January 6, 2012

Working on Your Relationship with God

by Mike Riccardi

Even though New Year’s was a whole five days ago, I’m betting there are at least some of you out there who haven’t totally given up on thinking about resolutions. While our New Year’s resolutions will take various forms and address various areas of life, differing from person to person, one thing that Christians’ New Year’s resolutions should have in common is that at least some of them involve focusing on ways to deepen our relationship with Christ.

However, a couple of conversations I’ve been having and blog posts I’ve been reading have led me to believe that there is more than a little confusion on exactly how we ought to go about pursuing a deeper relationship with Christ.

One such post leading me to that conclusion was this 2009 article, which is still managing to get comments 2½ years later. (Try to resist the urge to add to them.) The author, a Christian psychology professor, recounts an interaction with a student who wanted to “work on her relationship with God.” He goes on to lament that, according to him, working on one’s relationship with God all too often means “praying more, getting up early to study the Bible, [and] to start going back to church,” and too seldom has anything “to do with trying to become a more decent human being.”

This perspective is not limited to the obscure corners of the blogosphere. As I mentioned, there are plenty of conversations that I’ve observed and participated in recently in which professing Christians emphasize good works and pious deeds as central to what it means to be a Christian, while relegating doctrine and personal devotion to the periphery. In a sense, this is the sounding forth of the late 19th– and early 20th-century modernist anthem: “Deeds not Creeds.” The 21st-century postmodernist rehashing of the liberalism of yesteryear has yielded a reverence for uncertainty, suspicion about truth, and aversion to doctrine. And, as the spirit of the age has infiltrated the church, at the very least we wind up with a mindset that champions “Deeds over Creeds.” “You want to deepen your relationship with God? Don’t waste your time with Bible study, prayer, and going to church. Volunteer at the soup kitchen, donate clothing, and, for goodness’ sake, be a good tipper!”

Root and Fruit

Of course, there’s a germ of truth there. Christians shouldn’t be jerks while patting themselves on the back for being “faithful” because they go through the motions of Bible reading and church attendance. It’s right to expect someone who professes faith in Jesus to bear good fruit. And it’s even true that we will know God more intimately and deepen our relationship with Him as we obey and walk in the manner He walked (John 14:21; cf. 1Jn 2:6).

But what’s troubling about this ideology is the confusion of the root and the fruit of true Christian faith and spirituality. The fruit—the actions—are not the basis of one’s Christianity, as if all you needed to be a “true Christian” is to just be a nice guy and a decent tipper. The fruit—the progressive conformity into Christlikeness—comes from the root of a continual beholding of His glory (2Cor 3:18), and that glory is perfectly revealed in His Word (Jn 17:17).

The spirit of the age rejects Bible study, prayer, and the fellowship of the saints (i.e., membership and the partaking of the ordinances in a local church governed by a plurality of elders) as too self-focused and merely taking up valuable time that can be used serving others. But these are precisely the means God has ordained for us to deepen our relationship with Christ, our knowledge of Him, and our satisfaction in His glory. And then, the result of that deeper, more intimate knowledge is a compassionate, Christlike servant who loves God and loves his neighbor as himself.

Gospel and Anti-Gospel

See, if focusing on the fruit is the primary way to “work on your relationship with God,” you don’t need Jesus to be a Christian. The notion that you can improve your relationship with God by trying to become a more decent human being is simply works-righteousness in a pious disguise. You improve your relationship with God by trying harder and being better. At that point, your religion becomes nothing more than moralism and self-righteousness, which doesn’t honor Christ. This is not biblical morality. It is anti-Gospel.

The Gospel is: you have totally failed at being a decent human being, and will continue to totally fail. For this, you need to cast yourself on the mercy of Christ for forgiveness. And forgiveness not first from other people you’ve offended, but forgiveness from God, whom you’ve supremely offended (Ps 51:4). You can’t become a more decent human being by aiming at becoming a more decent human being. You can only become a more decent human being by aiming at Christ. And you can’t aim at Christ without seeing Him. And you can’t see Him without His Word.

The only kind of loving actions that glorify God—indeed, the only actions that are truly loving—are those done precisely because Christians know themselves forgiven by Jesus and want to demonstrate the glory of God in Christ to the world. When the root of your good deeds is a worship-relationship with Christ Himself through the means He’s ordained (His Word, prayer, and fellowship) then you’re glorifying God, and not yourself.

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
  • “You can’t become a more decent human being by aiming at becoming a more decent human being. You can only become a more decent human being by aiming at Christ.” Good stuff Mike!

    I am actually in the midst of reading, “Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands,” for my Biblical Counseling class starting in March and Paul Tripp powerfully states what you did here as well. In terms of his audience, that means relying on the person of Christ and His Word to provide counsel to others rather than one’s own ability to pick the right verses or offer insight from their own life. When putting Christianity side-by-side other religions, the huge difference is that it’s about following a person – Jesus – as opposed to being grounded in some system of belief.

    Great post!

    • Thanks for your comment Louis. I really enjoyed that book as well.

      I’m wondering if I could amend your last statement by inserting one word. “When putting Christianity side-by-side other religions, the huge difference is that it’s about following a person – Jesus – as opposed to [merely] being grounded in some system of belief.”

      I think it’s important that we don’t set up a false dichotomy between relationship and doctrine. We follow a person — Jesus — who also instituted a system of belief. In fact, the moment you answer the question, “Who is this Jesus you want me to follow?” you have a system of belief.

      Would you agree?

      • I completely support your amendment to my last sentence. Doctrine is paramountly important. I think the Gospel of John demonstrates this best as Christ tells the disciples that to know Him is to know the Father, and goes on further in the high priestly prayer in chapter 17 to petition God the Father to sanctify them in truth, which is the Word. A relationship with Christ and right understanding of doctrine are intimately related, and shouldn’t be separated.

        • Michael Delahunt

          Our men’s group is also going through Tripp’s book. As I read this post, I was sitting in on one of our meetings. Funny that you would bring that up as well.
          As always, a great article, Mike! Loved the part concerning being sanctified through the truth of aiming our lives at the truth of Christ.

  • Eric Davis

    Thanks for this, Mike.

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  • Brad

    Good points! I have been challenged recently by reading John 15. Jesus seems to indicate that we are fruitful by abiding in Him but then He goes on to say that we abide in Him by loving others! That was a surprise to me because I was expecting Him to say that we abide in Him by reading our Bibles and praying to Him in private.

    • Thanks for your comment Brad. Which verse or verses are you speaking about in particular?

  • I must confess, I burst out laughing when I read, “…and, for goodness’ sake, be a good tipper!”

  • Anonymous

    This is excellent Mike – and timely, Thank You!

    It also reminds me of a very legalistic church we left over a year ago. The members were spending so much time making sure they were the ‘perfect’ outward representations of Christians and looked so down on anyone who did not conform to their every individual eccentricity that I realized these poor people were acting like the Pharisee in the bible who prayed about how holy and righteous he personally was, when they should have emulated the publican instead and thrown themselves at the feet of Christ and stayed there.
    Our “new man” In Christ, is fashioned to do good works. I notice in the Bible when Jesus tells us how to pray, that the first thing is ‘hallowed be His name’ THEN ‘His will be done’. Since the Bible tells us it is the will of God that we do the good works He fashioned us for, it only seems logical based on that prayer that we’d ‘hallow His name’ FIRST, then go about doing ‘those works’ (or in the professors case ‘being a better human being’) which He has us to do. That way the works will glorify God instead of man because our hearts/mind will be properly focused. Needless to say, when I suggested this it didn’t go over very well. They were too outwardly focused.
    Your prescription- indeed the one you point out from God’s Word is the only one that works…..which is why He gave it to us.

  • truthunites

    “And, as the spirit of the age has infiltrated the church, at the very least we wind up with a mindset that champions “Deeds over Creeds.””

    Social Justice!

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