Sometimes things aren’t bad or wrong, sometimes things are good and right in and of themselves, but they take so much of our attention that they have become bad things for us.
How can a good thing, something true about how the world works or how God is at work in the world, become bad?
It happens when one idea so captivates our imagination that it keeps us from even hearing other parts of the story.
One of the most important emphases in evangelical Christianity is the idea of a personal relationship with Jesus (or with God through Jesus, depending on whom you ask). It’s not enough to be around a church or a faith community, we have to own it.
But then the “personal relationship with Jesus” metaphor starts sinking in its roots.
Once it does, it provides a built-in rubric for assessing our faithfulness to God: am I spending time in a 1-on-1 relationship with God? Am I praying? Am I reading my Bible? Am I feeling connected? Is Jesus Lord of my heart?
All good things, but also a one-dimensional line that does not accurately tell us the shape of the Christian life, precisely because it is insufficient.
Over the course of the next few months, I’m going to be co-teaching through the book of Philippians at a church gathering. As I’ve been reading the letter over the past few weeks, one idea keeps jumping out at me:
If we are reading Philippians waiting for Paul to shut his yapper about all his interpersonal relationships so that we can get to the point where I hear God’s word just for me, we are going to miss the entire point of the letter.
Yes, I did just say “entire” point. And I mean it.
Yes, of course, the letter is all about Jesus–the crucified and exalted Jesus. But here we are right up to the point where this personal relationship with Jesus starts to break down.
To be in “personal relationship with Jesus” is nothing other than to be “in Christ.” And to be “in Christ” is to be in a space occupied by others who are “in Christ.” Here is the place where there is to be encouragement, where there is consoling love, where there is like-mindedness, where we become parts of a body that is Christ’s–or is it Christ himself?
Joy is found not only in Christ, but in people who make each others’ joy complete.
Salvation is found not only in Christ’s death for us, but in people’s coming together to pray and God acting to send the saving Spirit and deliverance.
The ideal way of life is found not only in Jesus’ self-giving love, but in those who follow after Jesus along the same path and therefore can summon others, with integrity, to follow and imitate them.
And then, all of a sudden, whether or not I’m having my quiet time recedes in its ability to tell me whether I’m being a good Christian.
All of a sudden when I want to know how I’m doing with the Lord I’m called to look not simply “up” into the mystical heavens or “in” to the depths of my heart, but left and right to the people with whom I am supposed to be faithfully living in Christian community.
And now, whether or not I’m connecting with Jesus becomes tangible. Am I living in unity with the people in my community? Am I in reconciled relationship? Am I not thinking about myself, but embodying the cruciform life of Jesus in pursuit of the flourishing of my sister and brother?
Me and Jesus. It’s not bad. It’s not wrong. But it is a powerful metaphor that needs to be treated carefully. It might just make us look in all the wrong places, and it might keep us from finding the better life that Jesus has to offer, just because he delights to call me his friend.