Why “Personal Relationship with Jesus Christ” Made Me Want to Leave

–Daniel S. Ferguson

My mother read my post yesterday about why I hadn’t left the church. She had two responses:

  1. I’m so happy you haven’t left church, and
  2. Where’s Jesus in your reasons?

Jesus’ absence from my reasons to stay in church is not by accident. It’s an intentionally conspicuous omission on my part. So if you had the same question as my mom (and my inbox suggests that many of you do), that’s not surprising. I left Jesus out on purpose.

You see, I have a problem that I’m trying to overcome when it comes to Christianity: the definition of Christianity.

If you asked any Christian I knew when I was growing up–I mean any Christian; it was almost universal–what the definition of Christianity was, you’d get something like the following answer: “A personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

That definition created a host of problems for me and (I’m finding out) many others.

Where is that phrase in the Bible? Oh yeah…it’s not.

It’s not! I’ve read the whole thing cover to cover in over 20 translations and in multiple languages. The phrase “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” is simply not there, nor anything like it (the closest you get is Galatians 2:19-21 in The Message paraphrase, and even that’s a stretch). The idea of my having an intimate, two-way, peer-like friendship with the divine is something that is neither modeled nor envisioned by anyone in the Bible.

Not even by Paul who was directly visited by the resurrected Christ. Not even by Peter or John who actually knew the guy. Not even by James, his own earthly brother.

So when I now hear phrases like “spending time with God” or “hanging out with Jesus” (a somewhat newer form), I balk. That’s simply not something the Bible shows people doing.

They pray, they worship, they read God’s words through the Bible, and occasionally, rarely, God shows up in some way. This happens extremely rarely, and it’s completely recognizable every single time it does. When God shows up there’s no mistaking it, and there’s simply no account of a person in the early church that this happens to with any regularity.

We oversampled the Bible and assumed that this oversampling represented normal reality.

You see, we made a weird mistake in trusting the Bible. We took its accounts of God showing up in people’s lives as somewhat common events.

But of course they’re common in the Bible. The Bible is the collective story of God showing up. He shows up in the Bible far more often than He does in normal reality. The Bible is a collection of exceptions, not rules.

The Bible doesn’t really show the long distances between Paul’s infrequent divine experiences, for example. It only shows the experiences themselves. We extrapolate their somewhat frequent appearance in the text to mean that they were commonplace, but they weren’t. The Bible authors just skipped over the everyday stuff, which didn’t include fresh encounters with God.

If you’ve ever read the book of Acts in one stretch, you start getting really bored at some point because you realize that Paul is telling the exact same story of his divine experience on the road to Damascus over and over again, just to different people. He’s not having new and fresh divine experiences on the daily. He’s referring back to the first one repeatedly.

Peter only has one similar reported encounter. John just one as well.

Truly divine experiences are rare. Very rare. And that’s the chief problem with a definition like “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” It makes the believer think they’re going to have regular divine encounters qualitatively like those in the Bible with some regularity, even though they almost certainly won’t.

 

When you told us that it was a relationship with Jesus, we actually expected a relationship with Jesus. Many of us left because we didn’t get one.

We were told to pray more, and Jesus would meet us there. We did. He didn’t.

We were told to read our Bibles more, and Jesus would meet us there. We did. He didn’t.

We were told to go to church more, and Jesus would meet us there. We did. He didn’t.

Many of us performed every discipline of Christian spiritual growth with amazing regularity. And we did it because we hoped beyond hope for the one thing we were promised: a personal relationship with Jesus.

When we were promised that, we actually expected it. We really did want to “hang out with Jesus,” to get to know him, to love him, to share our hearts with him as we would a friend and to hear his, too. We were told that Jesus wanted that relationship with us more than anything. We were told he died and rose again to have that relationship because he loved us.

So when we didn’t get that, we asked ourselves a hard question: Does Jesus really love me? And by all the constructs that had been set up for us, our answer might have logically been ‘No.’

After all, if I had done everything possible to become a human’s friend, but they didn’t ever spend any demonstrable time with me, if they never spoke to me, if they never even really made eye contact with me, could I say I had a relationship with them? Could I say they loved me?

No, I couldn’t.

This thought made me feel utterly alone, orphaned by the Father, abandoned by the Son, evicted by the Spirit. I would question every spiritual notion I had. I would look back on my life and wonder if it was all in my head. After all, I bought into Christianity because of that one singular promise: a relationship with the divine. If I don’t get that, I’m out. I still have my receipt; I’d like my soul back now, please.

I know way too many people with that story. With one exception, that’s my story.

This definition holds up an impossibly high standard as the minimum evidence of faith.

When my older sister got her first car, an Oldsmobile Achieva, nothing in that damn car worked. It broke down more often than it drove. I was maybe 13 or 14 at the time when I first heard the word to describe such a car: lemon.

I distinctly remember the moment. I immediately connected the idea of a lemon (a car that will never run properly and is beyond repair) to the state of my own soul. When I was told the car was a lemon, my first thought, without any prompting, was, “Just like me.”

I thought that because of the phrase “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” I wanted one. I had fought for one. I had done everything asked of me to get one. But I didn’t have one. Not in any form that I could ever recognize. I could see God’s actions in the world around me, even those for my benefit, but that’s not the same as a relationship. I didn’t want a divine benefactor; I wanted a divine friend.

Over the next years, I struggled hard to fight for that relationship. I wanted so badly to have what I was promised. But I never got it, not to this day.

And that idea that I’m simply a broken soul too far beyond repair that God wants nothing to do with–a ‘lemon’–that stuck with me for fifteen years. It nearly killed me. Literally.

I won’t go back to that, certainly not because of some catchy phrase that’s not even Biblically supported.

So no, Jesus wasn’t in my list from yesterday of reasons why I haven’t left the church. Not because Jesus isn’t important to the church (he very much is). But because my eyes are wide open. I have no expectation of “bumping into Jesus” at church anymore because that’s no longer the definition of Christianity I hold up. That impossibly high standard is not one I adhere to anymore. I’m (largely) free of that now.

Instead, I use this:

“If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9, NIV).

That’s a standard I can actually live with. And hey, it’s even in the Bible.

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