Friday, December 22, 2006

Christian Cliche #1- "Personal Relationship with Jesus Christ"

We will be looking at modern Christian Cliche’s in these next few posts. Cliche’s are helpful, but they are, by nature, simplistic. Therefore they can be very dangerous, because contrary to popular opinion, Christianity is not simplistic. I am not against using cliche’s, but I am against using them incorrectly. I am also against cliche’s that are wrong.

In short, a cliche is used wrongly when it treated as the “final word” on any given subject. The purpose of a cliche is to communicate one aspect of a thing. Cliche’s are not to be used as a foundation for theology. Christian theology is far too complex to be communicated primarily by way of cliche’s. Most modern Christian writers have done just this (used cliche’s as the foundation of their theology). The result is an overly simplistic Gospel that is more dangerous than helpful. Most Christians have a greater understanding of Cliche’s than they do of the Bible. This is a problem..

Let’s take a look at some popular Christian cliches. I will first describe how the cliche is generally used, then I look at it in light of scripture, and then I will makes some concluding thoughts about it.

Cliche 1: “I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Christians usually use this cliche when they need to communicate that their religion is no mere matter of intellect. This cliche helps them capture the idea that Jesus is alive and well in their hearts, and that their relationship with Him does not exist in some cold set of rules, but it exists, rather, in a dynamic relationship of love and admiration. Many today use this cliche when they want to communicate that Jesus, to them is a best friend. They “hang out” with Jesus. Jesus is their “homeboy.” I have a personal relationship with Jesus.

At the outset I want to say that I am not against using this cliche, but I do think that this cliche is, as are all the rest, abused.

Nearly every Christian you come into contact with uses this phrase. I am sure that if you are reading this and are Christian, you have said this yourself. But have you ever asked yourself what this cliche means? What does the Bible say about having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?

First of all, it is important to know that the phrase “personal relationship with God” is not found in the Bible. Many will say to me at this point, “Jimmy, why do you feel the need to attack everything I believe? Why would you call into question such a foundational element of Christianity?” My answer to you goes as such, “Why do you consider this idea of having a personal relationship with God to be a foundational element of Christianity? Is it because the Bible makes it a foundational element, or because modern Christian Culture makes it a foundational element? By the way, quote for me what the Bible says about having a personal relationship with Christ.” We need to put ourselves in a position where our cliches are formed by the Word of God. The cliche’s we use are not infallible. The only way to test if they are correct or not is if they can be found in scripture. Popularity is not a good test when discerning if something is foundational to Christianity or not. Even if they are correct, we need to make sure that we are using them correctly.

I am not necessarily against this idea of having a personal relationship with God, if it is understood correctly–according to the Bible. The main point of bringing this up is to show you how much you throw your preconceived ideas upon the Bible. Most people go to the Bible assuming that the Bible is teeming with verses about Christian’s having a personal relationship with God.

According to the Bible, what does it mean to have a personal relationship with God? The first place we will look is the Psalms. The Psalms are the most personal, intimate scriptures in all of the Bible. In the Psalms we see men who expressed their hopes, dreams, fears, and desires. We will take a look at the Psalms most often associated with this personal relationship idea.

Psalm 42:1-2 “As the deer pants for the water brooks, So my soul pants for You, O God. My Soul thirsts for God, for the living God; When shall I come and appear before God.”

The first question we need to ask of this verse is, “Why is the Psalmist so desperate for God?” To answer this questions we dare not look to the slogan’s of Christian culture, rather we must look to context. After examining the context of this verse it becomes very apparent that the Psalmist desires the Lord because he is in need of deliverance from his enemies.

See it for yourself. The rest of the Psalm sets it forth clearly. (Anything italicized is for emphasis. Anything in the parenthesis are my words.)

Psalm 42:3-11 “My tears have been my food day and night, While they (my enemies) say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’ These things I remember and I pour out my soul within me. For I used to go along with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God, with the voice of joy and thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival. Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him for the help of His presence. O my God, my soul is in despair within me; therefore I remember You from the land of the Jordan and the peaks of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep at the sound of your waterfalls; All your breakers and Your waves have rolled over me. The Lord will command His lovingkindness in the daytime; And His song will be with me in the night, a prayer to the God of my life. I will say to God my rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me?’ Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?’ As a shattering of my bones, my adversaries revile me, While they say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’(He longs for God to vindicate him before his enemies. He also longs for God to vindicate Himself.). Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God.”

This verse has very little to do with a personal relationship with God. It has everything to do with David’s desire to be saved from his enemies, and vindicated in the eyes of his enemies. Context, not cliches, determines meaning.

Let’s look at another verse commonly used to support this idea that we are to have a personal relationship with God.

Psalm 63:1-5- “O God, You are my God; I shall seek You earnestly; My soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You, In a dry and weary land where there is no water. Thus I have seen You in the sanctuary, to see Your power and Your glory. Because Your lovingkindness is better than life, my lips will praise You. So I will bless You as long as I live; I will lift up my hands in Your name. My soul is satisfied as with marrow and fatness, And my mouth offers praises with joyful lips.”

What a wonderful expression of desire for God, and thanksgiving for His goodness. Why such emotion in this Psalm? Lets take a look at the context.

Psalm 63:6-11- “When I remember You on my bed, I meditate on You in the night watches, For You have been my help, And in the shadow of Your wings (this is a metaphor for protection from enemies) I will sing for joy. My soul clings to You; Your right hand upholds me (“right hand” is a metaphor for provision and protection). But those who seek my life to destroy it, will go into the depths of the earth. They (my enemies) will be delivered over to the power of the sword; they (my enemies) will be a prey for foxes. But (huge contrast here) the king will rejoice in God; Everyone who swears by Him will glory, for the mouths of those who speak lies will be stopped.”

Once again we see that Psalmist longs for God, which, in this context, means that He (God) be present to protect him from his enemies. I do not want to in anyway communicate that we love God only because He does a lot of cool things for us. We are not brats of God, but rather children of God. In the midst of trouble the child wants his Daddy near. When he realizes that his Daddy is not near he begins to sob. The more afraid he becomes the louder he yells “Daddy! DADDY! DAADDY!” So it is with us. The child is not selfish when he cries Daddy. When the Father hears the voice of his child he runs to him, scoops him up, and begins to assure him that everything is ok. The child then tells his father that he is so glad that he is near. His fears are relieved. WHAT A BRAT! WHAT A SELF CENTERED BRAT! No, what a scared and helpless child who is thankful for his loving father. So it is with the Psalmist’s in these two Psalms.

I do not deny that these verses do teach something of a personal relationship with God. There is definite intimacy shared between God and the Psalmist. This circumstance, I am sure, gave David a greater love for God. But the Psalmist’s reliance upon God is what is emphasized here. This Psalm does not communicate some sort desire for God to be present just cause. He isn’t desiring God to come down so they can play some kind of spiritual nintendo or something. The Psalmist desires and longs for the presence of God–the safe/protective presence of God.

Let’s look at one more.

Psalm 16:11- “In your presence is fullness of joy; In your right hand there are pleasures forevermore.”

What a wonderful line. Remember though that context determines meaning. What does this verse, at this point, ripped out of context, mean? Well, lets put in it’s context.

Psalm 16:1- Preserve me, O God (He is asking God to keep him alive), for I take refuge in You (in other words, Presever me because I trust in you for my life). I said to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord;’ ‘I have no good besides You.’ As for the saints who are in the earth, They are the majestic ones in whom is all my delight. The sorrows of those who have bartered for another god will be multiplied; I shall not pour out their drink offerings of blood, Nor will I take their names upon my lips. The Lord is the portion of my inheritance and my cup (In other words: You are all I have. Without you I have nothing. Not even life); You support my lot (in other words: everything that I have is sustained by You). The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places; Indeed, my heritage is beautiful to me. I will bless the Lord who has counseled me; Indeed, my mind instructs me in the night. I have set the Lord continually before me; Because He is at my right hand, I will not be shaken (in other words: I will not be defeated or killed or taken advantage of because I lean upon the strength of the Lord). Therefore my heart is glad and my glory rejoices; my flesh also will dwell securely. For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol (Sheol means death- in other words: you will not let me die); Nor will you allow Your Holy One to ungergo decay (in other words: you will not let me die, you will sustain my life). You will make known to me the path of life (i.e. you will get me out of this death trap); In your presence is fullness of joy; In your right hand there are pleasures forevermore.”

The last line is a summary of everything David had said up to that point. David was going on and on about how God is the sustainer and preserver of his life. Without the presence of God, David would know nothing but death. But because God was with him, he had assurance of safety and longevity. Context determines meaning. What is “fullness of joy.” The joy of being protected by God. The joy of living a long and safe life. What does he mean when he says that at his “right hand” there are “Pleasures forevermore.” First of all, it is important to remember that the “right hand” of God is where all of his blessings come from. This Psalm is emphaisizing the blessing of provision and protection. Why would the last verse of this psalm suddenly change direction. Context determines meaning.

I do not want minimize the fact that there are many more wonderful things that come from the right hand of God, but this particular Psalm is only speaking of 2 or 3 of them.

Why am I doing this? Am I just being picky? Of course not. The Bible is to be the thing that forms your ideas and beliefs. When you approach these three Psalms and interpret them in light of the slogans of modern day Chrsitianity then you will miss the great portion of what it is trying to say. Psalm 42 should be a pastors key verse for someone who is in the throws of battle (whatever kind of battle that may be), but so long as we let it cater to our present “personal relationship” agenda, it never will. I am not saying that Christian’s do not have a personal relationship with God. I am saying that context, not popular teaching, determines meaning.

If you are seeking to be molded by the scriptures, what good does it do you to take your own preconcieved idea(s) and lay it on the text. You will merely come out the other side just believing what you already believed, with just a bit more emphasis. But if you want to be formed by the Bible, you must let the Bible do the talking. Here is a good rule for reading the Bible: “SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP!” Keep your thoughts to yourself. Silence yourself. If you have to, wear tape over your mouth when you sit down to remind you that you are the learner. Let the Bible speak. Be, in a sense, passive when you read the Bible. Let it tell you what to believe. Let it tear you to pieces. Let it break to pieces those things that you presently believe, so that it might build you back up twice as strong.

In the next post I will say more about this popular cliche. What does it mean to have a personal relationship with God? Don’t tell the Bible what it means, and then force it (the Bible) through your hoops. The Bible is not to conform to your ideas, rather you are to conform to the Bibles ideas. The last thing we need is the Bible to look like a bunch of sinners. No, we need a bunch of sinners to look like Jesus–Jesus as He is revealed in Scripture.

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