The Problem with a “Personal Relationship with God” Part II

As humans we can only conceive of God using human metaphors and analogies, which is why God communicates with us in human terms, but like any good symbol or metaphor, such language is a pointer to something other than itself. The human relational language Scripture employs provides useful and effective metaphors that point to the reality of our relationship with a being who is categorically beyond us. So God in the Bible is portrayed human terms but it also emphasises how God is unlike us. For example, a powerful metaphor for God the Bible often uses is that he is our Father but he is not characterised as a father in a physical sense. So because God is both like and unlike us, a relationship with him is also like and unlike a relationship with other humans.

The pop theological conception of a “personal relationship with God” tends to treat God in an overly sentimental manner as if God is your best mate. When you carefully look at how Scripture conceives of the relationship between God and his people it is actually in many ways not personal. It is personal insofar as it involves personal beings but that is just about it. God is not human so any relationship with him cannot be personal in the same way two human beings relate to one another.

Now an atomistic sense of self, that is the notion that a human is fundamentally a private individual, is more a modern conception of identity which did not exist in the Bible or the ancient world it belonged to more generally. This is not to say that in they had no sense of self or personal identity but they did have a more communal conception of who they were. Therefore a private, individualistic conception of the divine or a personal relationship with God was unfathomable to them. Religion was very much a public affair in the ancient world and it was within the context of the group that individuals related to deity.

When we actually look at the Bible, it was also the collective who had a shared relationship with God. It was through being a member of the group that a person had a relationship with God. So people did not have personal relationships with God per se but a communal one. So even when God revealed himself in the Bible to select people it was still for the sake of the group. The most famous example of this is when God revealed himself to Abraham. It was not for the purpose having a private relationship with him but so that Abraham’s family would be the chosen people of God. Even those who had direct one-on-one encounters with God i.e. the prophets, had such a relationship for the purpose of representing God to the people. The prerequisite for them having such extraordinary encounters with God anyway was belonging to the people of God (Deuteronomy 18:14-20.)

Apart from being communal the Bible also portrays a relationship with God as mediated, which is to say there are intermediaries between God and the people who facilitate the entire community or individuals within it interacting with God. The reason why this arrangement existed was because a direct encounter with God was regarded as an incredibly dangerous, life threatening experience. One could not casually approach God because of his sheer awesomeness and I think in our sincere attempts to make God more relatable we forget just how exalted he is. Again God is intimately with his people but he is still very much beyond them. For the people to have a healthy relationship with their God it was therefore understood that there had to be some reasonable distance. This is why God chose representatives like the prophets or priests that through them he could safely but actively be involved with his people and they with him. So even though some biblical figures did have a directly personal relationship with God, these select individuals are never portrayed as having such a relationship for their own sake. As personal as relationships with God get in the Bible, they are never individualistic, serving the private interests of the people in relationship with him.

So far I have discussed how in the Bible a relationship with God is not personal and in so far as it is, it is is not personal in the way normally think of it. While all I have previously said matters (I will circle back to them) I am still yet to precisely define the nature of a relationship with God according to the Scriptures. Again we carefully examine the language of scripture it does not vaguely talk about “relationship.” What it does talk about is something definite and concrete. It talks about covenant.

⇐Part I Part III⇒

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