We’ve likely all heard it (and many of us who teach and preach have done it). It usually goes something like this.
“Imagine if you had a girlfriend (or boyfriend if you’re a girl). What if – over the course of a few months – you never spoke to them, listened to them, or did anything to serve them and show you care about them. Is that girlfriend/boyfriend likely to feel loved? Is that relationship a healthy relationship? No! When we’re in a relationship with someone we want to spend time with them, communicate with them, serve them, and make sure they know how much we care. Isn’t that also true of our relationship with Christ?”
These sorts of illustrations aren’t without value to some degree. I’ll grant them that. But I tend to think that they leave us with bad ideas in our thinking. Just like avocado on the taste buds. It’s the culinary trend of the year, or something. Yeah, it can be said to be healthy, apparently. But blech.
I think these sorts of illustrations are less and less helpful as time rolls on because we, as a church, are moving away from a high view of God. In our thinking, we don’t err on the side of Him being too transcendent – meaning we need strongly-relatable illustrations from real life in order to understand Him better. Rather, I think we err on the side of making Him too relatable, too much like the things we already know and understand. Instead, we need a good round of chewing on the bitter cud of His “otherness,” His transcendence, and His sovereignty.
This shift shows up most blatantly to me in how we see our relationship with God. We feel like we’re not allowed to be in a relationship with Him that we can’t fully understand. So we try to make that relationship smaller and simpler so we understand it. We avoid theologically heavy passages that make the Christian life seem complicated, or too deep. (Passages like Phil. 2:12-13 that say both to work hard at growing in your salvation, and that only God can work in you to want to do His will.) We don’t like complicated. We don’t have time or energy for complicated. So, we make Him, and “us” smaller and easier. But smaller and simpler isn’t always satisfying.
If we’re honest, we live with a constant awareness that something is not ‘right’ in our relationship with Christ. Don’t you feel it? To me, it feels unsatisfying, incomplete, or even lacking – even when I’ve been walking most closely with Him. In fact, sometimes this feeling is strongest when I’ve been walking most closely with Him. “Heresy!” Right? I used to think so. It’s the sort of thing you don’t share in a testimony time at bible camp as a christian teen.
“Yeah, I’ve been feeling lately like there’s something lacking in my relationship with Christ. I don’t think it’s me because I’m working on it faithfully, and I know it’s not Him because He’s God. But there’s still something that doesn’t seem complete about it all. It’s hard to explain…”
So, walk through this with me; it’s what God has been teaching me. His design for our relational interaction with Him was supposed to take place through our observable senses, originally. We were created to enjoy Him through our eyes, our ears, and through personal interaction. When we sinned in Adam (our representative), all of that changed. Now, instead of being considered normal, personal interaction with God through the observable senses is a high privilege reserved for a few during their earthly lives. Sin has created a huge degree of separation – even for Christians! In other words, in this life, no matter how holy, no matter how godly, no matter how righteously you live in Christ, you will not experience what Adam and Eve had before their sin. We are taught that we have perfect fellowship with Christ once we’re saved. And we do. But we can’t forget the distinction between positional and practical. Legally, we enjoy perfect fellowship with God through Christ’s righteousness in our account. But practically, there will still be something lacking in this life. The type of interaction you crave to have with God will not be possible…yet.
The craving of this closeness doesn’t always feel pleasant. And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Paul likened it to a runner who isn’t satisfied until he wins first place. I have had to learn two things: 1) dissatisfaction with my Christian life isn’t inherently wrong, and 2) how to discern between a healthy and an unhealthy discontentment in my walk with Christ.
Lest we slip into a state of frustration, be reminded that this relational closeness is coming and it’s guaranteed because Christ purchased a full restoration for us! It will be like it was! And not only that, our relationship with Him (and our daily righteousness in Him) is a process that He promises to gradually grow in us until the day we are given the full prize. So not only will we get to interact with Him in that fully-satisfying way in which we were designed to live, but our daily interactions with Him in this life will grow more and more like that final prize as time rolls on (see Phil. 1:6).
As Christians, Christ has all of us and we have all of Him. You can’t be any closer than to be “in.” And Paul teaches us numerous times that we are in Him and He is in us. But practically speaking, we have so much more to look forward to. Our positional standing in Christ is, as the hymn writer put it, “a foretaste of glory divine.” Paul expressed it this way:
“For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better….I really don’t know which is better. I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live…” (Phil. 1:21-14 NLT).
Feel the tension of the dissatisfaction. It’s okay. In fact, it’s a sign of a growing, healthy understanding. It’s a lot better than bringing God down to the level of high school sweetheart.