How Your Relationship with God Is Ruining Your Christian Walk

3:59 PM

It's no secret that most Christians struggle with their relationship with God. And after listening to countless people lament about the same problems I struggle(d) with too and scraping my brain for every vestige of Scriptural wisdom and insight I might have heard since I was two, I think I might just have it: Our "relationship with God" might be getting in the way of our relationship with God.

I say this because almost every Christian's struggles loop back to wanting to experience the full presence of God. Complaints about Bible reading center not so much on "I don't understand" but "It just doesn't do anything for me -- doesn't draw me closer to God or impact my life now." Complaints about prayer run along the lines of "I feel like I'm talking to a wall." Complaints about depression and problems in life point to the feeling that "God isn't here for me." Complaints about being stumped in the battle against sin go like this: "God's just not coming through for me no matter how hard I try." Complaints in general can be summed up like this: "I can't feel Him. I don't feel Him. And if I do, it doesn't last. What in the world is wrong with me?"

Interestingly, the Bible both affirms and denies these feelings. It affirms them in the sense that every believer longs for the presence of God and feels at some point or another that God just isn't there. (Check out the Psalms if you don't believe me.) It denies these feelings by not once making a "relationship with God" the primary aim of Christianity.

Let me say it again: The Bible does not once make a "relationship with God" the primary aim of Christianity. 

In other words, you don't find Paul addressing the Corinthians' problems with not "feeling" God or the Romans' issues about how to develop a relationship with God by talking to Him through prayer and letting Him talk to us through His Word. Christian culture has us hearing by the bucketload, "Oh, I just felt God's presence so much in that worship service!" or "I feel as if I'm walking with Him hand in hand right now" or "I just didn't feel a peace about it" or "I felt an overwhelming feeling of love." We've all heard it. Note that the apostles and regular disciples never once mention these feelings as indications of God's presence or work. In fact, the measure of a person's "relationship with God" (though that issue never crops up in Scripture) is far more objective, less touchy-feely and, surprisingly, less relational.

Because I just stumbled upon this angle about our "relationship with God," I don't pretend to have pat answers for everything. I may be completely wrong. But here are some initial thoughts. (I'd love to hear yours, too!)

Enough with the feelings already! The biggest complaint is that we don't "feel" or "experience" God like other Christians seem to do. As mentioned above, Scripture never once even hints that a feeling or "real experience" (however we care to subjectively define them) indicates the level of intimacy with and knowledge of God. This desire doesn't even make sense. Do you "feel" other people? No, of course not. People are not emotions to be felt or experiences to experience: they're people. People provoke feelings, to be sure, all kinds of feelings, and those feelings may or may not be grounded in reality. While hanging out with my best friend, I will feel loved and happy on most days, but sometimes those happy feelings vanish if she gives a look or says something that seems to indicate I did something wrong. Normally I just misunderstood her and nothing's wrong to begin with. The point is, feelings come and go even with people we see right in front of us and who we know deep down truly care about us. Basing my closeness to my best friend on how I feel at the moment undermines all the time we spent together, all the work we put into our relationship, all the promises we made to each other.

Why should God be any different? Encountering the God of the universe will certainly provoke all kinds of feelings -- fear, overwhelming love, conviction, happiness, confusion, you name it. Probably you'll feel negative things, like worry that He's not listening or fear that He's mad at you. And sometimes you'll feel neutral: not on-fire and not prostrate with despair. You just feel...normal. And that's okay. Because they're just feelings, and though they are real, they are not reality. Feeling that God seems far away does not cancel out the truth that He has promised to never leave us or forsake us. Period. If you ever feel dry or down or nothing at all, join the club -- you're a human responding to a relationship just like a human.

We cannot have a face-to-face experience long distance. Just because you feel an intense longing for God's presence -- a face-to-face experience -- doesn't mean that that longing must be fulfilled on earth. Similarly, because that longing isn't immediately fulfilled on earth doesn't mean that that longing is invalid. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament speak of indescribable longing to be in the presence of God and experience Him face to face. Unfortunately, we don't see Him face-to-face. We're not in His presence. This changes the nature of our relationship, just as long-distance relationship is different than a short-distance relationship.

My long-distance boyfriend and I once discussed why we felt such an intense need to be with each other in person. We Skyped every day and texted during his work breaks -- we had more time to sit down and talk than we had seeing each other every day at school. And to be honest, we did the same things in person that we did long-distance -- laugh, talk, play games, think through problems. Being together or far away did not change the reality that we loved each other deeply and thought about each other 24/7 or the reality that we were, indeed, in a relationship. None of those truths mattered: we wanted to be with each other, right next to each other, all the time. We never figured out why long distance felt so horrible (other than that it's hard to give hugs through a computer screen), but we both experienced the truth that regardless of the reason, face-to-face is a million times better than long-distance. I experience fears, questions and feelings away from my boy that I do not experience when I'm with him.

It's the same with God. I think we're searching for a closeness (or rather, a feeling of closeness) that we simply cannot have due to the nature of long-distance relationships. The relationship will seem more of a struggle away from the presence of God -- it won't always "feel" like a deep, intimate relationship. Of course, as noted above, this feeling does not undermine the reality that we indeed do know the God of the universe!

A relationship with God is not like a relationship with another human being. I think back to Paul's cryptic reverie on the mystery of marriage -- not that marriage was a mystery, he says, abruptly breaking out of the reverie, but that the relationship between Christ and His Bride is a mystery. A reality, of course. A deep intimacy, certainly. But a mystery nonetheless. I think this is why our relationship with God is likened to so many things -- bride and groom, father and child, master and slave, mother and nursing babe, co-heirs, God and priest, friend and friend. Each relationship on earth reflects, to some extent, the unique relationship between God and humanity. At times we may recognize how an emotion prompted by our relationship with God matches an emotion experienced in a human relationship -- the tender nurture of our mother or the comfort of our fathers or the crazy, obsessive love of newlyweds.

Still, this is a unique relationship. This means the nature of the relationship, the challenges of the relationship and the cultivation of that relationship are going to look different and are not necessarily going to correlate one to one with things we do and experience in human relationships. For instance, prayer is unique to the relationship between God and man (unless you're Catholic, which is another issue). Prayer is not like holding a conversation with a friend: we don't see God or audibly hear His response. Trying to twist prayer into a more conversation-like thing will result in frustration. Advice such as, "Make sure you take time to listen!" (which, translated, means, "Make sure you wait until you feel a certain feeling or peace") is neither helpful nor Scriptural. We cannot really "sit at the feet of Jesus" or "sit in the presence of God," and trying to convince your brain that you really are experiencing something you're not will make your relationship with God seem even more fake and distant.

Similarly, pairing prayer and Scripture reading into a conversation also complicates two simple disciplines. Prayer is not our way of talking to God, and Scripture is not God's way of talking to us -- not in a personal, real-time way. Prayer is an act of worship (something we ought not perform to any human!), focused on God and His glorious works, the many things He is and has done. It's praise and thanksgiving. It's also a time to confess our sins, seek help for problems and answers to questions, and present our requests before Him. We pray with both reverence and intimacy, humility and boldness -- not cracking jokes and talking about how our day went, as some people mistakenly portray intimacy. Those who have a deep relationship with God aren't necessarily the ones who address God as "Daddy" (though we can do so) and talk about His sense of humor for their many foibles but the ones who still address God as "Lord" and "Creator," a mighty king and sovereign God who hates sin but has invited them to know Him intimately and personally. In short, our prayers should not be patterned off our conversations with our friends but off the paradoxical attitude of humility and confidence.

The key element of a relationship with God is faith: "And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him" (Hebrews 11:6). Ironically, the key element Scripture talks most about is not feeling or experience but faith, which is a deep, action-backed conviction about something one cannot see (or feel or experience). This is probably why most "relationships with God" stagnate: they are based on a desire to see/feel/experience a reality that must be taken by faith. Without faith, it is impossible to please God.

Faith is the unique way we build our relationship with God. When we pray, we ignore feeling like we're talking to a wall and suppress the desire to want to feel a peace. When we try to discern God's will, we work off His promises revealed in His Word, not for a special confirmation. We put ourselves in situations outside our comfort zone and talents so as to depend on God (like giving beyond our means or street preaching in downtown LA). We humbly yet confidently expect God to answer our questions, show us the way of escape from temptations and trials, and conform us to His Son -- even and especially if it doesn't look like anything's happen. We live in joy regardless of how our circumstances feel or how "close" God seems to us. We conform our emotions to the reality we believe. We base our moment-by-moment decisions on that reality. Basically, we walk by faith and not by sight.

Love is redefined in a relationship with God. Christian culture teaches us to evaluate one another's relationships with God by how "in-love" or "on-fire" they are for Jesus. (Guilty as charged.) We subtly encourage -- yet again -- an emotional attachment to Christ that manifests itself in "heartfelt" prayer or "poignant" worship. Of course, I believe that love for Christ will touch even the emotions, because we're to love our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength -- with everything we are. But when it comes to Christ's explicit definitions of love, He never mentions emotions or an "obsession": He talks about obedience. If you love Me, keep my commands. Period.

How boring. But it's true. I can testify that in my own relationship with God, my faith is strengthened when I obey, whether or not I "feel" any love for Christ. That's when the real life change happens -- in the forge of obedience.

A specific command often ignored by Christians in general is to love one another. Christ said nonbelievers would know we are His disciples by our love for fellow believers. And the Church is the body of Christ -- the most visible, tangible representative of Christ Himself. We are in Christ. Notice how we are collectively the Bride of Christ and the Body of Christ -- not individually. There's no such thing as a loner Christian. I think the truth is that our relationship with God is experienced and demonstrated most powerfully through the church, not our individual relationships with God. Jump in anywhere in the New Testament and you'll see what a big deal the church is to Christ. If we truly love Christ, we will love His body with everything we are -- giving (monetarily), serving, upholding, exhorting, bearing with them.

A relationship with God is more of a reality than an experience. Growing a relationship occurs because two people previously unknown to each other learn to love and understand each other. Their closeness is dependent on their efforts to get to know one another. This is not true with God. We already possess the closest relationship with God possible -- we have direct access to Him because of Christ's imputed righteousness. He already knows us infinitely and loves us perfectly; He does not need to get to know us or develop a relationship with us.

I think it might be helpful if we explained the Christian walk differently. Our relationship with God is the reality that makes walking the walk possible. Our relationship is already there, stable and sure. We fall back on our relationship with God when we sin or get stumped. What grows, then? Not our relationship, but our faith and our ability to walk in the Spirit. Our faith needs growing -- not our relationship with God. A strong faith taps into the already-present reality that we possess an amazing relationship with God that provides for all of our spiritual needs. Walking in the Spirit occurs when we live in the reality of that relationship by faith: we obey, we love, we discipline ourselves, we overcome sin, we disciple.

The evidence of walking with God manifests itself in the fruit of the Spirit, in spiritual maturity, in strong faith and in knowledge of God and our Savior, Christ Jesus -- not in feeling as if we're in His presence 24/7 or continuing a nonstop conversation or "tuning into" God's eternal radio station. It's the simple, persevering faith that keeps plodding along in obedience regardless of emotions and experiences (or the lack thereof). Sometimes we might feel like, "Wait, this sounds like just doing things. That sounds like religion. What's the difference between religion and relationship when the relationship feels like religion?"

For one, God places a bigger emphasis on "doing things" (though He terms it "obedience") than we'd like to think. He places an even bigger emphasis on our position before Him -- our relationship to Him, ironically, though not how evangelical Christianity defines it. We're justified. We're being sanctified. That's what makes any good deed or emotion or prayer or Bible reading powerful: it's accepted by God. It's more than our motive, though the motive matters too: it's our stance, our relationship with God, that makes everything good we do acceptable and a part of walking in the Spirit and living for God.

You may not feel anything special if you pick up the Bible and read a chapter -- but be comforted knowing that because of your relationship to God, your obedience proves acceptable in His sight. You may feel like you're talking to the pink bedroom wall when you pray -- but be confident knowing that because of your relationship to God, your obedience proves acceptable in His sight. You may feel awkwardly "religious" when purposefully trying to love or do good deeds -- but be relieved knowing that He delights in your obedience because of your relationship to God.

Yes, your relationship to God does matter. But you already have a fully-functioning one. The question is, are you going to live in that reality or not? That's the battle of the Christian life.

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6 impressions

  1. These last three posts of yours have impressed me with the depth of the thinking, the skill of the writing, and the quality of theological analysis. I'm not sure if you are being inspired by conversations with your boy, or you are showing evidence of increased maturity and wider range of experiences, or you simply have a lot of time and energy to devote to your blog right now. Probably a combination of factors. In any case, I am really enjoying reading and pondering your most recent posts. Please don't think that because I have not posted a long-winded comment questioning or responding to particulate points in your arguments that I have not been doing that in my head. I have!

    Adele

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  2. I agree with a lot of this! I specially like what you have to say about prayer. It bothers me when people refer to God as anything other than Lord, Christ, etc. He is not human (although we can call Jesus a friend, it's still not a human to human relationship)....God is God. And He demands humility, reverence, and honor.

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  3. this completely and utterly makes sense, although it's definitely hard to not want to pursue feelings in our relationship with God (ah, the lovely camp-spiritual-high. if only that's how it always was).

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  4. Dear Bailey,
    I was wondering if you could do a post for hypochondriacs?
    From not a real hypochondriac but someone who gets pretty worried when something does come up.

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  5. To Anonymous: You might like this post by Mrs. Parunak over on Pursuing Titus 2: http://pursuingtitus2.com/2010/02/10/fear-and-grac/ It is not about hypochondria per se, but it does talk about the difference between worrying something really bad is going to happen and actually going through a bad time. I found it to be insightful. Just a suggestion while waiting for Bailey's response of course - not as a substitute!

    Peace,
    Adele

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Hit me with your best thought! I'm very interested in your unique perspective. If you'd like to discuss things in private, feel free to email me! :)