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.

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