More than a Personal Relationship With Jesus

The problem with calling faith personal is that it makes faith too small.

Joel Miller decided to use Google Ngram Viewer on the phrases “personal savior” and “personal relationship with Jesus”. The result he got was this graph.

Rev. Yme Woensdregt

I came across something interesting this past week. Actually … two interesting things.

The first is an online tool developed in 2010 called the Google Ngram Viewer. It is an online search engine which can search for specific phrases in books which have been scanned into Google Books. As of 2008, over five million books have been scanned.

This can be tremendously helpful for anyone doing research on how often particular subjects have been mentioned in these books. It also helps a researcher understand how often particular words were being used in a specific time period.

For example, I searched for “golly” in the Ngram Viewer, and discovered that it was hardly ever used in the books in this database before 1860, it reached its peak in 1943, and then dropped off sharply in the late 1950’s.

It’s a useful tool and provides an interesting glimpse into word usage.

That leads me to the second interesting thing I learned this past week. I was reading a blog by Joel Miller, a writer and editor with over 15 years’ experience in the publishing business. (His blog is called “Two Cities: Practicing True Faith in a False World”.)

In one of his blog posts, he writes that he was editing a manuscript in which the author “suggested that the Pharisees got all snagged up in legalism because they didn’t grasp the point of faith was a personal relationship with God.”

He reflects on this point in the light of what he calls “our consumeristic, me–centered, self–indulgent culture.” I agree with him 100% when he says that “Christian faith is about far more than a personal relationship with Jesus … whenever we speak about faith being personal, we run aground on the modern misunderstanding of the word. We tend to think of personal as meaning it “applies primarily—or even only—to me, like personal taste. But faith applies universally.”

As I have mentioned many times in my column, faith is more than just personal. I don’t mean to suggest that faith is impersonal. Rather, I think that the problem with calling faith personal is that it makes faith too small. Faith is far larger than the individual. Faith doesn’t belong to an individual. We can’t reduce faith to the personal opinion of individuals, or about “what it means to me.” Faith is communal, relational, ecclesial.

As a result of reading that sentence in the manuscript, Joel Miller decided to use Google Ngram Viewer on the phrases “personal savior” and “personal relationship with Jesus”. The result he got was this graph.

Here is the second thing I learned. As Miller writes, “the phrases barely exist before the 1970’s, at which point they take off like pair of rockets, trailing rank fumes of sentimental egotism. This is the same period of time labeled by Tom Wolfe as ‘The Me Decade’ in a now–famous article for New York magazine. Wolfe described it as ‘the luxury, enjoyed by so many millions of middling folk, of dwelling upon the self.'”

Here exactly is the problem with a personal faith. This way of approaching faith is too me–centred. The faith of Jesus wasn’t about his personal relationship with God. The faith of Jesus is always outward–looking. In the Great Commandment, we are called not only to “love God with all that we are,” but also “to love our neighbours as ourselves.”

In fact, there is only one time in the four gospels in which Jesus says, “You must be born again.” (The original Greek actually says “you must be born from above!”) It comes in a conversation with Nicodemus, a leader of Israel, in John 3. Many Christians think being “born again” means to have a personal relationship with Jesus.

But if you tell me that I need to be born again, let me also suggest that you have to sell everything you have and give it to the poor, because Jesus also said that—not just in one gospel but in three. Or try this one—deny yourselves, take up your cross and follow Jesus. Or again, leave whatever else you’re doing and follow Jesus.

Christian faith is not just about having a personal relationship with Jesus. It’s about doing what Jesus did, living as Jesus lived, sharing God’s love with everyone, and not just with those who believe the same things we do and behave the way we do.

Here’s the heart of it: Love God with all your heart, mind, strength and soul; and love your neighbour as yourself. That’s what it looks like to have any kind of relationship with Jesus.

Yme Woensdregt is pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook

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