I recently learned of someone saying “I’m not a Christian, and haven’t been for a long time”. That implies that Christianity is something that one can start and stop, like membership in a gym. It acts like Christianity is just a religion that can be easily exchanged for another (or for none). But it is so much more than that.
The world has known any number of religions throughout history. Most (but not all) involve one or more deities who must be appeased. All involve a shared set of rules that followers obey and rituals that they practice in hopes of earning favor or avoiding wrath.
The dictionary definition of “religion” is “a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices”. The etymology of the word includes the sense of “binding”, an obligation or bond between the worshipper and the god being worshipped.
Superficially, Christianity appears to meet this definition. We do have a Deity; we do have standards of behavior; we do have traditional practices; we do feel a an obligation toward our God. There is a tremendous difference, however, at the heart of why we do these things. They are the effect, not the cause, of something much deeper and more personal than a ritual. They stem from a relationship.
The dictionary definition of “relationship” is “a connection, association, or involvement”. The etymology includes “kindred, affinity, or other alliance”. Everyone has multiple relationships in their lives, from casual acquaintances to friends to family. Think of the very closest relationships, such as between spouses or between parents and their children. Let’s think for a minute about what those closest relationships are like.
They are constant.
The relationship is there, a part of my life whether or not I am consciously thinking about it. I don’t spend every moment of the day thinking “I am married”, actively focussed on thinking about my spouse. Neither do I spend every moment actively thinking about my parents and siblings. But those relationships are still a part of me. They are always there, and easily come to the forefront of my consciousness whenever I reach for them.
They are dynamic, not static.
Relationships ebb and flow. Sometimes we are on top of the world, laughing and having fun together. Sometimes we are sad, worrying and grieving together. Sometimes we get annoyed or angry with one another. Other times, we are especially loving and aware of how much the other means to us. Much of the time, we are more neutral…simply living life together with all of its ups and down, exciting or boring moments.
They require time and effort.
Relationships that are not nourished can grow stale and distant. I have people that I still consider friends even though we haven’t opportunity for a real conversation in years. Think how much stronger the friendship would be if we actually spent time together! Our closest relationships, especially, need and deserve time actually focussed on each other. Things like date night with a spouse, or family dinners or game nights, or participating together in social or sporting events all help to nurture close relationships.
Actions result from love (not the other way around).
In our close relationships, we do things for one another. We go to effort to please someone we care about. We don’t do such things in hope of payment or reward; it just makes us happy to see the other person’s smile. A parent hosts a birthday party; the child brings a wildflower bouquet or a handprint ashtray gift to their parent. A wife plans a special meal; the husband brings flowers for no particular reason. Each takes pleasure in giving, simply because they love.
Christian Relationship with God
The God of the Bible is not just an idea or a concept. Nor is He just something made up by humans. He has gone to considerable effort to demonstrate that He is an actual Person 1 whose goal is a real relationship with each individual human being. Now let’s think about how all of the features above are part of a Christian’s relationship with God.
I know that God is always with me. He may not be doing flashy miracles, and I may not be on my knees in prayer. But He’s still part of me. My reaction to the world is colored by my awareness of Him. I know that I can reach for Him at any time, and He’ll be right there.
On God’s side, it’s really constant. There is never a moment when He is not actively aware of me. (Psalm 139)
Sometimes I am overwhelmed by His majesty and power — looking at a starry sky, for instance, or the Grand Canyon, or a big thunderstorm. Other times I am amazed at his intricacy — the detail inside a cell, or the fine-tuned physics that make life possible. I can be angry or hurt when there’s a crisis, or when He seems to be letting wrong continue for far too long. I can laugh with Him: What was He thinking when He created a duck, or a platypus, or a mosquito? 😀 I can just go through my day-to-day life in conversation with Him.
On God’s side, He is there through every experience of life. (Psalm 23)
It requires time and effort.
Even though my relationship with God is the most important one in my life, it is sadly easy to neglect it. God doesn’t often shout and demand my attention. That makes it too easy to give my attention to things less deserving, but more demanding…like that ringing phone, or the laundry that needs to be done, or the TV show. I need to intentionally take time with Him, whether in prayer or Bible study or church attendance or just slowing down enough to listen to Him.
On God’s side, He has made infinite effort to sustain our relationship. (Philippians 2:5-8)
Actions result from love.
When I do something that might come across as “following the rules” or “keeping the tradition”, it’s not in hope of earning something from God. It’s in reaction to having already received so much from Him. I can’t repay anything that He’s given me. But I can express my love and gratitude by doing things that make Him happy. It’s fun to make Him smile!
On God’s side, everything He does flows from His infinite love. (Ephesians 2:4-9)
Religion without Relationship? Ick!
When I try to imagine choosing a religion that says “Follow the rules, or else!”, my reaction is “No, thanks!”. I don’t want a god who says “Pay me enough, and I’ll give you what you want”. I don’t want a temperamental god sitting on Mt. Olympus and deciding if he’s in the mood to be nice today.
I much prefer a relationship with a God who loves me so much that He gave all He had so that I could be with Him. I will never understand why He does. I can only accept it and love Him in return. That relationship will continue to grow … forever!
In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins…Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him…We love, because He first loved us.1 John 4:10, 15-16, 19
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.Romans 8:38-39