On the Concept of a “Relationship with God”

This post has nothing to do with knitting or yarn or spinning or very much else. I am doing something I’ve never done before, as a participant in the blogosphere: I’m writing a response to someone else’s blog. The response is to my new blog-friend Carson T. Clark’s post called “According to NPR, I don’t have a ‘Relationship with God'” and with reflection on the Fresh Air story that you can hear here. After reading the post and listening to the broadcast, I knew I couldn’t even write a token comment that wouldn’t become a long personal reflection. So armed with my latest morning beverage of choice (1/2 decaf coffee, 1/2 chocolate milk), I think I’m ready to respond. Before you read the below, please do read Carson’s post(s) and listen to the NPR story – otherwise this will just be an over-share!

First, I should explain my own journey of “relationship with God.” My parents were both non-denom Protestants when they married, but when I was about 5 years old the drama at their church got so bad that they left. My dad gave up on church, and my mom took us kids back to the Roman Catholic church of her youth. Largely thanks to her teaching, but mostly thanks to the Holy Spirit and God’s grace, I grew up with a powerful faith in a Jesus who loved me and was my salvation, and that my calling in life was to be faithful to him. I was the only kid at CCD who knew all the books of the Bible and who actively wanted to follow Jesus, and by high school I was made fun of for it. It was confusing, because here I was, a devout Catholic Christian (and an evangelical in a significant if complex sense,  though I wouldn’t have said so), who as such didn’t fit in at all with my church culture. Something was missing, but I couldn’t have told you what.

Then around age 13 I went to visit my best friend’s big non-denom church, and here they were talking about a relationship with God. I felt immediately enlightened. It was like someone was speaking my language for the first time, with all this emotional music and talk about being close to God. I thought, “This is what I have been trying to do all my life, but without anyone telling me how.”

Through a long series of hoo-hah involving family drama and all the rest of it, by mid high school I was firmly entrenched in non-denom Protestant Christianity. I learned to have daily quiet times where I did things like read the Bible and pray about it, and did Beth Moore Bible studies and the like. (I should note that my mom also did and does all this stuff, but I think without a *community* to teach me it was important, I couldn’t quite apply what I saw in her.) I pursued God, I examined my conscience, I brought things before him. I talked to him and learned to listen when he talked back. At the same time, it was one of the darkest points in my life, during which I was most deeply depressed. My faith, and my pursuit of a relationship with God, was both the most important thing in my life, and the heart-context in which I despaired. A significant part of the trouble was that, in identifying with God as a father figure, I projected all kinds of issues having to do with my dad (I won’t go into detail on the internets, but the main heart issues are emotional abandonment and unpredictability) onto this God I was supposed to have a relationship with. The fact that God wasn’t physically there for me made me feel abandoned, even as I pursued him. I couldn’t think about Christ’s ascension without feeling angry.

In and through college, I did a lot of growing and healing. For the first time, I was in a close group of friends who pursued God together in a safe, sane, virtuous, supportive way. Several of us found Episcopalianism together, attending a local church that combined Evangelical theology and catholic worship. It clicked that Jesus ascended so that he could send the Holy Spirit, that he doesn’t have an embodied presence so that he can have an unlimited spiritual presence with me personally, and everyone else. I learned more than ever to tap into that relationship, learning to hear him speak to me. I used imagination to construct an image of Jesus fully incarnate in my culture: dark curly hair, middle-eastern features, early 20’s, wearing a hoodie and dark stonewashed jeans. (The hoodie was always blue; don’t ask me why.)

I had a system worked out: “level one” conversations with God were when I was just journaling, and by imaginative listening I could “hear” what he said back to me. I knew it was me putting words in his mouth, but I also knew that I wouldn’t let “him” say anything that wasn’t true. It was a limited way to to do external processing internally. (I am a mega external processor; I cannot think things through unless I’m either writing or talking to someone.) “Level two” conversations were the same format, but when I got an insight that, through subconscious synthesis and/or Spirit inspiration, came from more than just me, and was confirmed to be helpful. “Level three” was the one or two experiences when I got a direct “word from the Lord” that was nearly audible, completely real, and that I couldn’t make up – vision-type stuff. (During college I also occasionally went to a charismatic prayer group, where I experimented with hearing in tongues and learned to hunger and pray for the more drastic spiritual gifts. Turns out that when you ask for things like that, you might just get them. The meaning of those vision-type experiences is still being revealed.)

Then something happened, around the time that I got married. My community was gone, I didn’t know how to build a new one, and my “relationship with God” just sort of evaporated. When I tried to talk to him daily in that “level one” sort of way, what I heard from “God” was trite and unhelpful. I struggled with depression again, and a really hard job. I got neck-deep in the knitting-world, which let me find myself in a new way. All the while, I was still trying to relate to God, but it was harder – not because he wasn’t talking back, but because I didn’t quite care enough. I did all the things I was supposed to as much as I could, but I didn’t feel close to him, and since I was still fairly healthy and happy, I didn’t care about it that much.

Then I had two miscarriages. We moved to Ambridge and started school. I got my best friend from my college community back. We had a third miscarriage. And I was done. I went through a long period of anger with God as I dealt with and ran from my grief, which is chronicled back in my Advent series from a year ago.

The problem was that, back in college when I felt so close to God, he was like my boyfriend. All that “Jesus is my boyfriend” piety that gets made fun of – I had that, in the best way possible. It was wonderful while it lasted, and using imagination to talk to God is a deeply valuable technique for those of us who really need to learn experientially in some ways that God loves us, who can’t just believe it factually and have that be sufficient. I needed comfort, I needed friendship. I was getting that from human friends at the same time, which tells you something, but I was also learning to get that need met by God, and that he cared about my feelings.

But when I created a construct of God like that – whether Jesus is your boyfriend or your wife or your therapist – at least for me, that put a limit on God. All the qualities that I attributed to God in that relationship were true, but they made God too small. A God who is my boyfriend is too small to answer the question “why did my babies die.” I think that is largely because all the constructs that we Americans come up with are images of people subservient to our perceived needs: a good boyfriend, wife, therapist, whatever, really just wants you to be happy, and will do everything in their power to help. They are too small for Job. They would not come up with theosis.

So I, like Carson, have felt for at least the past year that I do not have a “relationship with God” as commonly described by Evangelicals. But that, indeed, is what I have been trying to go back to during the past eight months of my healing process. But I know that whatever our relationship becomes now, it won’t look remotely like it did before. I can’t even describe my expectations of him, because I don’t have any. I have no idea what to expect exactly. I know I worship a triune God who loves me unto death, who has made me to become like the image of the Son, who has sent his Holy Spirit to be a counselor and guide both directly and through the faithful around me. I know he has made me for union with him, but that is a work that will take the rest of my life, and is not ultimately about my comfort in the moment, but is about my transformation. Beyond that, I try not to project anything else, because it’s just too hard for me not to identify his non-embodiment with my dad’s non-presence. I know it won’t be defined by any specific experiences of sentiment, and no emotional state is a litmus test for it going well. (Dear heavens above, being liberated from being anxious about my anxiety was one of the best things that ever happened to me. For the sake of my blood pressure, if nothing else.)

The way I have been trying to tune in more to that relationship in a new way is through meditation. Maybe once a week, I literally make myself sit there for five to fifteen minutes in a quiet place with my eyes closed, which is really new for me. No journal, no knitting, no books, no noises. I just try to empty my mind of distractions, and be with God without talking. Sometimes, when I do this, I can tune into how I really feel about God. When I imagine God now, I see a vast shadow of mystery that dwarfs the universe. I was looking at a tiny corner of Him, with boyfriend-like attributes, but that corner turned away from me, and all I see now is the shadow, or a mysterious enormous moon-face like something out of a Miyazaki film. If I see Jesus, it is as a denser thing than a human, containing all that shadow in a body, leaving deeper footprints. We are only at the beginning of something new – something where I don’t come with demands, just honest requests, and where I wait for an answer that I haven’t decided on in advance. And where I wait as long as it takes.

So do I believe in the concept of a relationship with God? Yes, yes I do. It’s incredibly complicated and weird trying to pursue a relationship with a God who doesn’t show up with a physical body, but who absolutely invests right back in you all the time, mostly in ways you could neither perceive nor fathom.

Would it be helpful to replace the word “relationship” with a word like “communion” or “perichoresis”? I don’t really think so, because I think the word relationship is powerful enough to redeem, and can be put in right perspective as defined by communion and perichoresis. Maybe that’s not true for everyone, and the word “relationship” has become too burdened with Evangelical expectations, but that’s not something I can decide for anyone else. God is actually a person (three persons, technically), and you have relationships with persons.

If we’re going to continue using the word relationship or not, it’s all well and good to teach people to pray imaginatively. Imagination is a tool of spirituality, and like all others, you go through phases where it is useful and phases where it is not, and it grows and changes as you do. I think it’s also great to help people get to know a God who is interested in meeting their needs. Frankly, God is interested in meeting their needs. As long as we can acknowledge that you don’t actually need to be financially secure or emotionally fulfilled all the time, and that a lot of the time we are dead wrong about what we need the most. We do need emotional healing a wholeness; we do need deeply satisfying friendships. Sometimes we don’t get those things right away, and we have to be sad and lonely for a while, though not unto despair or hopelessness. If your Beth Moore Bible studies don’t teach you this, life probably will.

There are also way more resources for this deepened relationship with God than Beth Moore-type Bible studies (and I am NOT dissing these; they were deeply helpful to me at a time when nothing else was reaching my heart). Other spiritual disciplines are much more raw and basic and don’t feed you culturally compromised content. Spiritual resources from other times and traditions and places, particularly ancient and medieval mystics, offer a completely different perspective. A good spiritual director can help you figure out what disciplines will take you to a new place.

So yes, I believe in a relationship with God. But my definition of that phrase has been evolving and growing, as my understanding of God has evolved and grown. And not to be trite, but that journey will look vastly different for different personalities (I daresay Carson is quite different fro me). Aslan gets bigger when you get bigger, and that just takes a long time and your whole life. And I could no more tell you what that looks like than an infant could tell you about college.

3 thoughts on “On the Concept of a “Relationship with God”

  1. Stacie says:

    I read the post(s) that led you to this, and they really impacted me. I grew up in an Evangelical Free (a “non-denominational” denomination) church, and went to a Free Methodist youth group. In both, I always felt like this weird outsider. They’d talk about their “relationship with God” as if they actually talked with God verbally, and I just didn’t get it. I had Bible study, youth group, church, volunteer work, AWANA, prayer time, and was immersed in Christian community and Christian practice daily, but I still have only had one or two times where I’ve felt God’s physical presence. I’ve had other times where I’ve wondered if an idea that popped into my head or a decision I’ve made was directly Spirit-led, and I do believe that it’s possible for God to communicate directly with us, but for me, it just doesn’t happen that often. I’ve become okay with that, sort of like I’m okay with people without vision not understanding “purple” or like I’m okay with the guy who talks with me on the bus who knows prime numbers up into the 20,000s without understanding him. It’s alien to me.

    On the other hand, I agree with Carson’s (and your) assessment that this might be somewhat related to our perspective on God or Jesus. I’ve always had a very strong sense of God’s Godship– God’s Otherness, all of God’s “omni”s, even God’s genderlessness (as you might have noticed, I’m uncomfortable assigning male pronouns to God). So for me, worship is about recognizing God’s otherness and loving God, in a sense, for foregoing the otherness to reach out to me. But it almost seems, *to me and my relationship with God,* presumptuous or silly to pursue actual conversation with God on a regular basis. I don’t think that’s necessarily ideal, and like you my perspective on God is always morphing. But I was so lifted up when I read his posts and realized I’m not the only one in this weird spot of being surrounded by people who talk with Someone I know but rarely experience physically.

    Like

  2. Abigail says:

    You might enjoy the book “Your God Is Too Small” by JB Phillips.

    Like

  3. Linda says:

    It took a while before I could settle down quietly and read/meditate on your story. Thanks for sharing it. To me it is a great gift when someone shares an extremely personal message. Thank you for opening up your heart to me.
    Love you,
    Mum

    Like

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