Your Own Personal Jesus: Is the language of "a personal relationship" biblical?

The song "Personal Jesus" by Depeche Mode describes the faith of many: "Your own personal Jesus. Someone to hear your prayers. Someone who cares." In this post, John Suk, a professor of homiletics at Asian Theological Seminary in Manila, The Philippines, challenges popular evangelical jargon by questioning whether having a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" is poor theology or, worse, a capitulation to theraputic secular values? Below is an excerpt. You may read Suk's full article at Perspectives Journal's website.

Evangelicals generally insist that "the meaning and purpose of life is to have a personal relationship with Jesus." That's how a Methodist pastor I was listening to a few months ago put it. Philip Yancey says it another way in his Reaching for the Invisible God (Zondervan, 2000): "getting to know God is a lot like getting to know a person. You spend time together, whether happy or sad. You laugh together. You weep together. You fight and argue, then reconcile."

But we also confess that Jesus is not physically present on earth. So how does one have a personal relationship with someone you can't talk to, share a glass of wine with, or even email? We need to do some fundamental reflection on the whole notion of having a "personal relationship" with Jesus Christ. While, on the one hand, I respect the longing for intimacy with God that these words reflect, they also concern me because they betray a creeping sort of secularization of our language about God.

The phrase "a personal relationship with Jesus," is not found in the Bible. Thus, there is no sustained systematic theological reflection on what the phrase means. In fact, people experience the personal presence of God ? in a wide variety of idiosyncratic and highly personal ways. Publicly, however, when people say they have "a personal relationship" with Jesus, it sounds like they are saying they have a relationship characterized by face-time, by talk-time, by touching, by all the things ? and especially the intimacy ? we usually associate with having a personal relationship with another human being.

As a result, using the language of personal relationship is bound to lead to all sorts of confusion. As a pastor I met more than a few people who experienced doubt, or perhaps anger, because they didn't experience Jesus the way their Christian friends claimed to.

The language of personal relationship with God has become popular due to the pervasive influence of the language of secularity. So Marsha Witten cogently argues in her book, All is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism (Princeton, 1993), a close textual analysis of fifty-eight sermons on the parable of the prodigal son as found in Luke 15:11-32. Twenty-seven of the sermons were preached in mainline Presbyterian churches, and the rest to conservative Southern Baptists. In both traditions, Witten discovers, preachers respond to secularity by accommodating their language to it. Biblical language that emphasizes God's transcendence is replaced by language that emphasizes God's immanence. Jesus is not in heaven, at the right hand of God; he lives in our hearts. God is primarily seen as a "daddy," as sufferer on our behalf, and as extravagant lover. In these sermons the traditional language for God is accommodated to the human desire for connection and intimacy.

March 24, 2006

Displaying 1–10 of 102 comments

Thomas Zook

October 13, 2014  8:20pm

This article is refreshing. Dr. Suk characterizes the issue well. As a Christian, no-one seems to address the issue: If I believe God talks with me, how do I distinguish this from my own continual self-talk. This is a hot potato preachers steer clear of answering. I have never had a pastor answer it. It is like deer in the headlights. Why can a pastor not say, "This is a tough but legitimate question to which you likely have had hedged answers." An honest pastor would then say much the same as Dr. Suk. When we provide answers of certainty, we obliterate faith. When I know something, there is no need for faith. As Christians, we are called to faith, and we base our union with Christ upon it. Thank you, Dr. Suk. And, thank you for your encouragement toward faith amidst our doubts that leads to fortification of our faith. Our blind faith, a la Mother Teresa, will carry us.

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March 29, 2006  12:18pm amazes me to read such unbelief. One of the reasons why Jesus couldn't do mighty works in his home town was because of unbelief. Jesus is in every believer in the person of the Holy Ghost. Jesus said to His disciples that it would be expedient for Him to go Home to the Father so He can send the Holy Ghost. If you have the indwelling of the Holy have your personal relationship. Let's stand up brothers and sisters and cast out unbelief from the intellectual mind. We weren't created to walk with pure intellect...when we try to walk with pure intellect, we disregard the need for our Lord. What scripture says is what scripture says...let's not try to add things or interpret it to what we want it to say. May all glory and praises go to El Elyon

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March 29, 2006  12:13pm

My main concern with using the phrase "a personal relationship with Jesus" is that it seems to convey the message of just me and Jesus alone. I think the Bible teaches a relationship in the context of community, i.e. the church. There are too many Christians who think that as long as they belive in Jesus, that's good enough. They don't need the church. Yes, we do have a personal walk with Jesus, but when we walk alongside others who also are walking with Him, that is when we discover more about the character of God. This dialogue is a good example of walking together with Jesus. We learn from each other and grow in our relationships.

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March 29, 2006  11:58am

A rose by any other name ... Why do people get so hung up on words/meanings. If my relationship with Jesus is personalized with special talk times (I talk to him all day long as if he is right here with me ... which I believe he is), complain to him when I am angry about something, sing to him when I am happy or just wanting to praise him, and pray to him during a devotional time before bed - and I often try to listen to anything he might want to tell me as I quiet myself before I go to sleep. If that is not a "personal" relationship "I'll eat your hat!"

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March 29, 2006  11:23am

This is a good topic. Never think about it. Here is my opinion. We adopted a new lingo in these changing culture. Culture changes so our lingo and people & kids is using the (current) lingo in this culture. It's like technology (we use to have black & white TV now we have coloured), we need to adopt new gadget out there. We use different lingo like "the relationship with Jesus" or "faith in God" or "etc" for the benefit of our non-Christian (friends, family & acquitance) and new believer in order for them to understand Jesus. Is like communicating to little children, you can't use lots of big words to children and expect them to understand everything. Same idea. Thank you for taking time reading - May GOD BLESS YOU

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March 29, 2006  10:31am

I think Mr Suk does not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ (but might want to find HIM. I totally disagree with the column. The Bible does not specifacally say to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ he is right about that. The Bible does state in many different books that He is our friend and He will NEVER leave us or forsake us, to me that is very personal. Jesus, to me, is very personal to everyone. He did die for ALL of us not just a few of us but ALL. I do have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and am thankful for that. I would agree with one comment that someone wrote in you say it is hard to have the personal relationship because you haven't seen then at the end of your column you wrote that we just need to have faith. Please, you need to reread how the Bible describes faith. Read Hebrews 11:1 it says: "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for & certain of what we do not see" (this is the NIV version).

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March 29, 2006  10:29am

I have "heard" God speaking clearly in short but impactful sentences. Until that happened, I was suspicious of people who claimed to have heard God. I now have no doubt at all that Christians do have a relationship with God, and the nature of that relationship is personal. We do not all relate to God in the same way. We cannot restrict God's prerogative in how He chooses to run each relationship. Nevertheless, Prof. Suk raised an important warning. Having a personal relationship with God should not be allowed to breed "over-familiarization" which might cause us to lose the awe and reverence that is due to Him.

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J. Lawrence Barksdale

March 29, 2006  10:24am

I consider myself and Evangelical Christian, although I would have to qualify it by saying that I am a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – and we Lutherans tend to define "evangelical" in a slightly different way from others. Y et, I wasn't always Lutheran. I grew up Presbyterian, and went to a Methodist college and seminary. I say this because from the very start, when I became a Christian at 18, this idea of having a "personal relationship " with Jesus has confounded me. What does it mean to have a "personal" relationship with Jesus? What does it mean to have a "personal" relationship with someone at school or work, or with one's spouse or kids? The answer to these questions, I think, will be nearly as varied as there are people. The biblical language of being "in [union] with Christ" or his "disciple/follower" (or, even "friend" [John 15:13-16]) is more flexible than "personal relationship" – which can mean anything. It would be interesting to see the results of a poll of American Evangelicals that asks them to define the term "personal relationship with Jesus".

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Leonard Lawson

March 29, 2006  10:15am

Recently, I witnessed a close friend's testimony whereby she described, in her estimation, a near death experience during hospital visit. Just before losing consciousness she remembers simply calling out to the Lord for help. The medical staff later revealed that she muttered unintelligibly during the time she was being physically revived. My friend has since shared insights of being over whelmed with God's peace beyond all comprehension; realizing God has fearfully and wonderfully architected the wonder of the human body..And it was made "very good". But above all else, the most striking insight she received through this experience is the reverential fear of knowing the Lord. She's resigned in heart that "all is well with my soul" particularly in regards to what the Lord sovereignly does with her health. To the best of her ability, she will always strive to ask "What, Lord am I to learn, or do?"...rather then ask "why?" Perhaps this personal encounter my friend experienced has lead to a deeper understanding of what it means to walk faithfully before a holy and awesome God. Perhaps by walking [with Him]through a shadowy death's valley, comes a heighten sensitivity to a God that's too holy to even look upon sin, yet, as a blood-purchased recipient of His grace, He bids us to "Come". After all, the meekest man in the Old Testament, spoke to the Great I AM, and was answered through thunder on a fiery mountain that shake violently. This same Moses, afterwards had the confidence in beseeching the Lord to, "shew me thy Gory". Herein, I believe lies the balance in knowing a personal savior, not figuratively, but experientially, whether during the inception of the new birth, or during times of trouble. Conversely, these personal experiences enable us to agree with the Psalmist to "Do homage to the Son, lest He become angry, and you perish in the way".

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March 29, 2006  10:07am

I am a 70 year-old Grandma of 10. I have been through many "stages" or "growth plateaus" of the Christian life, beginning at age 8. I suspect I have had most of the same questions others have had about "knowing Jesus". My commitment to him grew from weak to questioning to very strong. Today, you cannot shake my firm belief that the Holy Spirit of Christ lives in me. We have become "One" as Jesus prayed in John 17. GOD cannot communicate to us through His Holy Spirit if we have unconfessed sin in our lives, therefore, according to Scripture, I "capture every thought for Jesus Christ". I don't want ANYTHING to block or hamper the very PERSONAL relationship I have with Jesus. I talk to HIM and listen to HIM. Because HE is SPIRIT inside me, I "hear" with my spirit. JESUS is bodily in Heaven, but HE and GOD, the FATHER, and the HOLY SPIRIT are all ONE, so when I talk to One of them, they all hear. THEY speak the same thing because THEY are ONE GOD. My personal relationship began when I repented of my sin. JESUS said unless you repent, you cannot see the Kingdom of GOD. My observation is that the people who do not have a personal relationship with the ONE TRUE GOD, JESUS being HIS name, have not truly repented and asked JESUS to take over the controls of their lives. HE died to pay MY sin debt. HE will not, in fact, HE cannot, be in the presence of sin, so we must be in constant communion with HIM (not a priest-pastor) to pray for ongoing forgiveness and direction for our lives. I live in peace and joy every day and look for that day when I will enter the gates of HEAVEN!I TOTALLY believe that!

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