As we continue our journey toward Covenant Renewal Sunday, this week’s spiritual practice is “Develop a Personal, Conversational Relationship with God.” Some people might read this and think, “Ah…Christianity Light.” It’s true that some people talk about a personal relationship with Christ in a way that privatizes their faith and avoids the costly discipleship of engaging with a broken world. Yet, it is a personal, conversational relationship with God that provides the necessary direction, transformation and power for doing ministry and mission. We take Jesus at his word when he said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
So we take Jesus’ teachings about living in him as seriously as, for example, his teachings about social justice:
“Remain in me, as I also remain in you” (John 15:4).
“Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on you and learn from me…” (Matthew 11:28-29).
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20).
This last passage is about as personal a picture as you’re going to find about the kind of relationship Christ wants with each of us. It’s around a meal that conversation spontaneously happens. The fact that, in the book of Revelation, Jesus spoke those words to Christians rather than non-Christians reminds us that many believers, for any number of reasons, don’t take full advantage of the relationship Christ offers us – a relationship that, yes, we also happen to need to carry out his mission.
This spiritual practice begins with the word “develop.” A relationship with God isn’t something we either have or don’t have. It’s something that is always developing as we invest in the relationship and as we allow God to reveal himself to us. Making an ongoing investment is essential for the growth of any personal relationship. Hopefully all of our significant relationships are still developing, still unfolding, still reaching toward their potential.
Because of who God is and all that he brings to the relationship, there is unlimited potential for what can happen. But there are also any number of things that can prevent the relationship from growing – lingering guilt and shame, misperceptions about God’s character, being afraid of God, disappointment with God, a lack of faith, the things we’re trying to hide from God, and the many good things that can become idols in our lives.
For those of you who would like to do more reading about this spiritual practice, I recommend Hearing God in Conversation, by Samuel C. Williamson. It’s not a difficult book, and it’s written by someone who was taught already as a child by his Presbyterian parents how to “hear” God:
The voice of God is a quiet compelling, a still yet strong voice, a burning in our heart, and a quickening of our spirit. God compels but doesn’t coerce; he speaks but doesn’t overwhelm. We simply need to recognize his voice in the manner that he shares it. E. Stanley Jones said, “The voice of the subconscious argues with you, tries to convince you; but the inner voice of God does not argue, does not try to convince you. It just speaks, and it is self-authenticating. It has the feel of the voice of God within it.” Over time, we easily identify other voices in our hearts. The voice of fear creates an insistent fixation, the voice of condemnation undermines hope, and the voice of hunger drives us to the fridge. As Philip Yancey explained, “I cannot control the voice of God or how it comes. I can only control my ‘ears’ – my readiness to listen and quickness to respond.” Over time, as we sense the voice of God authenticating itself, we find it always drives us to God.”
In my case, I have to continually distinguish between the voice of logic and the voice of God. Arguments that seem compelling, but lack the quiet conviction and compassion that normally accompany the leading of God’s Spirit. We all have our default, autopilot ways of thinking and feeling and relating to the world as well as to God. Many of these are rooted in our personalities, our upbringing, or the Christian group we related to when we first came to Christ. We can become quite prejudiced against how other people “listen,” and assume that our way is best simply because it feels comfortable. Conversely, we can feel jealous or judged because our way of talking with God isn’t as dramatic and obvious as the stories others tell about hearing God’s voice.
The key player in this art of having a personal, conversational relationship with Christ is the Holy Spirit. Allow him to lead you. Go where his promptings take you as you tell God you really want your relationship with him to grow. And be as present as you can, whether it’s while slowly reading a psalm, pausing to look at the stars, telling God what you’re feeling during the day, or simply waiting for him to speak. We can certainly learn from others’ perspectives and experiences. But ultimately the relationship each of us has with God is going to be “personal” in the sense of it being quite particular and unique. Just as every friendship or marriage is unique, so is how each of us relates to God. And of course there are many sides to God himself, which he is happy to reveal over time. That’s why it’s important to ask him lots of questions, and to allow him to ask you questions as well.
Speaking of questions, here are a few to ponder from our booklet on the nine spiritual practices for building up the body.
How do you feel when others talk about “hearing” God?
Have there been times when God’s voice or direction was especially clear?
Does a “personal, conversational” relationship with God sound inviting, or do you find yourself feeling skeptical?
Have you ever used a notebook to write down thoughts that might be from the Lord?
What steps can you take to deepen and enhance your walk with God?