Me & Jesus: Too Much of a Good Thing?

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.

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of imagerymajestic / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
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.

28 thoughts on “Me & Jesus: Too Much of a Good Thing?”

  1. I am beginning to see some of these dangers first hand in me and the congregation of which I am a part. We have been discussing the Lord’s Supper and it is very evident that the individual experience has almost completely swallowed up the communal. Almost all (98% to venture a guess) of our discussion has centered around the meal as a moment of personal devotion and how we can enhance this aspect. The communal has only been given a passing thought. So thank you for your thoughts.

    John

    1. Exactly. When we have symbols, we fill them with the meaning we’ve been trained to give. If “the gospel” is about me and Jesus, so is this meal. Never mind the fact that the place from which we take the “words of institution,” 1 Cor 11, is entirely about how the meal demonstrates the shared corporate identity that’s ours in Christ!

  2. Love this post. The more I read Paul, the more I see that his whole emphasis is on the corporate body. We have go this so wrong, and it’s increasingly clear to me that the “Jesus as my personal saviour” model has failed utterly. I am longing for churches to get this!

    1. Yes! The groundwork for me understanding this was “union with Christ” theology (which is rich in the Reformed tradition), but which was only fully driven home to me when I read Richard Hays, Moral Vision of the New Testament.

  3. I find I am reading your posts not just for what they say but also how you say it. And I am learning both aspects. Thanks.

  4. You’re gentler than I would be on this. I think that “Me & Jesus” rises to the level of a “bad thing” based on its effects. Again and again in scripture we’re told that we’re judged on our fruits, that God hates our worship and our piety if it doesn’t lead to justice, that God wasn’t content to dwell in the temple, but took flesh and became human… the cumulative effect of these messages in my opinion is that any type of personal piety that becomes a distraction from doing works of mercy, from loving neighbor, God is implacably against. I think “Me & Jesus” is exactly the kind of behavior Jesus most vehemently rejected.

    There is another aspect for me here, which is metaphysical. When you pray by yourself what makes you think you’re not just talking to your imaginary friend? Too many pious prayerful people lack compassion and are comfortable with injustice for me to believe that all their prayer amounts to an actual connection with God. Whereas, if you do justice, whether or not you pray, I know that you have a connection with God. That voice in my head may or may not be the Holy Spirit, but I know that Jesus said whatever you do to the least of these… so if I am in solidarity with the outcasts of our society I am confident I am in solidarity with Jesus. Basically, I think most people who think they’re in a deep personal relationship with Jesus are in a fictional relationship in their head and not an actual relationship which requires, you know, other people.

    1. I say most not all here, because I leave room for genuine mysticism – for those who are both doing justice and practicing some kind of private piety. And because I don’t actually know what is true in everyone’s case.

    2. Excellent points, Aric. The “me and Jesus” perspective encourages a kind of denial of reality where I’m safe in my bubble with Jesus while the world goes to hell around me.

    3. Thanks for this, Aric. I had some similar thoughts in response to a FB response to the blog post. My own went something like this: what we “hear” in prayer is deeply conditioned by the frequency to which we’ve been trained to tune our ears. “Me and Jesus” theology can become self-fulfilling prophecy, and detract from social justice and one-anothering precisely because it plays the leading role in our script. So, what do we hear in our quiet times? Not “Go forth to love and serve the Lord in the person of your neighbor” but “Yes, I love you.”

      It’s GREAT to hear “I love you” from God, and to gain the confidence that comes from it, but it can have the power to suck us in rather than send us out.

      Having said that, here’s an objection I’ve heard, recently, to your line of reasoning: We live in San Francisco, where everyone and their mom wants to do something to “make the world a better place.” How does the kind of practice you offer here make us distinctly Christian (or, Why is it Christian)?

      1. The self-fulfilling prophecy angle is a great way to describe it.

        To respond to the “Why is it Christian?” question… I’d say that if all that makes us Christian is a veneer of religious language, ritual, and personal piety then it isn’t a very substantial identity anyway. Jesus said his disciples would be known by the way they loved and so I think it is probable that those who love well (whether they claim Christian identity or not) are his disciples and those who love poorly (again whether they claim Christian identity or not) are not his disciples – yet.

        If I wanted to stake a claim for Christian uniqueness it would be this: enemy love. Every culture praises love. Almost anyone can see the virtue of loving family, even neighbor, even stranger, even the dispossessed. The person it makes no sense to love by any logic but the cross is your enemy, the person who is actively seeking to do you harm. Loving that person can not be derived from self-interest, or even utilitarian advantage for the majority of people. It certainly doesn’t make sense as an evolutionary behavior. It isn’t conducive to survival. To me enemy love is the great Christian distinctive.

        As for the rest, I’d just be delighted to see love and justice increase whether it was peculiarly Christian in character or not.

    4. Like!

      I don’t even know what a “personal relationship with Jesus” even means any more. I don’t see this idea in the bible at all. It’s just words.

      Loving, serving, being with people, whom Jesus loves, is what he has commanded of us.

      Great article and great response here. I totally resonate with them

  5. What a great and important post! Thanks a lot!

    I have been thinking about this for a while already. This idea is so pervasive in evangelical Christianity. If you can’t/won’t talk about faith in these terms people will get suspicious quickly and might question your salvation.

    Where and when did the notion of a “personal relationship with Jesus” actually arise? Is it with the arrival of Pietism and the later Individualism?

    What biblical basis is there? Can’t think of much besides the Gospel of John. But it’s read in everywhere: I recently heard a sermon on 1. Kor. 13, 1-13, where at the end “love” at every instance was exchanged for “relationship with Jesus”.

    1. Sorry Andrew. I should have read your post before writing mine. I think, as you will gather, that Pietism had its roots in earlier thought.

  6. Thanks for the challenging blog.

    If you add to your words about “me and Jesus” to the lyrics of many of present praise and worship songs you continue the “me and Jesus” theme farther; not that you want to go there necessarily.

    One of the joys of overseas travel is getting to know believers who have a more “we” mentality of the church, and that is refreshing. I always come home filled with a kingdom perspective.

  7. Daniel, you wrote: “Me and Jesus. It’s not bad. It’s not wrong.” I’m not convinced. On the whole, I suspect it *is* bad and it *is* wrong, as it is not an emphasis (to say the least) that is found in the New Testament. Maybe the odd isolated text can be coerced into supporting the idea, but there is nothing otherwise. Rather, the entire weight of NT teaching is about the application of Christian discipleship in corporate and (to a degree, and then only via the corporate) missional contexts. The individualistic notion has done terrible damage, and can be traced through the entire soteriological process, set in train by Augustine, and various mystics, turned into absolute orthodoxy by Luther, and played out via Pietism, the Moravians, the Wesleys, and so on into the Higher Life movement and Keswick. Just look at the plethora of Victorian and Edwardian hymns which, at their worst, may be correctly and sadly described as ‘Jesus my boyfriend’ songs. Ugh.

  8. Hello, Daniel,

    Here is what your post helpfully makes explicit for me:

    Effective personal relationship with God in Christ can never be separated from transformed interpersonal relations of Spirit-led fruitfulness and union with Christ.

    Gift of the indwelling Spirit fosters togetherness, active participation, mutual upbuilding, and unifying worship/focus on what the Lord Jesus has accomplished for all.

    The people-of-God community at Philippi received Paul’s commendation for the quality of their interpersonal relationships–far more than individual, internal mindset.

    I look forward to your illuminating some of the community-forming relationships in Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

    You might find this monograph beneficial:

    Tricia Gates Brown, *Spirit in the Writings of John: Johannine Pneumatology in Social-Scientific Perspective* (London: T&T Clark, 2003).

    Brown helped me see:

    a) the Lord Jesus as the divinely sent redemptive “broker” between God the Father (the ultimate Patron) and humankind

    b)the Spirit-Paraclete as “another” authentic relationship broker that continues the mission of Jesus, the first divine Paraclete, across generations and culture without limitation of time and space

    A patron-broker social model appears to have been common in the Roman Empire during the first century. Other images, such as kinship groups, are also valuable.

  9. I realize I’m not the first person to say this, but I think the problem arises when we move from “personal” to “private” relationships with Jesus. What I continue to appreciate about the “personal” relationship with Jesus is what Daniel called “owning” it myself. I am personally implicated in the life of Jesus. I personally am in Christ. I might go so far as to say that my personhood is transformed by the reality of being in Christ. But “personal” has come to mean “private” in so much of North American evangelical experience. And this helps to create and reinforce the many, deeply troubling symptoms identified in Daniel’s post and in the comment stream. Our relationships with Jesus dare not be private, if we hope for them to bear any resemblance at all to Christian discipleship in the NT, but I’m still glad for those relationships to be personal.

  10. I’m currently reading Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together”, and this is so much of what he talks about. Is there a little Bonhoeffer running through your veins in this?

    Also, I wrote up some similar thoughts, and tried to place this “quiet time” ethic against a church historical background. http://bit.ly/19sUwFm

    Thanks for this post.

  11. I’m going to push back a little bit against some of the comments. At least in some versions, loving God with all our hearts is ahead of even loving our neighbor (though of course, I realize that the second should naturally go with the first). “Personal relationship” language may be one way of trying to articulate this. Though it is a little too tied up in existentialism, and I think the phrase be used sparingly if not discarded.

    Also, people sometimes really do need to simply be told that God loves them – not just as corporate members of the body of Christ, not just because they’re victims of injustice, but them specifically as individuals. “Personal relationship” language may not be in the Bible, but this idea is there even if it may sometimes be overemphasized.

    And as Chuck Degroat said, sometimes people need therapeutic teaching (he meant in a responsible and theologically grounded way, not the kind that dominates megachurches) before they can truly love their neighbor and be “missional.”

  12. I’m going to push back a little bit against some of the comments. At least in some versions, loving God with all our hearts is ahead of even loving our neighbor (though of course, I realize that the second should naturally go with the first). “Personal relationship” language may be one way of trying to articulate this. Though it is a little too tied up in existentialism, and I think the phrase be used sparingly if not discarded.

    Also, people sometimes really do need to simply be told that God loves them – not just as corporate members of the body of Christ, not just because they’re victims of injustice, but them specifically as individuals. “Personal relationship” language may not be in the Bible, but the idea of God’s love for us as individuals is there even if it may sometimes be overemphasized.

    And as Chuck Degroat said, sometimes people need therapeutic teaching (he meant in a responsible and theologically grounded way, not the kind that dominates megachurches) before they can truly love their neighbor and be “missional.”

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