I've been trying to figure out what I think about the idea of having a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ." I know I am uncomfortable with the idea -- or -- not the idea itself, but the popular connotations attached to the phrase: "I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ." What does this mean, why do I feel uncomfortable when I encounter it, and how can I make sense of it?
My very first, punchy, deep-in-the-gut reaction to this phrase is, "well, no you don't." What I mean is that you can't have an "interpersonal" relationship with Jesus. It may be possible to have a relationship "to" Jesus, but I resist the notion that a personal relationship "with" Jesus is possible within the sense that the phrase is most often used. Jesus of Nazareth died a couple of thousand years ago at the hands of the Roman Empire. When people say "I have a personal relationship with Jesus," I think what they mean is "I have a relationship to an idea of Jesus that I carry around in my head, or toward a speculative spiritual idea of what Jesus might be like in glory."
But this is an abstraction. To cite a personal relationship with Jesus is to cite one's ability to relate to what one thinks one knows about Jesus. We have the ability to reflect upon the stories about who Jesus was. We have traditional understandings of Jesus' life and work. We have our own experiences of the best of Christian practice and service. At best, this relationship involves an inwardness that reflects upon all of these things as a whole and attempts to make sense of how the self relates to the whole. At worst, the personal relationship to one's own inward meditation is transformed into a relationship with an abstraction, a personal projection of Jesus -- often a projection from which the individual draws divine authority. But again, this relationship is an abstraction. Human beings are concrete, incarnate beings living in the world. As was Jesus. Our only experience of interpersonal relationship occurs with other concrete, incarnate beings: our friends, our family, our enemies. Jesus of Nazareth himself is not available to us as a concrete, incarnate being, at least not in the way we usually experience them.
Then there is the popular sense that carrying on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ means that God will do things for the believer. Life gets easier if you're a part of the Jesus in-group. God will grease the wheels of success, bring happiness, ease depression, open up parking spots, etc. This is superstition, magical thinking that reduces the gospel to a formula: personal relationship with Jesus = happiness and salvation. This is a prosperity gospel sense of the life and work of Jesus, which stands in opposition not only to the Gospel accounts of Christ, but also to the stories we have of Jesus' disciples and his modern followers such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr -- all Christian martyrs. Too often, "personal relationship with Christ" expresses a fuzzy, therapeutic sense that Jesus will make everything okay.
While such therapeutic deism of this sort may not be all bad -- indeed it has been a help in the lives of many in times of need -- it is not necessarily Christian. The properly trinitarian response to this would be to say that it is not Christ, but the Holy Spirit who dwells with those in need, and Christ only through the Holy Spirit. But the idolatry of Jesus Christ among contemporary Christians is a topic for another post. More in line with the thrust of this post, we are not called into relationship with abstraction, but into faith and discipleship. And this is where I must begin if I am to make sense of the phrase in question.
Those who attended Vanderbilt Divinity School with me will probably groan and roll their eyes when they read it, but I am going to talk about friendship for a second. Friendship is an interpersonal relationship we know well. Almost everyone has a keen and intimate sense of what it is to have a friend (if not a well defined intellectual understanding of what friendship is). Friendship is the ideal human relationship when it is characterized by respect, solidarity, and mutuality. This should be the basis of every relationship we have as human beings to our loved ones, to our enemies, to creation. Jesus calls his disciples "friends" in John 15:15. Though only, it should be noted, after calling them servants. That is, only after they have been the servants of Christ. Friendship with Christ is possible insofar as we are called to be disciples, servants, of Christ.
And where is this accomplished? In the church and in the world.
The church is understood to be the visible body of Christ. Within the church, we are called to serve each other and thus to serve the members of the body of Christ. When we serve members of the church, we serve Christ. Insofar as the church is the visible manifestation of the body of Christ, and insofar as we are in relationship within the church, we are in relationship with Christ. We are also called beyond the church, into service in the world, as Christ was in service.
Jesus himself tells us that when we serve the poor we serve him. In a spiritual sense, we serve Christ whenever we serve another human being, for the Image of God exists in each of us, and in none more perfectly than Christ. But we are called not only into service to the poor, but also into deeper relationship with the poor. That is, into personal relation with Christ, the image of God present in each individual. Indeed, the journey into Christian discipleship is this Christ-like relationship with Christ's friends. Dietrich Bonhoeffer challenges us to go even further, "Suffering, then, is the badge of true discipleship. The disciple is not above his master" (The Cost of Discipleship). Christian Friendship, personal relationship with Christ, is only a possibility insofar as those who call themselves "Christian" conform to Christ, are willing to risk and give up their life for the good of the other with whom they are in relationship.
This is not a step taken over night. But it is not impossible. This is a process. Wesleyans call the process "sanctification," Orthodox and Catholic Christians call it "divinization or theosis." The three are not perfectly aligned but they are related, and all three are related to salvation. Whatever, the process requires personal and spiritual development, discernment, and the practice of putting on the ears, eyes, and mind of Christ, so that when we use our hands they might more fully be the hands of Christ -- so that as we are in personal relationship with Christ, Christ might be in personal relationship with the world.