I remember many years ago listening to Focus on the Family and a discussion of the 12 steps to intimacy. I’ve wondered about this process as it relates to the Church and its relationship with her suitor, Jesus Christ. Can a connection be made between the caution expressed in the 12 steps of intimacy and the feelings/emotionalism/romanticism emphasis of modern evangelical christianity? Could the caution to not get too deep, too quickly apply to our relationship with God too? (individually and corporately) I don’t want to suggest that ‘not seeking to draw nigh to God’ is the right path, but is there an emphasis in our evangelical christianity that might push people to jump over or rush through needed steps in our path towards ultimate fellowship with almighty God?
In our culture, “intimacy” is a loaded word and it is loaded with emotional closeness but also physical sensuality. It is tangible face-to-face, skin-to-skin interaction. My question is; Do we and can we have that kind of “intimacy” with the Triune God? I’ll venture a NO; at least on this side of the void we do not and cannot have that kind of “intimacy”. So why do we use the language of romanticism; the language of physical closeness to describe our relationship to God? I believe it’s because we’ve allowed the enlightened, liberalized, western emphasis on romance and individualism to influence our understandings of our relationship with God.
God’s invisible, mysterious Spirit is present with us (in countless ways) and He is here to lead us and give us hope. Most tangibly through the Word or other believers, He does love us. He does comfort us. He does embrace us, but I don’t think we can or should describe this in terms of romantic, physical intimacy. There’s still a mysterious gulf between us, and it will probably not be bridged in this earthly life. There is a real and tangible absence of God in our world, or we wouldn’t see the pain and suffering that is rampant. We’re lying to ourselves if we think otherwise.
And that’s where the willful cognitive dissonance in our christianize becomes so unsettling. The way we talk about and describe this relationship isn’t quite ‘real’. It is often not very honest. It lacks authenticity. It has the appearance of wishful thinking. It may even come across as arrogant, as in; “Look at us. See how much more ‘intimate’ we are with God compared to you [heathens]!” I have to wonder; why the pretense? Why can’t we admit that we really don’t know much about God and that we’re really not that close to Him despite all the good and right things we do to seek after Him? Are we afraid of losing clout in the eyes of the skeptics if we admit the shortcomings and realities of our ‘personal relationship’ with the most awesome being in/outside of the universe? Again, I am not saying we should stop seeking Him or throw out spiritual disciplines because they’re feeble or inadequate.
Yes, He is with us in some mysterious way, but paradoxically He is a trillion miles away too. The closest humanity got was around 30AD when He walked on earth with men, but half the time they had trouble believing He was God and didn’t seem to take full advantage of the opportunity. Since then He’s returned to His country and is courting us (individually and corporately) via the bungling, still-maturing church, the mystery of His Spirit and the very humanly compiled Word. Jesus implies this reality in John 7:33 and 8:21) “I am with you for only a short time,” says Jesus, “and then I go to the one who sent me. You will look for me, but you will not find me; and where I am, you cannot come” (John 7:33, 34;)
This is not a hangin-all-over-each-other kind of relationship. This is a very, very long distance relationship in the very earliest stages – at best. Furthermore, I believe we are in the fear and trembling, awe-struck stage where extra politeness (solemnity) and walking on eggshells is in order…through all of earthly life. Essentially, we’ve just met. As in human dating, this short time on earth and our seeking God is the first, awkward date. We are not in the “big, sloppy wet kiss” stage, and that is why the attitude and language of “Jesus is my boyfriend” or even “personal, intimate relationship” may be inappropriate. Is it possible that our mystical pietism with its emphasis on subjective, feelings-oriented, falling-in-love, rock-concert-get-high-on-Jesus spirituality reveals a shallow, pleasure-seeking inclination that is trying to “get to the sex” as fast as possible before we or God are ready? Might it mirror the immature rush to physical intimacy that pervades our western pop culture?
I really like what I recently read here from a Bible teacher/writer. John Suk discusses the dangers of an overemphasis on a ‘personal relationship’ but he also offers an alternative. To me it represents a more honest and Biblical way of thinking about our relationship with God. Here’s the conclusion of this particular article. (And read the whole article if you can – there’s a lot of thought provoking content…)
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 in secular pressures, amidst a therapeutic culture, to cut God down to a manageable size, the language of faith is deeply rooted in scripture. Where the language of personal relationship is always ambiguous and inexact, meaning whatever the speaker happens to privately mean, the language of faith has been deeply examined for more than two thousand years. Where the language of personal relationship sounds implausible or perhaps even impossible, at least as far as the plain sense of such language goes, the language of faith serves as an invitation to ponder mystery and overcome unbelief. 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). That seems, to me, the real meaning and purpose of life.