Paradoxically, even though hundreds of millions of Catholics receive Holy Communion on a regular basis, if you ask them whether they have a ‘personal relationship’ with Jesus, many of them will look puzzled. It’s as if the words—“personal relationship”—carried some extraordinary miraculous activity or some astonishing emotional impact, an activity and impact that they just do not seem to feel. It’s as if they feel they must owe something extraordinary which they do not feel they can claim for themselves.
This is why we have to return to the basic notion that relationships are fundamental to human life and, in some ways, we have to go out of our ways to not seem them or deny them. Think, for example, how many people go to the supermarket on a regular basis. Think, further, how many of them run into the same checkout person week after week. Even though there is not a lot of time to check out one’s groceries, a recognition begins. We soon prefer to go to one aisle rather than another because we might run into Suzie and exchange a few words with her. We begin to feel bonded with a person.
Relationship is the deepening of a sense of bondedness we have with others, beginning with being familiar with a person, to feeling friendship, to growing that friendship, and, eventually, to feel committed to another person. Indeed, the most celebrated relationships in contemporary society are romantic ones; but, at times, we’ll find ourselves making extraordinary sacrifices for a next-door neighbor just because they were in need. “You stayed with me at the hospital all night!” “Of course I did. You needed me.”
Steps to Growth
A simple example like this gives us distinct steps with which we can think about our relationship with Jesus. It is, first of all, a recognition of the bondedness we feel with God’s gift to humankind and to us, Jesus Christ. How many times have we seen a sign held up at a sporting event: John 3:16? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” Notice the operative word in this sentence: God gave his only Son. Jesus is God’s gift to us. He gives his son not to bring condemnation but to bring salvation.
Our first step, then is to recognize we are responding that a relationship that God has already begun with us—and with all humankind. Remember how an earlier verse in the same Gospel talked about how God “enlightens everyone coming into the world” (Cf. John 1:3). God gifts us by our conscious existence and by the gift of his own Son. Love is not a favor we do to God but a humble response to which God has done for us.
Our second step is to realize our relationship with God is not a hazy idea about divine being. While it is impossible to adequately begin to describe God, so much does God’s being exceed ours, believers know that their fundamental description of God is one of unrestricted love, unconditional love.
This means that Christians, at a minimal, do not look upon the universe as some cold, mechanical reality driven by mindless laws. Everything a Christian sees in her or his life is the product of God’s total, generous, and self-less generosity. The sending of his Son is the culmination of the communication of love that has begun with our creation.
The next step involves familiarity: we get more and more familiar with this God through coming to know the depth of love that God bestows. This happens on several levels. One can simply use the wonders of nature to try to imagine the One who brought all this about—the beauty, the power, the quiet, the wonder. One can also avail oneself of the Scriptures which are the recorded effects of God’s revelation of Godself in history.
As we can see from its sheer size, the Old Testament—the record of God’s involvement with Ancient Israel—remains the substantial course of revelation, we also know that the intensity of the New Testament record of the deeds of Jesus and his followers are a particularly powerful source of ways to come to know God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. As we familiarize ourselves with these steps, as we come to enjoy discovering more of God, God and the human disclose each other more profoundly to each other. The most familiar way to think about this dialogue with God is prayer. As we pray, our lives are changed.
This leads us to a final step, when we commit ourselves to placing God at the center of our lives and living in accord with the values of life and love that God has revealed To be committed in this ways simply means that God has become the source of our understanding and our growth; and that this growth happens in a regular, even a disciplined, way.
As we become familiar with God in this personal way (and many of us are even if we do not fully realize it) then we can see how to help others have a relationship with God as well. Parents can easily see how this can become a regular part of the experience they have with their children. Close friends will find themselves expressing their relationship with God as part of a conversation with others—not by “shoving God down their throats” but simply by opening up the relationship one has begin God to others.
This is, for example, how discipleship spreads: from person to person; from relationship to relationship.