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.