As Evangelicals, as Christians in the modern West, we very much have a view of the Christian life that equates faith to relationship. However, this relationship itself is poorly defined and at best, when pressed about it, all we can say is that it amounts to “knowing God and not just about him.” Fundamentally though, I think that this analogy of relationship goes too far in proclaiming the possibility of something that may not be. It is detrimental to our collective treatment of doubt, with which I am so often harrowed by, and it neglects the biblical language of present distance in light of future hope and the necessity of continual conversion.
The explicit phraseology of relationship is not new, per se, but its popularity in the church has never seen the heights that it does now. Ever since the 1950s, the talk of our relation to Jesus, as relationship (and especially romantic relationship) has only increased. You can see this when you compare two google ngrams which show the incidence of words in a corpus of the english language. (Figures 1 and 2)
This language of love comes and goes in the course of Christian history, with examples of Catholic mystics, love-language in puritan literature from the 1590s, and the Pietist movement of the late Reformation. However, what is perhaps most remarkable in this current instance is the use of relationship as the only evidence for salvation, indeed often as the sum of our salvation.
Jonathan Edwards greatest work, Treatise on Religious Affections, goes through some of the signs that are only falsely called signs, here are some of them: high emotions, knowledge of scripture, the appearance of love, convictions of conscience, a disposition to praise God, and feelings of assurance. This list includes essentially every part of what evangelicals constitute as a relationship with Jesus, from emotions to knowledge of scripture to assurance itself. The face of the relationship that Evangelicals proclaim to have with Jesus has been systematically torn down three hundred years before it even formed. Can it be, that in our reaction to dead orthodoxy, we, in our talk of relationships, have gone too far? I say so, and Edwards would also say that, I think, as he stuck as balance between high emotionalism and dead intellectualism in his work.
For Edwards, it was never religion or relationship because they are one and the same. For him the true Christian faith is founded in an external reality, a conviction of judgement, a sense of our own failure, and completed by growth in all areas of Christ-likeness with fruit in Christian practice. It was never about the feelings of closeness in human relationships that defines the Christian life, because if anything it was with a recognition of our farness, even after our redemption until that point where our sanctification is made complete by death that defines the Christian life.
The Evangelical church has failed to deal with doubt; it has failed to deal with mental illness, and I say the reason is because we focus so much on this ideal of relationship. These failings have only happened because the false affections of Edwards have become our mark of a true Christian. This cannot be so. The language of conversion cannot be supplanted in totality by that of relationship. Conversion differs from relationship because it is founded, not upon an acceptance of self, as is found in relationship, but the complete denial of self so that Christ might truly come to dwell in us. In the relationship paradigm, conversion only occurs once, but the existence of doubts deny this is possible. However, in the paradigm of continual conversion, doubt and struggles are framed, not as a lack of closeness stemming from a lack of faith, but as part of the continual process of the mortification of the flesh, not acceptance of ourselves as a partners in a relationship, but as someone that desperately needs to be cleaned and renewed. This is why conversion, not relationship, should be our primary model of the Christian life.
The relationship paradigm has many failings, both personal, in failing to account for times when we ourselves feel far from Christ because of reasons outside our control, and corporate, in making the act of salvation entirely an act between God and an individual and leaving out the Church. It is stymied by a lack of biblical precedent and indeed closeness to God is not certain, for Jesus himself said that “You will seek me and you will not find me. Where I am you cannot come.” Distance, not closeness, is the norm, and we as Christians are left with the command to repent and believe in Christ in the act of completed and continual conversion, in the mortification of the flesh. The Christian life’s goal is not to end up in a relationship with Jesus, though that is a result, but to love one another as he commanded us and glorify God in the process.Better than asking “how is your relationship with God,” let us instead ask “how is your faith in Christ.” We have a relationship with God, but it is a relationship defined not by his acceptance of us as us in romance, but by our death to self so that he might live in us to our eternal comfort and salvation.
What is your only comfort in life and death?
That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.
He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil.
He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation.
Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.