Our Spiritual Language Has Changed, And Not Always For The Better
Our spiritual language changes over time. Read the religious classics and we find these spiritual saints speak of a relationship with God and Christ using a language with which we are unfamiliar. Just in my life time the Christian church language has changed from “having a personal relationship with Jesus” to “studying about Jesus,” from “following Jesus” to “worshipping Jesus,” from “personal prayer” to “corporate prayer,” from “fellowship” to “community,” from “evangelism,” to “being missional,” from “discipleship” to “spiritual growth,” and from “being Christ-like” to “being Christ-centered.”
Evolution in our spiritual language is inevitable and necessary to reflect our current theology, philosophy, polity, and methodology. Each change brings subtle and not so subtle consequences, some anticipated and some not. Though change is necessary for progress, we often lose something essential each time we significantly change our spiritual language. Therefore, it’s a mistake to think these vocabulary changes are just semantics, for they have had a profound influence on the church’s preaching, teaching, and programming. They have contributed to forming a generation who live off the faith of others rather than one of their own, who spend more time in relationship with other believers than with God, who think more about worshipping Jesus than following Jesus, who see worship, bible study, and prayer as the only pathways for connecting with God, and who are inundated with opportunities for knowing about and doing for God, but void of opportunities to learn about and experience being with God.
In my estimation, these changes in our spiritual vocabulary resulted in an emphasis that nourished the head and hands aspects of our faith, but malnourished matters of the heart. Worship and Missions received the prime time promotion while Discipleship was relegated to the back page. The promise of salvation began to drown out the process of sanctification. The Gospel became more about a transaction than a transformation. Further, it muddied our understanding of the Trinity by emphasizing the literal and historical God and Jesus to the neglect of the mysteries of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Quite possibly the loss of emphasizing the foundational need for a personal relationship with Jesus has had the most impact. This teaching was so central to my upbringing that the first question we were asked and taught to ask was whether or not we or others had a personal relationship with Jesus. Knowing Jesus was more important than knowing about Jesus. Discipleship was structured around how to establish, develop, and grow my relationship with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Regretfully, when we lost the term “personal relationship with Jesus,” we didn’t come up with an equal or better alternative, and lost something in the process.
When I look at the popular Christian books, conferences, sermons, and podcasts being offered today, I’m struck by how infrequently the subject is relationship, union, and oneness with God. This seems misplaced when our spiritual vitality, understanding of God’s will, and fruits of the spirit all flow out of a relationship with God. So, you would think that our first goal and primary conversation would be around how to establish, nurture, and grow that relationship.
A Personal Relationship Is Characterized By Oneness and Union
The term “personal relationship” denotes intimacy, communion, oneness, and union, modeled by the relationship of God as the Trinity. Jesus spoke of his oneness with God and retreated from the crowds to spend time in intimate communion with God so he could return to the disciples and the masses in union with God concerning his next steps.
Maybe the most harmful result of this de-emphasis on relationship, oneness, and union is that of seeing ourselves as separate from God. Genesis 3 speaks to how our sin can estrange us from God, but Genesis 1:27 tells us that we were first made in God’s image. We overcome this split and keep restoring that original oneness and union with God through relationship building. Though God remains God and I am always His creature, we are one.
Such oneness and union is like the depth and ease of relationship that Adam and Eve had with God before their disobedience. Jesus reminds us that our relationship with Him is like a vine and branches. He is the Vine, the source of all our life, and we are but branches thirsting to be united with the Vine, so that life itself might flow through us. How close is a living branch to its vine? It’s the very same living organism. We are literally hardwired from birth for union with Christ!
The oneness God desires for us is reflected in Christ’s prayer for His disciples in John 17: 22-23, “I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one – as you are in me, Father, and I am in you….one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me.” How can we be one with each other if we are not one with God in Christ?
Where Do We Begin?
Believing in God is not the same as union with God, nor is doing various God-honoring activities. These things can be done while a relationship with God is lacking. Union with God is something much higher, deeper, and richer and begins by understanding that God wants union with you, that union is the purpose of your creation, and therefore, is priority one. In union with God you become like “the yeast hidden in the dough” (Matthew 13:33; Luke 13:21) that doesn’t operate in an extrinsic way; rather, it expands the dough from the inside out by becoming one-with, part-of, and mutually benefiting from and contributing to the bread’s existence.
A relationship with God characterized by oneness begins with a daily desire for a deeper union, a humble request for God’s healing of broken union, a total rejection of everything that is disrupting our union, and a passionate prayer to be of one heart, mind, and will with God.
In the end, words are always inadequate in matters of the spirit, but restoring the vocabulary of relationship with God will help us encounter the deepest, truest reality–our oneness with God. Further, it will help you to stop seeing God as an external entity and begin to see God as being inside you. And, instead of just asking God to do something for you, you begin to live in the fullness of God that is within you and allowing Him to do things through and with you.
Posted on October 23, 2018