This may be shocking coming from a pastor, but do yourself a favor and stop trying to have a relationship with Jesus.
You may think I’m just using reverse psychology, or I’m just trying to be clever or attempting to use dramatic effect. But I write this with all the genuineness I can muster.
This is because there’s a mentality today, shared by many, that the way we’re saved is by having a relationship with Jesus – a message that is perceived as being a replacement for the discouraging “saved by what we do” mentality.
We thus hear a lot of messages about the importance of reading and studying our Bibles, and prioritizing our prayer life. We are frequently challenged to wake up earlier each morning so we can have this communion with God.
But we need to stop.
Such a message is not the answer – and, in fact, it just keeps us in the cycle of salvation by works.
This is because it doesn’t take very long for a person who has rejected the “it’s not what you do that matters, it’s Who you know” mentality to figure out that having a relationship is still something you have to do. We’ve traded one insurmountable task for another. Maintaining and keeping up with a devotional life can get tiring. Trying to remain faithful to my commitment to read my Bible or pray or have personal devotions is taxing. And I thus find myself just as – if not more – despondent about the Christian walk as I did before when I thought it was about what I do.
After all, I soon to discover that “salvation by relationship” is still about something I do. We’ve just traded one set of tasks for another.
The Gospel is not about what I do to have a relationship with Jesus. Indeed, the Gospel is not about anything I do at all. The Gospel focuses on what Christ did and does and will do. The Gospel focuses on Christ’s actions, not mine. My actions are simply a response to His.
So what’s the answer? The answer is faith, not a different type of work – which has the appearance of being more Christ-centered. Salvation and righteousness are by faith, not by having a relationship. My “job” is to believe that Christ is seeking and pursuing a relationship with me, not to try to have a relationship with Him. I simply respond to His overtures – and any desire I sense within me to have a relationship with Him is simply evidence of the fact that His grace is already working on my heart (an idea that some theologians call “prevenient grace”).
Notice the powerful promises that characterize the “New Covenant” as announced in Jeremiah: “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. . . For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more” (Jeremiah 31:33-24).
Notice the pronoun that is repeatedly employed: “I.” And who is the “I”? God. And He says, “I will . . . I will . . . I will . . . I will . . . ”
When it comes to our relation to Him, it’s all about what He’s doing, what He’s promised – not what we’re doing. In our sinful, depraved, and helpless state, we are incapable of even wanting to have a relationship with Him anyway. We need His grace to “quicken” us, thus empowering us to both want to commune with Him, and the strength to achieve it.
But here’s the neat part: the section I originally skipped in this passage is every bit as powerful a part of the New Covenant as the rest. God promises that when He does all this, “No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them.'” When God fulfills His New Covenant promises in our lives, we won’t have to go around telling people that they need to have a relationship with Him – we won’t have to tell people that they have to “know Him” – because they will already know Him.
Thus, no more sermons on the importance of having a devotional life. No more lectures about the need to prioritize Bible study. No more messages saying that we need to pray more. No more need to remind people ad nauseum that it’s “all about having a personal relationship with Jesus.” All these will come naturally as we encounter the beautiful and powerful realities of the Gospel.
And the bigger problem we will face is having people turn into Marys, who had a hard time being pulled away from Jesus’ feet.
A few thoughts from Ellen White that must not be missed. “In the parable of the lost sheep,” she writes in Christ’s Object Lessons, “Christ teaches that salvation does not come through our seeking after God but through God’s seeking after us” (p. 189). Elsewhere, in Steps to Christ, she declares, “The sinner may resist this love, may refuse to be drawn to Christ; but if he does not resist he will be drawn to Jesus” (p. 27).
These are beautiful thoughts! It is Christ who is working, Christ who is seeking, Christ who is pursuing us in relationship. He is drawing us to Himself in love – just as He promised He would in John 12:32. Our job is not to somehow figure out how to muster up enough willpower to read our Bibles for 20 minutes each morning. Our “job” is to rejoice in and believe the glorious truth that Christ is seeking us and drawing us to Himself. Indeed, righteousness is by faith, not by reading our Bibles.
Reading my Bible, having a relationship with Him, is thus not something I do in order to have a relationship with Him. It’s simply a response of faith to His drawing power and love. To paraphrase Paul, living by faith – rather than “salvation by devotions” – doesn’t make void this relationship; rather, it establishes it. In fact, it’s the only thing that will ever achieve a lasting “relationship” with Christ – which may seem counterintuitive to some.
Indeed, the more we make “having a personal relationship with Jesus” our battle cry, the less likely it will occur – at least in a sustained way. Whereas the more we simply lift up a loving and powerful and beautiful and irresistible picture of Jesus, the more likely it is that that “personal relationship” will naturally occur, without even having to compel people to do it. The source of our power derives from what Christ has done, not what we try to convince others to do.
I don’t know about you, but understanding this subtle – yet critically important – distinction is huge – and makes all the difference in the world. It provides a “motive power,” as Ellen White calls it, instilling within me a craving to spend time with Christ – rather than viewing a “personal relationship” with Him as something I have to do, like it or not, if I want to maintain my Christianity.
Indeed, it shifts my devotional life from being an exercise in “force feeding” myself, to joyfully “tasting” and “seeing” that the “Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).