John 20:29 “Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’”
1 Corinthians 13:12 “Now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
If you’ve grown up in the United States, or anywhere with a strong evangelical presence, it’s very likely that you’re familiar with the idea of a “personal relationship with Jesus.” The language is so pervasive that for many “accepting Jesus” as their “personal Lord and Savior” is their primary understanding of what it means to be a Christian.
But, for me, this supposedly “personal” relationship with Jesus has always felt more like a mirage than a reality I could experience. As a kid, I once read a children’s storybook that was essentially a collection of conversion stories, each including such a verbal acceptance of Jesus into their hearts. Each time, the prayer of acceptance resulted in an immediate and unmistakable change. The date was forever marked in history; it was the day they entered into relationship with Jesus.
The stories were beautiful. They made me long for something I knew I did not have, something I wanted. Although I already believed in Jesus, having never voiced that particular prayer, I wondered if I hadn’t come to faith correctly. But when I prayed the prayer, I felt exactly the same as before I said the words. And that undeniable contrast between my experience and the stories I’d read of others’ experience of encountering Jesus—personally, unmistakably—after saying that prayer, left me with a mixture of confusion and betrayal. Had I been sold a lie? Or was there something wrong with me?
That feeling—that I live in a very different reality than the people who are comfortable talking about their personal relationship with Jesus—has never changed. Nor has the nagging sense that there’s something I’m not understanding about what a relationship with Jesus is supposed to entail. Over the years, I’ve tried a few different suggestions offered for ways to “know” Jesus, “personally” and deeply. I’ve read books about prayer, and about encountering and coming to know Jesus through the gospels. I devoured, and loved, Philip Yancey’s The Jesus I Never Knew. And many of these resources, if they didn’t exactly resolve the problem, were at least not unhelpful. In reading and praying over the gospels, I did come to feel like I “knew” Jesus in a way I had not before. I came to understand more deeply aspects of his character, such as his identification with the marginalized, and his willingness to boldly resist the powerful in both church and state. Yancey helped me envision a dynamic and compassionate Jesus whom others were drawn to because of his extravagant acceptance of them and exuberant love for life; a Jesus that seemed more consistent with the gospels than the somewhat serious and stern teacher and mediator with God whom I was familiar with from church.
So, in a way, my life has been changed through fresh encounters with the person of Jesus. And it has been personal, in the sense of impacting me at the core of who I am. But I still would be reluctant to describe my faith as a personal relationship with Jesus. My relationship with Him is so unlike any other relationship I have with another human being that calling it a “personal relationship” feels misleading at best.
One of the deepest mysteries of our faith as believers is that at the center of it is a human being—one who we believe was and is real, historical, physical, with distinctive personal characteristics and a distinctive personality—but one whom we also believe has been enfolded into the triune life of God, is now in a heavenly realm inaccessible to our current physical capacities to see, and is, in fact, also fully God.
So if Jesus is a person I am in relationship with, he is also a person unlike any I have ever known. And unlike my friendships with others, I know nearly nothing about Jesus as a unique human being. I do not know what he looks like, whether he is an extrovert, introvert, or ambivert. I do not know his quirks of personality or what would be his favorite music, movies, or books. I do not, in fact, know him in any of the particularities that would be foundational to any other human relationship in my life. And maybe that’s because Jesus is also God, as mysteriously “other” as he is irresistibly compelling.
One framework I’ve found helpful for reflecting on the “problem” of describing my relationship with Christ is the tension between the Christ of Scripture—a first century, Jewish man—and the Christ of today—resurrected, exalted, who has been alive and at work throughout centuries of time. It is a mysterious way of life that we are invited to if we choose to devote our lives to following Christ; one in which we are both committed to encountering the person and work of Jesus through an ancient text, and one in which we are committed to seeking and wrestling with the mysterious question of how Jesus remains alive and at work now, not just in theory but in reality.
That this is no easy task seems reflected in Jesus’ cryptic words to Thomas: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). Words that, to me, seem to ache with a compassionate empathy for countless believers to come, whose searching and longings for a deep, personal experience of God might be even more wrenching than Thomas’s own journey towards a hard-won faith. Thomas, after all, did encounter Jesus personally, face-to-face. I cannot.
And although that unfulfilled longing remains a painful void, for me there is tremendous comfort in Jesus’ words through Thomas to believers generations later. They assure me that Jesus understands not only what it means to be human, but what it means to long for what can never quite be satisfied in this lifetime—to seek and long for God while often experiencing only His absence. Yes, I have experienced the undeniable and personal tug of Christ’s Spirit on my heart to follow Him, to let who I am and how I live be continually transformed through his Spirit towards a way of being that is more fully human. I have been gripped by the invitation to love and give myself up to others in the way that Jesus did. But I don’t think those experiences alone could sustain me the rest of the time, when answers to my questions are few, reasons for doubt are many, and my encounters with Christ in prayer feel nothing like a vibrant, personal relationship. But I remain a Christian because of passages in Scripture like Jesus’ words to Thomas, like Paul’s eloquent expression of our unmet longing to know God the same way he knows us (1 Corinthians 13:12), and like the psalms, where expressions of lament far outnumber expressions of joyous intimacy with God. I can remain a believer in Christ in large part because I find there is space in Scripture for me and for my more pervasive experience of God’s absence.
I find a beautiful expression of what gives me peace in the paradoxes of the Christian journey in the words of poet and essayist Christian Wiman in the essay “My God my bright abyss”:
I am a Christian because of the moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? . . . . I am a Christian because I understand that moment of Christ’s passion to have meaning in my own life, and what it means is that the absolutely solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion. . . Christ’s compassion makes human compassion—to the point of death, even—possible. Human love can reach right into death, then, but not if it is merely human.