Go Share My Life

 

As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.(John 20:21)

Imagine the scene when Jesus ascended into heaven. Jesus and the disciples had been together for three or so years. During that time, the disciples formed the belief, hope and expectation that Jesus was the Messiah who would restore the Kingdom of Israel. The disciples gave up everything and followed him, expecting they would be rewarded when Jesus came to his throne (Mark 10:35-36). Then came his betrayal, arrest, death, and burial. Their hopes and dreams were shattered. Amazingly, three days after his death and burial, and for weeks thereafter, Jesus appeared to them— proving he was alive! Jesus had conquered betrayal, arrest, crucifixion, death, and the grave.

Now, the disciples knew Jesus was their long-awaited Messiah, the true Son of David. They believed Jesus would restore the kingdom of David, just as God promised. (Acts 1:8). Once again, Jesus surprised them: He was not going to directly bring in the kingdom by his own physical presence and power. Instead, Jesus was going to bring his kingdom spiritually through his disciples by the power of the Holy Spirit. He put this new understanding in the form of a commandment or commission: [1]

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

In one of my former congregations, there was a retired pastor who grew up on a farm. He was and is a southern farm boy. He has been both a pastor and a missionary. When he translates the Great Commission, he puts it something like this:

As y’all are going wherever you go, be sure and share the Good News with others and make them disciples of mine. As you do this, baptize those who come to believe. But, don’t stop there. Be sure you teach them all about me and to live the way I have taught you to live. Along the way, don’t be scared. I will be with you all the time, everywhere you go. [2]

You actually have to know a little Greek to understand that Robert accurately captured the essence of what Jesus is saying. In Greek, the word “Go” is a participle. It can mean, “Go!” (the imperative form), but it also connotes “As you are going” (the progressive form). Christians are to make disciples (the command) as we go (throughout the progress of our lives).

Because of the centrality of the Great Commission, it is important right to get firmly in mind its central principles that should guide each and every Christian. The specific task Jesus gave the first disciples and gives to us cannot be emphasized too often:

  • Go: Coming to church is not what the Christian life is about. The Christian life is about going into the world. In fact, we all live and go somewhere every day, and where we are where we go are our mission fields.
  • Share the Good News: Christians are not called to simply receive teaching. Christians are called to share Christ and the love of God with everyone we meet, not just with people we like or are attracted to. We should share verbally but also actively by the Christ-like quality of our lives.
  • Make Disciples: Once we have shared our faith and others have accepted Christ, Christians are called to patiently form people into communities of faith in which they are transformed. We are not called to make people church members; we are called to make disciples. [3]
  • Live in the Power of the Spirit: We do not need to fear. God is and will be with us by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ as we go about the business of sharing God’s love and making disciples. [4]

Making Disciples is More than Words

As we go, Jesus does not say that we should, “Just get people to say they believe in me.” He says “make disciples,” and “teach them to obey.” Too often, evangelism programs stop at conversion. This is not what Jesus asked us to do. He asked us to make disciples who obey his words and teachings and seek to emulate his life by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus wants his disciples to be about the business of making more and more Spirit-filled disciples, who live out in their day-to-day lives what they believe in their hearts in such a life transforming way that other disciples are made along the way.

Going While Unqualified

By the time that Jesus gave the disciples the Great Commission, the disciples were very aware that they were unqualified. During their time with Jesus, they had constantly misunderstood him. They had not understood that he was not going to be a political and military messiah. They had not understood that the Good News he proclaimed was going to be for everyone. In the end, they all deserted him, denied him, and betrayed him. As individuals and as a group, they lacked the character and ability to undertake a world-wide mission.  They were not administrators, managers, linguists, theologians, or cross-cultural experts. They had neither the education nor the experience to undertake the mission. They were. not particularly intelligent, gifted, or capable. Nevertheless, Jesus sent them.

Most of us are in the same boat. We don’t feel qualified to take the good news to the ends of the earth. Jesus must have meant to send someone else! However, he did not. He meant to send the disciples, and he means to send us. If we lack the capacity to do what Jesus calls us to do, we are in good company. That has been true since the beginning. If we are afraid, not wholly faithful, wobbly in our trust in God, we are no different than the original disciples. We need to hang on to the understanding that God will be with us by the power of the Holy Spirit if we will only go and share.

Taking Time to Make Disciples

One of my favorite New Testament stories is the story of the sending of the Twelve on their first mission trip (Mark 6:7-13; Matthew 10:1-15; Luke 9:1-6). After the Twelve had been with Jesus for a time, Jesus sent them out to practice doing the things they had seen him do. Mark describes it like this:

And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts—but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics. And he said to them, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So, they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them. (Mark 7:7-13).

There is a great deal to learn from this short story. First, Jesus was a master disciple-maker and knew that the disciples would not become the sent apostles he needed just by listening to what he said and watching his deeds of power. He did not want them to be just learners, but doers as well. He knew that someday they would be on their own, and they needed to get ready for that day. Therefore, he sent them out on practice missions. He did not send them out alone, because he knew that they would need mutual support along the way.  Therefore, he sent them two-by-two.

Jesus wanted the disciples to learn to rely upon God and not upon human beings, even him. Therefore, he carefully told them not to take along many items that almost anyone would consider necessary. What person leaves on a trip without a suitcase, their wallet, a few credit cards, and the like?  No one. Jesus knew this, but also understood that the disciples needed to learn to rely on the Spirit of God. He also warned them not to waste time going from place to place, but to stay for enough time to actually disciple people. [5] The disciples went as they were told, and later on we learn that followers of Jesus were excited and energized by what happened. [6]

Making disciples is not a quick, easy, or painless process. It takes time, effort, and patience.  We must be willing to teach, mentor and love each new disciple for a period of time as they mature in Christ. There will be ups and downs. Some people adapt easily to the new life in Christ, others take a long time. Some years ago, Kathy and I were privileged to be a part of a young woman coming to Christ. This particular person did not grow up in a particularly good home. Her parents were divorced. Her mother remarried, and her father worked in a profession where he traveled a lot, and he lived in a distant city. When she gave herself to Christ, she was in an unhealthy relationship. Today, that woman is an on-fire of disciple and disciple-maker—but believe me there were ups and downs along the way! On one notable occasion, our friend failed to tell us about a financial failure on her part. She was evicted. When she came to see me, I was as hard on this “daughter in Christ” as I would have been on one of my children!  That particular event was a turning point for this person, and since that time she has been a very careful Christian and mother.

Going as Salt and Light

My wife, Kathy, and I created a discipleship technique out of which a book grew, “Salt & Light: Everyday Discipleship.”  [7]  The title comes from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus told his disciples:

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:13-14).

At some point, many of us have been told by doctors to cut down on our salt intake. In fact, salt is necessary for human life. It is also a seasoning and preservative. Animals and humans need salt to live, and as a seasoning it preserves and heightens the enjoyment of food.  When Jesus says we are to be the salt of the earth, he is reminding his disciples (and us) that they (and we) are to share his self-giving, life-transforming love, the most important thing in the universe, with others. His love is what makes life possible, joyful, and meaningful. Without his love, life is nothing but struggle. We see the impact of life as nothing but struggle in our own culture. Living a life of ceaseless struggle is dehumanizing.

John speaks of Jesus as the “true light, which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9). James speaks of God as the “Father of Lights” (James 1:17). John says that “God is Light”—a light in whom there is no darkness (1 John 15). Jesus says told his disciples that they were “the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:14-16). Christians are to walk in the light of God, living wisely and with deep love for others. Paul says that when we do this, “we shine like stars” (Philippians 2:15).  We are to be like a lamp on a table shining the light of Christ into the room in which it is placed.

The description of God as light, of Jesus as the light, and of Christians as the living as light, reminds us that we are to embody the wisdom and love of God, as well as personally experience the love of God. It is not enough for us to privately know about Jesus.  It is not enough for us to just tell others about Jesus. In fact, if we do this without growing in Christ ourselves, we become hypocrites and dishonor God. To be a disciple is to shine like Jesus, live in the light of God’s presence, be transformed by that light, and share that light with others. In this way, everything we say and do will point others towards Christ and help them experience the wisdom and love of God.

When I was a new Christian, a partner in the firm in which I worked gave me an urgent task. The task required a paralegal to assist. As we went over the assignment, the paralegal looked over the desk and said, “You’re a Christian, aren’t you?” She could tell by our conversation that I was a Christian, even though the conversation was about filing a document at a particular time in a particular place in Texas. After the paralegal spoke to me, we shared our common faith in Christ for a few moments before going on with the task at hand. We became friends and partners in the Gospel for an interlude.

The “going” part of discipleship is not just about going out and sharing Christ in words. It is about living the life of Christ in our day-to-day lives in such a way that others take notice, even if we say nothing at all. This does not mean we say nothing at all. In fact, we will say something. But, the words we speak flow naturally from the people we have become in Christ. When Christians are salt and light to those they meet, people take notice, whatever words are spoken.

Any pastor who is ever sat at the bedside of a dying person knows at the ministry of presence is one of the most important ministries disciple-makers have. Some years ago, the father-in-law of one of my elders was in the hospital. I didn’t know it, but he was close to death. One Saturday morning I went to my normal prayer group. On my way home, I decided to go visit this person. My job at the time did not involve a lot of visitation. Nevertheless, I went. When I got to the room, the elder’s wife was sitting with her father, who was very weak. I sat with her for a time, and then said a prayer. Later that day, he died. My off-the-cuff visit that day meant a lot to the people involved. Before this incident, I was not close to the elder in question. I knew almost nothing about his family. He was not a particularly important supporter of mine. After that event, we were much closer. He’s become one of the most important leaders in one of my former churches.  That morning, I said almost nothing. It was presence that mattered. The presence of Christians in the life of those we disciple is one of the most important qualities a good disciple-maker must have. To be a disciple-maker to be involved in the lives of people in a personal way, just as Jesus was involved with his disciples.

Going in Relationship

For their first missionary experience, Jesus sent the disciples out in groups. Our going should also involve going in relationship with others, those we minister with and those we minister to. God desires a personal relationship with us. God also wants us to develop communal relationship through the church, the people of God, those people God has called to be his special witnessing people to the world. The Christian community is the place where people come to faith, learn, grow, and put their faith into practice. The church (the community of those who have been called out) is where Christians experience and share a bit of the kingdom of God on earth.  It is no surprise, therefore, that God wants us to reach out and share what we have experienced in Jesus Christ in community with other people.

Discipleship as a Triangular Relationship

Discipleship involves a “triangular relationship.” The essence of going in discipleship is a life-changing relationship with God, other people, and one’s self. This relationship grows in a process of maturity in faith and life. We have a vertical relationship with the Triune God, who is the foundation of our Christian life. As we trust God, we enter the community of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (John 14:16; 1 John 1:3). This vertical relationship with God changes our inner being and makes us new people. (2 Cor. 5:17). Just as God exists in a community, we become a part of the community of God and walk with the Triune God and with other believers. Gradually, we become more like Christ, who is the very image of God (Col. 1:5). Finally, our inner transformation grounded in our vertical relationship with God, and our healed horizontal relationships with others, empowers us to reach out to others just as someone reached out to us (I Cor. 15:10; Phil. 2:4).

The life of a disciple is built around all three points in the triangle: We believe in and trust Christ and become passionately in love with God, willing to follow Christ and obey God’s commands. To do this, we need to be discipled in relationship with other Christ-followers, become part of a local fellowship of Christians, and learn to live as God intended his children to live. Finally, as we grow, we reach out into our families, communities, work places, schools, etc. with the love of God so that others may experience God’s wisdom and love. [8] Each of these three movements of faith are important. Each require that we grow in relationship with God and other people. Each require that we grow into the likeness of Christ with the same kind of love for others Christ demonstrated on the cross.

Discipleship in an Entangled World

The communal, relational aspect of sharing the Gospel is hard for contemporary people to fully understand and appreciate. We are accustomed to the radical individualism of our culture, and so find it difficult, if not impossible, to grasp the necessity of relationships in order to grow in Christ. If there is any important insight of science that should change our way of looking at the world, it is the insight that we live in what John Polkinghorne calls, “An Entangled World”. [9] We live in a world characterized by a deep and fundamental relationality. Our habitual way of looking at the world as individual entities exercising force upon one another masks a deeper reality—that of a world of beautiful and elegant relationality, what I sometimes call “Deep Love” in religious terms. [10] The Doctrine of the Trinity, and the deep, self-giving love characteristic of God, implies that believers should be in deep, self-giving relationships with God and one another if we are to achieve the wholeness we desire. We cannot be Christians alone, because that is not the way God lives or wants us to live. It is not the way we were made. We were meant for community. We need to live “entangled” in the lives of others.

The New Testament reveals the communal aspect of mission. The most famous apostle, and the one about whom we know the most, Paul, rarely traveled alone. He ministered in community. [11] He went on missionary journeys with Barnabas, John Mark, Silas, Timothy, Luke and others. At the end of his life, Peter seems to have been in Rome with John Mark (1 Peter 5:13). Paul and John Mark ministered together at the beginning and end of Paul’s ministry (Acts 12:25; 2 Timothy 4:11).

The “going” of God’s people is a going in community. In the modern world, perhaps because of our emphasis on individualism, we idolize those who go alone, or seem to go alone in mission. We celebrate Billy Graham, but forget George Beverly Shay, Cliff Barrows, and the hundreds of others who ministered with him over the years. We celebrate Mother Teresa, but forget the members of her order. We celebrate famous pastors, and forget the staff members who make their ministries possible. Everyone ministers in community, whether they (or we) know it or not.

The call to go is not a call to go alone. It is a call for the community though its members to go. [12] A few go as individuals, but most will go as a group with support and with the kind of courage that only a group can muster. The same is true of us today. While a few of us may be called to solitary mission, most of us will go as a part of a team.

The Lost Art of Going

When I began to write this book, I reread the Cost of Discipleship after many years.  I took a journey into the bibliography to look for references on the Great Commission. There were none. The only reference in my edition to Matthew 28 related to the presence of the Holy Spirit with believers, and was related to the chapter on baptism. [13] In the late 1930’s, writing as a German, a citizen of the home place of the Reformation and the center of Christian Europe, Bonhoeffer could not fully see the need for the church as a community to recommit itself to evangelism and disciple-making. This is a legacy of the fact that, when the Reformation occurred, Germany, and all of Europe, were already Christianized. The great age of disciple-making, extending for hundreds of years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, was over. Europe might not have been a good example of Christianity, but it was nominally Christian. Although by the end of his life, when he was writing to his family and friends from prison, Bonhoeffer could see that Christianity in Germany and Europe was in a crisis, at the time of Cost of Discipleship, he could not. [14]

In a similar way, many Christians in the United States today fail to see that we are not only in a postmodern era, we are in a new apostolic era. The Christian faith cannot live on its prior successes. Instead, Christians must learn again to reach out and share the Good News Christ has entrusted to us. We must recover the lost art of going and sharing the Gospel, or the crisis of discipleship we face will continue and even get worse.

Going and making disciples is not the responsibility of a few, but of all of us. Just as not everyone who traveled with Paul was a great speaker, not all of us are called to be great oral evangelists. Each of is, however, called to share our faith as we can in the ways we are gifted to do so. This does not exempt us from verbally sharing our faith and understanding how to do it. It simply means that each one of us will share as they are called and gifted to do so. We are also called to invest our livers in the lives of others, so that people not only believe but become well-taught and mentored disciples of Christ. The gospel without love is powerless, and love without the gospel is meaningless.

I have been a Christian for the better part of half a century. I’ve been a pastor of evangelical congregations for a quarter of a century. It was only recently that I fully recognized that a good deal of what I have taught, and accomplished as a pastor is distant from what God intends for his church. There is nothing wrong with great worship, visitation programs, Sunday School, children’s programs, youth groups, good Bible teaching, men’s and women’s ministry, community outreach, and the like. In fact, God desires for his church to do all these things. However, if we do these things without making and empowering disciples, we fall short of what God desires for us and for the world—to go make disciples.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The Great Commission occurs in some form in each of the Gospel and in Acts. See, Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:14-20; Luke 24:44-49; John 20:21-23; Acts 1:7-8. In each case, there is a sending to witness to Christ and a promise of the presence of the Spirit as the disciples undertake to do what they have been asked to do.

[2] This quote is from Rev. Robert Crumpton who was one of the pastors of Advent Presbyterian Church, a former pastor of the Arlington Presbyterian Church, which Advent helped to revitalize, and a missionary to Ghana with his wife Nancy. During my years at Advent, Bob was the visitation pastor who shared God’s love with every visitor to Advent for over fifteen years after his “retirement.” The translation is not unique, and I have seen it other places.

[3] I have outlined the importance of living out the teachings of Christ and the Bible in much greater detail in Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene, OR, 2014) and in Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love Rev. Ed. (Cordova, TN: Booksurge Publishing, 2014).

[4] See, Steve Smith & Ying Kai, T4T: A Discipleship ReRevolution (Monument, CO: Wigtake Resources, 2011). This book is the single most important source for learning about T4T, which is one of the most important and powerful of the disciple-making movements in the world today.

[5] This particular aspect of this story should make us careful about event and media-centered ministries. Jesus did not want the disciples to into a place, preach the gospel, do a few miracles, and leave. Instead, he wanted them to stay in one place for a significant amount of time. Paul traveled a lot, but also spent significant time in specific cities like Ephesus. This indicates that serious disciple-makers should be grounded in a place and a community.

[6] See, Luke 10:17, which applies to yet another sending event. The various gospel narratives indicate that his sending before the ultimate sending was a part of Jesus’ strategy. See, F.W. Beare, “The Mission of the Disciples and the Mission Charge: Matthew 10 and Parallels,” Journal of Biblical Literature Vol. 89, No. 1 (March 1970), 1-13.

[7] G. Christopher with Kathy Trammell Scruggs, Salt & Light: Everyday Discipleship (Collierville, TN: Innovo, 2017).

[8] See, Mike Breen & the 3DM Team, Building a Discipleship Culture: How to Release a Missional Movement by Discipling People like Jesus Did(Pawleys Island, SC: 3DM Resources, 2011). Many churches and congregations use this triangle approach.

[9] John Polkinghorne, ed., The Trinity and an Entangled World: Relationality in Physical Science and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2010).

[10] See, Centered Living/ Centered Leading, at 165. In Centered Living, Centered Leading, I use the term Deep Love to describe God’s uncreated, self-giving love.

[11] The passages in which one can see that Paul ministered in community are too numerous to mention. The missionary journeys in Acts reflect Paul traveling with others. Often, the final portion of his letters reflect personal greetings to various individual persons important to his ministry. At the very end of his ministry, he asks Timothy to be with him (II Timothy 4:21). There is nothing in the life and ministry of the great missionary apostle to indicate that he ministered other than in community most of the time.

[12] As is often the case in interpreting the New Testament, it is important to recall that the Great Commission is in the plural. While Jesus is speaking to each disciple individually, he is also speaking to them as a group.

[13] See Cost of Discipleship, at 256.

[14] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison: New Greatly Enlarged Edition E. Bethge, ed. Second Printing (New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1973).

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5. Discipleship as a Personal Relationship

Many people (myself included) have difficulty visualizing what a personal relationship with God might be like. We understand human personal relationships, but we can’t ask God out on a date, go on a hunting trip, see a movie with us, or play a game of pickup basketball. God is not like Jesus in his incarnation. The first disciples could see, touch and physically spend time with Jesus. We cannot physically follow the human Jesus of Nazareth around in order to get to know what God is like. Therefore, it is legitimate to ask the question, “How can we have a personal relationship with someone we cannot see and who is infinitely different from us?”

Jesus believed in life-transforming relationships. Jesus called his disciples into a personal relationship, and through him into a personal relationship with relational, Triune God. In Jesus, God allowed us to see what his “Being in Love” looks like in a concrete human life. He asked his disciples to “follow him,” which meant spending their lives with him for three years so that they could see and experience that love. In our life of discipleship, we too must learn to “follow God around” as we grow in Christ.

Loving a Personal God who Loves Us

The distinctive characteristic of Christian faith is belief in a personal God. Christians believe that the one God exists in three persons bound together in a relationship of self-giving love. God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit existing in an eternal mutual relationship of love. This insight is interesting and important because it is the foundation of our belief that God is a person and desires to have a personal relationship with the human race.

As the early church worshiped, they prayed to and worshiped God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The earliest church liturgies reflect this personal, Trinitarian pattern of worship. The church worshiped, prayed to, and treated as holy all three persons of the Trinity. As the first Christians heard, wrote, and read about the experience of the disciples (now apostles) with Jesus, they understood that the God of Israel, whom Jesus called, “Father,” had revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth, the Anointed Messiah, who was the “Son of God” and the “Word of God” in human flesh. Finally, the church saw that God the Father and Son were present in the life of believers by the Holy Spirit. The names “Father” and “Son,” and names like “Spirit of Christ,” Spirit of the Father,” etc. indicated that the persons of the Godhead were personal beings, not merely forces. [1]

Early Christians worshiped each person in the Trinity as God. This was a major barrier to Jewish evangelism—and it can be a barrier to people today. To a Jew, only God could be worshiped, and God is One. The earliest statement of faith of Israel was, “Hear O Israel, the Lord, your God is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). The question was raised, “If God is one God, how then can we account for Christ and for the Holy Spirit? This caused a long period of spiritual and intellectual reflection, as well theological debate, concerning how the Trinity can be explained. In the end, the church felt that, while there is only one God whom we worship as God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, this God exists in three persons, the “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit.”

There are many reasons why this is important. If God is love (I John 4:8), then God in some way has to be person. Inanimate objects, powers, and ideas do not love. Only persons love. In addition, for love to exist, it must be shared. For there to be love, there must be someone (a person) to love and an act of love by someone else (a person). Therefore, it seemed logical to the early church that a God of Love is characterized by both unity (One God) and diversity (Three Persons) bound together in a relationship of divine, self-giving love—the love Christ revealed on the Cross.

If God is not a person, then we cannot expect to relate to God personally. If God is only a force or a principle, then we cannot have a personal relationship with God. We cannot expect God to love us personally as individuals. At best, we can submit to his power. [2] If God is a person, there can be a personal relationship between us and God. God can so love us that he would even give himself for our salvation.

On the other hand, if God is a person, we can “Love the Lord with all of our hearts, and all of our souls, and all of our minds, and all of our strength” (Matt. 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28) and expect that love to be reciprocal. If God is a person constituted by love then the proper way to be in a relationship with that God is to reflect God’s character by responding to God’s love by loving God and God’s creation in an earthy approximation to the love that God is. Because God is a person, Christianity is focused on personal love between persons and God, creation, and other people.

The idea that God must be loved was not new in Jesus’ day. In the Old Testament Israel was to love the Lord with all of its heart, soul and strength (Deut. 6:4-5). This love is not just to be shown to God, but to the world as well (Lev. 19:18). In the Old Testament, God often speaks of his love of Israel. For example, in Hosea God compares his feelings towards Israel as those of a spouse who has been betrayed (Hosea 3:1). The picture of God’s love in Hosea is especially important because it reveals a personal God who suffers, is humiliated, and yet will not abandon his beloved, however far away the beloved may wander. This love is the same love that caused God to provide in Christ a way for all of us to return to a living, holy relationship with the Triune God.

Persons and Personal Relationships

In our individualistic culture, we think we know what makes a person, and we celebrate individual personhood, perhaps to excess. Interestingly, however, the modern world actually has a drastically truncated and inadequate idea of personhood. We think of a person as an individual, a solitary, discrete body with a mind and reasoning powers. This person is bound to other persons solely by physical forces. Even love is often regarded simply a complex bio-psychological phenomenon, a biologically-based force acting between two persons. We think that love, care, friendship, and other relationships are reduceable to individuals and biochemical relationships between them. When we think this way, people become like living billiard balls—discrete objects careening around and occasionally making contact with other similar billiard balls.

Christians, like much of modern science, believe that this way of thinking is profoundly limited and mistaken. Persons are complex, relational beings with minds, bodies, psyche’s and spirits. A person emerges from and is constituted by the various relationships of life, physical, mental, emotional, and social. This last part is especially important: We would not be who we are without the social relationships we experience from the moment we are conceived. This is one reason why the church, a social institution, is so important to growing in Christ.

If modern physics is correct, our bodies are more than material particles bound together by forces. The subatomic “particles” that make up the deepest reality we know are not material. Rather, they are waves of certain basic fields that make up the entire universe. What we call “basic particles” are not material particles in the classic understanding of those terms, but “quantized ripples” in waves in a field that stretches throughout the entire universe. [3] These quantized ripples seem to be related to one another in such a fashion that it can be said that everything in the universe is related to everything else. Such a universe is characterized by both a deep relationality as well as by independent reality. In such a universe, it should not surprise us that people are deeply and importantly relational.

When we are conceived, we are far from being an independent reality unconnected from the rest of the world. Instead, we are composed of the DNA of our parents, unique, but dependent upon their genetic history. During the period of our gestation, we are connected to our mothers in the most intimate possible way, enclosed within her body, dependent upon her for our being, sustenance, and life. When we are born, we are born into a family, not just a biological unit, but a social entity with its own unique characteristics. This family cares for us and provides for us for a long time. We are dependent upon our parents, and who we are and what we become are deeply dependent upon the quality of that relationship. Each and every relationship we have from that time forward, positive or negative, plays a role in who we become and what kind of person we are. As time goes by, we enter into relationships with hosts of other people and social groups, each of whom profoundly contributes to who we become, the person we are. Every pastor has seen the terrible done to a person when parents and others fail to provide the love, care, respect, and other emotional and physical needs that are needed in the early stages of life. Such behavior literally deprives a child of the fullness of human love God intended for that child to experience.

We are also born into a community and a culture, with its unique patterns of life and ways of understanding the world. This culture forms in a deep way who we are as a person. In addition, the cultures we experience and become a part of during our lives, profoundly impact who we are as persons. Anyone who has traveled has experienced the sense that people in other parts of our country and the world live differently and often see things differently than does our culture and the people with whom we are the most familiar. I have had the opportunity to travel a good deal, and sometimes on more than one occasion to the same places. I always recognize that, for example, while I love Scotland and my European heritage, I am an American, not European or Scottish. This is true of everyplace one goes. Travel both broadens us and shows us the uniqueness of our place. Relationships make us bigger people than we would otherwise be.

Throughout all our relationships and experiences, there develops the unique person that comes to a relationship with creation and other people, and with God. As time goes by, each person becomes just that a person—a unique individual. This unique individual has his or her unique physical, emotional, mental and spiritual being, different than anyone else. Nevertheless, we remain connected to and profoundly impacted by those with whom we have relationships. It is this unique individual that is called into a transforming relationship with God. When we enter into this relationship, the relationship changes us, just as every relationship of life changes us, except this one is with the Lord God, the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth. We can expect that such a relationship will change us more profoundly than any other relationship we have.

Growing a Relationship with God

If God is personal and wants a personal relationship with us, then we have to ask the question, “How can we establish and maintain such a relationship?” Although it may seem like an unanswerable question, the beginning steps are pretty clear.

  • First, we have to believe that there is a God who wants a relationship with us. In other words, there must be faith. I have to believe that such a relationship is possible and desirable.
  • Second, we have to commit myself in trust to developing that relationship. If we have faith, then we have a relationship with God. It may be a new relationship. It may be an immature relationship. But, there is a relationship.

Our relationship with God is like any human relationship. If this new relationship is going to grow and mature, we must spend time working on it, just as we work on relationships with a friends, spouses, children, or co-workers. We have to communicate. This is where prayer comes in. As we trust God and move out in faith, God’s love is increasingly revealed and that love grows, even in hard times, just as a good marriage grows in good times and bad times. If we are to grow in a relationship with God, we must spend time with God in silence, in conversation, in sharing, in meditation, in growing closer to God.

When my wife and I were dating, as busy as I was as a young professional, I made time to be with her because I loved her and wanted to be with her. We literally could not spend too much time together (at least I did not think so). Our relationship grew. Once we were married, our relationship still grew, but the pressure of business, family, church, and activities strained our relationship. It went through difficult times. We did not communicate as often or as well. Our relationship suffered. Today, when we are alone in the car, we are often silent. Nevertheless, our relationship is still changing and growing. Our relationship with God is no different. It takes time, and it has its ups and downs.

Grace and its Emissaries.

Christians believe in grace. Grace is God’s love reaching out to us to form a relationship with us. Christians believe that God is always reaching out in love to relate to human beings. Always. God’s love is in fact reaching out to us, long before we can or think about reaching out to God. God’s love is reaching out to us at times when we do not sense the presence of God and think of God as absent. As Paul reminds us, “In him we move and live and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Of course, if we are to recognize that the invisible God is reaching out to us, most of the time it will take another person who already has a relationship with us to tell us about that God and introduce him to us. [4] I have a friend, now dead, who became a pastor a long time ago, when it was thought that pastors ought to be married. He went to seminary, but never really met the right person. One day, he met a young widow whose husband had died very young. He was introduced to her by a friend. Without that friend, my friend might never have met his wife of over fifty years. Christians are friends who introduce their friends to a person that will meet their deepest needs for love, forever. We need to think of ourselves as like my friend’s buddy who introduced him to the woman who would be his wife. We are not imposing on people when we share God’s love with them. We are introducing them to the best lover they will ever have.

Deepening our Relationship

Most of the time when we form a relationship with another person, we decide to spend time with them. Prayer, Bible study, worship, and the like are the spiritual equivalent to spending time with and getting to know a human person. If we are to know what God is like and how to grow our relationship with God, we have to study our Bibles, Christian literature, and the stories of others who have developed a relationship with God. We pray and spend time with God. God is a person. We learn to relate to the God of as a person by reaching out to others in acts of love and mercy.

Finally, if our relationship with God is to grow and mature, we need to spend time with people who are already in a relationship with God, including time with people who have been in that relationship longer and more deeply than we have. We need to be a part of the Christian community, and have a relationship with another person or persons who are themselves growing in a relationship with God.

A Different Kind of Relationship

Naturally, there will be differences between our relationship with God and our relationships with human beings. We will never see God. Most of the time, he will speak to us in silence. We will never fully comprehend the One who is the all-wise, all knowing, all powerful creator and sustainer of all that is. There will always be mystery and unresolved questions. Sometimes God will seem to be silent or absent, as if he has deserted us. We will never control the terms of our relationship with God. We will never come to the end of our relationship with an infinite being. But, we will grow in our relationship with God.

Mother Teresa once led a retreat for a group of married women, who complained about the difficulties of marriage. Apparently, one participant indicated that it would be hard for Mother Teresa to understand the difficulties of being married because she was a celibate and unmarried. Mother Teresa replied that she was married to Christ, who could be a very difficult husband indeed! Like Mother Teresa, we will not always find our relationship with God easy, simple, or without its sacrifices and sufferings. [5]

This is the situation in which Christians find ourselves. The life of faith is a life of relationship with a being (indeed the source of all being) we cannot hope to understand and who, from time to time, may place what we think are impossible demands upon us! Most of us who have been married any length of time admit to not fully understanding our spouses and believing that he or she sometimes makes impossible demands upon us! Married couples all know that even the best marriages are not always easy.

Our relationship with God will be no different. We will struggle to maintain the relationship, and we may often wonder what God is up to in our lives. Nevertheless, as the years go by, we grow and the relationship grows. Its growth is not immediate, constant, or without ups and downs, defeats and disappointments. After all, on our side it is a human relationship subject to the problems with all human relationships.

The Transforming Moment

The life of the Apostle Paul is a wonderful example of how God can come into a human life in order to transform and heal it. [6] Paul was not, as we know, seeking Christ. In fact, he was a persecutor of Christ and of Christians. Acts tell us that he “held the cloaks” of those who stoned Stephen (Acts 7:58), After that event, Paul violently persecuted the early Christians (Acts 8:1-3).

Having received authority from the Sanhedrin to persecute the church in Damascus, he was met by the risen Christ on the road outside of the city. Christ revealed himself to Paul, brought him into a personal relationship with himself, commissioned Paul as a missionary to the Gentiles, and ordered him to go into the city and await his recovery from blindness (Acts 26:12-17).

Paul went into the city, and was brought into the fellowship of the church in Damascus by Ananias, whose efforts allowed Paul to begin his Christian pilgrimage (Acts 10:7). Paul immediately demonstrated his changed life by his powerful defense of Christian faith, a defense he continued for the remainder of his life (Acts 9:19-20).

As the example of Paul demonstrates, because God is a person and we are persons, there exists for each human being the potential for a life-transforming relationship with God, a transformation based upon hearing the Gospel with our intellect, accepting Christ with our hearts, and receiving from God the transformation of our being.

I will close this essay with one final example. Many years ago, my wife and I met a young woman who was damaged by her first husband. She had become closed to relationships with men, and was deeply wounded, fearful, and unhappy. Eventually, she remarried. Her new husband was not a Christian. When they had children, the husband decided to go to church one Sunday morning. Eventually, he accepted Christ. Later, our friend came to Christ as a result of her husband’s efforts.

In my former occupation, I used to see this woman from time to time in the tunnels beneath the city of Houston. The next time I saw this young lady after her conversion, instead of seeing her unconsciously recoil and move away, she broke out into a great smile and came over to greet me. This woman’s relationship with Christ continues to this day. Even to today, I have never seen a person so transformed and healed because of a new relationship with God in Christ. This is the power of a transforming, personal relationship with God.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The Holy Spirit is referred to using many different names in the New Testament, including the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Comforter. In all cases, it is a personal reference.

[2] This is not an essay on apologetics, but it is just at this point that Islam and Christianity diverge. For Islam, God is a monad, a singularity of power to whom believers submit. (“Islam” means submission.) Christianity, on the other hand, sees God as personal, constituted by love, and to be freely accepted not commanded into submission. If God is an idea, we can understand God, but we can’t love God nor can God love us. The fact that God is love means we can be in a loving relationship with God that takes precedence over and is the foundation of all other actions we take towards God and others.

[3] See, David Bohm, Wholeness and Implicate Order (London, ENG: Routledge, 1995), 19: “What is implied by this proposal is that what we call empty space contains and immense background of energy, and that matter as we know it is a small, “quantized” wavelike excitation on top of the background, rather like a ripple on a vast sea.”

[4] Although Christians cannot discount the possibility that there are those who, like the Apostle Paul, receive a direct communication from God in their calling (Acts 9:1-19; 22:3-22; 26:12-18; Galatians 1:11-24), ordinarily there will be no discipleship without a human community of faith. Even Paul had his communities and partners from whom he learned and with whom he grew. Barnabas, who first brought Pak to Antioch is an example of a mentor in the life of the great apostle (Acts 13).

[5] I have looked through my sermons and on the internet for the source of his story, but I cannot find it no matter how hard I look. The idea is, of course, that our relationship with God will involve difficulties. In Mother Teresa’s case, we know that she experienced a long, long period of darkness of the soul when God ceased giving her overt indications of his love for her. Mother Teresa continued in the life of discipleship for a long time without the consolations of God’s obvious presence in her life.

[6] See James Loder, The Transforming Moment 2nd ed. (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers and Howard, 1989), 21ff. The Transforming Moment is one of the best books on how faith initially and subsequently transforms the human person. My analysis of Paul’s conversion is dependent upon and closely follows that of Dr. Loder.