How do you feel about your relationship with God? Is that a good question? Should we trust the answer? What should we focus on in our relationship with God? What does it even mean to have a relationship with God? If we can’t answer these questions, it is likely that we are struggling in our Christian life because we’ve adopted an ambiguous understanding of what it means to have a relationship with God.
A few days ago I had a delightful and helpful email exchange with a thoughtful reader who asked me why I say that holiness rather than a relationship with God is the primary purpose of a quiet time. You can read his initial comment at the bottom of this article. There are several reasons why I think promoting the idea of a relationship with God is unhelpful, and additional reasons why holiness is a better (and more Biblical) idea.
Reasons why the term relationship is unhelpful
1. Everyone has a relationship with God
Even unbelievers have a relationship with God, though that relationship is not a positive one. The unbeliever denies God (Ps 14:1) or distorts God (Rom 1:23), suppresses the truth (Rom 1:18), fails to honor Him and thank Him (Rom 1:21), and consequently walks in the futility of their mind (Rom 1:21, Eph 4:1).
God on His part hates those who do evil (Ps 5:5), though He is patient, not wanting any to perish, rather for all to come to repentance (2 Pet 3:9), all the while storing up wrath for the unrepentant (Rom 2:5).
If everyone has a relationship with God, then it isn’t something unique to believers. The question is not, “How do I have a relationship with God?” but “What sort of relationship with God should I have?” Having a relationship with God is too broad for a quiet time focus.
It is not, ‘How do I have a relationship with God?’ but ‘What sort of relationship with God should I have?’
2. The Bible doesn’t talk about having a relationship with God.
God created all men and therefore, is their creator AND Lord. Therefore, the Bible doesn’t talk about a relationship with God because it just assumes everyone has a relationship with Him.
The Bible describes man’s relationship with God as one of two moral positions. Every person is in either sinful rebellion against Him or repentant dependence upon Him. God’s description of our relationship with Him is what is important, not our perception of whether we feel we have a relationship with Him.
3. The idea of relationship tends to focus on communication
When we think of relationships generally, the dominant concept we tend to have is what we share with other people – communication. But a relationship with God is different to human communication because God is not like other people. There are similarities between the way we relate to people and the way we relate to God, but there are aspects of God’s nature and character that set apart our relationship with God from every other relationship.
For example, we are not to worship people, but God deserves the worship of His creatures, and he has the authority to command his creatures to worship Him. Other unique aspects of our relationship to God include His perfections and divine authority. The fact that God is our creator makes our relationship with Him unique. He is not a peer, but Lord of all creation.
4. Everyone has a different idea of what a relationship with God is.
Because we’ve got a variety of human relationships, using the word relationship with God is likely to draw on those human experiences, whether positive or negative. I’ve often heard it argued that the idea of God as our Father creates negative images of God because of negative experiences people have with human fathers. The point is that human relationships impact how we think of the notion of a relationship with God.
Not only do our own experiences affect how we think about a relationship with God, but so too do other people’s ideas. People in churches talk about a relationship with God in all sorts of different ways, compounding the fuzziness around what it means to have a relationship with God. Some think a relationship with God is much the same as a worship experience. Others might say we experience a relationship with God best in mystical prayer, ecstatic speech or some other “spiritual experience.” Others think that God gives them divine messages. I’m sure we’ve all heard or even held some strange ideas of what a relationship with God is at times.
Again, what is important is not what we think or feel, but what God says about our relationship with Him. We have corrupted our way, He alone is true.
5. The idea of a relationship with God is ambiguous
For these reasons, everyone has a different idea of what it means to have a relationship with God. Consequently, the notion of a relationship with God is vague. We should be trying to clarify what the word of God says, not obscure it. The biblical language is clear.
If we focus on our relationship with God in our quiet time, we risk reducing that relationship to something less than what God says it should be by incorporating our human expectations into it. Because a relationship means different things to different people, there is no guarantee that we think we mean the same thing when we talk about a relationship with God.
Reasons why holiness is a better focus
There are many reasons holiness is the right focus for our quiet time and the right focus for our lives. Here are a few.
1. The primary paradigm for our relationship with God in the Bible is moral
God created man in His image, i.e. morally upright, with the ability to act freely, think, create and rule. In the pre-fall state, the relationship that Adam had with God was pure. But when Adam sinned, his rebellion defiled him morally, degraded him cognitively, corrupted him affectively and diverted him volitionally. We share in this corruption, and the Bible talks about the corruption of our flesh to describe this state. We are no longer fit for the purpose God created us for (Rom 3:12), and our unfitness is at its root a moral problem.
2. God’s overriding purpose and his commands to us are for holiness
God said to Israel, “You will be holy because I am holy” (Lev 11:44, 45, 20:7, 20:26, 22:32). Christians also are told “be holy yourselves in all your behavior; because it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Pet 1:15-16). God set us apart to conform us to the image of His Son (Rom 8:29), and God’s will for us is our sanctification, or holiness (1 Thess 4:3).
Holiness is what God calls us to, and is to be the pursuit of our life. The better we know God (primarily through His Word), the more clearly we see our sin (see Isaiah 6:1-5 for a dramatic example).
3. Holiness puts the focus on our responsibilities
God’s being, perfections, purposes, and promises don’t change (Ps 102:25-27). Therefore, the problem with our relationship with God is not God but us. Focusing on holiness places the emphasis in our relationship with God where it lies – with us. It isn’t like the Lord hasn’t done anything to reach out to us. He demonstrated His love by sending Christ. He shows His patience with us continually. Whatever weakness is in our relationship with Him is on us.
The moral problem is ours, not the Lord’s, so we need to bear the responsibility for our part in our broken relationship and work to pursue God. When God gives repentance, He grants us the freedom from slavery to sin so that we can pursue Him and the desire to be holy.
Focusing on holiness places the emphasis in our relationship with God where it lies – with us.
4. Holiness is more than mere morality
Holiness properly understood has the idea of being set apart. We are to be set apart to God in every aspect of our lives (1 Cor 10:30). Holiness doesn’t mean we are to be “so heavenly minded we are of no earthly good” as the saying goes, rather we are to do everything we do here on earth to the glory of God. That means that our motives, desires, thoughts, actions, family life, vocations, and every other part of our lives are to be set apart so that every aspect of our life demonstrates God’s character, purpose, compassion, values, and commitments.
God created us to live embodied lives on earth. We don’t look forward to heaven to be free from earth but to be free from sin. Ultimately we will return to live an embodied life on a purified earth, at which point the Lord will fully restore our intended relationship with Him, and we are free from sin. Just as the Bible begins with the tree of life in the garden (Gen 3:22), so it ends with the tree of life in the garden (Rev 22:1).
We don’t look forward to heaven to be free from earth, but to be free from sin.
Holiness needs to be the focus of our quiet time because it is understandable, biblical, and practical. We don’t define the Christian life by our feelings (they change, but God does not), our experiences or perceptions (which are not always reliable) any other variable of our lives. God defines all of life. God spoke and the world as He thought it came into being. He continues to uphold all things by the Word of His power (Heb 1:3). All things in this world are according to His purpose and plan. The question is, are we intentionally aligning ourselves with His purpose and plan and setting ourselves apart for His use and glory?
Our flesh is corrupted, and consequentially so are our thoughts, desires, volition, relationships, and lives. Our corruption quickly draws us from living for God’s glory and giving thanks to Him for His continued goodness. Therefore the best focus for our quiet time is personal holiness or striving to be set apart for Him and His glory.