Jesus Knowing Christ
Engaging the Intimate
Engaging the Intimate Relational Process
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Chapter 2 The Relational Connection
The Word ... made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory.
It takes two persons to form an interpersonal relationship. But it takes two cooperating persons to extend that relationship beyond mere form to a working relationship. Still further, it takes two willfully open persons to go from only doing something between them to actually making relational connection together, especially with their hearts. From our earlier discussion on John 14, the disciples didn't seem to be at this last stage yet.
Generally, I'm not excited about meeting new persons. There's always some degree of initial tension until we can each find a comfort level in the interaction--that common ground with which we can feel comfortable. It always appears, or at least usually seems, more enjoyable to meet a friend than a complete stranger. Yet, when we're meeting someone for the first time whom we admire, respect or like, then there's excitement surrounding that encounter. Why is this different from a stranger? Because we commonly make certain positive assumptions (valid or not) about that desirable person, he or she becomes more familiar to us; we can feel more comfortable. The point to understand from these interactions is our tendency to pursue a comfort zone in relationships.
When God doesn't act in the ways we think he should. . . we start to get uncomfortable.
Comfort levels put constraints on relationships; some constraints, of course, are necessary and good. But for purposes of growing relationships, comfort zones put relationships in a box. The limitations on a relationship created by this box are under my control and, therefore, allow me to determine the relationship on my terms. Under such conditions growth is not really continuing in the relationship, though growth may appear to take place based on the quantity indicators mentioned in the first chapter. With such constraints (often imposed unintentionally or unknowingly) the other person is not able to be their complete self nor am I able to be my true self.
So, where would you put God in the above examples: someone respected, honored, liked, a friend or "stranger"? More specifically, where is Jesus? If what we're actually establishing or even pursuing in our relationship with him is merely some comfort zone, then I don't believe we're making relational connection with him.
Some of us try to put our relationship with God in a box. In various ways, mostly indirectly, we operate in this relationship on our terms. For example, we "request" of him to do something, we "ask" him to do it in a certain way or time, we even demand responses, answers or signs. Then when God doesn't act accordingly, we either doubt his love for us, whether he's really involved with us, if we can count on him, if he's abandoned us or even go so far as to question his existence. More often than not, we're just praying for results. Such results are important to us as indicators of God's love, our worth or success.
These results may even be in areas of evangelism, church growth or personal Christian development. It's not that God doesn't want growth in these areas. But these results we're often praying for have more to do with our success than with actually trying to please God. This so-called success is the fruit we think we should bear. If we look at this more closely in terms of what's happening relationally between God and me, this is what we may find. Often we are moving ahead of God, are off on some related tangent or even acting independently from him. Our intention may even be to do something for God. But the relational fact is we are not with God; that is, we are either distant or separated from his presence, his person. Is God pleased, is this what Jesus came for? We will see later what his first disciples had to learn about this.
When God doesn't act in the ways we think he should (based on our desires, not Scripture), we start to get uncomfortable. For example, we are uncomfortable with God's so-called silence. We become insecure as we interpret what that silence could mean. We also become impatient or frustrated with God's timing because we are uncertain of what will happen. So, one major solution to our insecurities or fears is to try to put our relationship with God in a box where we can be in better control, where the unexpected or undesirable can be minimized. We do this by making assumptions about God to make him more comfortable for us.
A more comfortable God may mean a more manageable God. . .
A more comfortable God may mean a more manageable God, a less demanding God, a more predictable God or an even less serious God. For example, we all hold the belief that "God is love." But some also add the idea "God is nice"; therefore, this nice God would not be hard, would never say anything upsetting (e.g., that we're bad), would essentially be a great guy. This stereotyping of God, like all stereotyping, prevents us from seeing the true person.
God is not flattered by these assumptions because they are lies which cover up the truth of who he is. Such preconceived notions of ours effectively limit and constrain God in all he is and all he can do. There's no real mystery to God anymore; our assumptions or notions have made him too familiar. Yes, the tension is gone and it's comfortable in our relationship with him. But we've eliminated intimate relational connection with him. Gone also are the excitement, the anticipation, the expectation of experiencing him more and knowing what he's doing, the adventure of where he's going to take us, the deep satisfaction of being taken to the next level of life beyond which we haven't gone before or even imagined. We've put a ceiling on what we can discover.
In the box, we eliminate this about God and what we can experience in relationship with him. Whatever you want to call this arrangement, it is not a growing relationship between two persons making relational connection. God, however, will not be manipulated to be whom we try to make him. If we want to experience ongoing and growing relational connection with God, then we need to embrace, not merely accept, tension in our relationship with him. Tension can be positive or negative. It's negative if we anticipate a negative outcome. Tension is positive, however, when the expectation is positive, even though scary. We need to embrace tension in our relationship with God because that's partly the experience involved in the Bible's emphasis on fearing God. To fear God is to acknowledge his true being and to affirm his total character (without my assumptions of familiarity). On that basis I can expect God's mercy, grace or love even though I don't measure up.
While we are embracing tension we are also foregoing the comfort zone pursuit in our relationship with God. That necessitates that we let go of our assumptions about him.
If we are willfully ready to embrace tension, to forgo pursuing a comfort zone and to let go of false assumptions, then we are in a position to experience ongoing and growing relational connection with God.
Please help us, Holy Spirit, to fully connect relationally with this God who came in the flesh!
Who, then, is this person with whom we can form a relationship? What exactly was his part in cooperating to make our relationship more than mere form? And how did he specifically open his person to us so that we could actually make relational connection, especially with our hearts?
Our study will make initial responses here to these questions. But we should be aware of additional responses throughout this study which will supplement our understanding of the vulnerable life and words of this person Jesus. At this stage we must start with his vulnerable introduction: the incarnation.
We need to take Jesus out of the manger when we talk about the incarnation of God. . .
Don't let familiarity with this word--incarnation--keep you from deeper involvement. We are talking about the incarnation of God. Allow him to come out of the box and let the Word become living flesh. Set aside this propositional truth for the moment. If we're not just interested observers of an historical event or merely processing some information about God, then the fact of his vulnerable presence should start creating that tension discussed earlier. The tension would be natural because we have reason to be uncomfortable.
This means that we need to take Jesus out of the manger when we talk about the incarnation of God. As miraculous as his birth was, it's not the person in the manger with whom we want to make connection. That would be too comfortable! Jesus' birth tells us very important things about God which we need to understand. But to receive God's person in the incarnation as a babe in the manger is to remain in a comfort zone relationally.
. . . and not be too quick to put him on the cross.
In a similar way, after taking Jesus out of that manger we should not be too quick to put him on the cross. Christians have a tendency essentially to condense Jesus' life as going directly from the manger to the cross. This makes it relationally a lot easier for us, much more comfortable because in doing this we don't have to deal with the rest of this person's life and words. In so doing we can distance ourselves from the deeper relational matters, issues, outcomes and consequences which Jesus vulnerably revealed through his person and how he lived. Yes, there is so much more of this person between the manger and the cross for us to understand.
So, who is this person? For our initial answer we need to turn to John's gospel. I like the way John begins because he immediately establishes for us what the incarnation is all about, whom it involved and why. John gets right to the point--the relational point of encounter--and leaves us no room to get comfortable. In other words, John, makes us tense in the beginning.
After establishing fundamental truths about his person and the fact of where he came from (John 1:1-5), John proceeds to totally discomfort us: "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. . ." (v.14), that is, "God has arrived in person, he is in the house" (to paraphrase). Wow! Neat! Cool! may be the response. But not so fast! God wasn't just in the neighborhood. He is in my house pursuing me face-to-face to look me straight in the eye. "We have seen his glory . . .," John goes on to say. Wait a minute, this is not the tiny "God with us" Immanuel of the manger. This is the total "God with us" "One and Only" person complete with glory and full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14).
Glory is one of those words whose significance gets lost in familiarity. We may be impressed with the term but how much does glory really mean to us, how much does it touch our heart? The word for glory in Hebrew (kabod) comes from the word "to be heavy," for example, with wealth or worthiness. To use a vernacular we might say "Jesus was heavy--a heavy dude."
How was Jesus heavy? The concept of "the glory of God" denotes the revelation of God's being, his nature and presence to us. Jesus did exactly that--revealed God's being, his nature and his presence to us. Jesus was "heavy" with God's being, nature, presence.
Let's cast off our preconceived notions to keep him familiar, and anticipate. . . meeting God in person for the first time.
As John tells us, no one had distinctly seen God in their perception before (Jn 1:18). But, now, this was changed dramatically because Jesus, God in living flesh, "has made the Father known" (v.18). The word for "make known" is the English transliteration "exegesis": to relate in detail, explain, to lead out into full view. Unlike some academic task of exegesis, however, Jesus was to bring out, elaborate on and fully disclose God intimately in person for us to see openly.
The significance of the incarnation is that we now have this revelation in objective, observable substance. We don't have to assume who or how God is. Jesus objectified God for us. In direct ways Jesus provided the objective and observable basis for God, the Father and all his glory.
What is this glory Jesus revealed of God's being, nature and presence? Let's cast off our preconceived notions to keep him familiar and anticipate the answer with the excitement of meeting God in person for the first time.
As John helps us to understand in the opening verses of his gospel, God is a self-existing spirit distinct from all his creatures, who alone has life within himself and is the life-giver. And the Word is one in the same. At this point you may be thinking "OK, well yeah, that's who God is--I expected God to be something like that," without being stirred beyond the fact of this information.
This description of God is awesome in itself, yet this transcendent God is much more with regard to his being and nature. Thankfully, John didn't stop at this point to tell us about Jesus. This Jesus, who is one person in the same God, brought to us the being and nature of God in quite different terms than described in the opening verses (1-5) above. John brings out this difference in 1:14,18. I hope our discussion of these different terms of God's being and nature shown openly by Jesus' person will open up the relational process for us.
(1) God's Being as Heart
Let's take a moment to reflect on Christian living. In terms of God's being, biblical Christians understand in their minds that God is not merely a cosmic force or an ethereal entity; God, of course, is a personal being, in three persons. Yet, so often many of those same Christians don't connect directly with the personal God. This may be true even while they have an active church life. Functionally, not theologically, for them God is distant or unapproachable, beyond their direct experience. God is that self-existing spirit distinct from them, and that's the way it is, that's all they know experientially.
Christ came to change this for us. In order to help us understand how, let's look at his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (see John 4). The significance of this exchange tells us a lot about what Jesus considered more important than social etiquette, cultural values and traditional race relations, about how he sees all of us (with added import for women), about how to share with others (e.g., for evangelism) and be involved with them with love. But for our current purpose we will limit our focus in this wonderful interaction only to Jesus revealing further this first aspect of his glory, God's being.
As the interaction between Jesus and the woman turned to a discussion on religion and the place to be involved with God (4:23,24), Jesus suddenly tells her that this has all changed (v.23). Why has it changed? Because "God is spirit" (v.24). How is it now possible? Because "I who speak [am now here to openly show you that spirit]" (v.26).
We've always known that the God of Scripture does not have a physical being. Though he is described figuratively by various physical body parts to help us understand, God is a spiritual being. And we know that we have to relate to him spiritually. But there's a vagueness about what that means which often leaves us feeling that we're not spiritual enough to consistently connect with God. So, we conclude that we have to do something more or better in order to connect with God. Christ came to change this for us.
What is Jesus saying about God's being as spirit that differs from the common practice of so many Christians? In telling us that the Father seeks this spirit from us to be involved with his spirit (v.23), Jesus explains that this spirit is a must for us to be involved with God (v.24). The Greek word for "must" (dei) means: must, necessary by the nature of things, in contrast to "must" (opheilo) merely as an obligation. What exactly is this spirit which is necessary and intrinsic to God's spirit in order to be involved with him?
This is the aspect of God's glory in his very being with which we can connect.
The answer is given to us both by the emphasis in Jesus' words (e.g., Mt 15:17-20) as well as throughout the Bible (see Dt 4:29; 1 Sam 16:7; Ps 51:16,17; Isa 29:13; Acts 15:8-10; Rom 2:28,29). Basically, this common emphasis throughout Scripture is the distinction between the outer person and the inner, the distinction between what we are doing in outward behavior and what truly exists inwardly, and the important difference between these two because God seeks only one thing. That one thing which God seeks and all these verses focus on is heart: the core of one's being which includes deep thought, feelings, desires, affections, passion--essentially, our inner person. That's why Jesus, in another context, repeated God's words in Isaiah about worship and the necessity (because it is intrinsic to God's spirit) of heart (Mt 15:8).
Heart is the dimension of God's being which Jesus openly brought to us. In and through Christ, the "God is spirit" becomes our "God of heart." This is the aspect of God's glory in his very being with which we can connect. Why is this possible? It goes back to why God seeks heart (spirit) from us to be involved with his heart (spirit) and why our heart is absolutely necessary by the nature of things. The God of heart (this self-existing spirit distinct from all his creatures, who alone has life within himself and is the life-giver), this God whose heart is now openly before us, made us in his image! That image, which is inherent to God and which he seeks as being intrinsic to him, is heart. The God of heart made us persons of heart.
This is so exciting to me. Since the God of heart made us persons of heart, then this is our potential--in what God is and how he made us. The potential of my heart is not in my genetic make-up or because of environmental influences. The potential of my heart is the very heart of God! At the same time, the fact that God has openly revealed his heart to me because he wants to be involved with my heart creates mixed feelings. While I have this part of me in common with God by which we can make relational connection, the tension further rises with this realization.
How can this connection with God become a reality beyond just an intellectual belief or practice to a relational experience of my heart? Because Jesus the Christ came! Yet, remember, that he came in different terms than we may have been thinking. Jesus brought us the heart of God, and Christ in turn redeemed (freed) our hearts to be reconciled intimately with the Father's heart. But Jesus didn't reveal God for us to contain in propositions, or to reduce to values, ways or methods. Again, in terms of relationship that would be the easier thing for us to do.
Jesus revealed God's heart in a totally relational way, in a distinct relational context, for a relational purpose. In his closing prayer for his disciples before his death, Jesus clearly told his Father that "I have revealed you to them" (Jn 17:6). The word "reveal" (Gk. phaneroo) means to make manifest, known, show openly. This word is not merely the same as its synonym apokalypto (reveal, remove a lid) which refers only to the object revealed. Phaneroo also refers to the persons to whom the revelation is made. God's revelation in Jesus was not an end in itself but was totally for this relational purpose: to openly show us God and the Father with whom we can now intimately connect and have a relationship, just as he has. And he didn't just reveal all this to us but he also showed us in his own life what was necessary and important to make this intimate relational connection with God. That's why it's so important to understand his glory beyond mere information, and to embrace it relationally from him.
Before you continue, take some quiet moments to reflect on God's being as heart whom Jesus brought to you.
(2) God's Nature as Intimately Relational
The next part of God's glory Jesus revealed involves God's nature. Besides various aspects of God's greatness, theologians define the essential life of God as that of fellowship. They come to that conclusion because of what they see of the trinity of God and what takes place between Father, Son and Spirit. This fellowship they share in together God then offered to Adam as his created purpose. This was further offered to Eve to share in together and extend beyond themselves as the purpose of the human race. Thus, God created us for fellowship--with him and with each other. But is this fellowship merely some structural arrangement by which we go about living out our lives?
We need to grasp this relationship to understand the true meaning of fellowship.
Fellowship is another one of those familiar terms for Christians which has lost its significance. God created us for fellowship with him and with each other, but is what we define as fellowship today and how we practice fellowship the same purpose he created us for? Granted our imperfect condition until we get to heaven, but if this is all that God planned, then there is a serious flaw in the plan. Something is missing or dissatisfying.
What is missing is not fellowship as activity. Lord knows, we have a lot of activity. What is lost in our fellowship is fellowship as relationship. The substance of fellowship is relationship. We need to grasp this relationship to understand the true meaning of fellowship.
Jesus objectifies this relationship so we could actually see this relationship in the flesh. In other words, he openly shows us what it means to have a relationship and to practice it. The "One and Only" in John 1:14,18 (also translated as "the only begotten Son") is the translation of a word meaning "unique, only one of its kind." This term is used to show the very unique, intimate relationship of Jesus, the Son of God, to God the Father "who is at the Father's side" (v.18). Jesus was in the relational position of greatest possible intimacy with the Father. And he came directly from the intimate Father's side to openly show him to us. In order to objectify the "God is spirit" and the relational connection possible with this self-existing spirit, Jesus lived in the flesh this ongoing relationship with his Father and then offered this same relationship to us (see Jn 17:21,23,26).
The initial taste of this relationship between Jesus and his Father is revealed in words from the Father immediately after Jesus' baptism: "This is My Son whom I love; with him I am well pleased" (Mt 3:17). How many children yearn to hear these direct explicit words from their earthly dads? These words from his Father tell us a lot about what God is. This "God is spirit" is indeed "the God of heart." But those words also show us how God is. This God of heart is also very relational--intimately relational. This is God's nature!
I think the full substance of this revelation came at the transfiguration (see Mt 17:1-13). I always had difficulty understanding in my heart the significance of the transfiguration of Jesus other than as a highlight event of his life. Yet, the transfiguration seems to mark the complete transformation of Jesus in revealing God's glory (i.e., his being, nature and presence) in its fullness.
In this vital moment, the glory of God is expressed in Christ (Mt 17:2), and he is joined by Moses and Elijah (v.3). Then the nature of God's glory emerges as his Father speaks to him with words similar to his baptism (v.5). Apart from its appearance as some heavenly summit meeting, this marks the stage at which God reveals himself not just in his deeds (i.e., miracles) but more fully in this deeply intimate relational way. Here we see the intimate connection of the Father and his son, that is, at least to the extent we humans are able to take in (see v.6).
But note this important fact also in closely taking this all in. The Father didn't share his words only with his son but he also shared with his disciples (and with us): ". . . Listen to him!" And just as the Father extended himself to make relational connection with them, Jesus also extended himself in this relational context to his disciples for their relational experience. He provided them this experience when he physically reached down to touch the disciples in their fear (vv.6-8). The word for "touch" (Gk. hapto) is not just about physical contact but touch with involvement and for the purpose to influence, to affect.
How many of us long for this touch, even human touch? Touch in Western cultures has become so strongly associated with sex that we're tense about it. Christians have compounded this tension. Otherwise, the infrequency of touch in general in all our relationships has made us uncomfortable with it. Yet, touch is so vital to basic interpersonal relationships that the absence of touch, for example, in the formative years of childhood, has a major negative impact on that person's development. What about the formative years of a new Christian's development? Has the absence of experiencing God's "touch" been one of the major reasons for stunted Christian growth?
It is impossible to experience the touch of a self-existing spirit that remains transcendent. It is also difficult to experience the touch of a personal "God is spirit" who does not extend himself to make relational connections. But Jesus came to touch us with the person of God in relational connection: to touch our hearts with the heart of God in intimate relationship.
Peter's God was still in a box.
Now as we closely take in Jesus' transfiguration, the tension may really be rising. The thought of being touched by God's intimate presence! This is getting uncomfortable and makes us susceptible to seek our comfort zone. Not surprisingly, the disciples experienced this tension also (see Mk 9:6; Lk 9:33,34). But I think Peter also sought out his comfort zone in wanting to put up some tents.
As the disciples witnessed all this, Peter tried to constrain God's glory to a place by suggesting to Jesus his desire to erect tents. That is, Peter wanted to limit this relational connection to a place. Compare this to Jesus' discussion with the Samaritan woman about religion and the place to worship God in John 4:19-24. The idea of a tent is related to the Tabernacle (also Tent of Meeting), the place in Old Testament times where God connected with his people. So, unlike the Samaritan woman, Peter here missed this crucial connection of God's glory now being revealed to him in the person of Jesus. Peter's God was still in a box.
When we stop to reflect on this, it is clear and makes perfect sense. The God of heart can be properly expressed and fully revealed only in this relational context of intimate relationship (by hearts coming together). The glory of God couldn't be adequately reflected in nor limited to a place (like the Tabernacle), or even to his great deeds (i.e., miracles). This could only be fulfilled in person, the person of Jesus who now goes forth openly with his heart to make intimate connections.
God's nature is relational, intimately relational. This being of God (as God of heart) and his nature (as intimately relational) were the main reasons for the disciples' tension. Mark's account of the transfiguration tells us that Peter didn't know what else to say except suggest the tents because they were scared (Mk 9:6). Like many of us, Peter said something unimportant because it was easier than opening himself to a deeper relational connection. Peter was not alone among the disciples in this way of doing relationships, as we discussed in Chapter 1. Yet, Peter was the key representation of how the disciples defined themselves and, therefore, how they did relationships. We will examine more of Peter's life later.
Since God's nature is relational, then everything God is, says and does is relational; and this is how he wants us to relate to him. This is specifically what may be problematic for us in experiencing God. Ever since Adam and Eve introduced negative relational practices in the garden, relationships have been difficult, especially so for us today. Even in cultures which think relationally more than Western ones, it is still difficult to actually be relational, not to just think it. We are just not used to being relational. Life has become that way. Until we stop substituting other ways for being relational and practicing deeper relationships, our experiences in those relationships will always be limited.
Why did the Father tell us to "listen to him"? How we answer this question largely depends on what kind of God we have or on how we perceive him. If he is a sovereign King, then he's probably the lawmaker whose laws we shouldn't break; so, that's what Christ can help us with--the law. Or the hard Father and following the rules. Maybe it's merely the Creator and having values, meaning in life. Your perceptions may only focus on the truth of God, so you listen to Christ as God's truth in order to have a set of beliefs you can feel confident in. A Guide or Helper is also useful; so we'll "listen" to Christ to help us do our own thing better. The focus in all these is on what Christ did (even on the cross) and/or his teachings. But there's something missing here.
So often the discussion of the teachings of Jesus ignore the person. . . to ignore the person of Jesus is to overlook the person of God.
What did the Father tell us? Listen to him, the person--not what he did, not even his teachings. In this study I choose to say "the person and words of Jesus" instead of "the person and teachings of Jesus" because words involve communication in a relationship. The focus on communication must include the person who said the words. This is vital. So often the discussions of the teachings of Jesus ignore the person and reduce his words to propositions, values or ways.
To ignore the person of Jesus is to overlook the person of God. In so doing, you may have truth in hand, but you do not have God in your embrace. Jesus came to reveal God's glory. But that glory was totally about the person, his heart and his intimate relational nature. Once again, this was all not an end in itself, the incarnation was not merely an objective presentation of God. Jesus came to openly show us his Father; "I have revealed you to them" (Jn 17:6, italics mine). And Jesus' person and words were for us to see the Father, to hear him, touch him, embrace him, so that we could also experience our relationship with the Father just as his son has. He didn't reveal this to us to make us jealous or to show us how favored he is; he wants us to experience the same love from the Father as he does (Jn 17:26).
When the reality of his crucifixion was close and Jesus predicted his death, he vulnerably shared his troubled feelings (Jn 12:27,28). In that intimate moment with his disciples and his Father, the words of the Father are heard clearly once again (Jn 12:29). (See Gethsemane for another more intimate time, Mt 26:36-42). Jesus said that the Father's words were for our benefit, not his because he must have received his Father's response directly to his heart (Jn 12:30). Earlier, during the raising of Lazarus, Jesus thanked his Father for hearing his prayer (Jn 11:41). Jesus knew his Father always hears him, so, in this moment also, Jesus said this for our benefit--that we could see their relationship (11:42). And this same relationship with the Father is available to us.
It is not enough for Christians to believe in the personal God; we have to experience him in our heart. This means we have to enter the relational context of this relational God. To know this God of ours beyond mere information is to engage God's person within the ongoing intimate relationship made possible by Jesus. It is not sufficient just to read about Jesus and to observe him--no matter how faithfully we do that each day. It is also not enough even to follow him, as the disciples were awakened to by Jesus (from our discussion on John 14 in Chap.1).
To truly know God's person--or any person--is a function only of relationship. That is, it depends on deeper relational connection of the ongoing relationship in which the hearts of the participants are opened to each other. Such an experience doesn't happen mysteriously or as an outcome over time. Such intimate connection by its nature can only be experienced within the relational context. That's what Jesus clearly brought us.
We began this chapter stating that it takes two persons to form an interpersonal relationship. Here in Jesus is the person of God. I also said it takes two cooperating persons to extend that relationship. Well, Jesus didn't just come into our midst and then turn passive. Jesus actively presented his person to others and pursued them with his heart; in other words, he did his part for the relationship. Maybe this is more cooperation from God's person than we want--that is, more cooperation than we want to give and be responsible for in our person. To extend our relationship with him beyond external form requires actively working on the relationship.
The reality is, however, that Jesus is now in the house--our house--and he's looking for us. It's time to get nervous if we're not used to deeper relational connection. So, what are we going to do? Literally and figuratively, do we quickly start doing something to keep busy while he's here so that we don't have to present ourselves to him; do we start cleaning our house or change our clothes or make dinner for him in order to make ourselves more presentable; or do we hide in the "closet," maybe even leave the house, until he's gone? Or, in contrast, are we going to come and sit at his feet like Mary did (see Lk 10:38-42)? This is what it means to follow Jesus. Will we embrace him in our heart intimately like the prostitute in Luke 7:36-50? This is what is involved to know Christ.
(3) God's Presence as Vulnerable
In the beginning of this chapter, I said further that it takes two willfully open persons to go from merely doing things together to having an intimate relationship. Jesus' willful openness takes in the third and last aspect of God's glory: his presence with us. How did Jesus reveal God's presence with us, along with God's being (as God of heart) and his nature (as intimately relational)?
The earthly presence of the Word obviously expressed the willing choice of the son in response to his Father, as Jesus consistently affirmed. It wasn't out of obligation nor merely the dutiful choice of a son. When the Word became flesh, God's person came to us on intimate terms. He wasn't detached from us emotionally; he didn't keep his distance from us or protect himself from being affected by us; and he didn't come in all his superiority (power, privilege and prestige). As John tells us, he came "full of grace and truth" (Jn 1:14).
In the Old Testament, the terms for "grace and truth" are usually translated "unfailing love and faithfulness." "Love and faithful" are always joined together naturally (for example, in the Psalms and by God in Ex 34:6) because they involve and reflect God's covenant commitment to his people. Unfailing love in Hebrew denotes "befriending." So, unfailing love tells us not only what God is but also, more significantly for us, how he is. That is, as the God of heart who is intimately relational, God made his presence vulnerable to us in taking the initiative in Christ in order to make connection with us. Yet, vulnerability is no single choice or easy act even for God. Why was this vulnerable for God?
The Word was more than the concept of God but the very vulnerable presence of God.
John initially described how Christ was not received by his own--those supposedly closest to God rejected his person (Jn 1:11). Here again we need to think relationally about this. This rejection was not a process of reason or rational work but what resulted from direct relational interaction. The Word was more than the concept of God but the very vulnerable presence of God. And they rejected his person right to his face.
But God also relationally engaged all of humanity through the person of Jesus. Even after becoming a Christian, our ongoing response to his relational acts of unfailing love (grace) involves first and foremost responses or reactions (which include "no response") to his person (God's being, nature and presence), not to some teachings, beliefs or propositions. God's person makes himself vulnerable to all our reactions to him: ignore, make less important, keep distant or hide, reject, be indifferent. Any person's heart, including God's, is affected by such reaction to their person. That's why we don't like to make ourselves vulnerable, so we usually don't. But God does.
Whatever our limitations and deficiencies may be, let's not project them onto God. Jesus came full of unfailing love and faithfulness, so his vulnerability to us is his ongoing willing choice. Love does this; it makes oneself vulnerable to the one being loved. Unfailing love makes oneself vulnerable no matter what the other's reaction is.
God's person here in the flesh not only opened him to our reactions but, more importantly, it also exposed him to our sin. We know that sin creates hostility with God (Rom 8:7; Jas 4:4) because he hates it. The holy God also can't come into contact with sin. We tend to oversimplify this relational conflict and paradox with theological jargon that effectively minimizes the relational significance of God's vulnerable presence with us. How is it that we correctly get the propositional truth yet don't seem to connect well with the intimately relational God of heart who makes himself vulnerable to us? We need to let God out of our boxes so that we can intimately experience him as he actually is.
In the midst of this hostility God takes the initiative relationally to us, extends his favor to us (grace) with his vulnerable presence and, then, pursues us actively to befriend us (unfailing love). He does this because of his covenant commitment to us, showing us that he doesn't break his word. Jesus expanded the meaning of friend to intimate friend sharing everything with one another (Jn 15:15)--a relational privilege not even someone who merely serves Jesus can experience. Furthermore, his faithfulness (also rendered as "truth" in relation to God throughout the Bible) means someone you can count on, you can trust to do what he says. This seals his covenant commitment to us.
Wow! Put "unfailing love" and "faithfulness" together and we see the glory of God. In Jesus' person, we experience the vulnerable presence of God--the third aspect of God's glory along with his being and nature.
With God's vulnerable presence before us in his being (as God of heart) and his nature (as intimately relational), the glory of God in its fullness is now presented to us in Jesus. Going back to the transfiguration, Moses represented God's revelations to him at Mt. Sinai and the old covenant of the law; Elijah represented God's revelations at Horeb and all the prophets (who pointed to the Messiah). Here God fulfills all this in Jesus and reveals his being, his nature and presence directly in the person of his son. And though God's glory has been directly and relationally revealed, his full glory has yet to be revealed. No one can see God's full glory and live. But that's the potential we can keep growing in until the full glory of God is revealed at his second coming. That's when we will be able to completely take in the God of heart and experience the whole intimate relationship for which we are created.
The Word becoming flesh objectified all this by establishing the relational context for us to see. God's glory cannot be put in a box and constrained to a place (like the Tabernacle) nor limited to his deeds (miracles). His glory is the quality of God we can only see in this relational context. By vulnerably revealing the intimate God of heart, Jesus also clearly set in motion the relational process which restored (redeemed and reconciled) relationships to God's original design and purpose. This is fundamental to God. If we fail to understand this God person Jesus, then we will practice our faith with constraints and limitations on the relational heart of God. Not only will this displease the relational God (as he complained to various churches in Rev 2 and 3) but it will also not be deeply satisfying for us.
God didn't come to us in Jesus' person merely to give us charity and to do good deeds for us. Actually, if that's what it came down to, except for the cross, Jesus really didn't have to go through all that trouble. Thankfully, instead, Jesus befriended us in intimate relational connection. Even more so, Jesus took us into his family for intimate relationship, not as guests but as his Father's very own children (Jn 1:12). This has been the Father's deep desire for us from the very beginning (Rom 8:29). This is what he promised and this is what he does--because as Jesus revealed, that's what and how God is. Awesome!
Thank you, Father! Thank you, Jesus!
But, wait, before we can honestly thank him, we have to examine the extent to which we have actually received the person Jesus. We know who didn't receive him (Jn 1:11). But who actually received Jesus? The word John uses in verse 12 for receive (Gk: lambano) means to take in hand, embrace, listen to, trust, and follow as a teacher. This means that "to receive Jesus" includes discipleship, which (despite the various ways discipleship has come to be defined) also needs to involve deep relationship--intimate relationship.
My heart got displaced by the pursuit of the intellectual knowledge of God.
We are used to emphasizing the "believe" part of the oft-used John 1:12, not the "receive" portion. Just merely "believing," or giving intellectual assent to Jesus, isn't sufficient to receive him. To receive is a relational act. How we commonly connote "believe" today is not the cooperation from our person needed to extend our relationship beyond form to a functioning relationship. Even if we've initially opened our heart to him to establish that relationship, that does not automatically tell us our heart remains open today. When I first became a Christian at age twenty, my heart was open and my faith somewhat childlike. Then my heart got displaced by the pursuit of the intellectual knowledge of God. It took years to rediscover my heart and restore it to my relationship with God. The process continues.
Relationship is a dynamic, ongoing process. That means what we did in the relationship yesterday does not necessarily indicate that we are continuing to exercise the same today.
Let's pause at this point to reflect on the relational messages (review them on p.7) in John 1:14. We've been discussing a lot about "what God is saying about himself": who he is, what and how he is. But, notice the mystery about him, his resolve to hang in, what's important to him, how he feels about himself, and his passion to sacrifice. (See Phil 2:6-8 for help.)
Now, what has he been saying about our relationship with him: how does he see this relationship and how do you think he feels about it? This particular relational message speaks to why Jesus went through all that trouble in order to come to us. It tells us the strength of God's feelings for the relationship so that he persists to take the initiative to pursue us no matter what.
We may not necessarily pay attention to relational messages. In fact, we often are unaware of them or just ignore them. Yet, they are given in all communication. As noted earlier, in biblical times the individual did not have the focus Western cultures of today give to the individual. A larger group (e.g., family, community, village, city) was always more important than the individual, so individual issues (prominent for us today) were lost in collective life.1 Nevertheless, however people live due to their social structure or culture, relational messages are always being communicated. This is basic to all interpersonal relationships, in accordance with God's relational design and purpose for life.
Likewise, the relational heart of God is always giving relational messages, which we need to receive to further know him and experience him. The remaining relational message is the most problematic for us. What is he saying about me: how he sees me and feels about me (Jn 1:14)? "What he says about me" can be problematic because this is the area that creates the most tension for us. That tension can be over both positive and negative messages about me. Since John 1:14 doesn't have negative messages, what are the positive messages God is saying about me?
Take the time to quietly listen to him.
How do we relate to this person Jesus who, in God's glory, came full of
unfailing love and faithfulness? Initially, I think we can learn how to relate
to God from another friend of
Obviously, Moses feared the Lord almighty and never reduced God down as an equal. Yet, notably, his interaction with God was not a formal, polite, passive, routine encounter. This wasn't a typical quiet time where Moses was there just to listen to God and do what God wanted. Moses went to the tent for direct, intimate connection with God, "face to face" (33:11)--though not the literal "face of God" (33:20). Then, he shared his thoughts and feelings rather boldly with God (33:12). To paraphrase for today: "Listen God, you've been telling me to do this but I feel alone and that you're leaving me hanging. You also tell me how much you like me but you seem stand-offish." Moses goes on to say he wants to know God in person (v.13) and that no substitute, not even an angel (v.2), is enough to make up for God's personal presence. Now this is openly sharing oneself with God and putting the relationship on the line.
God responded to Moses' objection. "My presence will go with you" (v.14). The word for presence involved the face or the obvious front of the person; in other words, his direct and intimate presence. Paraphrasing Moses' response: "Good, and if you don't follow through, then don't tell me to do what you asked" (v.15). "How else will anyone know we're close friends unless we're being together?" (v.16). And, amazingly, Moses asks God the rhetorical question "what else will distinguish me" (v.16). What defined Moses is not what he did, as great as it was. He was defined by who he was in his being with God, not his doing. Like Moses, what distinguishes all of us is God's presence--the intimate relationship between God and his people being together, openly sharing together.
But Moses didn't stop there. "Now show me your glory" (v.18). He wanted all of
God in person--nothing less would do, and certainly no substitutes for God
personally and directly. In what is rightly described as awesome, God responded
to Moses (33:19-34:7). Yet, don't be distracted by the images of what happened.
The relational God responds directly and intimately to Moses to reveal his
glory, though only partially. (The full revelation of God's glory is fulfilled
in the person Jesus.) Moses' direct, open and honest sharing of his thoughts and
feelings with God help us know how to connect and relate to God's person.
It's hard to imagine having greater access to God than Moses had. Yet, his access to the perceptions of God which God made available to him were limited. Can you imagine needing to go into a tent or up to a mountain every time you wanted to be with God? Of course, Moses' experiences were awesome and very stimulating. Christians today tend to look for more sensory stimulation or mountaintop experiences to encourage their faith rather than deeper, ongoing relational involvement directly with God. But this is what Jesus makes available to us, this deeper access to God in which our experience of him is taken to a higher level than Moses'.
What the person of Jesus did by his cooperation and willful openness is only one half of the relational equation. The other half of this relationship is what we do as a person. When Jesus came to openly show God's glory to the original witnesses, they could not just passively "see" and "receive" him (as we discussed earlier about receive in Jn 1:12). That is, they were not able to see God's glory if they were passive observers of Jesus.
When John said "we have seen his glory" (Jn 1:14), I don't think he was referring to just anyone or everyone who laid eyes on Jesus. The word John used here for "seen" (Gk: theaomai) is different than the word "seen" (Gk: horao, to see distinctly, actually perceive something) used in his statement "no one has ever seen God" (Jn 1:18). The word "seen" (theaomai) in verse 14 means to behold, view attentively, to contemplate something which has a sense of wonderment. This word involves a contemplative focus which carefully and deliberately observes an object in order to perceive it correctly and in detail. As a person does this, theaomai would involve more than merely seeing something; it also includes noticing, recognizing and taking note of something with deeper reflection and acute interest.
So, John was referring only to those persons actually doing this. They were the persons who had seen the glory of God's son. Now, when we put this word "seen" (theaomai) into the context of Jesus' life and words, we're not merely talking about a mental process here but more importantly the relational connection of the heart of the person seeing with the heart of the person seen. This is part of the cooperation by our person necessary to make connection in this relational equation; this is part of what the Father seeks from those involved with him (Jn 4:23).
Whether we undertake our part through the spiritual disciplines from tradition or other means, we must (dei, not as obligation but because it's intrinsic to God, see Jn 4:24) engage in this relational work. With all the effort Jesus exercised to do his part in making God's person available to us for relational connection, we must likewise exercise consistently and ongoingly the effort of our person in order to take our relationship with Christ beyond mere form. The Father wants us to be conformed to his son in this way (Rom 8:29).
Sadly, even Christians today could functionally fall outside of those "having seen his glory" because they don't experience relationship with God consistently other than in form. In relationships, function does not automatically follow form. The kind of relationship that follows always depends on how we are and what we do in the relationship.
Let's be sure we're understanding what is meant by . . . relational work . . . This is a major source of tension for those who define themselves by doing.
Let's be sure we're understanding what is meant by effort and relational work. We are not necessarily talking about doing something more, like more service to God or even more Bible study and quiet times. In a relationship it is very important to make the distinction between quantity of what we do in relation to the other person and the quality of the presence of our person in the relationship. In other words, how much of me am I really putting into the relationship--not necessarily my time or my energy, and certainly not my money.
This is a major source of tension for those who define themselves by doing. It's difficult not to feel like we need to be doing something in relationships. We can't just be together, we have to do something to have a relationship. When we define God by his doing, we feel blessed the most as God is doing something for us or in relation to us (e.g., our prayers). We can't just be together and feel blessed. Yet, that's the greatest blessing of all: enjoying the presence of God and his involvement with us, and being able to participate in his life.
As we practice measuring our lives on the basis of our doing, we pay the great cost of minimizing, overlooking or disparaging our being (the total person) and our relationships. Our focus and mindset have to change if we want more connection with God. Jesus already showed us that the Father only wants our heart (Jn 4:23). It is this inner person of ours which we must involve in relationship with him. (Jn 4:24). We cannot substitute for nor invest anything less than our heart; the most important aspect of our total person is heart, not our mind, spiritual gifts, good deeds or whatever else defines us. That's the way it is because that's what Jesus openly showed us: who, what and how God is; how he created us and how to fulfill God's relational design and purpose.
Because Jesus further demonstrated the willful openness of God's heart being vulnerable to us, our heart also must (dei) willfully open to be vulnerable to his person and God's heart. Even with this intention, though, the presence of our heart is obstructed by constraints we put on it. Negative fear about God, for example, can create a barrier, cause feeling bad about our self, uncertainty about our relationship together, or any other matters which could distract, divide or diminish our heart, all of which strain our heart and could cause barriers in our relationship with God. This may include any current tensions you're having in reading this study. What do we need to do in these times? How can we eliminate barriers we create, or prevent them?
The person of truth, faithfulness, is a person you can count on relationally. . .
When Jesus told the Samaritan woman what the Father seeks and what was necessary for deeper involvement with him, he not only told her about heart (spirit) but also about truth: "in spirit and in truth" (Jn 4:23,24). We can only relate fully to the Father "in spirit and in truth." Truth is not an abstract concept in the New Testament but specifically refers to the person of Christ (e.g., Jn 14:6). From our earlier discussion on "grace and truth" in John 1:14, truth is often translated "faithfulness." The person of truth, faithfulness, is a person you can count on relationally; you can count on their word in what they say as well as in what they'll do. You can also trust their presentation of themselves to you because it's true. That accurately reflects Jesus.
Now, in presenting ourselves to the Father to be involved with him, Jesus said we must be in this truth. Obviously, that means in the truth (faithfulness) of the person Jesus. But, as "spirit" involved not only God's heart but the necessity also of our heart to make this relational connection, we must understand "truth" here to include our person as well, not just the person Jesus. That is, we need to present ourselves to God and relate to him in truth, in faithfulness, of our person as one who can be counted on relationally in what we say and do. To put this more simply, "in truth" means with honesty--the honesty of our heart. We need to present ourselves honestly to the Father. Truth, or honesty, of my heart essentially tells him "what you see and hear is what you truly get." This is our only presentation that has any relational significance to him.
Honesty is a vital condition for our heart to be truly open to God; it's a necessary condition to be vulnerable to God in the relational process. To give him anything less than honesty is to give God something other than our real true self. Without it means essentially we aren't really being ourselves with him--our weak, fallible or sinful self. What we present becomes more like playing a role. We may be sincere in how we do that role-play but we are not being authentic about our person.
Certainly, this has become an acceptable norm in human interaction. Wearing a mask is routine attire, even among Christians. For Christians, however, the relational consequences from not presenting our true self are far greater. Any alternative presentation effectively amounts to degrees of deception in how we represent ourselves, which then really turns out to be promoting a lie. Outer sincerity and good intentions do not diminish any falsehood involved. When a lie is consistently practiced, it becomes hypocrisy, the leaven of the Pharisees Jesus warned us of (Lk 12:1). In relational terms this means there are barriers in the relationship which prevent deeper connection with God. The resulting relational distance or temporary break from God can exist for us even during periods of peak church involvement or intense Christian service. This contradiction is not apparent unless we examine what is specifically taking place relationally between God and us.
We also need to fully understand that this relational distance or break with God is what Satan tries to keep us unaware of. Satan creates illusions about Christian living because his goal for Christians is to distance us from our hearts and interfere with our relational connection with God. We'll discuss his work later.
The heart of God vulnerably present in the person Jesus seeks hearts willfully vulnerable to him (Jn 4:23). These are "the true worshipers," Jesus said, those who connect with the Father and are involved with him. The word he used for "true" (Gk. alethinos) means real, genuine, authentic, not counterfeit. Therefore, what Jesus revealed to the Samaritan woman he reveals to us too: the authentic Christian life must (dei) involve "the honesty of our heart" in order to relationally connect with the Father, God of heart. The authentic Christian ongoingly lives out this relationship in growing intimacy.
Honesty of the heart has always been vital for relational connection and continued involvement with God in persons throughout the Bible. Whether in relation to their thoughts, feelings, desires or matters of sin, the lack of honesty in the heart of God's people resulted in major problems in their relationship with him. In the following key persons in the Bible, reflect on their relationship with God.
Moses Revisited--Let's go back to Moses. It seemed characteristic of Moses to openly share with God what was on his heart; our earlier discussion focused on such a wonderful interaction (Ex.33,34). Despite how Moses usually was with God, there was one sad and tragic time when he wasn't.
After dealing with the Israelites' complaints, whining and disobedience for nearly 40 years, Moses once again was confronted by them over the lack of water (see Num 20:1-5). He, along with Aaron, went to the tent and fell face down (v.6); nothing else about what Moses shared with God is recorded here. This appears to be in contrast to Moses openly sharing his frustration (maybe also fear) with God during an earlier issue also about the lack of water (see Ex 17:4). I suggest that the absence of further sharing with God by Moses in Numbers 20 is extremely significant.
In this later water incident, God responded to the situation by giving Moses specific instructions: "Speak to that rock . . . and it will pour out its water" (Num 20:8). Moses went back to the people but in what seems like an outburst of his frustration and anger, expressed these rash words (cf. Ps 106:32): "Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?" (v.10) and then proceeded to strike the rock twice with his staff (v.11). God had told Moses specifically "speak to that rock," but Moses "struck the rock"--not just once but twice.
Why did Moses do that? Moses either didn't clearly listen to God's specific instructions, maybe because he was preoccupied with his feelings; or perhaps in the heat of the moment he forgot and acted somewhat instinctively (from the earlier incident when God did tell him to strike the rock, see Ex 17:6). In either case, the relational implications of this situation are important for us to understand, even though the consequences for Moses (along with Aaron) may be difficult to fully accept (since this one incident prevented Moses from entering the promise land, Num 20:12).
When Moses spoke and acted as he did, this is what was seriously happening in his relationship with God: (1) he didn't listen to God; (2) he "didn't trust in Me enough" (20:12); (3) he did it his own way; (4) he didn't "honor Me as holy" (v.12), that is by giving the focus of attention to God and his covenant love and covenant faithfulness to keep his promise; (5) instead Moses brought the attention to himself. In relational terms, Moses made the relationship more about himself when it was really about God. And Moses wasn't able to plead "extenuating circumstances."
We can empathize with Moses because we've all been in frustrating situations or
relationships. But God held Moses accountable for his relational actions--as
he does all of
I suggested earlier that this absence by Moses is significant. You may suggest that Moses, like all of us, wasn't perfect and that one mistake should not really be that big a deal. From the standpoint of imperfection I would agree. But the issue here is not the quantity of perfection. God has never been concerned with how perfect we could be; that's our self-concern which we project onto him. The real issue here is the quality of relationship and the honesty of our heart.
How did Moses present himself to God in this moment? True, he fell face down at the tent but was he really being honest with his heart? Well, you may say that he wasn't being dishonest. From the standpoint of spoken truth or lies, I would agree that Moses wasn't dishonest; there isn't a recorded lie he told God. Once again, however, when it comes to presenting ourselves in a relationship, honesty is about openly sharing our heart and being our real self. Therefore, honesty is measured both by what we share as well as what we don't share.
Moses had feelings--strong feelings--in his heart. By keeping them inside he created a barrier in his relationship with God. Since he didn't openly share these feelings with God, he prevented God from:
(1) being with him in those feelings--they're in this together;
(2) attending to the needs in his heart--e.g., for comfort, healing or cleansing;
(3) helping him to move on so he wouldn't be controlled by the feelings--e.g., by forgiving the others.
Instead, Moses may have just routinely fallen face down at the tent--maybe like how we often go to church. I could suggest this scenario: "Well, here I am again, God. They're doing the same thing. You've heard it many times; we've been here before. OK, let's get this situation over with!" In this possible replay we can hear some of Moses' thought but you don't see his heart. If Moses had expressed honesty of his heart, he would have connected with God, not been alone, been attended to in the needs of his heart, been able to be different.
But Moses didn't exercise this honesty, so his heart was distant from God's heart. Thankfully, the God of heart lovingly held Moses accountable in the relationship, like he does with us, because the relationship and he (we) are important to God. Sadly and tragically for Moses, this distance and its consequences could have been prevented.
David--Another person in the Old Testament whose life was altered by the absence of honesty was David. We all benefit from the many psalms in which David openly shared his heart with God. Quiet reflection on such honesty is disarming even to the most guarded heart. Yet, one incident was to change his life because he didn't exercise the honesty of his heart.
Despite David's record of openly sharing, he found himself one evening keeping his heart distant from God's (see 2 Sam 11:1-4). Whether his thoughts were preoccupied with war or his feelings at the moment were only personal, his wandering eyes (and distant heart) became fixed on Bathsheba (v.2). What happened from here is recorded history (see 2 Sam 11 and 12). David's life was changed.
Could this have been prevented? It's worth our speculation because we all face issues of temptation (or testing). These are an ongoing part of life which Christ also faced (which we will discuss in the next chapter).
Whatever caused David to get up from bed and walk around that spring evening, it was an opportunity to connect with God (e.g., see David in Ps 63:6). The need for that connection intensified when he saw this beautiful, naked woman. At this moment David was faced with the critical decision to openly share his heart with God. Should he share with him his thoughts about her beauty? Should he tell him that he's feeling alone, that he's needy or feeling vulnerable at the moment? Maybe he even needs to tell God how much he desires her.
Unfortunately, David chose not to express the honesty of his heart to God. He maintained his distance from God, kept all this in his heart and pursued his own thing (2 Sam 11:3,4). Even after David acted apart from God, he could have at any time taken the opportunity to openly share with God to connect back with him. But David kept making the same choice to hide his heart from God, thus compounding the situation. It wasn't until Nathan directly confronted David about his actions that David assumed the responsibility for his treatment of God in their relationship (2 Sam 12:13). Psalm 51 reflects again the honesty of his heart which David learned the hard way.
Honesty of our heart can prevent this consequence by giving God the opportunity to respond relationally to us and act directly in our life. Even if we don't make this choice initially, we can still choose again because God's grace makes it possible for us to be restored to relational connection with him at any time.
Elijah--Elijah also failed to give God the opportunity to respond to him directly in a critical time of need. After the dramatic victory over the prophets of Baal (see 1 Kgs 18:16-40) and the awesome experience of Elijah physically running ahead of Ahab's chariot all the way to Jezreel to beat the rainstorm (18:44-46), you would think Elijah's faith and confidence were high. Not to mention the fact that his name, Elijah (meaning "The Lord is my God"), was the essence of his life and work. Yet, immediately afterward, when Jezebel vowed to wipe him out just as he did to her prophets, Elijah ran in the opposite direction, fearful for his life (19:1-3).
Wow, what a contrast going from chapter 18 to 19. The issue we've been examining here is: could "the honesty of our heart" make a significant difference in the lives of God's people--whatever the situation? Despite the strong contrast in Elijah's behavior that we see in these situations, the more important contrast is what's happening in the relationship between Elijah and God from one situation to the next.
In chapters 17 and 18 we see Elijah's ongoing relational connection with God in
a variety of situations. Then, in chapter 19 Elijah essentially said to himself,
"I'm outta here!" Rather than openly share his fear with God and talk with him
about what to do, Elijah not only distanced himself from the situation but also
distanced himself from God. Along with his fear, Elijah must have been deeply
discouraged about the effectiveness of his ministry. Settling into despair, all
Elijah could tell God was "I have had enough, Lord. Take my life!" (2 Kgs
Is this honesty of our heart? In a partial sense, yes. But there are deeper areas in our heart which need to be openly shared and attended to by God.
Elijah withheld those areas in his heart from God and withdrew from the relationship (19:5). Like many of us when facing tense periods in life, Elijah tried to regain a sense of control in his life by determining the terms of his relationship with God. What he told God in despair was really telling God what to do rather than openly sharing deeper needs in his heart. Even when God pursued him further with the penetrating and disarming question full of relational messages--"What are you doing here, Elijah?," not just once but twice, 19:9,13)--Elijah answered only with the facts of the situation while indirectly hinting how he felt about it.
Since God asked him the same question again only to receive the same answer, Elijah shows us that he wasn't understanding God and making connection relationally with him. The reason for this consequence involves Elijah's failure to openly share all that was in his heart. But you may ask, what if he didn't realize what was in his heart? This is a fair question. God doesn't expect us to always be aware of the deeper feelings in our heart. Many times we stay so focused on the details of a situation that we're not in touch with our feelings about it. What God does expect, however, is for us to honestly talk about it, so that we could learn what's in our heart. Relational communication must be kept honestly open for connection to be made and for God to have the opportunity to respond to us. Elijah distanced his heart from God and, therefore, relationally didn't give God the opportunity to be with him.
These examples illustrate for us the necessity of honesty of our heart in the relational process with God. They also demonstrate the relational consequence when we don't honestly engage this relational process in presenting ourselves to God. As you reflect on your own relationship with God, realize the relational consequences which can be prevented for you. Maybe more importantly, anticipate the relational outcomes which God has waiting for you.
Honesty is an absolutely vital condition for our heart to be truly open to receive God and all he has for us. I think the Samaritan woman's honesty with Jesus--see her response in John 4:16-18--opened her heart and gave Jesus the opportunity for all he shared. That relational connection opens our understanding of relationship with God. If we are to be involved with God in intimate relationship, then that ongoing connection can continue only through the honesty of our heart. As Jesus shared, this is a must (dei); it is unavoidable. This is what God seeks from us, so that we will experience him and know him. In no better example are the dynamics of this relational process impressed upon us than in the early disciples' relationship with Jesus.
When Jesus told Thomas and Philip that they essentially didn't know him (Jn 14:1-9), as we discussed in Chapter 1, this didn't mean they had no knowledge about Jesus. They had plenty of information about Jesus, but they weren't making deeper relational connection with Jesus in order to experience him more intimately so as to truly know Jesus, the person. How could this happen after three intense years together? Let's take a further look at their relationship for more answers with further discussion later.
Jesus' Disciples--Examine the following interactions (take the time to read each passage) and think relationally as well as identify relational messages:
--When the disciples returned to find Jesus interacting with this Samaritan
woman, they were surprised at his cultural faux pas and religious
--When they urged him to eat the food they had brought back, Jesus countered
that he had a better alternative (vv.31,32). A little bewildered by this, they
wondered among themselves but, again, no one openly asked him about it
Since this occurred relatively early in the disciples' relationship with Jesus, this interaction may seem quite understandable to you. Furthermore, you may point out that the disciples merely acted according to their culture's norms for teacher-disciple relations. As a show of respect, disciples didn't question their teachers. But, I would add, if their teacher was so different from and in conflict with the cultural and religious norms of their time, they would have had some serious doubts and uncertain feelings about the teacher's validity. Unless the disciples exercised "blind faith" these inner stirrings needed to be addressed.
Mark 4:35-41 --On this adventurous boat ride together across the Sea of Galilee, the
(Lk 8:22-25) disciples were nothing short of speechless from fear due to the awesome
display of power by Jesus to calm the storm. But they couldn't help asking
each other, "Who is this ... ?" (v.41)
It's reasonable for them to ask the question. But what does it mean that the disciples didn't direct to Jesus this question and all that was going on inside them? Again, you can cite the cultural role of a disciple to explain or even justify their behavior. But I suggest that this would constrain our understanding of what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus. This Teacher extended, if not redefined, his disciple from being a mere learner or faithful adherent to the privileged position of a friend. In addition, he reordered the traditional teacher-disciple role structure by replacing it with the process of intimate relationship between them in which they would share everything together. What culture effectively accomplishes in relationship with God (back then and today) is to provide a comfort zone in which we can maintain distance from God. What culture also does effectively to God is put God in a box. But Jesus never stayed in that box; we know this from both his words and how he lived in relationships. Peter was to experience all this at his footwashing, which we will examine in a later chapter.
Mark 8:14-21 --On a later boat trip the disciples didn't understand what Jesus was talking about. So they speculated among each other what he meant (vv.14-16). In fact, at this stage of their relationship with Jesus they still had no clue about him, in spite of all they had done together. They just didn't get it! (vv.17-21)
I don't think the reason for this was due to any lack of intellectual ability to comprehend or put the pieces of a "puzzle" together. Relational distance or barriers prevented them from connecting with the person Jesus and thus seeing (theaomai, as John said in Jn 1:14) him for who he really was. But, since Jesus never stayed in their box, he often pursued them on the questions they didn't openly share with him (Mk 8:17). The relational message he was telling them by often doing this was "it's OK to ask me.." He wanted them to open their hearts to him so they could have a deeper relationship.
No one wants to appear "stupid" and ask a dumb question. Yet, how do self-concern and pride affect how well we can connect in relationships? We can have illusions about the state of a relationship, but what do we often substitute for getting close in a relationship?
Luke 9:44,45 --After Jesus healed a demon-possessed boy, he told the disciples something important which they couldn't relate to ("understand", agnoeo) because it was totally foreign to them ("grasp", aisthanomai). This news just blew their minds and, sadly, "they were afraid to ask him about it" (v.45).
Being afraid could cause us to do different things in a relationship but the main effects on the heart level is to make us more cautious, to create distance or withdraw from the other person by seeking out a comfort zone. This can be going on while all other activity together appears fine. Activities are always easier than direct relational interaction. How can we deal with such barriers in a relationship--especially with God?
Mark 9:33,34 --Immediately after the above interaction, while on the road to Capernaum, the disciples engaged in an argument among themselves. Since they apparently detached themselves from rumblings in their heart in the situation just prior, they turned their focus on secondary matters of greater importance to them. Realizing what was happening, Jesus asked them directly about their argument. His direct question to them was answered with silence--not a good silence. There are two kinds of silence. Good silence opens or reaches out with the heart in order to embrace. Bad silence pulls back the heart to stay away.
Debate over one's status within a group in their culture was probably just as common as striving for one's individual status or prestige is today. Such self-concern is not unique to culture but to humanity. So, it may be understandable that the disciples were shy or embarrassed to talk with Jesus, though that didn't stop Jesus from pursuing them in the matter (vv.35-37). But even in their reluctance to talk, still their silence spoke relational messages. What were the relational messages they communicated loud and clear? Remember, this interaction comes on the heels of the previous one in Luke 9:44,45. What were they implying about Jesus by not talking with him? What were they saying about themselves in all this? And what did they communicate about their relationship with Jesus--what they felt about it, how they saw it?
Mark 10:17-27 --In this classic encounter--which we will discuss in-depth later--the disciples were flabbergasted at Jesus' response to the rich young man (vv.24,26). Doubts must have swirled around in their minds. Yet, again, they were not willing to openly share them directly with Jesus (v.26).
At what point does this relational barrier no longer become excusable (culture notwithstanding) and must be considered negative on their part? The honesty of our heart should not be taken lightly because the absence of it is not neutral.
John 13:21-24 --In the upper room Jesus openly shared his feelings with the disciples. When he told them one of them was going to betray him, they just blankly stared at each other, stunned, unable to think whom he's talking about (v.22). This shocking announcement left even the usually bold Peter without the courage to directly address Jesus. So, rather than share himself, Peter asked John to approach Jesus for him (vv.23,24).
Peter chose to connect with Jesus indirectly, using a substitute. Often, we don't share our thoughts, feelings or desires in a relationship directly. We express it in a roundabout way, usually making the other person responsible to correctly interpret, guess or otherwise to fully understand where we're coming from--all the while excusing our own self of the responsibility to openly share with that person. Honesty of our heart requires us to openly share our self directly, with no substitutes for our person.
John 13:28,29; --The disciples quickly distanced their heart from this shocking
Luke 22:24 announcement, maybe somewhat relieved it wasn't one of them (Jn 13:26), and engaged in further speculation among themselves (Jn 13:28,29). In the midst of this crucial time with Jesus they also created further relational distance by distracting their heart with secondary matters at the expense of being responsive to Jesus' heart (Lk 22:24).
Disregarding the importance of the total person and reducing the primary place of relationships in God's design and purpose should not surprise us. We've been doing this since Adam and Eve. How do we do this in our relationship with God?
John 16:17,18 --It shouldn't surprise us by this time, that even at the height of their anxiety and insecurity about the future, they weren't willing to ask Jesus directly a question burning inside them.
These interactions demonstrate a pattern of unwillingness by the disciples to openly share themselves with Jesus, especially at significant times in their relationship. Despite circumstances or culture, they were responsible for creating distance or barriers in their relationship with him. What we didn't discuss but is also clearly obvious in these interactions is how much Jesus openly shared himself with them. As the last interaction in John 16 demonstrates, there were numerous times Jesus still took the initiative to further share with them despite their lack of honesty (see Jn 16:19-28).
The patterns of doing relationships seen in Jesus and the disciples each have different outcomes and consequences. Their results are summarized in those dramatic moments in the garden called Gethsemane (read both Mt 26:36-46; Lk 22:40-46).
Here we see Jesus fully vulnerable before his disciples and his Father (Mt 26:37,38; Lk 22:44). Jesus openly shared the honesty of his heart with them (Mt 26:29,40,45; Lk 22:46). He even shared with his Father in full honesty that he didn't want to die (see also Mk 14:36). The outcome for Jesus was the deepest intimate connection with his Father, resulting in the opportunity for his Father's deep involvement to respond directly to his heart and to attend to his deepest needs. Therefore, even though Jesus initially felt strongly about not wanting to go to the cross (his strongest desire was to do his Father's will), he was now wholeheartedly resolved to fulfill his Father's will. Their relationship couldn't have been deeper or stronger.
The disciples, however, were a sad contrast. Because they consistently didn't share themselves openly with Jesus, they often conducted their relationship with him at an unspoken distance; and Jesus did raise the question of callousness or insensitivity of their heart creating a barrier in their relationship (see Mk 8:17). By not exercising the honesty of their heart, they stayed in a relational comfort zone and simply didn't trust Christ--a fact he often noted to them along the way. This prevented a deeper relational connection, greater involvement with Jesus' heart, the intimate experience of really knowing his person and the full satisfaction of relationally sharing life together.
Seeing Jesus vulnerably present himself to them in the garden obviously affected them (Lk 22:45). But in maintaining their distance from Jesus as well as from their own hearts, they sought the comfort zone of sleep. That was certainly a lot easier than being involved with Jesus on this intense level. The predictable consequence was insensitivity to Jesus' person and lost connections in their relationship. The result was a failure to support him, to love him in his great need.
Lost was the deeply satisfying experience of intimately sharing in each other's life together. Their relationship couldn't get much more discouraging.
Think about the relational hurt and pain the disciples added to Jesus' already burdened heart. What were those relational messages they gave Jesus in the garden? These are consequences we need to seriously consider as we examine how we do relationship with God.
What do you learn about this relationship from the disciples?
Examining these relational dynamics in the process of relationship with God shows us how vital the honesty of our heart is in order to connect with God. It is basic to our involvement with him, whether the interaction is worship, other prayer or listening to his Word. This honesty of our heart is basic because that's what and how God is. So, there is no other way to be authentic and genuine in presenting ourselves to God. Nothing can substitute for the honesty of our heart--not the best-sung song, not the most eloquent prayer, not the most impressive appearance nor the greatest amount of spiritual discipline. And no indirect personal expression is sufficient to make relational connection with God--no amount of church involvement, no amount of offering, no amount of service.
He doesn't want what I have or can do.
As Jesus vulnerably revealed of his person and his Father, God wants me. He doesn't want what I have or what I can do. The God of heart wants my heart, my total person. And he doesn't want me for what I can do for him or give to him. God wants me for relationship--for intimate relational sharing in each other's life and sharing in life together as his family. But God doesn't have the authentic, genuine me without the honesty of my heart.
Let's not have any illusions about our Christian life. Reflect relationally! Like the biblical examples, we could be presenting God with a facsimile of our person, or some other substitute, but in reality may keep our heart at a distance from him. As demonstrated by Jesus and the disciples, the specific outcomes and consequences of their experiences in relationship with God were in strong contrast. What we experience with God and from God--not about God or related to God--can only happen in direct relationship with him when the honesty of our heart gives God the opportunity to be with us and to respond to us.
Many times we feel that it's up to us to go be with him; then we think about doing something to make this connection. When it doesn't happen, we try doing something more. That, in effect, gets us out of the relational process; what we're doing starts taking on more importance than being together honestly. The truth is, God already wants to be with us. That's the only reason Jesus came. Now he wants us to give him that opportunity to relationally connect with us. We can't do anything more than what Jesus already did in order to make this connection an experiential reality.
If something seems to be missing in your relationship with God and you want more, or if you want to go to the next level in your relationship to experience more of him, then present your person to him in the honesty of your heart. With God this is a must (dei), an ongoing, increasing must!
Of course, presenting God with the authentic genuine me is problematic for us. I don't think we can have more tension in a relationship than about this. If anything makes us seek out our comfort zone, it would be this. So, we usually end up following the lead of Adam and Eve in their garden experience with God (see Gen 2:25-3:13). Like them, we either distance ourselves (Gen 3:10), hide (3:8) or put on a false front ("masks," 3:7) before God. Whether we're avoiding our sin or avoiding the feelings in our heart, we are uncomfortable presenting our authentic, genuine me. Even when God pursues or confronts us about this, it is difficult to take responsibility for our true self, choosing often to excuse our self by deflecting that responsibility to others (3:11-13).
When we compare the relational process of Adam and Eve's garden experience with God to the disciples' garden experience with Christ (as discussed earlier), the relational dynamics are essentially the same--with similar consequences. Seeking out our comfort zone rather than openly share our true self is the easier way to go in any relationship as an alternative to deeper relational connection. But, why would we choose to do this with God if we want a deeper experience of God and more satisfaction in our relationship with him?
The answer is basically because we don't want to be vulnerable before God with our true self. On the one hand, this answer may confuse us, if we consistently ask God for forgiveness of blatant sins. But, on the other hand, when you think relationally, "what would God really think or do if he openly saw the real me?" This is an ongoing relational issue which we struggle with all the time--in fact, ever since Adam and Eve.
Let's go back to the disciples' garden experience. When Jesus told them to "keep watch with me" (Mt 26:38) "and pray so that you will not fall into temptation" (26:41), think relationally about his words here. If you only look at this situationally, the tendency is to think about some danger or falling into some undefined sin. The Greek word for "watch" (gregoreuo) comes from the word (egeiro) "to arouse, arise"; and "watch" denotes focusing attention on God's revelation of himself (as Jesus was revealing in the garden).
If we paraphrase Jesus' words with the focus on the relationship, not the situation, he would say: "I'm pouring out my heart now. Open your heart and be vulnerable to me so you will be with me. Let me in so we could be together. And let your heart be affected, it's OK. Just share (pray) honestly with God whatever's in your heart. Passionately do this, so that you don't fall into seeking your comfort zone and end up not being involved with me. Remember, Satan's goal for you is to distance you from your heart and to interfere with our relationship. Even though you have good intentions to be involved with me, you are still susceptible to going into your comfort zone--especially when it gets tenser. So, I can't tell you enough! Be honest and openly share your heart with God in all that you feel at this moment."
These are Jesus' words to all of us now. If we don't take his words to heart and ongoingly act from our heart, we will duplicate the disciples' experience in the garden. Such relational distance or detachment from God is the strongest temptation (or hardest test) any Christian faces. We know intellectually that before our relationship with Christ was established, sin caused separation from God. Ever since that relationship was formed, the barrier of separation between us was destroyed. Now for each Christian, in relationship with God the "greatest" sin we can commit is to keep distance from God.
God's greatest desire is for us to be together with him. What means the most to him is not the mere fact of our relationship but our ongoing relational involvement with him. In relational words, this means "God wants me!" And Jesus came to get me. Take the time to reflect on his relational messages to you about this, because we can only substantively experience this reality from a relational perspective, not a theological one.
Theologically we know that God took the initiative to extend grace to us, and that his grace is the basis for our relationship with him--the sole basis. Functionally, however, grace is another one of those Christian words that has lost its significance to familiarity. We are comforted theologically whenever grace is acknowledged; and we feel safe and secure with grace in our vocabulary. After that, grace often doesn't appear to find its way functionally into our daily practice, except maybe for forgiveness of a sin.
Yet, what exactly does grace do? Essentially, grace tells us that God extends his loving favor to us in spite of what and how we are, and that we can never do enough to warrant his favor. God takes me just as I am. In fact, "just as I am" is the only way God can have me by the definition of grace, not only in the beginning to form the relationship, but continuously throughout.
"just as I am" is the only way God can have me by the definition of grace. . .
We also need to fully understand how grace functions relationally. Without exception, from here on, grace allows us to be our authentic, genuine self with God; we don't have to use masks or hide (like Adam and Eve). This doesn't mean grace is a license to sin or an encouragement to remain in our old ways. Grace is the only relational means to come together with God and the only basis by which to be our true self with him. So, each time I receive his grace (e.g., to cover my sin) I am able to be more of myself with God.
Does this make you excited or tense? Don't feel too bad if you feel some tension. That's because we are confronted by a real problem with grace from a relational perspective. In living by grace relationally with God, the necessity of the honesty of our heart is not only undeniable but also unavoidable. It's not optional. The truth, which we don't always grasp theologically, is:grace demands honesty of my heart and doesn't allow me to be anything other than my real, true self (weak, fallible, sinful) with God--and eventually with others.
A constant tension weighing on persons who define themselves by what they do is if they measure up or not. Obviously, this is the most crucial in relation to God; and much Christian activity is motivated by this concern. It also affects how one relates to others, in comparing how one measures up. Grace sets the record straight and settles the issue unequivocally. In relation to God, no one measures up. To receive Jesus is not only to acknowledge this truth in our mind but to accept it in our heart.
Yet, when we extend grace from theology to relationships, it probably creates more cause for tension than for celebration. This tension is real, and it gives us important feedback about a basic decision ongoingly facing all of us in how we're going to live. We have to deal with this and the implications of our comfort zones and boxes. So, what do we do with this problem of grace and the honesty of our heart? Those Christians who search for a more authentic, genuine faith need to look deeper with this relational perspective also.
This authentic, genuine me is not the "person of grace" we normally see in church. Instead, Christians often have created illusions about "living by grace" by substituting with what essentially are variations of works. We have become very sophisticated in disguising our works in order to present ourselves to God with other than what grace demands. Since we rely heavily on what we do (attain) or have (accumulate) to define ourselves, we try to present ourselves to God in a more favorable light on the basis of this definition. Despite statements of belief or good intentions to the contrary, the relational dynamics clearly indicate this process as essentially pharisaic efforts to control our relationship with God on our terms--not on his terms of grace. Since this way of defining ourselves and its influence on how we do relationships (particularly with God) have become pervasive, we can better understand why Jesus strongly warned against the leaven of the Pharisees--hypocrisy, which merely means to present one's self as other than real and genuine (Lk 12:1).
This process of redefining self has been taking place since Adam and Eve. The main consequence of living this way is the distance, separation and brokenness of our relationship. This impact on relationships is the result of making, often unknowingly, relationships secondary in importance and de-emphasizing intimacy. Furthermore, this way of defining ourselves and how we do relationships also reflects our lack of freedom, that is, our enslavement to the old wineskins and our established ways of doing things (see Lk 5:33-39). All of these contradict the glory of God in Jesus incarnating what and how God is.
Whether it's blatant like the Pharisees or more subtle like the variations of today, the issue about grace is the same; and the need for the honesty of our heart in relationship with God remains unmet. The incarnation of the glory of God was not an objective attempt to perpetuate old views of God and old ways of living. But we unintentionally and unknowingly can fall back into the old unless we embrace relationally the incarnation of the new in the God person Jesus.
Because Christ pursued me in his flesh and blood, he essentially came right up to my face and said "I want you"--knowing full well all the crap in my heart. (I use the word "crap"; other Christians might use euphemisms such as "imperfection" or even familiar "sin"; in street language they simply say "my shit.") So, I can stop playing this "life-game" of avoiding my true self and of trying to present myself in a more favorable light by what I do or have.
Reflect on the truth that this old stuff can all stop for us now. We
don't have to continue to bear the burden of feeling bad, less confident or
insecure about our true self. God didn't come and then turn away from me because
of "my crap." The holy God came, put his arm around me and said "I want you--in spite of your crap." My first reaction is to turn away from him. But how do I
push away this favor, how do I deny myself this "love for me" that I've
been longing for? This is truly the deep instinct of my heart. So, the fears and
insecurities of my heart--which keep me distant--are overcome by the deep
desire for love and intimate relational connection.
All Christians know basically that God is love. Many Christians often talk about God's love, even how much God loves us. Yet, we really don't have an experiential understanding of God's love when functionally we don't practice the honesty of our heart in relationship with him. If we are loved for (or in spite of) what we truly are in our heart, then we have to present our self in this way in order to experience his love. In truth, there is no alternative here from God. We must (dei) present the authentic, genuine me in order to be involved with him. Nothing less and no substitutes!
You may still wonder inside: how can I be really sure about this and trust that God feels this way about me and actually treats me in this way? Your theological beliefs may tell you "yes" but your heart may feel unsure. On the one hand, we don't want to depend merely on our feelings; the heart involves much more than feelings. On the other hand we don't want to make this only intellectual, and faith is not a mind-game. Unfortunately, too much of our practice in Christian faith vacillates between these two.
"Nothing less and no substitutes" of me is the absolute necessity to be involved with God. . .
Except for the proud, grace is not a difficult concept to accept theologically. Yet, like the concept of incarnation, we certainly aren't able to explain the mystery that remains about grace. For the holy God, grace is a relational paradox. Nevertheless, none of this contradicts or denies the vulnerable presence of the person Jesus in the flesh. If he embraces the prostitute, the homeless alcoholic and drug addict, what would be his problem embracing me? This gap between the perceptions in our mind and deeper understanding in our heart involves a large part of our difficulty with God.
"Nothing less and no substitutes" of me is the absolute necessity to be involved with God because, again, that's who, what and how God is. Since God is like this, then he also expects me to be like this--not to be like God ontologically, but to be like God relationally, who (as the God of heart) created me in his image as a person of heart for intimate relationship with him. But realize in your mind and hopefully embrace with your heart that what God expects of us he also expects of himself. That is, "nothing less and no substitutes" describes him as well as us in our relationship together.
More specifically, "nothing less and no substitutes" describes the person Jesus of the incarnation. God came to us with his "one and only" self, no substitutes. Yet, we have to stop looking at the incarnation with awe (those perceptions in our mind) that keeps this God person at a distance. The authentic, genuine God person presented himself in the honesty of his heart to me for intimate relationship together. This takes us beyond a miraculous event and explains the incarnation in the terms God wants us to see him, embrace him and to experience him. God is too big (and holy) for us to see him fully and his ways are beyond our comprehension to understand completely. But, when our focus on God is only ontological, it is difficult to connect with him. When we get fixated on the mysterious ways (or bigger picture) of God and overlook the vulnerable presence of his person, we don't experience him and understand his loving involvement with us.
The Holy Spirit needs to help us get to our heart in all this. We need to work
with him to have new eyes to see the person Jesus and new
ears to listen to his words. Pause and ask him now for the help to receive Jesus
relationally in the presentation of his authentic, genuine self to you.
Along with the Spirit's conviction of our heart about God's relational messages in the incarnation and the grace it involves (how he sees and feels about us, what he is saying about our relationship and what he says about himself), our assurance and confidence in the truth of this reality can grow because we have his Word. This is not just a few of God's words, but the total Word of God himself. Now we can truly know him because the "nothing less and no substitutes" person Jesus objectified God and our relationship with him and the Father. Observe him, if you wish, coming in the flesh and pursuing our heart exactly as we are. Observe the reality of his grace (unfailing love) extended to us; personalize the scene and listen to him saying to you : "I want you--not your good works, what you can do, what you have, or anything else but you, and I want you to be with me for intimate relationship just like I have with my Father."
Because this "nothing less and no substitutes" person vulnerably shared and intimately revealed his Father to us, we can be assured of what and how God is as well as how he sees me, defines me and wants our relationship. If Jesus presented "something less," or if God sent "a substitute," we could not have this intimate knowledge of God and, therefore, have confidence that that's how it truly is.
"Anything less" or "any substitutes" would not provide us with this direct experience of God in relationship. This is how it was essentially for people in the Old Testament. They didn't have this direct, relational experience with God--through situations, yes, and through God's deeds they experienced him indirectly. But the ongoing, intimate relationship is not there. So, the OT does not experience God directly as intimate friend, except for Abraham and Moses as the friends of God. Otherwise, the OT related to God in a place (e.g., tabernacle) or through his deeds. They had a few of God's words but not the direct experience of the Word in vulnerable flesh. Unfortunately, this is also how it is for many persons after the OT, even to this day.
Jesus changes all that with "nothing less and no substitutes." That's how he came to pursue us, and that's also what he pursues in us--"nothing less and no substitutes" of me. This is the truth (faithfulness) Jesus revealed of how God does relationships. Do we honestly think that God accepts "anything less" or "a substitute" from us than the authentic, genuine me? This is the grace (unfailing love) Jesus revealed of why God demands the honesty of our heart in order to be involved with him. Can we realistically imagine a meaningful relationship with God without this kind of connection? He himself forgives me, redeems my heart, cleans my heart and makes me whole again in the image of his heart and, then, reconciles me intimately to his Father. That's why the God of heart, who created us for this intimate relationship, came himself in order to restore us to his original design and purpose.
To truly know God is a function of relationship--the ongoing relationship in which our hearts are opened to each other, just as Jesus revealed. Such intimate connection by its nature can only be experienced within the relational context--the context Jesus brought by presenting himself to us and the relationship Jesus established by the honesty of his heart. God has done his part, and continues to do it, in our relationship with him (Jn 17:26). But this raises another issue which we must address.
God did not create a structure about life called "relationship"--a structure which everyone automatically has to live by. He created us for relationship not as an outward form but as a deeper process. The substance of this relational process implies the cooperation of each person and includes their freedom of choice to participate. God lives by this process. That means that no matter how much God does or desires in a relationship, he is always "limited" in that relationship by the choices and cooperation of the other person. In other words, we can put God in a box--constraining him relationally, though not ontologically.
No matter how much God does or desires in a relationship, he is always "limited" in that relationship by the choices and cooperation of the other person.
When Jesus expressed his sorrow for Jerusalem, he shared how often he longed to be intimately connected with them (Lk 13:34). The word "longed" (Gk. thelo) Jesus used to express his deep desire means "to will, desire implying active volition and purpose." Thelo includes not only the will or desire but also acting on it. This word is distinguished from another word for "will" (boulomai) which merely involves a decision or intention without the resolve to act on it. Yet, no matter what Jesus did or desired, it was not enough to make connection with them. Why? Because "you were not willing" (v.34, Jesus said, using the same word (thelo) for them as he did for himself. It took both of them to make relational connection. Even intentions (boulomai) are not sufficient for connection.
Grace tells us we can't experience God in relationship based on what we do. But, grace also shows us that we don't experience God in relationship solely by what God does and desires. Such an experience with God requires our ongoing choice to openly participate in the relationship also. But this is more than a decision or intention on our part (boulomai). This relational outcome happens only from the conscious, volitional action (thelo) we take ongoingly within our relationship with God--the resolve to open ourselves honestly in response to the vulnerably present, loving person of God. Jesus' brother also instructs us to do our part by "approaching God intimately" ("come near," James 4:8) and God will do his part for the intimate connection.
Relationship means cooperation. This cooperation is not merely a decision made at the beginning of a relationship, nor a resolution made once or twice a year. Cooperation is our ongoing, active choice to exercise our commitment to be involved with God in relationship--even if it involves only giving God the opportunity to say something, be with us or respond to us. Without our cooperation, the relationship doesn't really function, no matter how long we've had it, no matter what else we do because of it, no matter how much God does or desires.
Unlike the limits and constraints of the OT, God gives us all the opportunities needed to know him directly and experience him intimately. But these opportunities exist only within the context of this relational process in which we are responsible to openly participate. So, to grow in knowing God and experiencing him requires relational work. Such relational work could be problematic if we are not used to exercising this kind of effort and work in our everyday life and relationships. Most of this depends on how we define ourselves and then how we do our relationships.
Since the relational work Jesus revealed does not depend on establishing ourselves by what we do, we can't define ourselves in these ways. It doesn't matter if we have no experience at relational work, whether we're good at it or suck at it. This is not about measuring up. We can't do relational work by depending on what we do.
We cannot substitute for the relational effort and work needed on our part. For example, this involves: spending time being involved together with God but not just sharing the same space (even in Bible study or at church); sharing with each other openly but not just talking, reporting or data collecting (e.g., in prayer); doing something together but not just doing it as an end in itself but as a means of further being together (e.g., while serving or in worship). All of these necessitate that I involve more of me, my person, the honesty of my heart. God does his part of the relational work; now he lovingly pursues us to make the effort and do the work necessary for our part in the relationship. Remember, this does not necessarily mean doing more than you are now. Relational work is about quality, not quantity. You may actually need to do less in order to get to this quality.
The important matter in relational work is to put ourselves in God's relational context to engage God and get involved in the relational process. In whatever method this relational work is undertaken (e.g., spiritual disciplines), nothing less than the ongoing response back of our willfully open heart will consummate intimate connection with God. To know God and to experience him is to grow in this relational process--to grow by taking responsibility for our part in the relationship and acting on it, however imperfect. The alternative is to stay in our comfort zone or keep God in a box.
Two persons to form the relationship. Two cooperating persons to make it a working (functional) relationship. Two willfully open persons to experience intimate relational connection. The Father seeks only the latter!
1. Read The New Testament World by Bruce J. Malina for detailed discussion on helpful insights from cultural anthropology; 3rd edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001).
©2003 T. Dave Matsuohome
Study Guide & Growth Plan
Chap 2. The Relational Connection
We generally assume that when we've done something for awhile or have been in a relationship a length of time, that we've gained experience and wisdom in that area. This may be true in certain areas, especially where there is a clearly defined way to do things. But this is not a good assumption to make about relationships because relationships are conducted in many ways--many of which may be practical yet not satisfying, or may form bad habits which constrain growth and development of relationships. Marriage and family relationships are the closest examples of the lack of positive experience and wisdom for relationships gained down through the years.
Relationship with Christ is the most significant relationship we have. Yet, here again, the assumption that experience and wisdom for practicing this relationship comes with time is a critical error. Philip and Thomas learned this the hard way. Review their interaction with Jesus in John 14.
What do you think Philip and Thomas were feeling as Jesus responded?
In what ways might you be similar to them in this interaction?
Consider how the disciples essentially put constraints on how much God revealed of himself in Christ. How does this affect how we see God and thus how we are involved with him?
In relationships a comfort zone is essentially maintaining a certain distance which keeps me from being more vulnerable to the other person(s) than I want. This keeps a relationship on my terms. Philip and Thomas, along with the other disciples, demonstrate living in a comfort zone in their relationship with Jesus. How could they have been different in their interactions with him?
This may seem like a strange question or be difficult to answer: what is it about God that you wish were different or even that you don't like about how he is? What do you tend to do with these thoughts and feelings?
How do you think putting God in a box affects how we can be involved with him?
When do you think you put God in a box?
What has been your own perception of the incarnation and what have you done with it?
When we don't fully depend on God's revelation of himself to define who, what and how he is, we turn to assumptions to define this for us. Many of our ideas, notions and perceptions of God come from such assumptions. As you reexamine the incarnation of Jesus Christ, what assumptions do you need to let go of in order to reformulate God's revelation of himself and allow him to be his true self--not what you want him to be?
How does Jesus demonstrate the relational process?
What further thanksgiving can you express to God for sharing his heart with you?
How can you further embrace your heart and express it more?
Consider more deeply the function of grace, that God's desires in the relationship are about wanting me (my authentic self) rather than what I have or what I can do. For you, what are the pros and cons of his desires?
What are you learning about the relational process, and what do you need to change in how you do relationship with Christ?
How does this balance and complete the relational equation?
How can we characterize the exegesis of the Bible commonly practiced today and the exegesis by the Word (Jn 1:18) expressed in Jesus' life?
Make a statement about the incarnation in relational terms that reformulates God's revelation of himself distinctly in the relational process.
Contrast substitutes and something less of a true person with the incarnation.
Define the importance of relational work and the principle of"no substitutes and nothing less."