A Personal Relationship with God?
Wanted: a personal relationship! More than ever before our times demand attention for our personal relationship with God. That’s good. After all, faith in a personal God must result in a personal commitment to Him. Unlike experiences which you can take note of and situations you can describe, when one deals with a living person, one must make decisions and determine an attitude – be it of rejection or acceptance, of negative criticism or genuine involvement.
I do not think that anyone has ever dared to claim that you could believe in God in some impersonal manner. That is not really the problem. Often, however, another problem emerges. The personal relationship with God may well become hidden under the everyday realities of life. Whatever remains is labelled as orthodox, but the heartbeat is gone. And after a while the certainty disappears as well, although it may take a while before the withered leaves fall and we discover that there actually is no faith left at all.
The Bible shows us that those who know the LORD love Him in a most personal and trusting manner. David says in Psalm 27: “The LORD is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27:1) This sense of trust gives us security and comfort, even in the most gloomy situations here on earth. “Though my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will receive me.” (Psalm 27:11) Also the apostle Paul speaks quite intimately about the righteousness that comes from faith. It is not a dry piece of doctrine, but a source for real joy. “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ ... and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.” (Romans 5:1-3) This rejoicing has a most personal character, as Paul shows us in Romans 8 where he uses the first person:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God...Romans 8 38, 39
This love is alive in our own hearts. Paul says that “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us” (Romans 5:5).
Have We Lost Something?
Why is it that attention for a personal relationship with God is at times experienced as so refreshing? Is it – as is sometimes suggested – a reaction against dead orthodoxy which emphasized doctrine way too much? Is a binding to a confession on paper finally being replaced by a binding to a living God? Some seem to experience it in this way, and at times we also hear this stated publicly.
In my opinion the issue is somewhat more complicated. Also Reformed believers have always had a sense of spirituality. During the period known as “the Second Reformation” (the 18th-century movement of Reformed mysticism), spirituality was even emphasized, and many a good book was written on this topic. Honesty demands that we should acknowledge that this has become a forgotten period within our churches, and has been held in greater esteem within the Netherlands Reformed Churches, the Free Reformed Churches, and others. Our insensitivity towards experiential Reformed people in other churches brings to light a certain one-sidedness. However, we ought to be careful not to generalize that within Reformed churches the personal relationship with God is disappearing. Only God knows how much trust, prayer, and piety is present in Reformed fathers and mothers, in young and old. He who denies this does not know his brothers and sisters all that well.
It is possible that after the Liberation (1944) attention for a personal relationship with God became somewhat neglected. So much attention was given to the reality of God’s promises at baptism – in opposition to the so-called Synodical churches – that a climate of certainty, sometimes perhaps even an automatic certainty, emerged: those who are baptized are children of God. And later, when the child is able to understand, he only needs to learn what he already is. Together with a strong group identity in Reformed schools and Reformed organizations, the idea of “being a child of God” easily became a collective experience: we, altogether, are children of God. It is remarkable, if not somewhat ironic, that the churches who rejected the doctrine of presumptive regeneration in practice often became communities with a strong sense of presumed rebirth. The personal relationship with God sometimes disappeared almost unnoticed.
Considering this background it is understandable that a call for a personal relationship with God is experienced as refreshing: a compensation and a supplement in a church community that would otherwise wither with only a confession and a strong doctrine of church and covenant.
At this point I do not want to discuss the doctrine of the covenant. It will be obvious that an oversimplified understanding of the covenant, as some seem to have, does no justice to the teachings of all of Scripture, for example, with respect to the baptism with the Holy Spirit, or with respect to the one-sided origin of the covenant. I dare say that the practical application of a personal relationship with God at times did not receive sufficient attention when discussing doctrine and confession. However, this does not mean that this personal relationship has disappeared. In fact, such a relationship fits very well within the full scope of the Reformed confession. The much maligned Canons of Dort speak very intimately and personally about our experiencing God’s friendly face and about things that may hinder this relationship. The problem lies more in the distance that has grown between what the confessions really teach and the rather selective impressions to which they are unconsciously reduced by some.
Let us pay special attention to two points which are of importance to our topic. First, I want to make a number of comments defining what we mean and what we do not mean with the phrase “personal relationship with God.” This explains the question mark in the title. Second, I want to say a few things about the activities which are important for supporting the experience of this relationship.
Relationship and Experience
Evangelicals and Baptists believe that it is the personal relationship with God that makes one a Christian. However, within Reformed spirituality, this relationship is considered more a supplement that must be added to an existing reality, namely the covenantal one. The covenantal relationship needs to become personal (or in Kuyperian terms, this relationship must penetrate the consciousness). And that’s where the problem lies. When you consider the personal relationship using the Baptist model, the emphasis is as much on “relationship” as on “personal.” As yet there is no covenant, and a bond only comes about through a personal choice of faith. This means that personal relationship and faith are almost identical. However, when you speak of personal relationship within a Reformed context the emphasis shifts. Not only does the relationship already exist in the covenant, but this relationship has already been accepted in the public profession of faith. This means that in this context the call for a personal relationship with God may be mistaken for a personal faith experience.
Is there anything wrong with this? Of course not, on the contrary. Yet the term “personal relationship” can be misunderstood as if there is – next to the relationship of God with me in baptism, in the covenant, and in the church – another type of relationship, one that is much more individual, much more personal. In this personal relationship we seek to find what we cannot, or can no longer, find in the family or in the church. Such high strung expectations can lead to deep disappointments and agonizing frustrations when we do not keep in mind the unique character of this relationship.
God and Man
In experiencing a relationship with someone, you expect dialogue – word and answer, feelings and satisfactions. You expect that the two of you are on the same wavelength. This fits the relationships between people very well. It does not, however, fit the relationship between God and man. He is in heaven and we are on earth. He lives in inaccessible light and we hesitantly seek our way in the dusk on our way to darkness. He is the Almighty who plays with the icebergs in the Arctic Ocean and with the fish in the depths of the seas; we are human beings who without Him cannot even breathe. He calls the stars and names each of them, while we are only spectators.
You cannot expect to have a relationship with Him as you might have with one of your friends on earth. Would we be able to walk with Him without tiring? Would we not be dumbfounded and frightened when the lion roars? Does not John, on the Isle of Patmos, fall before the feet of Jesus as if dead?
From the Bible we learn that only in exceptional cases does the LORD speak to people face to face. He spoke to Adam and Eve before the Fall. Enoch walked with God. God did not hide his plans from Abraham. Yet it was only Moses who spoke with God face to face, and afterwards Moses’ face was so radiant that he had to cover it. On one occasion Job dared to argue with God as with his equal, but God put him right back in his place: do you dare to put your hand in the mouth of the dragon? And Job covered his mouth with his hand and did penance.
When Jesus, God’s Son, comes down to earth, something most exceptional happens: human beings are able to speak and walk with God – but this is Christ’s humiliation. After the events of Easter things change. Mary Magdalene is not allowed to touch Him anymore because He has not yet been glorified and first must ascend to the Father in heaven. After the Ascension the heavens close, and only a very few receive a direct revelation from the Christ in his glory. Paul has been elevated to the higher heavens and heard inexpressible words. But we have to be satisfied with the words of the apostles and the followers of Jesus here on earth. John tells us that if we want to love God, we better love our brothers, because no one has ever seen God. If someone does not love his brother whom he can see, how would he be able to love God whom he cannot see?
Relationship in Faith
When we add to faith in this God the dimension of a personal relationship, we do well to acknowledge that this relationship is very special and unique. The higher the status of the other, the less satisfactory the expression “personal relationship” is. Our experience of this relationship comes about via our faith. We trust the LORD and experience his invisible presence, and we hope for his glory. That’s how it is today, as we are on our way towards that great moment when we may know Him face to face. Today there is continued growth in this relationship, and we ought not expect everything all at once. It is important that you keep in mind the degree of intimacy that fits a particular stage of the relationship. The LORD is our gracious Father, not our playmate. He is the Almighty who has placed himself in a relationship with me. But that does not mean that He is my partner. He travels with me towards that great crowd before the throne, but at this moment I still live as a sinner on a fallen earth.
I want to say a few more things about this with respect to Bible reading and prayer.
Bible reading is not talking with God, but listening to what He has to say to us. This does not happen in a “live” broadcast; we are allowed to listen to what has been written down about God’s deeds and words in the past. If you would open your Bible because you want God to speak to you directly, you expect too much. The Bible is the document in the possession of the church. It allows you to take note of what the Creator has said to others in different situations. You read the Bible in deep reverence and with great zeal because the words of God are of immense importance to you as well. This attitude is rather different from that of people who expect a direct, personal lecture. Sooner or later they will become disappointed and will slam that Bible shut because it does not speak to them anymore; the connections go dead.
In a sense the Bible does not do anything with you; you must do something with the Bible, in the manner so often repeated in Psalm 119: “Oh how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. Your commands make me wiser than my enemies because they are ever with me.” (Psalm 119:97, 98)
You may be surprised about what you are reading, or you may have questions. But you cannot start a dialogue with the LORD God, because you are listening to the echo of his voice. Therefore, if you expect a “duologue” when reading the Bible, you will be quite disappointed.
In some circles the waiting is for a direct word from God in one’s heart. Such a word supersedes the Bible and is said to give the only true certainty. This kind of pretentious, personal mysticism has often brought deep, lifelong uncertainty and disappointments.
Also within the evangelical movement there are those for whom the experience of “God-spoke-to-me” plays an important role. Suddenly they may be convinced that God has called them to go to Peru, or to start a particular study, or to tackle a certain task within the church. Indeed, the LORD leads our lives, and therefore we will be able to gradually discover his will for our lives. But if we think of God’s guidance in such absolute terms, we might well become frustrated. Often that “word of God” turns out to be impossible to achieve: the trip is too expensive, or the course of studies too difficult.
But is it not so that when the listener to God’s word becomes a speaker in prayer there really is a duologue? No, it isn’t because a prayer remains one-sided: the person speaks, but God does not. Many people speak of their prayer as “talking with God.” This is wrong. The person who prays, speaks to God, but normally there is no direct answer. For this reason some Christians give up on prayer because it is not really speaking with God. In Bible reading and prayer we approach God’s throne of grace. In Christ we may do so with confidence and courage. Yet we approach in faith, and not in seeing or hearing. This exceptionally respectful and trustful – almost blindfolded – means of communication gives our relationship with God a unique character. We do not see Him, yet we may experience his presence in our lives and in his Scriptures. It is clear: we do not stand in front of a void when we close our eyes in prayer and speak to Him in the name of Christ, his Son.
But, there is still a screen between ourselves and the Awesome One. And that is a good thing. It is better for us today to live in the protective shadow of that screen than to appear directly before the Most Holy One. Angels who appear before the throne on a daily basis do not live in this shadow, but we are not angels. When we desire a personal relationship with God, there is the danger that we do not sufficiently realize who God really is and how small and insignificant we really are. God is in heaven, amidst his heavenly hosts. We are on earth. We are human beings subject to sin. We may be quite surprised that God wants us to be with Him, but we have not yet arrived in the new Jerusalem. First and foremost, our relationship with God is characterized by thankfulness, reverence, and trust. We may experience this relationship knowing that He is our Father, that his Spirit prays in us and for us, and that his angels protect us. The more you put your trust in this, the more you will experience the peace that comes from it. A personal relationship with God mains a relation to God, and that unique.
Maintaining the Relationship
In which ways can we support this unique and reverential relationship to God? Traditionally, our Reformed forefathers spoke of ecclesiastical worship, family worship, and personal worship. They meant with these terms the moments that we as church, as family, or as individuals brought our sacrifices to the LORD, thanked Him, and called upon Him for help and guidance. The term “worship” refers to something else than does the term “relationship.” The three forms of worship indicate already that the focus is not merely on an individual relationship. Our forefathers practised a form for the worship of God which consisted of three essential, inseparable elements.
The worship service – the words make us think of practising and maintaining a contact by means of a worshipful attitude. And you need to be trained to be able to serve well. Religion languishes without training. You receive training opportunities in the church, at home, and in your personal life. What exactly is it that we are to train during these worship services? Our faith is such a small flame; it is easily extinguished. It needs to be protected, and it needs much care to keep it going. To do this you need each other.
How do we train? At times you hear people say that they want to “work at their faith.” That is a good thing, providing you recognize that you can do that only in an indirect manner. Your faith is strengthened and grows almost unnoticed as you honour God, call upon Him, and listen to his words. Faith is a means, not a goal. That means should not be cultivated for its own sake. My faith is no more than an uplifted, empty hand, to be filled by God. The best way to keep that hand in a good condition is to focus on God, rather than on your own feelings. As a result those feelings of faith will blossom, almost by themselves. For this to happen you must stay connected with the words of God which have already been revealed. You need to, so to speak, call out in the dark because you do believe. You must sing in a world full of pain because you trust that He will make all things well. You must continue what Enoch started: to call on the name of the LORD.
From our perspective, we are calling out into the night. But so from God’s perspective. He sees all kinds of things happening around the believers. An invisible host of angels surrounds them. The Holy Spirit descends to be their guide. The heavenly Father sees them and hears them. And we may notice these things ourselves as well. You will more and more experience that you are alone, and yet not alone, even though you do not see anything. That feeling stimulates you to persevere with calling upon the name of the LORD.
One of the ways for religious training is personal worship. This consists of Bible reading, reading edifying literature, meditating, prayer, and song. Why is it that this does not always satisfy? Where does that restlessness come from that wants a much more personal relationship with God? I think there are many reasons, and I cannot hope to give a complete answer. I will mention a number of things which, I believe, do play a role.
It may be that our mind is not sufficiently clean and prepared before we start reading the Bible, or before we pray. If you want to take off your shoes, you do need to take the time to undo the laces first. In order to call upon God, you need to have the right attitude: of awe for the holiness in heaven, of dependence, of deep reverence for life and the Living One. We all are troubled by hurt feelings. That is a sensitive matter which cannot simply be healed by listening to a few sermons. Much training and practice is needed in order to restore sensitivities which have been deadened by a culture that rejects what is holy to the Holy One.
Often we read the Bible routinely, with empty eyes and ears. We do not give our attention to search for the Giver of grace. The Bible is often way too close to us and therefore the Word is at times too far away. In some countries there is only one Bible available for a whole community. In turns people are allowed to read from it for an hour or so. That is a situation rather different from the one we know so well: almost automatically taking your Bible because we still “have to” read it.
Often we pay little attention to the external forms of our worship. Generally, things such as posture, dress, choice of words are not considered very important in the worship service. However, the many examples in the Bible of kneeling down with lifted hands are there for a reason. Already in the Old Testament we are taught how important it is that we cleanse ourselves and go to pray in the temple in clean clothes. The psalms teach us a choice of respectful words. I am sure that no one will use sloppy language on purpose, but it is certainly important that we pay more attention to our word choice. I do not say that time and style should have no bearing on our speech, but the respectful manner in which our grandparents started their prayers is a better model than today’s often all too easy approach to prayer. Of course, we are ordinary people, but that does not permit us to address the Almighty as if he lives next door. I think that the danger of laissez-faire speech habits is greater than that of fossilized formulations. In short, the indifference towards appropriate forms, posture, dress, word and speech usage, in addressing God is an evil that damages, rather than supports, worshipful attitudes and feelings.
Because of the secularization of our society there is an increasing disintegration of the community and isolation of the individual. Without realizing it, we may well be influenced by these changes when we begin to speak more about “my personal relationship with God.” Such speaking seems to imply that the person is not a child, a spouse, a member of the church, etc.
The trio of worship services in church, family, and private room reminds us that God has placed us in a church body, and in a family. Let us be very careful that religion does not become individualized in a spiritual sense. If this happens the believer will be tempted to use his individual relationship with God (about which others cannot say anything) as the basis to shop around for the most supportive church. He will fail to integrate his relationship with God with his relationships with his parents or children. A one-sided emphasis on one’s personal relationship with God tends to carry with it a certain degree of haughtiness, as if such a relationship is the end of all. But God calls an innumerable multitude. Indeed, each believer will have his own new name, but together we will become one, large, uncountable communion of saints. It is not beneath God’s dignity to incorporate us into a small circle with few noble or wise people. The local community is the exercising ground for humility. When we want to strengthen our faith we need to exert as much effort in the communal training during the Sunday worship services and in the family worship exercises, as in the personal worship in our own room. In the end, no one comes to God without the one given to him or her as a companion on the way. You make it needlessly very difficult for yourself if you were to turn your back on your own congregation. Do not focus exclusively on your personal relationship with God without working on the relationship with your brother, your minister, the people you see and meet.
These four points are of importance to a well functioning personal worship service. Together with the worship services within the family and in the church we have an excellent means to train ourselves in godliness and faith because they direct our attention to the Invisible One who lives in inaccessible light, and who allows us to address Him in Christ through his Spirit with the intimate title: Abba, Father!
Together on Our Way
A personal relationship with God? Is that possible? Indeed, it is; the question mark can be changed into an exclamation mark if we have carefully considered the uniqueness of that relationship because we stand before our Creator, the Almighty. If Reformed believers feel uneasy about their spirituality, then the best way to heal the personal experience of the relationship with God is through a recovery and restoration of the fear of the LORD, and through promoting the three types of worship that support this fear. In short, today the personal relationship with God is determined by faith and faith experience, by living together before his face as family and as congregation – tomorrow by being together and seeing face to face.