“A Personal Relationship with God” Reconsidered

A few weeks ago, I gently challenged the language my pastor had used when talking about what happens when we become Christians. In words I have heard most of my life, and used myself, my pastor spoke entering into a personal relationship with God. He spoke about being able to talk to God and fellowship with God and have God for a friend.

I began by simply saying, “I don’t have that kind of relationship and communication with God.” I love God, I am personally devoted to God, I even like God, but many of the key ingredients of a personal relationship are missing.

I asked the pastor, “Would you agree that communication and conversation is essential to a personal relationship?” The pastor conceded this. I then explained that I have very little personal communication from God. I have almost no conversations where we enter into dialogue, ask questions, and give answers. We never talk through things.

It is hard to be candid about this. First, the idea of a personal relationship with God is at the heart of evangelical spirituality and tradition even though the phrase isn’t lifted from Scripture. Second, there is the fear of being the only one in the room that isn’t having conversations with God. What if I am problem and God is chatting with everyone else?

But I do what I can. I spend time in God’s Word daily. I often have a gentle impression that God’s Spirit is drawing my attention to a particular verse. Yes, that is probably God communicating to me. But it is far from the kind of back forth conversations at the heart of most friendships.

Honestly, if our friends communicated to us like God does, we would think them lousy friends. I have presented serious, heart-breaking burdens to God every day. I have asked for insight and heard nothing day after day, month after month. God has been silent, or I have been unable to hear what He is saying.  I would like to hear God’s thoughts about specific personal issues. But there is just silence and not even an explanation for the silence. If a friend you took out to lunch at Kozy Kitchen did this, it would be infuriating.

But my experience is no dark night of soul. I feel like God is there and, more importantly, is with me. He does not seem further away than He ever has. God has led Teckla and me faithfully over the years when decisions have had to be made. That leading, however, has almost never included the kind of conversation that a person would have with friend. I may have a “personal relationship with God” but it is quite different, and perhaps rightly different, from all other personal relationships.

Another person in the congregation overheard me explaining all this to the pastor and caught up with me before I left the church. He declared, “I have conversations with God all the time.” I responded, “That is wonderful. Could I give you some questions to ask Him on my behalf? Please let me know what he says.” Usually, people explain that isn’t how it works, but he readily agreed, so I requested that he ask God about my son Peter and how I should think about the prophetic promises spoken over his life. I wasn’t asking for insight into the future or anything like that. I just wanted God’s thoughts about my son.

The next Sunday, I asked him what God had said. He replied, “God said, ‘Teach him.’  I said, “Okay, would you ask God what I should teach him and maybe how I should teach him?” I then explained that real conversations allow that kind of dialogue and back and forth. He replied, “That is all I got.” He later conceded my point about few of us having genuine dialogue with God where we ask questions and He gives answers. He later apologized for implying the reason I wasn’t hearing God because my heart was wrong in some way. Oddly, his sweet and humble apology made me think he did converse with God.

I suspect that God gives us the level and amount of direct communication that He can trust us with. The clearer and more direct God’s communication is, the more accountable we are for any failure to obey. Sometimes just one clear revelation from God is enough to split churches and spawn unbalanced ministries and movements. One clear prophetic word can launch a thousand crazy interpretations and applications if the clarity of the word isn’t matched by the wisdom and maturity of the hearer. God’s gentle prompting, faithful underlining of verses, and guiding peace may be expressions of his mercy—not a failure to be a faithful friend. He is God.

Maybe I am not attacking the idea of a personal relationship with God; I am arguing that we should not lead people to expect the daily chats with God that we would have with our best friend. I pray regularly and take time to listen to God. I have a notebook of things I think God may be saying to me—but honestly most of it isn’t very personal or very relevant to specific things I face.

Recently, I read through my four-year record of what God has been saying to me. Mostly it was “Mark, trust me”. So I will.  

About Mark

I live in Myrtle Point, Oregon with my wife Teckla and am the father of four boys. Currently I teach writing and literature at Southwest Oregon Community College. I am a graduate of Myrtle Point High School, Northwest Nazarene College, and have a Masters in English from Washington State University.
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