love for us.
These are wonderful words! Can we not use them, instead of settling for "relationship with God"? It is not as easy to do as one might suppose, as I find myself defaulting to it regularly. But I think we had better do so, before our children's children think that God is only an elderly black man, or woman...


Jordan said...

Hi Jim,

I love your thoughts here. Would it be possible to publish an RSS feed for this blog, so I could follow it from my feed reader? I'm afraid I'll forget about it if it's not in front of my face.

Great thoughts, although I think you are a little heavy-handed on the Message/NLT... not that I would use them as a primary source, but I do like them as a secondary or tertiary sometimes.

What version do you use? I find myself using the TNIV and ESV the most often.

Take care!

Anonymous said...

Very thought provoking Jim, and relevant, since we are always one generation from getting seriously off the way.

I've often thought of the contingent nature of our friendship with God- "You are my friends, if you do what I command." It sometimes gets conflated with God loving us no matter what. I think there is a tension in Scripture though, between the intimacy of knowing God as someone who has experienced and triumphed over all our troubles, as someone who we can go to as our Abba, and the incredible holiness and glory of God.

P.S. When I sing a well known song on Sundays about wanting to see God's face, I often think that if I actually did, how I would die instantly (even angels, it seems that the first thing they have to say is something like "Do not be afraid"). The holiness of God is a wonderful and dreadful thing.

Dave said...

I'm completely in agreement over the 'Jesus is my friend' thing. It's driven me crazy for years.

Is it entirely wrong though to claim that we are in a relationship with God? I hope I'm not misunderstanding you when it seems you are saying that? I, once again, completely agree that we are certainly not peers or co-equal with God and therefore a 'mutual relationship' in the any sense is not possible.

I would suggest the majority of our human relationships are not mutual however. I'm sure you would agree, Father-Child, Mother-Child, Teacher-Student, Employer-Employee, Senior Counsellor-Junior Counseller?

I understand your point, I'm just wondering if it's 'throwing the baby out with the bathwater' saying that the term '"Relationship with God" will not do at all'?

Scottish Dave

P.S. Have you got your hands on an ESV Study Bible yet? So good! I just had another two arrive in the mail today for the other Pastors at our church.

Jim Badke said...

Thanks Dave. My concern is that we are neglecting biblical words for words and phrases that don't show up in the Bible at all. True, we may know what we mean by "relationship with God," but many in the church are taking it to mean something quite different. Why not keep the baby and chuck the bathwater, which has become dirty with use?

Dave said...

Absolutely! Chuck the bathwater! Got you Jim. Just joining the conversation.

mishyg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jim Badke said...

Your comment showed up in my email, but was removed from the blog, so I thought I would just write back. First, good to hear from you! I heard about you when the Briercrest boys were here, but I was glad to get a message from you! Second, I won’t think less of you for a moment for talking about your relationship with God - it is obvious that what you mean by that is from the word of God. But I hope to encourage people to consider the words that we have neglected in our popular Christian culture as a result: Fellowship with God, walk with God, godliness, knowing God, loving God. These are such deep and rich terms that they make “relationship with God” feel like a Tim Horton’s doughnut in comparison.

Here’s one more to think about: “In Christ,” as in “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Philippians 3). To be “in Christ” is to be so united with him that his desires become our desires, his values our values. We love what he loves and hate what he hates, and we think his thoughts after him. Good ideas to ingrain in your head!

California Girl said...

I completely agree, Jim; I think it's important that we define what we mean if we are to use the word 'relationship' in reference to God. We have belittled the Creator and toned down His glory when we speak of Him in such lowly, humanistic terms. And we have unfortunately failed in an accurate representation of salvation and grace and what it means to live 'in Christ'.

Jordan said...

Just a response to California Girl here...

I think one of the huge differences between Christianity and any other religion is that God HAS belittled Himself, toned Himself down, for our benefit. He came in human form so that He might be relatable, that we may see Christ and so therefore see the Father. How does the verse go?

'Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death- even death on a cross!

yes, God humbled Himself, and I think he did it for a reason. When emphasizing His glory, we must not play down the humanity He accepted for our sake - otherwise, we might as well worship Allah or Zeus, some God in the sky who is so terrible we dare not even speak His true name.

Chris D said...

Is it also a matter of growing from drinking spiritual milk to the good stuff, meat? Is it ok perhaps to teach 'relationship' to someone who is young, and as they grow and mature, to open them up to understanding that we are to know, and walk with God?

Chris D said...
This comment has been removed by the author.