If you enjoy long religious rants with a hefty dose of confusion, come on down! I’m full of them today.
One of the popular Christian aphorisms I’ve used in my past life—and keep hearing over and over again—goes something like this:
It’s not about religion, it’s about a relationship.
This is commonly understood as meaning: being a Christian is not about traditions and habits and doctrines and rules and so forth. It is about having a personal relationship with Jesus (including God here as well), like a friend, lover, or father. In fact, I bet if you go out and ask your typical North American Protestant Christian what they say on the topic, they will probably verbalize it almost exactly that way. It is incredibly common, and I haven’t heard many negative reactions to the statement.
I’d like to suggest a different take on the subject.
First. I see nothing wrong with the idea that one wants to have, or can have, a very intimate closeness with God and Jesus. I have experienced periods of my life where the connection is quite intense. I felt a sense of awareness, wholeness, and contentment that seemed to come straight from God. It certainly has not been as constant as I thought it should have been, but I’m sure many people like myself who have had long journeys through a religion can admit how it waxes and wanes depending on certain circumstances, struggles, or periods of life.
So, back to the point; what’s my issue with this phrase? Well, for one thing, it’s much too overused. Like others I’ve examined on this blog before, it’s becoming one of those Christianese phrases that people hear so often that the meaning is lost. How many times do you hear “For God so loved the world…” and your brain suddenly goes on vacation to Aruba? It’s not a conscious shift, but it is reflexive. If the truth behind the phrase is important, there must be other ways of expressing it.
People say these things without realizing that it makes no sense at all to outsiders. Christianese can be a barrier to those who want to understand how to live and what to do.
Second. I don’t think it says nearly enough. It needs elaboration, explanation. How many normal Janes and Joes know how to have a real relationship with a man who lived a few millennia ago? How do you have a relationship with someone who (let’s be honest here) doesn’t really talk back? (Oh boy, I’m gonna get flak on that one…) People can pray and spend time in meditation focusing on Jesus, but it’s not like the physical man is there with you at the grocery store helping you pick out the ripest kumquat.
The way I believe we humans are programmed is to have mutual connections with those around us. We have words, body language, and physical touch for very good reason. We should be communal, involved with one another. But after all these years being an active Christian, I’ve never admitted the following to anyone: I don’t know how one can have a mutual, connecting, true relationship with a deity that exists outside of time and space.
I think one can love God (and Jesus) very well. I think one can know about God, pray to God, and trust in God. But how can a relationship occur beyond our human capabilities? Isn’t that sort of ridiculous? We are created (quite masterfully) with senses that enable us to interact with reality. Why can’t we use them? If Jesus is (as is commonly taught) still in human form today and yet fully God in Heaven… why can’t this infinite being (who has a body) have a real relationship with us in a way we can actually comprehend and understand? I don’t think you can say it’s impossible for Jesus to interact with us in that way; for if you teach nothing is impossible with God, then wouldn’t you believe God could either create us with a clear sense for the spiritual realm, or even connect with us using our physical world and abilities? I just don’t get it.
Perhaps I’m just a spiritual cold fish. Maybe I don’t have the same gift of spiritual hearing that many seem to have. I used to try to decipher when God was speaking to me. But the times I felt as if this was happening were emotionally intense moments when my brain and imagination were powerfully influenced by the environment. I certainly don’t live my religious life hinged on emotion—not any longer, as I used to. I want to use my reasoning and natural abilities to encounter God.
I’ve been using the same phrases all my life to try and explain why being a Christian is wonderful and how close one can feel to God… but all the while I haven’t been able to crack the code. And no matter how often I’m told that it’s easy, blissful, and just takes prayer and reading the Bible (or whatever is advised), I don’t buy what I’m being served. I want to have a relationship with this God in a way that fits who I truly am: a human.
Third. I think being a Christian demands much more than what the aphorism describes. I think that having a closness with Jesus is only one small part of being like him (Christian = Christ-like, right?). It means having relationships (plural) with those around us. If we want to be like this wonderful man Jesus, we need to expand our horizons past the prayer closets and personal quiet times. Even if can’t touch him, hang with him, or have in-depth conversations with him, we can do all of these things with other people. Again, we should be communal. I think Matthew 25 says it well:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'”
The way to have a connection with Jesus is to connect with those around us. It is too limited to state, “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.” I think instead we could say, “This religion is about relationships” and go from there.