What does it mean to have a relationship with someone?
Spending time with them, getting to know them. But will this person love you less if you spend less time with them or put less effort into the relationship than they do?
Now earthly relationships often involve give-and-take. If we fail to uphold our end of the relationship, the other party would be fully entitled to invest less in the relationship from their end, or end it all together.
What does a relationship with God look like? As with all aspects of the Christian life it will be healthy to have God as our starting point. What does the relational God of the Bible look like?
1. Steadfast love, longs for us though we haven’t loved him, faithful to his covenant, longsuffering (Isa 55:3, Mat 23:37; Hsa 1:2; Lev 26:42-5) – when God made a covenant with Abraham he promised that he would stick by Abraham’s descendants. So throughout Israel’s history there’s a running theme of them abandoning God but him remaining faithful to his promise. He talks about Israel in terms of disciplining a beloved son, loving wayward children and even loving an unfaithful wife. And through it all he always remembers the promise he made to Abraham, and later on the promise he made to David.
2. Seeks us with all that he has (parable of lost sheep, Luk 15:4-7; some interpretations of parable of pearl, and treasure in field, Mat 13:44-6) – God really gives his all in seeking us; he never gives up through thick and thin and though we are hard-hearted again and again, and through Jesus we see that he is willing to pay the ultimate price to unite us with himself again
3. Loved us first, not the other way around (1Jo 4:19; Rom 5:8) – God does not demand anything from us for him to love us. He loves us unconditionally.
4. We do not earn his love (Gen 15:9-21; Ex 19) – these verses illustrate through covenants that God is the one who upholds the relationship. God is the one who pledges himself to suffer the consequences of a defaulted covenant with Abram (while Abram himself sleeps); in the Exodus covenant he first delivers Israel from Egypt before giving them his commandments – they do not earn their deliverance.
From the points mentioned above it is clear that the relational God of the Bible is different. He has always loved us, has loved us first, and loves his people with a chesed that will not change no matter how unfaithful they become.
Now we can react to this amazing love by trying all the harder to fulfill our end of the relationship. But the truth is that no matter how hard we try we will fail. No one can love God fully, and as long as our relationship with him depends on our efforts it is doomed to fail.
So how can we change this?
The Gospel changes all this. When we dwell secure in the gospel of faith (Rom 1:17), when we know that forgiveness means, when we embrace our identity as sons and daughters and heirs (Rom 8:15, Gal 4:7), things change. When we respond to Jesus’ claims that he gives us living water (Jhn 4:15), that he heals us (Mar 9:24), that he gives us eternal life (Jhn 11:25), things change.
Then we start having a relationship with Jesus. And in fact it is through Jesus alone that a relationship with God is at all possible, through the cleansing, redemptive love of the cross. But this relationship is not a ‘religious’ one as the world might know it, but a real, personal relationship. Paul in the New Testament is a great example. He used to be what you’d call a very religious man, trying so hard all the time to please God. He did all the right things, he knew the Bible inside out, he even tried to arrest people that he thought were insulting to God!
But later on he realised he had never actually known Jesus. After he did come to know Jesus and came to rest in the gospel of grace, he told his friends: “I consider it all rubbish that I may gain Christ.”
Then a relationship with Jesus can start. Not a relationship based on doing this or that, but one where we react to his amazing love, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, we grow to be more and more like him.
We receive Jesus’ love and react to it, and through that we are changed bit by bit. The life that Jesus gives us, Jesus himself living in our hearts, will make us bear spiritual fruit, if we really do seek him with all our heart (Mat 13:8).
What does a good relationship with Jesus look like then? Here are some characteristics of a living relationship with Jesus. This is not an exhaustive list, and every Jesus-loving Christian will display different characteristics at different periods of their lives.
1. Worshipping and singing with gladness (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16; Luk 19:39-40) – I guess this is because this is something we do every Sunday, it comes so naturally that we don’t really think about what it means. There are some pretty strong biblical commands on the fact that we should worship God through song, and what Jesus says here tells us just how right it is to praise God through joyful sound.
2. Loving God’s word (Ps 19:9-10; 1Jo 2:5 – this involves regular bible study, like it or not! But as you take in God’s word more and more you will find it change, it will cease to be just a boring book or even a firefighting, problem-solving tool, it will become more and more a picture of God’s heart for you, a picture of his character, it will become the very words of life, cf Mat 4:4)
3. Seeking God (Jer 29:13; Mat 6:19-34; Mat 7:7) – a living relationship with Jesus is not a cold one. Our seeking should be passionate, and we should remember the benefits of seeking Jesus instead of worldly comfort – that only then will we have true security and true freedom.
4. Serving; action is involved – Jam 2:14-25 lays out very clearly the need for Christians to live out their faith. When Jesus’ love for us and our amazement and gratitude at the love shown at the cross truly touch our hearts, these will prompt us to respond in love. Jesus’ love overflows from within us like water out of a cup. Jesus is very clear that kingdom people need to put his commands into practice (Mat 5:13-16, 7:24). It’s not enough that we say we love Jesus; someone who understands and loves Jesus will do what he commands simply because of that fact (Jhn 14:15); and don’t forget that Jesus commands us to die daily to ourselves in following him! (Mat 16:24). This leads on to…
5. Outward-looking faith – being in a good relationship with Jesus means sharing the love! Christ’s love can’t stay pent up inside. The Holy Spirit will change our natural selfishness. What does outward-looking faith look like? The breathtaking, lifesaving, awesome power of the gospel and our love for God’s kingdom will make us bold to share the gospel (Jer 20:9), not to mention the fact that we are commanded to spread the gospel wherever we are! (Mat 28:18-20) That goes for loving other Christians as well. Someone who says he loves Jesus but has no love for brother and sister Christians probably doesn’t know Jesus very well at all, because Jesus commands us very clearly and firmly to love and serve other Christians, often in a sacrificial way. (Jhn 13:12-6, 13:34-5, 15:12-7; 1Pe 4:8; Rom 13:8; 1Jo 4:7)
6. Being different – again and again Jesus drives home the point that those who really know him and understand him should be different from those who don’t (Mat 5:47-8, 6:5, 16, 32-3; cf. Lev 18:3). If we live lives that really aren’t that different from those of non-Christians, something is clearly wrong with our relationship with Jesus. One definite way to be different is to be salt and light to those around us!
7. Perseverance – someone who knows God’s heart and trusts in his promises will stand a better chance of standing up under trials that come (Mat 7:25; Jam 1:12-8). The Bible doesn’t give much explanation why they came, but we are called to stand up as other people who loved God stood up (Jam 5:10-1), and because Jesus himself warns that trouble will come for those who love him! (Jhn 16:1-4)
8. Prayerful – why pray? Firstly because Jesus modeled it (Jhn 17:9 and numerous other places, usually before doing something important). There are many reasons to pray and many things to pray for: big things and small things, pray for health, blessings, pray for God’s kingdom, etc. Remember that when we pray we are not only following God’s commands but getting closer to him in the process.
9. Resting – again and again Jesus promises us rest and freedom from burdens (Mat 11:28-30), while after a major mission trip he told his disciples to rest (Mar 6:31). Jesus himself often went to quiet places to rest and be close to God (Mar 1:35, Mat 14:13); and don’t forget that God commands us to rest regularly (Ex 20:10).
10. Enjoying God – this sounds strange, but if we never seem to love God with the same unashamedly joyful abandon that the psalmists have, something is definitely missing! And interestingly the first point of the Westminster Catechism is this: ‘man’s highest aim is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.’ It’s not for nothing that Jesus calls us his bride (Jhn 3:29, Rev 18:23, 19:7, 21:2, 21:9, cf. Eph 5:25-7), kind of a further development of the language God uses in describing Israel as his wife. Knowledge of God, a phrase repeated throughout the Bible, is not merely head-knowledge – do you know about God or do you know God? – but it’s about understanding, relationship.
A good relationship with Jesus will look different with different people, at different stages of their lives. But one thing is for sure: a good relationship with Jesus will make us more and more similar to Jesus, slowly but surely!
Now on the other side of the coin, what does a bad relationship with Jesus look like? If we react to the Gospel in the wrong way, or fail to react to it all, this is what happens:
1. Jesus-less studying of Scripture (Jhn 5:37-40) – this is something that all Christians have to watch out for as they get more and more familiar with the Bible. The Pharisees thought that knowing the Bible inside out would make them close to God, but they still managed to ignore the message of the Bible, and ignore the man that all Scripture points to – Jesus! Don’t fall into the same trap!
2. Doing and doing but not knowing (Luk 10:41-2; Mat 7:21-2, 23:23) – the story of Mary and Martha is pretty well known. But it’s not so much that we need to know when to rest and when to work, it’s the fact that we need to know who and what is most important – Jesus! Are knowing Jesus better and showing him to the world the reasons for your service, or is something else? And Jesus has harsh words for the Pharisees and the ‘doers’. The Pharisees seemed to be very impressive in their closeness to God, but they were doing and doing without knowing exactly what God wanted them to do. What mattered to them was that their actions looked impressive! What did God want from them? To love God and love others, to show mercy and justice. And the ‘doers’ did all sorts of great things, miracles, exorcisms and the like, but in the end none of their religious deeds saved them, because they were never in a relationship with Jesus at all.
3. Being self-righteous before God; this can take many forms, be it thinking your ‘closeness’ to God is something to brag about (Luk 18:10-4), or being hard-hearted and un-generous toward an infinitely generous God (Mat 25:24-5, Mal 1:12-5, 3:8-12, contrast with Mar 12:42-4), or thinking that your acts of righteousness and knowledge could be used as bargaining chips to get what you want from God (Mar 10:17-22).
4. Selfish motives – some Christians serve in church or act and talk in certain ways for the sake of popularity (Phil 1:15-8; Gal 4:17); Jesus also warns against ‘acting’ – trying to impress people with your spiritual life rather than trying to get closer to God (Mat 6:1-18).
1. There is no God – the Israelites had a term for people who lived their lives as if there were no God (which meant making themselves God, Luk 12:16-21; Jam 4:13-6), or who ignored God’s word and warnings: a fool! The OT is shot through with the idea that these people would suffer God’s judgement in the end (Psa 14, 53:1; practically the whole of Proverbs) and that it would not be good for them then (Luk 12:9, Mar 8:38).
2. Cursing God under trial – it’s easy to love God when times are good but forget about him when times are bad. But it’s even worse to actively hate God because of the troubles we go through. A foolish person will rail against God during hardship and forget his goodness (not to mention the fact that he is God! – Job 2:9), as well as the reason for trials. Others may misunderstand God’s heart and think that he is being cruel or malicious when bad times come (Jam 1:13).
3. Envying the wicked – even the Israelites were no strangers to this problem. It is true that people who love Jesus more than they love the world seem to have it tougher than people who don’t love Jesus at all (Mal 3:13-8; Psa 73:13-23). But we must remember that there is a cost to being a disciple of Jesus – think about how tough Jesus’ life was! But we must persevere, knowing that in the end Jesus himself will give us a crown that never fades, something that no amount of earthly success of happiness can get you.
Remember that God wants to be with you no matter what time, no matter what you’ve just done. Jesus paid for your sins – but remember he didn’t pay just so we could keep being foolish or pharisaical!
So that’s what it means to have a good relationship with Jesus. We must always approach it from the starting point that God loves us and that will never change, no matter what we do or what we become. But the choices we make and the habits we develop in our lives will affect how close we get to Jesus. We can choose to ignore him, we can choose to abuse his grace, we can choose to view him as a heavenly bank account.
It matters if we choose not to be filled with Jesus’ love. It matters that we serve hard while having a wrong attitude toward Jesus. Ultimately a relationship with Jesus will look different in different people, but remember that like all worthwhile relationships, it takes care and effort!