I first knowingly affirmed my faith in the gospel when I was
nine years old. In the Baptist church I was raised in, I had been invited
repeatedly to embrace “a living relationship” with my Lord and Savior, Jesus
Christ. It was an invitation filled with promise. Other friends will fail you;
he won’t. Other relationships won’t satisfy you; this one will. Want to be
happy? Here’s the key.
I embraced it on those terms, and for a long time—years– I
was somewhat satisfied by it. The
experience of worship filled an emotional need in me and I interpreted that as what having “a
living relationship” with Jesus was all about. But as I grew older I became more
cynical. Those emotions I equated with relationship? They weren’t produced by
the Holy Spirit; they were manufactured by a manipulative worship style. And,
of course, seeing through it meant that it didn’t work any more for me. In a way my “living relationship” with Jesus
died then, and what followed were some very dry, overly-intellectual years.
And, of course, lots of questions. What is a living
relationship with God really like? What’s it supposed to feel like? And when
those feelings are confused, what does that mean? My friend Denis puts it well:
“Do I love him [Jesus] really, or am I in love with The Story that is so
profoundly satisfying, speaking to every part of life and reality? Or are those
the same thing?”
I don’t have clear, satisfying answers to my questions, and I’ve
never met anyone who has. But once in a while I stumble across something that
instructs and encourages me as I wrestle with them.
Richard Winter is professor of practical theology at
Covenant Seminary in St Louis. He’s also an old friend and was the speaker at
our Growth in Grace conference last spring.
Years ago he wrote an essay entitled “Knowing the Invisible, Inaudible,
Untouchable God: Between the Garden, Galilee and Glory” that I keep coming back
to over the years. I offer a taste of it here in hopes of whetting your
appetite for more.
“I hate false advertising. You are
promised wonderful experiences and end up being repeatedly disappointed. Sadly,
some evangelism is like that. You are promised that when you become a
Christian, your problems will be over and you will be filled with joy, love and
peace because you have a wonderful, personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
But the reality of the Christian life in a fallen world is usually different
and many struggle not to become cynical and disillusioned…”
“How can you have much of a relationship
with someone who does not talk when you talk to him, whom you cannot see and have
never seen, who leaves stories and letters about himself—written two thousand
years ago? No phone conversations—in fact, rather strange one way
conversations—you lift the phone and start talking and no one replies, at least
not in an audible voice. No new mail, just tons of very old mail. No faxes or
e-mails, no personal appearances. No burning bush, no cloud, no obvious signs
or wonders. A bit distant, to say the least. Now, compare this with my
relationship with my wife, the closest and most intimate that I know. I can
see, smell, touch, and hear her.
“The main analogies used in scripture, of our knowledge of
God, tease us with anticipation of closeness. We can know God, we are told, in
the way a son knows his father, a wife knows her husband, a subject knows his
king and a sheep knows his shepherd. But
very few sons have not seen their fathers. And what wife has not felt her
husband’s arms around her? What sheep has not heard his shepherd’s voice?…”
“Throughout the church I meet many people
looking for experiences of God, tangible evidence of a relationship with
him—healing, miracles, speaking in tongues, laughing in the spirit, and words
of knowledge. They often use special techniques of meditative prayer to listen
to the voice of God. Now this is not completely wrong. Some people do have real
experiences of God. But, for most, I fear that they are somehow trying to force
God’s hand, to twist his arm. “Let me in this way. Rend the heavens and make
God come down!” Many worship services today (especially at the more charismatic
end of the spectrum) seem to be encouraging techniques for manipulating God to
show himself in some tangible way. In our quick fix and experience oriented
age, where we learn that gratification should not be delayed, we become impatient
with God. We are not satisfied with waiting and mystery.
So, the burning question becomes: What can we expect to
experience of God from day to day, between those seemingly occasional times
when God does answer prayer dramatically and we feel his presence and love in
an unusual way? Some Christians talk as if such times should be the daily norm
of the Christian life…”
In his essay
Richard winsomely goes on to discuss the means through which we know the Lord: in
the Scriptures, through prayer, through the work of the Holy Spirit in us, in
creation, through His acts in history, in worship, and through his body-the
church. Yet at the end of this discussion he freely admits he still hasn’t
found what he’s looking for. Indeed, he suggests that this is the nature of our
now-but-not-yet relationship with the Lord.
“Could it be that our relationship with
God now, this side of Christ’s return, is like the engagement period of a
marriage, a time of growing knowledge and intimacy, and a time of anticipation
of more? Now, engagement for the Jews was different from our own understanding
of engagement. In contrast to our rather shallow view of engagement, an
agreement which can fairly easily be broken if the relationship proves to have
problems, engagement for the Jews was a very serious business. It was as
serious a commitment as marriage, the only difference being that the couple did
not live or sleep together. The price was paid by the man, in the presence of
witnesses, and there was a legal and binding contract. Unfaithfulness while
they were engaged was punished as adultery. This was a deep level of commitment
and the firm foundation for a growing relationship. So in the year of
engagement or betrothal the couple would get to know each other by spending
time with each other alone and with each other’s family and friends. Tim
Stafford writes well of the things we learn about our intimacy with Christ from
‘Intimacy begins with a shared purpose. An engaged Jewish
couple did not have the intimacy of living together, yet they were absolutely
committed to a future of living together. They walked in the same direction,
their thinking pointed the same way, they made preparations for the same joint
future. There was no way back; they could only go forward. So Christians may
experience a tender, passing joy with Christ as we prepare to enter the home he
is preparing for us.
The time spent together allows a growing understanding and
appreciation of each other’s personality and temperament. The early days of the
courtship are usually enjoyable and satisfying but as time passes in an
engagement there is a growing awareness of and longing for the closeness of the
consummation of the relationship.’”
still brings tears to my eyes.
“It is almost three summers now since I
began to wrestle with this question. I read books about knowing God, I talked
to people about their experience of relationship with God, I walked the
beautiful cliffs and fields of England and as I walked, I talked out loud (when
no human was looking or listening) to God and although I did not hear a voice
or see a vision, I seemed to hear His Spirit speaking within my mind and heart:
“I know, my child, that for now this unfulfilled desire to
know me fully is frustrating for you, but, for the moment, you are to live by
faith—not by sight or hearing or touching. Meditate on all that I have told you about me in the
hundreds of stories from Genesis to Revelation.
But that is not enough! I want you to live as if I am here,
even though you cannot see me, because I am here. Talk to me about what you
read in the Scriptures, talk to me about your experience of life, live by the
principles (my law and wisdom) that you find in the Bible and you will discover
that you know not just about me but you know me personally in a mysterious but
real way. I know you through and through and I am with you and I am in you, and
I will silently and mysteriously, behind the scenes, seek the best for you.
Sometimes I will seem far away and sometimes close. Sometimes I will answer
your prayers dramatically, at other times you will wonder why I am so silent.
Sometimes I will protect you from illness and accidents and sometimes I will
not. Sometimes I will give you clear and detailed guidance and leading; but
often I will not, for I have made you a choice-maker and you will learn much
about me and about life from making good and bad choices. Sometimes I will
allow you to go through great difficulties so that you may learn to trust me
more. I may humble you and test you (just as I did the Israelites) in order to
know what is in your heart, whether you will keep my commands or not. One day I
will allow you to go through death, even though it will grieve me to see you
experience the ravages of the effects of sin and death, and in that last valley
of the shadow I will be with you. Nothing, yes, nothing, not even suffering and
death, can separate you from my love. Then you will be with me for ever.
“Another way you can know something of me is among other Christians.
I called the church my body because there you can feel the arms of God around
you and hear my words of comfort. The church is not perfect and you will
sometimes be frustrated and disappointed there too but if you do not live
amongst them you miss knowing something of me. Give yourself in service to
others, for in them you will meet me.
“I know it is difficult to live in a relationship that
sometimes feels unreal compared with human relationships but one day you will
see me face to face, you will hear my voice and feel my arms around you. You
may then also experience my touch as fire (as Isaiah did), as pain when I burn
away the impurities and sin in your life, but it is for your good, that you may
be more like me. For now, you have not fully received what I have promised
along with all the others like you who live by faith. It is not wrong to long,
to groan, for more. But wait, as Paul urges you, with patience and eagerness
for that day (Romans 8:22-25). Remember, what matters most this side of glory
is not so much your subjective experience of me, (or lack of it) but that I
know you, I love you, you are precious to me, you are my son, (my daughter) and
I have you in my hand.
“Remember these things, for you are my servant. I made you,
I will not forget you. I have redeemed you. In my right hand are pleasures for
ever more. Soon you will have them.”
Painting at top: THE LORD WILL DELIVER HIS PEOPLE ACROSS JORDAN; Howard Finster; 1976.