Posts Tagged ‘personal devotions

02
Feb
12

Why “developing a personal relationship with Jesus” might be a bad idea

One of the most common catchphrases you will hear in evangelical Christian circles is “developing a personal relationship with Jesus.”   It’s a phrase that gets used often as a way to underscore the importance of having a living faith, rather than a faith that is merely based on assent to certain ideas, or participation in certain church practices.   Often it seems, in my experience, that “buidling a personal relationship with Jesus” is the proposed solution to innumerable problems and challenges facing Christians today.

I’m a little bit skeptical of the phrase, because, for starters, I’m skeptical of anything that is proposed as solution for all my problems.   Secondly, I wonder what people mean when they talk about a “personal relationship with Jesus.”  The phrase is so over-used that I think people don’t stop to think about what they are saying.

When most people talk about their “personal relationship” with Jesus, it seems to imply something like a relationship between two best friends.  Often “developing your personal relationship” means “spending time” with Jesus in prayer and personal Bible study.   For most people I think they see this as kind of  like having some “getting to know you” time with God.

If this is a true reflection of what evangelicals mean by “developing a personal relationship with Jesus,” I think it can be problematic.

I worry that evangelicals can let a kind of “works righteousness” in through the back door by placing so much emphasis on personal devotion.   It seems to cast the relationship in a rather one-sided way; it seems it’s up to us to “develop” a relationship with God.  I think the gospel says something quite different: God reaches out and establishes a relationship with us, even while we are rebellious sinners who don’t care at all about him.   If our relationship with God is based on whatever we have “developed,” I think we’re in deep trouble.  That’s far too shaky a foundation.

I think we need to be clear that we do not put our trust in the relationship we have developed with Jesus – our trust is in Jesus himself.  This is another way of saying, we don’t trust our trust, because this comes at the question from the human side, and can end up leaving the impression that our relationship is something we develop and contribute to salvation. Faith is more radically outward-focused than that. We trust in Christ alone. We bring nothing to the table, even if we’ve been a Christian for decades.

So, to have “personal” faith is not so much about being on familiar terms with Jesus, in the way we might conceive of a personal relationship which develops between friends (although trusting in Christ alone will likely lead towards something like that over time); it is personal because we, as persons, trust in the person of Christ.

If our personal relationship with Christ “develops,” it’s not so much that we develop it, but that it develops in us by the Spirit as we put our trust daily in Christ alone – that is, as we continue to trust that Christ will be faithful to us, even as our meagre devotion to him remains tainted by sin.

So, I think, if I was to use this over-used phrase, I would want to be very clear that the personal relationship we have with Jesus is the fruit of our outwardly-focused trust in the person of Christ, rather than the foundation.  This is a subtle distinction, but I think it is an important one.

10
Sep
10

Christian Life as Ecclesial Life

I want to finish this three part discussion of Salvation and the Christian life by drawing attention to the ecclesial nature of the Christian life.  This also brings us full circle, as we return to the question of theology and ethics.

From a Christian perspective, there are no autonomous subjects.  All of us exist in a relation of dependence upon God.  Yet the idea that we are autonomous selves is often found within the Church, as well as in our hyper-individualistic society.  For example, we often treat the topic of Christian life in a highly privatized and individualistic manner.

For those who are evangelicals: think of how much stress is put on the importance of our “personal relationship with Jesus” in the evangelical tradition.  How about “personal devotions?”  We spend a lot of time talking about (and feeling guilty about) “personal devotions.”  I’m not saying that private prayer and meditation on scripture are unimportant; surely they are.  But compare the amount of stress put on “personal devotions” with the attention that is given to other issues.   I mean, of all the challenges facing the church today, of all the things for us to focus our time and energy on, the one thing that evangelicals are racked with guilt over is “personal devotions”?  And when this is done in the context of a consistent focus on our “personal relationship” with Christ, the Church can seem redundant.

We are still dealing with the question of the chrisotogically determined direction of salvation and its implications for the Christian life.  The Christian life is ecclesial because God’s election of Jesus Christ includes the election of the Church to be his witnesses.  There is no “private” salvation; there is no “individualistic” election to salvation.  God’s work in Christ is not intended to sporadically save independent and autonomous Christians who will live solitary lives of saintliness.  Rather, it is about God forming a people who will give witness to his redemption by their words and deeds.   This may seem like a reduntant point but it needs to be said: the Christian life is an ecclesial life.  We are definitely not autonomous subjects; we are members of a body, who can only function in the context of that body.  In attempting to answer the question, “how now shall we live?” the emphasis is on the word we.

But this is not simply to say that Christians are to value “community” and “relationships” in the abstract.  Again we must look to Jesus Christ as the concrete and particular revelation of the truly human life.  We are dealing with the particular God revealed in Christ; this should lead to a very particular Church – a particular kind of community, not “community” in general or as a value in and of itself.  The particular kind of community in which we live means that the Christian life is a very particular kind of life.  Perhaps it would be better to say it is a peculiar kind of life.  Just as the God of the gospel always cuts against the grain of the world’s expectations, so the life of the Christian community ought to be counter-cultural.   The Church is called to embody the always surprising grace of God in its communal life together, and it should therefore be the context in which a different way of life is enacted and sustained.

Therefore as we think about the question of “ethics” within the context of the Christian life, we must reject the enlightenment suspicion of “tradition-dependent” ethics. Christian ethics is explicitly tradition-dependent, because the Christian lives and moves and thinks in the context of the Church and attempts to do so with the Church.  The Christian believes that the commands of God are directed to the Church, not to autonomous individuals.  Ethics, therefore, is always ecclesial.

The task of Christian ethics, then, is not so much about abstracting “timeless principles” that can be applied to any situation, as it is about seeking to inhabit an understanding of God and the world that is shaped by the Church as the people of God, attempting to be a living enactment of the story of the gospel.   In the end, Christian ethics is about what is real, and what is real is Jesus Christ and the gospel.  If the gospel is the true story of God’s history with humanity, then Christian ethics can be described, as Hauerwas puts it, as living as if Jesus and Trinity matter; living as if the gospel is reality.

There is no such thing as “ethics for anybody.” We all stand in a tradition, and cannot exist as  “autonomous individuals.”  Ethics, then, must be received and nurtured in the context of the Christian community.

This too is part of the direction of our salvation.   We are saved for communion with God and with our fellow human creatures.   We find this in the new humanity which Christ has inaugurated.  We participate in it now as an anticipation of its full realization in the new Kingdom.




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