Resources for Following Christ in All of Life
What do you do when your faith has no feelings? That's what this one friend asked...
I struggle immensely with the emotional/heart part of faith. I get really irritated when I hear the description “personal relationship with Jesus.” Even for strong believers, I'm guessing that most of them don't feel anything very similar to a human relationship...in which spending time together, communication, touching, etc. provide the means through which a connection is formed and maintained. Spiritual disciplines are the best parallel I can think of for forming or maintaining a “relationship” with God/Jesus. I have tried those things, too... gratitude/prayer journals, prayer time... but I’ve never felt anything as a result of those efforts. I don't think the “head” part, with which I still do somewhat struggle, can be enough. It seems fundamental to feel loved by God...and I don't because of what I've tried to describe here. —BJ
BJ, I love your question.
I can see how it would irk you when you hear people say they have a personal relationship with Jesus. I mean what does that mean anyway?! I think when people say those words they are most often saying that instead of Christianity just being a religious habit, it is something that is more heartfelt. Nonetheless, I've wondered myself just what Christians are saying when they speak of a personal relationship, since as you point out it's not like other personal relationships we might have.
I have to wonder if our relationship with God/Jesus is markedly different than our human relationships, even if there are some similarities. I know some people who seem to have a "relationship" with their car. They name it, talk to it, and feel sad when they have to give it up. That kind of relationship, however, is different than the relationship they might have with their dog, or with their childhood friend, or with a spouse. All this is to say, I wonder if the relationship we have with God might look a little different than those relationships as well, especially since he is an all-powerful, all-loving being, who doesn’t generally make himself visible.
When Jesus was on earth, we might have been able to have a normal humanly kind of relationship with him, but now that he has returned to his place with the Father, we are in a position of having a relationship with an all-powerful, all-loving, non-physically present being. That certainly sounds like it's going to call for a different kind of relationship. Maybe that's why Jesus gives a special blessing to those who believe without seeing him personally (John 21:29).
I know many people who look to specific times when they've distinctly felt the presence of God, and see those times as a real anchor for their faith. I’m glad for them, but that has not really been the case for me. Not that I don't see him as integral to all that is happening about me, but I don’t have a palpable feeling like he is in the room.
That said, even though I don't experience lots of feelings from God, I have become increasingly confident in him and find myself calling out to him more and more. It's as if life just makes more sense with him than without him. What I mean by that is that when I seek his way of forgiveness, when I pursue the things he calls good, when I love my wife sacrificially, when I hurt at the brokenness that sin causes in the world, when I try to make sense of love and purpose and reason and free will, I keep finding God is the answer to the questions and longings I have. The result is that if Christ were to show up physically before me now, I think I'd fall to my knees weeping in joy like those videos of children being surprised when their military father/mother comes home.
It was a hangover question. Not the kind that gets asked after too much to drink, but the kind that couldn’t get fully addressed in a previous meeting. The setting was a beautiful backyard with tall pines and a bright blue pool. Circled around a patio fireplace were about 30 men, many with beer in hand. Some were familiar with the set up; for others it was something wholly new. It’s a once-a-month kind of gathering, and last month a man, who would fit most men’s definition of success, boldly stated, “I’d just like to know the purpose of life.” Boy, wouldn’t we all?!
As the night’s conversation progressed, it was evident these men had learned enough in life to cross off a few of the more prominent answers to the question: success, achievement, family, wealth, and women. All bring a certain amount of pleasure and sense of self-worth, but all seem to fall short of the purpose of life. As one man put it, “You check the boxes off, but then find out that when you do so it doesn’t really fulfill the soul.”
In gatherings like this, I like to ask lots of questions to understand how others wrestle with the main issue at hand. It was evident though that no one was too clear on what to do with the question: what is the purpose of life? Finally, someone blurted out, “We’ve been talking about this question for a while now, but no one has provided an answer. Are we going to get one?” That was my cue.
Before the conversation, I told the men that somewhere during the evening I’d share a short biblical perspective on the evening’s question with the understanding that they could agree, disagree, or pick it a part piece by piece. Now was the time to offer what I could.
"It seems to me the first thing the Bible tells us when we come to a question regarding the purpose of life is to know that there actually is one. And there is a purpose for our lives because we are not here by accident. Suppose I walk by the kitchen counter and there is an open box of Scrabble that is hanging over the edge. In my carelessness, I knock it over and the pieces fall on the floor. My guess is you would not look down and ask me about the meaning of the letters on the ground. And you wouldn’t ask that because things that are truly accidental don’t have meaning. But suppose instead of seeing random letters strewn about the floor, you see a series of six and seven letter words neatly crisscrossing. Then you would have reason to ask about their meaning. So, it is with us. God says we have purpose because we are not here by accident. He created us.
"Second, the Bible is quite clear in letting us know that meaning in life is found in the Maker, not in the thing that was made. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. Instead of Scrabble, think of Monopoly this time. Had you never played the game, you’d see little houses and hotels and wonder what they were all about. You could stare at them all day long in hopes of discovering their purpose, but it would probably do you no good. To know their purpose, you need to see what their maker says about them. So it is with us, we can look inward to find purpose and meaning for our lives, but it will always leave us short. The Bible says that to discover the purpose for our lives we must see what God has to say about it.
"Third, that brings us to the question, 'So what does God say about the purpose of our lives?' When we look to the Bible, I think we see a three-fold purpose to life. I suppose you could put it in different words than I do, but I think what I will share covers the bases. The three-fold purpose goes like this: love God, love people, and tell others to do the same. That’s pretty much it. What I like about this purpose is that it is transferable. What I mean by that is that it works in all seasons of life. Suppose I am a 15-year-old high schooler. I can love God, love others, and tell others to do the same. Suppose I finish college and have taken my first demanding job. I can love God, love others, and tell others to do the same. Suppose my home is full of kids that need lots of attention. I can love God, love others, and tell others to do the same. Suppose the home is quiet again after all the kids have moved out. I can love God, love others, and tell others to do the same. Suppose I get transferred in my job, or it’s time to retire. Nothing changes. I can love God, love others, and tell others to do the same. Even if I were to be unjustly convicted of a crime and placed in jail, my purpose would not be altered. I can love God, love others, and tell others to do the same.
"The fourth thing the Bible says about the purpose of life is that to seek it in anything apart from loving God, loving others, and telling others to do the same will sooner or later leave you feeling empty. Or, as was said earlier, it won’t fulfill your soul. There is a book in the Bible written about one man’s quest for meaning. He sought it in wealth and women, in education and achievement. In each case, his efforts fell short. They could not fulfill his deepest longing. His conclusion was that only seeking God’s purpose could do that.
"Finally, I think the Bible is clear on one more thing about the purpose of life. It tells us that when we pursue what God says is life’s purpose, we are building something that will last forever. If you own a home that will not suit you for long, it’s unlikely you will invest much in it. Perhaps you will fix up a thing or two to keep it functional or to get a better price when you sell, but you won’t put in the money and effort to truly make it your home. But that all changes when you find the place you plan to live in the rest of your days. At that point, you are willing to make the home just as you want it and invest in the best quality you can. How great to know, then, that the Bible says when we pursue our God-given purpose of loving God, loving others, and telling others to do the same, we are spending wisely on something that will do us well for the long haul.
"So that is what the Bible says about the purpose of life. You could probably say it in different words or even add a point or two, but I think this gets at the heart of it."
The conversation was far from over. The men wanted to talk about what it means to love God and added stories about their own failures and successes in doing so. Some felt free to share a good deal. Others remained quiet and just listened.
I don’t end gatherings like this with any hoopla, just a simple thank you for coming and contributing. Sometimes that leaves me wondering what kind of imprint the conversation made, but that’s okay. It is not always my business to know. Nice though that the next morning a group email went out from one of the participants. It simply read this way:
1) love God
2) love others
3) tell others to do the same
Ready, break ...
I’ve heard it many times. Maybe you have too. In fact, maybe you have even said it. It starts with these words, “I can’t believe in a God who…” and then is followed with phrases like “lets young children die” or “would let his own Son be crucified” or “sends people to hell.” In most cases, the last few words represent something that bothers our sensitivities. If there is a God like that, we surmise, we want no part of Him.
Now sometimes when people say “I can’t believe in a God who…” they mean only that the God who is portrayed is distasteful, and they prefer to think of Him in another way, such as with a feminine pronoun. Others, however, mean that because the God spoken of is not to their liking, no God exists at all. It seems to me there is a problem with either kind of thinking.
On occasion, I ask people what their least favorite color is. One young man told me it was puke green. That sounds like a solid pick for a disliked color. After he shared with me his choice, I said, “Suppose God showed up, and to your surprise and even disgust, His entire being was a shade of puke green. You might say to yourself, ‘Boy, God is really ugly, I sure don’t like the way He looks.’ But I doubt you would say you can’t believe in a God who is puke green or that God doesn’t exist altogether. In fact, if anything you would believe in God—even a puke green God—more after the encounter.”
I know the scene I set for the young man is rather silly, but I think it makes an important point. And that point is that our likes and dislikes don’t determine whether something exists or whether something exists with certain characteristics. I, for example, might not like Barak Obama or Donald Trump, but that should not lead me to the conclusion that they do not exist or that they don’t have certain unpreferred characteristics.
This all said, it seems to me we must be careful that our beliefs about things are not shaped primarily by our sensitivities and preferences but by the actual characteristics of the object in question. This is true even when it comes to God. That does not mean that everything said about God must be believed. Sometimes what people try to pin on God is faulty and ought to be rejected because it doesn’t accurately portray God and His ways. But it does mean that if God exists there might be some things about Him that at least at first glance are distasteful or uncomfortable.
This makes me think of the biblical story of David. He had just become king and wanted to bring the recently recovered ark of the covenant back to his hometown. Along the way, a priest reached out and touched the ark when it seemed to be falling off an ox-led cart. Immediately, the priest was struck dead by God. David couldn’t believe it. Why would God do such a thing? The Bible even says that David was angry with God and became afraid of Him as a result. What it does not say, however, is that David concluded that God must not be the kind of God who would do such a thing or that God didn’t exist all. Those simply weren’t reasonable options given what David had seen.
Now please don’t read me as saying that if properly understood God will disturb all our sensitivities. I don’t think that to be so. As those made in the image of God, I think there are many things about God which we will probably find very easy to swallow, delightful in fact. But given that we are not God and are probably enamored with plenty that is antithetical to Him, we should not be surprised that as we gain a clearer picture of who God is there will be times when He comes off a bit puke green.
© 2018 John Hopper
John likes to help people wrestle with the big questions of life in his work with Search Ministries. He served as a pastor in Houston for 16 years, earned his doctorate at Biola University, and is a contributing author of Reasons to Believe: Thoughtful Responses to Life’s Toughest Questions.