What Does “Relationship with God” Really Mean?

One of the most common ways that Christians talk about their faith is to say that they have “a relationship with God.” I hope that is true for them. I know many Christians whose lives reflect an intimate, ongoing interactive connection between them and God. And for that we can all rejoice. But unfortunately, many Christians have actually adopted this phrase as a euphemism for being “saved” and has little to do with relating to God in any meaningful sense.

Suppose you ask a guy how his marriage is going and he replies, “Well, the food is good and I’m learning to work on the house.” You might well feel sorry for his wife. But Christians talk that way all the time about their relationship with God. “I’m going to this great class on the life of Abraham, I’m reading through the Bible this year, and I’m thinking about working at the food shelf.” Or they may simply claim to have a relationship with God by virtue of the fact that they accepted Jesus as their savior. If indeed they have been adopted by God, then yes, they are children of God and therefore are related to Him. But being related and having a relationship are two very different things. And any relationship that gets reduced to the things we are doing is in serious trouble.

Now there are good reasons why this is hard for us. It is one thing to have a vibrant relationship with someone we can see and touch. It’s a bit more challenging to have an interactive relationship with a God we cannot see or hear in any physical sense. How does that work? What would that relationship even look like? Well the answer to that would best come through being mentored by someone else who has such a relationship. That is why Jesus wanted us to “disciple” one another. Most of us need to be shown what this looks like. This aspect of the Christian life is very experiential in nature, and it is not easy to describe it on the printed page. Our relationship with God is not merely a legal contract, or limited to an understanding of how He now regards us. It is meant to be a tangible reality that we actually experience, day by day. If that sound remote, it is only because engaging with God in a functional, meaningful way is not at all intuitive — most of us need a lot of help with it. And that kind of help has often been hard to find.

Jesus said, “This is life — to know You, the only true God” (Jn.17). He promised to reveal Himself to us and make His home with us (Jn.14). These are not simply metaphors or figures of speech for our conversion. He is talking about a real relationship. One in which we get to know Him, not just know about Him, as He reveals Himself to us. This is the abundant life He promised. We can learn how to engage with Him in conversations as He mentors us (Jn.15) day by day. So we need to be careful that we do not cheapen the term “relationship” as it regards our connection to God. Because of how we use the language, we may be able to get away with saying that we have a “relationship” with our banker. But that bears no comparison to a deep abiding relationship we might have with our sweetheart. We should reserve our use of the phrase “relationship with God” to that of an on-going, growing connection in which we are involved — consciously, deliberately, emotionally, rationally — every way that we are capable of.

Then when we say, “I have a relationship with God” we can go on to give witness to the things He is doing in our life and how we are drawing our life from Him, day by day, and lend real substance and meaning to our statement of faith.