March 15, 2010
What Does It Mean to Have Relationship with God?
I am a philosophy student and an ex-Christian. I lost my faith during my undergraduate education upon realizing that I had accepted my faith without reflection. Like many others my age, I abandoned my worldview and embarked upon a search for answers. The search quickly took on an intellectual character that eventually led me to the joys of philosophy (which, I am happy to say, I have chosen as my career path). And having had a taste of good philosophy and good apologetics, my doubts about Christianity have been intellectually satisfied.
Yet despite my admission that God exists and that Christ was resurrected, I have absolutely no idea what it means to have a relationship with God; the concept is completely mysterious to me. What does it mean to trust God? And for what? Why talk to God? What would one say? What would one hear? What is expected of me and what should I expect of God? Is there a unique experience to such conversations or should one pray despite the feeling that no one is listening?
What's worse, however, is the feeling that I am motivated not by love but by expectation. That is, I grew up in the Church and had it impressed upon me that a relationship just comes with the territory of belief. I now believe, so I am expected to begin a relationship; I don't otherwise feel led to cultivate a relationship to God.
The things the bible says about the matter seem mysterious or rely too heavily on a human relationship analogy (e.g. surely the Father-son analogy only goes so far given God's hiddenness and permission of suffering). And as for Christ's death, I must admit that I have difficulty feeling grateful for His sacrifice since many parts of the justification story are in tension with my intuitions on justice (e.g. substitutionary atonement).
I understand that these aren't very well formulated questions but that simply indicates my confusion on the matter. Any reply will be greatly appreciated.
p.s. "Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview" got me into philosophy. So thanks for that as well.
It was so heartening to receive your letter, Mark, and to learn of your return to Christian belief! I hope you're drinking deeply from the well of Alvin Plantinga, especially Warranted Christian Belief, which has a good deal of material which is relevant to your question, particularly his discussion of the religious affections.
As I read your question, I couldn't help but wonder if you might not find yourself in the situation of someone who has returned intellectually to belief in a Christian worldview but who has not yet come into a saving relationship with God. Forgive me if I'm wrong, but since I don't know your story, I can only guess at what seems to be amiss.
One of my concerns about a ministry like mine which focuses on the truth of the Christian worldview and arguments for it is that people may not realize that the Christian faith is not just about having a change of mind and coming to accept a new worldview. It's about coming into a new relationship and becoming a new person. That's easy to miss when we're so focused on defending propositional truth.
The Christian faith is about coming into a saving relationship with God. Obviously, we're all related to God in certain ways, such as creature to Creator, but the Christian faith emphasizes that on a personal level we do not naturally find ourselves properly related to God. Instead, we find ourselves spiritually alienated from God due to the sin (moral evil) that pervades our lives. We do not fulfill our moral duties, toward God, toward others, toward ourselves: we have done what we ought not to have done, and we have not done what we ought to have done. As a result we find ourselves morally guilty before a holy God and under His just judgement. Our personal relationship to God has thus been ruptured. Like a Father and a son who are estranged from each other because of the son's rebellion, so we find ourselves estranged from God. God did not create us in order to stand in a relation of condemnation to us, but of welcoming acceptance, nor were we created to stand to God in a relationship of indifference or even hostility, but one of love and adoration. Thus, I think you can see how ruined and twisted our relationship with God is. Instead of friendship, there is alienation and enmity. That's what it means to lack a personal relationship with God.
So God has set about restoring the personal relationship with Him that He created us to have. Since we are, according to the Bible, spiritually dead in our sinful condition, that is, lacking a proper relationship with God and powerless to do anything about it, God must quicken us spiritually in order to restore us to a right relationship with Him. The Bible calls this "regeneration" (in popular piety, it is called being "born again," which is just what "regenerate" means). This takes place by the action of the Holy Spirit in response to a person's placing his faith in Christ for salvation.
Now "faith," as the Reformer Martin Luther emphasized, is a multivalent word. At the most basic level, faith involves what Luther called notitia, which is simply cognizance or understanding of a proposition. Next comes what he called assensus, which is assent to the proposition in question. Finally, there is fiducia, which is trust in the relevant person or thing. All three are involved in saving faith. First, there is understanding the great truths of the Gospel, such as that God exists, that I am morally guilty before God, that God sent His Son Jesus Christ to die on my behalf in order to reconcile me to Himself, that forgiveness and moral cleansing are available through Christ, and so on. Next, I must not merely understand but believe these truths. Finally, I must place my trust in Christ as my personal Savior and Lord in order to be saved from sin and separation from God.
"What does it mean to trust God, and for what?" It means that you place your life, your well-being, wholly in His hands, relying upon Him and Him alone to save you. It is making a whole-hearted commitment to follow Christ as his disciple, to allow him to reshape you to become the kind of person that he wants you to be. It means saying to God, "Not my will, but Thine be done. I am no longer my own man; I am Yours, to be and do what You will."
When you make such a commitment to Christ, the Holy Spirit regenerates you spiritually and restores you to the proper relationship with God that you were meant to have. Not only so, but in some mysterious way you are actually indwelt by God's Spirit, and as we yield daily to Him He transforms our character to make us become more Christ-like and directs our paths according to God's providential plan.
How this new relationship plays itself out experientially varies from person to person and over time. Sometimes one may sense God's presence in a very real way; other times one will hardly be aware of it, but one walks by faith, not by sight. Minimally, you should experience an assurance of salvation, a sense of being rightly related to God as His child, forgiven and restored. As you walk in the power of the Spirit you should experience joy, peace, love, and the other fruit of the Spirit in the life of a regenerate person who is yielded to Christ.
"Why talk to God?" Because you love Him! (This is like asking, why talk to your wife!) Of course, you needn't talk out loud, since He reads your mind. And of course, you don't need to provide Him with any information, since He knows everything. But you should communicate with your Heavenly Father. "What would one say?" Tell Him you love Him; tell Him how thankful you are for saving you; offer Him praise for what He has done and is doing in your life; ask Him to guide you, to strengthen you, to help you to resist temptation.
"Should one pray despite the feeling that no one is listening?" You should talk to God, or pray, whether you sense His presence or not. It is part of your life of faith. "What would one hear?" Some people claim to hear from God almost audibly, but most of the time He "speaks" to us through the inspired writings collected into the Bible. When reading the Bible reflectively, you'll sometimes find that a passage will strike you powerfully in a new way, perhaps convicting you, or encouraging you, or inspiring you, or directing you. We should expect God to speak to us in this way, through His Word.
"What is expected of me and what should I expect of God?" The answer to the first part of your question is: Everything! Look at Jesus' parable of the unworthy servants (Lk. 17.7-10). Jesus says, "So also you, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.'" We're to give God his legal right—namely, all that we have and are. We are to be as a matter of course totally dedicated to God and filled with the Holy Spirit.
The answer to the second part of your question is that God bestows upon us, positionally, as we are in Christ, forgiveness of sins, eternal life, adoption as sons, and the availability of unlimited help and power for Christian living. Moreover, He gives to us, experientially, as we are Spirit-filled, the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. When our relationship with God is healthy, the product in our lives will be righteousness, and the result of righteousness is happiness. Happiness is a byproduct of holiness, as God's righteousness is realized in us.
If you don't feel led to cultivate a relationship with God, Mark, it may be because you're not yet a regenerate Christian. You may have come only so far in faith as assensus but have not yet reached fiducia. You've not yet fallen in love with God, and so your heart is cold toward Him. Jesus said that he who has been forgiven much loves much. I'd encourage you to meditate on your own sinfulness and on how much God has forgiven (or will forgive) you and what it cost Christ to win your salvation—he was willing to die for you! Appreciating this doesn't require that you have some theory of the atonement in mind. Whatever theory of the atonement you accept, the fact remains that Jesus went to the cross for you and your redemption, a sacrifice, even on a purely human level, that is hard to fathom.
If you're not yet a regenerate Christian, then I encourage you to go to God in solitude and offer a prayer of commitment like the following:
God, I really need You. I recognize that I am sinful and wretched and in need of Your forgiveness. I believe that Jesus died on the cross to save me from my sins. And right now, in the best way I know how, I open the door of my life and invite you to come in and be my Savior and Lord. Forgive my sins, take the throne of my life, and make me into the kind of person you want me to be. I give myself to you.
Then, like a spiritual newborn, begin to receive the nourishment that comes through God's Word, meaningful corporate worship, prayer, confession and restitution, sharing your faith with others, and other spiritual disciplines.
It's not enough just to believe the truths of the Christian worldview. Our relationship with God needs to be restored and healed. That will come only through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit in response to trust and commitment.