It's happened three times in the last three weeks, so let me give you a composite account of the conversations...
-- [Embarrassed biting of lip] Umm... I know I should know the answer to this... And I feel really silly for bringing it up. I realise it's, like, really basic... but it's been bugging me for ages now: How do I Have A Relationship With God?
-- What do you mean?
-- Well I know it's not about rules. I keep hearing that Christianity is not a religion, it's a relationship. Well, ok. But how do I Have A Relationship With God? It sounds so stupid that I should ask that. I know this is Christianity 101. It makes me wonder whether I'm even a Christian. But when people talk about "having a relationship with God", I kinda know what they mean. But I'm not sure I have what they're talking about. What are they talking about?
-- To be honest, I don't really know what they're talking about. And I wonder if they know what they're talking about.
Yes, that's really how I've been answering this question. Really.
Which will make you wonder whether I'm even a Christian. I mean honestly, who could possibly be against having a relationship with God??
Well I'm not against enjoying the gift of relationship with God. But I'm dead set against definitions of Christianity that throw the spotlight on me and my relationship with God. That might sound like a trivial difference. Actually it's all the difference in the world.
Don't get me wrong, I know the living God - a personal God - I hear Him in His word, I speak to Him in prayer. I enjoy fellowship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Honest, I do. It's great. All a wonderful gift that's mine in Jesus. Fantastic.
But if I have to "have a relationship with God" then I'm stuffed. Seriously. I'm hell-fodder if 'relationship with God' is up to me.
Let's put the exact same truth in slightly different terms and you'll see what I mean: I love the law. It describes the good life of loving God and loving neighbour. Brilliant. And I have performed good works which the Father has prepared in advance for me to walk in (Ephesians 2:10). And that's been a lot of fun. Yay law. Yay works. Yay. But if I ever start talking about 'the heart of Christianity' as 'me obeying the law' then let me be accursed! If I ever say "People get the wrong idea about Christianity, it's not about ancient rituals, it's actually all about legal obedience" - you'll instantly realize my error. Well, it's just the same when you say "It's not about being religious, it's about Having A Relationship With God."
And you'll say - No, Glen, you've got it backwards. Religion is about rules - yuck. But Christianity is a totally different thing. It's all about relationship. It's not the same thing at all!
To which I'll say - Really?
I understand that the essence of Christianity is not my outward works (so far, so good) - but then I'm commonly told that it's about the quality of my inner devotional life towards God. Do you see what's happened? We've come to a different swamp, but we're still sunk. We're still lost in 'works righteousness', it's just there's a different flavour to the 'works'. Before it was all about outward, ritualistic hoops. Now I'm being told it's all about inward, pietistic hoops.
Well Hallelujah! Don't you feel the chains just falling off you? Rejoice, you don't have to perform physical acts, only mental and spiritual ones! Is that the freedom the gospel brings?
No, it's just a different kind of slavery. And in some ways, it's an even deeper slavery. That's why Christians, furtively, secretly, wonder to themselves (and sometimes they wonder it aloud to visiting Christian speakers) What is this Relationship With God I keep being told to manufacture? And why is it spoken of as liberating when all I feel is condemned by it??
Because, seriously, who on earth can have "a relationship with God"? Where would you even begin?
Look at the person in that photo at the top. Are you like them? Can you do what they're doing?
And if you could manage it, what, precisely, would be the point of Jesus? Do we really need "the One Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus"? Is He actually crucial to our Christianity? Or perhaps He just gets us in the door and then leaves us to get on with the main work of Christianity: having a relationship with God? Is that it?
No! The priesthood of Jesus is absolutely vital to understand. And this is what I've told my questioners when they've asked. The good news is this: We, by nature, are sunk in self and sin and have no chance of a relationship with God. But Christ is our Mediator who became Man for us, who lived our life for us, died our death for us and rose again to the Father's right hand for us. He now lives to intercede for us, carrying us on His heart the way Aaron carried the sons of Israel on his (Exodus 28:29).
Jesus is the true David - the true Man after God's own heart. Now, by the Spirit, I am swept up into Him - carried on His heart while He enjoys the ultimate heart-to-heart. I am included in the true God-Man relationship - not because of any devotional aptitude or inclination on my part. It is a sheer gift of grace given freely in Jesus.
I have a relationship with God. The good news is that it's not my own relationship, which would be as fickle as my feelings. No the relationship I have with God is Christ's relationship with God.
Some don't like this way of speaking. They think it diminishes a warm and personal walk with God. The opposite is the case. To know that I have Christ's relationship with the Father is where my personal walk begins. Secure in Jesus I can enjoy my status as a child of God. I can even join in with the Spirit's constant prayer: "Abba, Father." But none of this is a relationship I must manufacture. It's the grace in which - FACT - I now stand through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 5:1-2).
So this is what I said to my questioners. Don't look within, trying to find a relationship with God. You won't find it in you. Look to Christ - your Mediator, Advocate, Intercessor and Priest. He is your relationship with God. To the degree that you know you're on His heart, you'll feel Him in yours.