Christianity is distinguishable as a personal religion. It’s defined by a personal relationship with a relatable God. And yet, sometimes, things seem all the more impersonal because of it: when it seems only the ceiling hears your prayers; believing in God but not being able to fully explain him; when the dark nights of the soul take up the daytime; when sicknesses strip the happiness and beauty from life, like a wind that scatters the top soil from a field.
It isn’t unusual, that when the personal seems missing from the personal relationship, we evaluate the credibility or existence of the relationship rather than revaluate the nature of the personal component.
This tendency exists elsewhere. It happens in marriages where fizzled romance is the reason for personal vows falling by the wayside. In political causes, a successful campaign may lose some of its supporters when actual policies seem much more impersonal than the election promises.
It can happen with Exercise. I remember the first time I went the gym was in Grade 10. The following year I had lost about 25 pounds of puppy fat in anticipation of a surfing trip I was doing: I had thought, ‘who would want to date a fat surfer?’ Turns out no one wanted to date a scrawny surfer either. I did 1 hour in the gym – it was self-guided, sorely inefficient and woefully unsatisfying – and I knew, before the hour was up, that I hated working out!
I was 14 years old, and already I was doing cost/benefit analysis: I knew I was working out because I wanted a girlfriend – and I thought two things attracted girls: physique and/or personality. Working on my personality required no weightlifting, no sweat, and best of all, no push-ups. If I tried to better my physique all those things would befall me. Also, I knew I would save sixty dollars in gym membership if I went the personality route – and sixty dollars was a lot of money for lavishing on a girl (or so I thought).
Needless to say I’ve never had a relationship last longer than two months; but that’s not really the point. I knew that there was a clear relationship between physical exercise and personal benefit, but it was hard work, and hard work hurt. It didn’t seem beneficial so I questioned the relationship: I didn’t need working out to be better off; in fact, I was better off without it.
I know that’s a schoolboy example, but it’s true of life that Pandora’s opened box can make personal relationship with God at times seem questionable. When the loss of a loved one leaves an empty seat at the table; when unrequited love stings like a lash; when disasters dash the good with the bad; and there are sicknesses that lead unto death and despair – in those moments, God (or relationship with Him) can come across as impersonal. We ask ‘why’ and we ask ‘how’. Does He still love us? Should we still love him?
These are good questions, and the Bible offers good answers. The lives of Jesus and Job provide some insights on this matter, particularly on:
1) The nature of faithfulness.
2) That true faith requires total love, and that there are dangers of faith without love.
3) How personal relationship with God involves spiritual experiences and closeness, but is not wholly dependent on them.
Let’s begin with a sketch of Job.
The exposition of the Book of Job opens up with Job at the height of his years, happiness, prosperity, family life, wisdom and much else. In short order, however, the drama begins:
“6Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan[a] also came among them. 7The LORD said to Satan, "From where have you come?" Satan answered the LORD and said, "From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it." 8And the LORD said to Satan, "Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?" 9Then Satan answered the LORD and said, "Does Job fear God for no reason? 10Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face."12And the LORD said to Satan, "Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him do not stretch out your hand." So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD.” (Job 1:6-12, ESV)
Satan struck at Job: his children were violently crushed and killed, all his property seized and his livelihood robbed of him. Satan pulled out all the pillars from Job’s temple, but his inner sanctuary remained intact:
“20Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. 21And he said, "Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD." 22 In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.” (Job 1: 20-22, ESV)
The second episode raises the stakes. Satan visits again – and again gambles that Job’s faithfulness is less than meets the eye. And so the storm moves from whirling around Job to within him.
“1Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the LORD. 2And the LORD said to Satan, "From where have you come?" Satan answered the LORD and said, "From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it." 3And the LORD said to Satan, "Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity, although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason." 4Then Satan answered the LORD and said, "Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. 5But stretch out your hand and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face." 6And the LORD said to Satan, "Behold, he is in your hand; only spare his life."
7So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD and struck Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. 8And Job took a piece of broken pottery with which to scrape himself while he sat in the ashes.
9Then his wife said to him, "Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die." 10But he said to her, "You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?"[a] In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” (Job 2:1-10)
Underlying Satan’s estimation is that Job’s faithfulness (like many) was mere gratitude. That under his skin, Job subtly suffered from an ‘it’s all about me’ complex. Satan understood that the heart of human iniquity is a selfish self-interest: rather than God-fearing self-love (ever mindful of gouging out the sinful eye) it’s God-dismissing self-lust. Rather than love your neighbor as yourself, it’s love yourself as you would God.
Satan assumes that any personal relationship with God based on self-interest will become embittered when the wellspring of gratitude runs dry. The fallen angel knows that evil may befall the good, and good the evil. After all, does not God cause his rain to poor down on the good and the bad?
The negative logic of this type of purely gratitude based obedience is ‘why Love God when there is nothing to be thankful for.’ Have you ever been deprived of all you wanted and been given nothing you like? Are you angry with God when your hard work has been without good reward? That your marriage is divided by unequal affections? Has your strength slowly slipped away from you?
Job lost all things. But Satan guessed wrong. Even in the midst of his own holocaust, Job accepts loss as grounds for thanks. “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1: 21. ESV) In nothing Job still thanks God for everything. In his loss he thinks of God’s giving. Why? He knows that life is a gift, not a guarantee.
Sometimes, when I hike, I get to the top and I close my eyes. I let darkness overtake the moment. I try to stop taking life as a guarantee, and then I open my eyes again, to behold the gift of glory. Job never had to close his eyes. He became weary of life, yes; he asked for his own end, yes; but he never cursed God, he never tried to bring about his own end.
Job’s fault did not stem from anything that could be taken away from him, but from what he alone could give up: his self-righteousness. But that’s getting slightly ahead of things, back to the story.
As event’s progress Job’s condition deteriorates. Three friends visit but bring with them criticisms rather comfort. They have answers for everything, their actions are worth nothing, and their answers are their actions. They accuse Job of wrongdoing: that he would not be experiencing bad unless he had been bad. The idea being that good things are reserved for the good, bad for the bad.
Job, however, knows he had done nothing wrong. At least up until then; Job did not err in disobeying God, but in discrediting him: he justified himself before his friends rather justify God. Job tries to put God in the dock; to play the prosecutor. His self-righteousness covets and demands God’s explanation.
Job is right in not seeking damages, but wrong in impeaching God’s righteousness for questioning.
The story climaxes when God shows up and Job falls down. It goes in words to the effect of:
Yahweh says “Who is this that darkens my counsel by words without knowledge? Where were you Job when I laid the foundations of the earth? When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
And Job replied, “behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth.” His answer was his contrition, his apology his repentance.
And God charged, “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Will you put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be right? Adorn yourself with majesty and dignity – oh mighty Job; clothe yourself with glory and splendor. Look on everyone who is proud and bring him low and tread down the wicked where they stand. Then will I acknowledge to you that your own right hand can save you.”
And Job submits, “I know you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”
And God declared, “Who has first given to me, that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine.”
And Job confessed, “Now my eyes see you; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”
The story closes with God denouncing Job’s three friends and restoring Job’s fortunes. His life was elevated into the stratosphere. All worldly felicity flowed through his land and person. But the rewards weren’t necessary, the restoration irrelevant. Perhaps it served as a demonstration to the weak of mind and heart, but for Job, it had no great effect.
Satan’s exercises had shown that riches would not buy Job’s love, and the loss of them would not cost him his love. Job learnt (in his contrition) to love God entirely for God’s sake, not for his own sake. His humility became his new righteousness, his righteousness his humility.
So what can we take away from this? I’ll admit, it does seem like a tall order to love God at our own disregard. But in all things, God’s love does not disregard us. “28And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” (Matthew 6:28-29, ESV)
At a cursory glance, I think the story of Job provides three insights into what can happen to a personal relationship with God when anything less than total love is continually attempted.
The three things are:
1) We use moral obedience as a form of leverage against God.
2) We become like mercenaries: in God’s service as long as we’re on his salary.
3) We treat God like helium for our self-esteem, inviting bitterness when the balloon pops.
Working through them in order:
1) Our personal relationship with God can’t be based on the notion that good behavior entitles us to good things.
Case in point: The Parable of the Prodigal Son. We’ll pick up the thread at the point where the younger son has returned home, having spent his premature share of his father’s inheritance. He is offering contrition and asking for provision. The father elatedly restores the younger son, but the older son refuses to celebrate with his father.
“But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29but he answered his father, 'Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!' 31And he said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.'" (Luke 15: 28-32)
The older brother doesn’t care anymore for the father than his younger brother originally did. Pastor Tim Keller elaborates the point well:
“What did the older son most want? If we think about it we realize that he wanted the same thing as his brother. He was just as resentful of the father as was the younger son. He, too, wanted the father’s goods rather than the father himself. However, while the younger brother went far away, the elder brother stayed close and ‘never disobeyed.’ That was his way to get control. His unspoken demand is, “I have never disobeyed you! Now you have to do things in my life the way I want them to be done.” (Tim Keller, The Prodigal God, pg. 36).
Does that sound familiar? Using obedience as the grounds for a demand. I’ve done it before: that God would bless what I want because I always do what he wants. Ha! As though I do a quarter of what he wants. And when I don’t get what I want – I think – where’s the relationship? Where’s the loving one another?
Job learnt that his good behavior did not put him equal with God. Even if you do good – all the time – that does not mean you know what is good for you most of the time. God knows it and he provides for the greatest good of all: loving him and being loved by him.
2) A personal relationship with God requires a person loving God unconditionally – all for his sake – otherwise we are no better than mercenaries.
Often a mercenary Christian loves God as long as they feel loved by Him, as long as the blessings flow like milk and honey. Their cross is a time-share.
Satan’s gamble was that Job was only in it as long as God paid for it: the wealth, popularity, domestic harmony, dignity, respect, etc. When life has faltered – do you think, as Satan hopes you do – that God has failed you? When the kids are rotten? When the romance is lackluster? When the money flow is no more than a trickle? When you’ve lost your good looks or never had them? When no housing seems affordable? When the health and wealth aren’t coming in? When promotions knock on everyone’s door but your own – do you close the door on God? Are the thorns crowding out the seeds? Are you anxious about tomorrow? Do you seek first these things and then the kingdom of God will be added after them?
Job learnt by the end to both “seek first the Kingdom of God” and “His righteousness” and then “those things” were added unto him. And if his riches were not restored – what matter would it have been – he was a prince of God, heir of heaven and destined unto the bosom of Abraham.
3) The third peril of a personal relationship with God is when he is the author of your happiness but not of your whole life and salvation.
For some, God is the almighty Prozac dispenser. He doles out his love in happiness. It can run along the lines of: When I love God it makes him happy, and when God loves me I am happy – If God loves me he wants me to be happy. When bad things happen such people wonder where God is. What happened to the love?
Job knew to expect both good and evil. As he said, “Shall we receive good from God and not evil?”
Biblical encounters with God are often far from hallmark occasions. Job covers himself in dust and ashes. Moses hid his face for fear of the Lord. Isaiah declared, “Woe is me, for I am lost!” St. Peter fell on his knees and wept, “Lord, depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” And St. Paul writes in Philippians of “working out your salvation in fear and trembling.”
True, in God is all happiness, but God is not all happiness. We can’t conditionally love Him and we can’t use his rules against Him for our own good.
In Job we can find both consolation and warning.
Whatever tragedy threatens you, know that it racked Job too. Job was fully man, and unlike Jesus, no part God. In all human matters Job was brought low – in all human matters God raised job high.
The warning is that what has happened to one, can happen to anyone. Søren Kierkegaard put it best, “Or do you imagine such horrible things could never happen to you? Who taught you this wisdom, or on what do you build your conviction? Are you wise and understanding, and is this your comfort? Job was teacher to many. Are you young, and is your youth your security? Job also had been young. Are you old and drawing close to the grave? Job, too, was an old man when grief came to him. Are you powerful, and is this your free pass? Job was well regarded among the people. Are your riches your security? Job owned the blessing of the land. Is it your friends who will protect you? Job was loved by all. Do you seek comfort in God? Job was God’s confidant.”
Job belongs to the pantheon of Old Testament piety. He is, in my view, the most righteous man of Old, and Jesus is the most righteous of the New (and of all). Like Job, Jesus faced such an impersonal trial that he could not help but ask God ‘why?’ “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” While alive, Jesus received no known answer.
The significance of ‘not knowing’ cannot be over stated. ‘Knowing in part’ is at the core of a personal relationship with God.
St. Paul wrote, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12. ESV.) Note the last sentence, “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
An intrinsic reason why our personal relationships with God can feel impersonal at times – distant, detached, even dejected – is because we place knowing God as its foundation. St. Paul emphasizes that while God knows him fully he doesn’t fully know God. The personal part has been promised, but the face to face is yet to come.
Jesus establishes this when he uttered:
“Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'”
Certainly it is the will of the Father that we know him through our salvation, but the life of faith which salvation births is not measured by the degree to which we know God, we feel him, we experience the personal aspect of the personal relationship, instead its health consists of the extent to which God knows us. Knowing God is a part of the personal relationship, loving Him and being loved by Him is the principal part.
Of faith, hope and love, love is the greatest. Of these, love is the least dependent on knowledge.
So whether you haven’t met God yet, or haven’t felt him for a long time, remember that God died to know you, to love you, to be with you. The creator knocks at the door of every heart, but only the created can let him in. It is like the famous painting by William Holman Hunt, The Light of The World. In it, Jesus comes by night, equipped with lantern, knocking on an overgrown door. There is no door handle; it can only be opened from the inside.
When the door is opened Jesus surely comes in. But he isn’t like a houseguest whose presence you always feel – though his spirit forever stays within.
When you love your neighbor for the sake of God, when you love God for the sake of God, when you love yourself properly for the sake of God, God knows it – He knows you. When the personal seems impersonal, remember that Christ is also the personal in our personal relationship with God.
TWS Hunt is a recent graduate of Trinity Western University and has spent time as a visiting student at the University of Oxford and has interned in the Office of the Prime Minister of Canada.