Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Is Our Relationship with God "Real"?

Yesterday, on the Fourth of July holiday, David LaMotte posted an entry titled "Interdependence Day" in which he reflected on the 8th anniversary of his engagement to his wife (I seem to have forgotten that he got engaged shortly before my own wife and I got married, but I digress).  Although the whole thing is worth reading, I want to highlight the following insight:
Chewing on the reality of our relationship makes me think of a great story that my friend Hugh Hollowell tells.  Hugh is a big Johnny Cash fan, and claims to know all the words to all of his songs. He loves Johnny Cash. And he also loves his wife. “But,” he explains, “Johnny and me never have a bad day.” That’s because the relationship with Johnny Cash is an imagined one.  He has a relationship with the idea of Johnny Cash, not with Johnny. Real relationships are harder than that, and also much, much richer.
I wonder how that important observation might be applied to our relationship with God.  While I don't want to suggest a relationship with God doesn't have its share of "hard times and frustrations," as any "real relationship" has, it seems to me that it's obviously easy to make a relationship with God more like the "imaginary" relationship such as one might have with Johnny Cash than the "real" relationship one has with a spouse.

Think about it for a moment.  I say I love God.  I can claim to know all the words to all of God's Word (i.e., the Bible).  By these statements, I'm still in "Johnny Cash" territory, having more of a relationship with the idea of God than with God.

While I expect that proving that my relationship with God is "real" can only go so far, it's a question I think is worth asking, and perhaps the analogy with the married relationship is useful.  How might I prove to an outside observer that my relationship with my wife is "real"?  It's certainly not something I expect I could do through any series of statements about her, or even by any accounting of what time I've spent with her in shared activities.  At best, the outside observer could only begin to determine that the relationship is "real" by seeing it through highs and lows over a long period of time.  That probably doesn't rise to the level of "proof," but at least I can say that there should be plenty of evidence.

So, what "evidence" might we provide for our having a "real" relationship with God?  By most standards, I expect that many Christians fail pretty miserably, even if they "know all the words" God wrote (although I'm not getting here into the question of Biblical inspiration).  If the old hymn that says "they'll know we are Christians by our love" is to be a standard, it certainly seems to me that Christians are often known far more by things that don't look at all like "love," certainly not to the outside observer....

One thing that certainly applies to "real" human relationships is the ability for persons in the relationship to communicate with each other.  A person in a real relationship with me will tell me in fairly concrete ways if there's something wrong with the relationship, so that we can work on doing something about the problem.  While it is certainly true that there is communication in a relationship with God, God's methods of communication tend not to have that sense of "concreteness."  There is an undeniable ambiguity about how God may communicate my need to work on aspects of the relationship that I may have gotten wrong.  God seldom seems to go for the clear and concrete, even in rebuke.  If we're going to hear God's direction at all, it seems to me that we need to work on hearing it.

I used to say that, even if I might disagree with some Christians, I appreciated their conviction that they were doing what God wanted.  I'm less confident now, at least in part because of lack of evident demonstrations of love (no matter what they may claim), coupled with the fact that they seem not to be open to God telling them that they might be wrong about the status of their relationship.  How can such a relationship be said to be a "real" one, rather than more like a fan's relationship with Johnny Cash?


  1. The funny thing is that much of what you say skates so close to why atheism is so attractively logical. No offense, but as an atheist I don't think yours or anyone's relationship to God is more real than their relationship to anyone else they've never met. Ultimately your relationship to God is only as real as you believe it is, but no matter how fervently you believe, I will still say you are imagining it because this fictional relationship gives you comfort.

  2. Well, obviously I come to this from a different place, whether it be because of "comfort" or whatever (although I know a number of people who'd argue that their relationship with God--however real or imagined--is a source of far more pain than comfort, but that's a conversation for another post entirely), but I do think it's important that people ask themselves such questions.



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