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It’s not about rules it’s about Working Hard at My Relationship With God…

It's happened three times in the last three weeks, so let me give you a composite account of the conversations...

-- [Embarrassed biting of lip] Umm... I know I should know the answer to this... And I feel really silly for bringing it up.  I realise it's, like, really basic... but it's been bugging me for ages now:  How do I Have A Relationship With God?

-- What do you mean?

-- Well I know it's not about rules.  I keep hearing that Christianity is not a religion, it's a relationship.  Well, ok.  But how do I Have A Relationship With God?  It sounds so stupid that I should ask that.  I know this is Christianity 101.  It makes me wonder whether I'm even a Christian.  But when people talk about "having a relationship with God", I kinda know what they mean.  But I'm not sure I have what they're talking about.  What are they talking about?

-- To be honest, I don't really know what they're talking about.  And I wonder if they know what they're talking about.

Yes, that's really how I've been answering this question.  Really.

Which will make you wonder whether I'm even a Christian.  I mean honestly, who could possibly be against having a relationship with God??

Well I'm not against enjoying the gift of relationship with God.  But I'm dead set against definitions of Christianity that throw the spotlight on me and my relationship with God.  That might sound like a trivial difference.  Actually it's all the difference in the world.

Don't get me wrong, I know the living God - a personal God - I hear Him in His word, I speak to Him in prayer.  I enjoy fellowship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Honest, I do.  It's great.  All a wonderful gift that's mine in Jesus.  Fantastic.

But if I have to "have a relationship with God" then I'm stuffed.  Seriously.  I'm hell-fodder if 'relationship with God' is up to me.

Let's put the exact same truth in slightly different terms and you'll see what I mean:  I love the law. It describes the good life of loving God and loving neighbour.  Brilliant.  And I have performed good works which the Father has prepared in advance for me to walk in (Ephesians 2:10).  And that's been a lot of fun.  Yay law.  Yay works.  Yay.  But if I ever start talking about 'the heart of Christianity' as 'me obeying the law' then let me be accursed!  If I ever say "People get the wrong idea about Christianity, it's not about ancient rituals, it's actually all about legal obedience" - you'll instantly realize my error.  Well, it's just the same when you say "It's not about being religious, it's about Having A Relationship With God."

And you'll say - No, Glen, you've got it backwards.  Religion is about rules - yuck.  But Christianity is a totally different thing.  It's all about relationship.  It's not the same thing at all!

To which I'll say - Really?

Really??

I understand that the essence of Christianity is not my outward works (so far, so good) - but then I'm commonly told that it's about the quality of my inner devotional life towards God.  Do you see what's happened?  We've come to a different swamp, but we're still sunk.  We're still lost in 'works righteousness', it's just there's a different flavour to the 'works'.  Before it was all about outward, ritualistic hoops.  Now I'm being told it's all about inward, pietistic hoops.

Well Hallelujah!  Don't you feel the chains just falling off you?  Rejoice, you don't have to perform physical acts, only mental and spiritual ones! Is that the freedom the gospel brings?

No, it's just a different kind of slavery.  And in some ways, it's an even deeper slavery.  That's why Christians, furtively, secretly, wonder to themselves (and sometimes they wonder it aloud to visiting Christian speakers) What is this Relationship With God I keep being told to manufacture?  And why is it spoken of as liberating when all I feel is condemned by it??

Because, seriously, who on earth can have "a relationship with God"?  Where would you even begin?

Look at the person in that photo at the top. Are you like them? Can you do what they're doing?

And if you could manage it, what, precisely, would be the point of Jesus?  Do we really need "the One Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus"?  Is He actually crucial to our Christianity?  Or perhaps He just gets us in the door and then leaves us to get on with the main work of Christianity: having a relationship with God?  Is that it?

No! The priesthood of Jesus is absolutely vital to understand. And this is what I've told my questioners when they've asked. The good news is this: We, by nature, are sunk in self and sin and have no chance of a relationship with God. But Christ is our Mediator who became Man for us, who lived our life for us, died our death for us and rose again to the Father's right hand for us. He now lives to intercede for us, carrying us on His heart the way Aaron carried the sons of Israel on his (Exodus 28:29).

Jesus is the true David - the true Man after God's own heart. Now, by the Spirit, I am swept up into Him - carried on His heart while He enjoys the ultimate heart-to-heart. I am included in the true God-Man relationship - not because of any devotional aptitude or inclination on my part. It is a sheer gift of grace given freely in Jesus.

I have a relationship with God. The good news is that it's not my own relationship, which would be as fickle as my feelings. No the relationship I have with God is Christ's relationship with God.

Some don't like this way of speaking.  They think it diminishes a warm and personal walk with God. The opposite is the case. To know that I have Christ's relationship with the Father is where my personal walk begins. Secure in Jesus I can enjoy my status as a child of God. I can even join in with the Spirit's constant prayer: "Abba, Father." But none of this is a relationship I must manufacture. It's the grace in which - FACT - I now stand through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 5:1-2).

So this is what I said to my questioners. Don't look within, trying to find a relationship with God. You won't find it in you. Look to Christ - your Mediator, Advocate, Intercessor and Priest. He is your relationship with God. To the degree that you know you're on His heart, you'll feel Him in yours.

11 thoughts on “It’s not about rules it’s about Working Hard at My Relationship With God…

  1. Kebs

    "I have a relationship with God. The good news is that it’s not my own relationship, which would be as fickle as my feelings. No the relationship I have with God is Christ’s relationship with God."

    Thank you Glen! I also "secretly" wonder about "how can I have relationship with God?" and you just described what I do, pietism. I've been reading a lot from Hebrews and different sources about "Union with Christ" and I must say that this is really a key - glorious truth! Can you recommend a book/article/talks/papers that deals with this truth more? Or any resource that I can see more of Christ?

  2. Steve Martin

    "To the degree that you know you’re on His heart, you’ll feel Him in yours."

    Thanks, Glen.

    For us, it is not about our feelings (since those emanate from within ourselves), but more about our trust, our faith, against all that we can see or feel, that tells us that there is no God, or that He is distant.

    We rely on the external Word. God's promises to us in Word, and in the sacraments...which are pure promise, given in an external, tangible way...so that we might have assurance totally apart from anything that we do, say, feel, or think.

    It's not an easy way to live...but I know of no other way to have real assurance.

    I do think that is why Jesus commanded Baptism and His Supper.

    Thanks, friend.

  3. missl24

    Hi Glen

    I continue to be challenged! So here’s my reflection on this post.

    In our fallen humanity we, like Adam before us, need to work to keep alive – till the fields etc etc. We even talk about a “protestant work ethic”. The Proverbs warn frequently against sloth and idleness.

    So it seems we unthinkingly apply that to our relationship with Christ, on our journey to heaven. We can see it happening in every other major religion- rules to follow, orders to obey, and if you have done all this well enough then “welcome to paradise son/daughter” at Judgement Day.

    So here’s what I am wrestling with at the moment – Philippians 3:
    12 Not that I have already obtained all this, (the deeper knowledge of Jesus he’s just been talking about)
    or have already arrived at my goal (?), but I press on to take hold of that (what? Full relationship with Christ? Eternal life?) for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.
    13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal (ie he is working hard – but at what? It can’t be to gain righteousness – since he’s just before declared that he no longer believes you have to work “Pharisee-like” to gain what God has given you freely. So is it the mission Jesus has given him to spread the good news?)
    to win the prize (so what is the prize?)
    for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

    You see, whilst there’s nothing we can do to earn God’s love which is freely given, there is a response due from us. Firstly, to worship God. Secondly, to work for the kingdom – with the aim of telling others about God’s grace. So we certainly don’t need to earn our place in heaven, but my question is..what is the reward for that mission work? It seems only fair that a martyr will get a greater reward in heaven than a lazy Christian who has done nothing but believe in Jesus Christ..

  4. Glen

    Hey missl24,

    Philippians 4:1!!

    Paul's life is "poured out" for the sake of the saints (1:23-26; 2:17). He's received from Christ who has "made Himself nothing" for us (2:7). And now passes it on. The prize he seeks is to enjoy Christ *WITH* the Philippians. From an outgoing God he has received an outgoing mission and so he strives with every fibre of his being - not so that *he* might get closer to God, but that the world might.

    A quote from Martin Luther on Reformation Day: "God does not need our good deeds, our neighbour does!"

    Grace always flows downhill.

  5. Glen

    Hi Kebs,

    It doesn't get better than Hebrews! Christ's Priesthood is the key.

    A great little book on this topic is James Torrance's "Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace."

  6. Steve Martin

    Missl24,

    We've got to be careful about looking to rewards. Then our motives are shot.

    A lot of that 'rewards' talk in the bible is just Rabbinic hyperbole.

    My 2 cents.

  7. Howard

    Spot on, Glen - real spirituality constantly points to Christ - His nature, His Life, His work... it's all in what He has done - therein is the Righteousness of God! Happy Reformation Day!

  8. Theo K

    Glen,

    Wouldn't you agree that there is a difference between union and communion with Christ? In the sense that the Christian's union with Christ is secure and unbreakable, determined even before the beginning of the world, and at the same time the Christian's communion with God in Christ can be hindered or improved depending on his life?

    Isn't true that the more we *work* on our relationship (communion) with Christ by utilising the means of grace and by obeying His commandments (enabled by His grace), then the more we grow in His knowledge and we get to experimentally enjoy His love and His presence?

  9. Glen

    Hi Theo,

    Yes to so much of this. But I just don't see Jesus or the Apostles ever telling me to "work on my relationship with God." Work hard, sure. Work out your salvation. Absolutely. But work it OUT. From our secure position in Christ, turn outwards to the world with reconciling love. And as we do so, we will be keeping in step with the outgoing Spirit. Wonderful. Of course our experience of Christ and His benefits waxes and wanes. And of course disobedience to the Spirit's promptings grieves Him, etc, etc. But I just don't see that I'm to 'work hard at my relationship with God.' Receive the Word of Christ, Yes. Dwell in the gracious promises, Absolutely. In response, 'work hard' - Yes indeed. But work hard in loving my neighbour with the love I've received.

    As the Father loves the Son, so we remain in the Son's love. How? Obey His commands? What are His commands? Love *others*. (John 15:9ff). Jesus does not say "Now that I have washed your feet, you wash mine." He tells us to love *one another*. Grace runs downhill. And so does grace-empowered work.

    So I absolutely agree that our experience of God's love and presence go up and down. And I absolutely agree that we must utilise the means of grace (receive His promises in the word, etc) and love our neighbours. But the flow is always downhill.

  10. Theo K

    Glen, thank you for your answer. Agreed!

    I would just add that hearing the word, studying the bible, dwelling in the promises, praying, sacraments, christian fellowship, all these good things take time and effort on our part. Especially since we are sinners still and many times to do all these things doesn't come naturally to us, it takes discipline (which, I agree, it is produced in us by the Spirit - grace flows downhilk to lift us up!)

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