IVP - Strangely Dim - What?

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.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at January 26, 2007 8:52 AM Bookmark and Share


This is a great post. I have been thinking about this sort of thing a lot lately; when I'm done writing about trivial stuff like sunglasses in California, it'll probably turn up on my blog.

Comment by: Jenn at January 26, 2007 5:49 PM

That's so good. Funny how sometimes we get so comfortable with a phrase that we forget the complexity of it. And how abstract it seems. I mean how do you know someone on an intimate personal level when they are seemingly unseen? I think we'll discuss this tonight at our small group meeting.

Comment by: Brian Bowen at January 27, 2007 8:41 AM

i was blessed, i would like to ready more.

Comment by: Gladys Kalume at January 28, 2007 10:14 PM

I once had a prof who explained the context of "personal relationship with God/Jesus." It stands against the medieval (Catholic) institutional relationship to God. That is, a person didn't interact directly with God. Instead, a person went to the church, the priest, to relate to God. The institution mediated between the person and God. The Reformers, however, stressed the priesthood of the believer: We have direct access to God. So, in this prof's words, by "personal relationship" we don't have a "romantic" (emotionally intimate) relationship, but a person to person relationship. I found this helpful.

Comment by: Isaac Bickerstaff at January 29, 2007 11:46 AM

Yeah, it's really helpful to think of "personal" as "unmediated" in relation to God. I'd say, however, that institutional faith didn't disappear with the Reformation. I've met plenty of Protestants, evangelicals and others who abdicate their personal relationship with God and assume that their pastor, their small group, their spouse or even their subconscious will intercede on their behalf. As a culture we've gone, in a matter of centuries, from "If you want to get to God, you're going to have to go through us" to "Who needs God when you're as spiritual as I am."

Comment by: Dave at January 29, 2007 12:09 PM

Not needed, but thanks for the clarification, Dave. You referenced a great song.

I enjoyed your blog, as always.


Comment by: Brother Steve at January 29, 2007 11:04 PM

I thought this prayer from your previous post related well. "May God bless you with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships
So that you may live deep within your heart."
It may be that I am blessed with discomfort at the phrase "personal relationship with God" to keep me from developing a cavalier attitude towards Him and our relationship.

Comment by: kayak41 at January 30, 2007 6:37 AM

Hi,very interesting post and comments. There is something that is missed between the extremes of the Catholic and Reformation position, one favouring the individual and the other the priest. The missing part is the role of the community of believers in the relationship with God. The Bible has so much to say about the body and people of God, their relationships with each other and corporately with God. I am an evangelical and believe that we are saved by a personal work of the Holy Spirit but then our relationship with God is so dependent on our relationship with other believers.

Comment by: Colin Johnson at January 30, 2007 3:17 PM

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

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