January 26, 2007
I recently had a long and perplexing conversation with some friends about what it means to have a "personal relationship with God." You know you've been hanging out exclusively with evangelicals for far too long when you don't get what's so weird about that phrase. This is, after all, God we're talking about--"Creator of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen." As one friend of mine put it: "There's six billion people in the world. What kind of meaningful relationship can anybody have with that many people?"
Still, I feel very strongly that God does in fact relate personally to us. The idea that he has so many of us to relate to doesn't freak me out so much; I'm pretty comfortable with God's infinitude, which I imagine brings with it a much higher threshold for exhaustion and exasperation. Similarly, the idea that God is personal--not just some uber-ooze that keeps everything going--is a basic tenet of my beliefs.
Nevertheless, we bring a lot of baggage with us to a phrase like "personal relationship with God." Our understanding of who God is affects our approach: Is God the author of evil? Is God impotent or indifferent in the face of evil? Is God likeable, impressive, praiseworthy, approachable?
Our understanding of what comes with a personal relationship affects our take on the idea too. If I've been hurt over and over again in my personal relationships, the last thing I might want is to get personal with someone who controls the weather and steers comets. If my personal relationships have been with really boring people, I might imagine a personal relationship with an infinite being as infinitely boring. I might take my worst experience in personal relationships and expand it to a cosmic level, and decide that I'd rather do without, thank you very much.
I think, however, that I would then be oversimplifying things. A personal relationship is not reducible to one thing: my friend may be boring, but he donated me his kidney. Your friend may spit when she talks and chew with her mouth open, but she knows all your secrets and cries with you every time you get hurt. He may be heavy, but he's my brother.*
That kind of complexity extends infinitely when you start talking about a personal relationship with God. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Eventually, God created me, along with the six billion people surrounding me and the various billions who went before me. Because of God I have a body and a brain; because of God I'm able to wonder whether a personal relationship with God is even remotely possible.
If a relationship with God is anything, it's complex. Sometimes it helps me to sort through how we relate to God by reading, of all things, 1 Kings 1:
Bathsheba went to see the aged king in his room, where Abishag the Shunammite was attending him. Bathsheba bowed low and knelt before the king.
Bathsheba is David's wife--the most intimate human relationship we can envision. She's also his subject--he's her king. He's also her only hope--the only person, in this context, who can keep her and her son from dying at the hands of a wicked prince. So she enters into conversation with him in this weird mix of boldness, humility, reverence and desperation. It's complicated.
It's funny to me that David's response to her entering is "What do you want?" That's a really colloquial, really earthy picture: not a king receiving a queen, not a tyrant deciding whether he will indulge or behead this upstart unannounced guest, but an old married guy who long ago dispensed with all pretense when it comes to relating to his wife. For Bathsheba, this is a complicated encounter; for David, it's a simple question: "What?"
In this picture, as I see it, David's a metaphor for God, and Bathsheba is a metaphor for the rest of us: participants in a ridiculously lopsided, complicated relationship that nonetheless puts us in an unbelievably privileged position. We approach God juggling these various ways of understanding who we're approaching, and God simply looks at us and says, "What?"
*My brother, in case he's reading this, isn't heavy. It's a play on words. I'm being witty, not petty, I swear.