On the day I picked up a Bible on a whim, I could not have been less interested in what it said. Rather, as a confirmed atheist, I was intent on winning an argument against my Christian co-worker. Looking back, it was clear that I was God’s enemy. Yet on that day, the words on the page came alive to me in a way that I never could have expected. Within a few hours, I was asking this God, whom moments before I believed did not exist, to show me His way. Since then, it has been clear to me that this salvation is God’s. God pursued me; I did not pursue Him.
The changes were drastic at first. I was eager to know and to understand this God who had invaded my life. I read the Bible for myself, and I tentatively attended a church where I was sure I would have been stoned just a year earlier. I longed to understand God. After spending years as His enemy, we were reconciled, and plainly, at His initiative.
Within a few years, however, I found myself struggling. I felt oppressed with duties and obligations to attain spiritual growth, to do the right things, and to please God. I remember reading the words of Paul in Romans 5, “while we were enemies, we were reconciled,” and recognizing that God had tackled me against my will. And yet, now, I felt desperate to take the right steps so that God would continue to pursue me. I was afraid that if I did not please Him, He would somehow abandon me.
I longed for the spiritual maturity which I felt only God could grant, yet for which I felt somehow responsible. I struggled with this inconsistency. On the one hand, while I was God’s avowed enemy, totally disinterested in His concerns, He brought me to my senses. On the other hand, now that I was “at peace” with Him, having laid down the weapons of my warfare, I thought it was up to me to keep our relationship moving forward.
Subtly, I came to believe that my relationship with God was my responsibility. Like earthly friendship, if I did not nurture this relationship by spending time with God, the relationship would stagnate and my fervor for God would dim. My pursuit of God grew to include various practices, including routine prayer, worship, and Bible reading. I formulated much of my approach to God by reading biographies of great Christians who had found these practices significant in their own lives. Their experiences became prescriptive for mine. In my mind, my continuing fellowship with God and my deepening spiritual maturity depended upon how fervently I pursued a relationship with Him.
Having a personal relationship with God the Father and with Jesus Christ is a popular notion in today’s Evangelicalism. We do not ask whether friendship is an apt analogy for our relationship with God; we assume it. To be sure, the words of the Apostle John point us to the true meaning of friendship, that “one would lay down his life for his friend.” In this sense, Jesus is truly our Friend; He has bought for us what we never could have bought for ourselves: redemption. Believers are friends with God. As Paul points out in Romans 5, we are at peace with God, no longer at war, reconciled. But in important ways our modern portrait of “friendship” with God conflicts with the reality of who God is and who we are.
We are no longer cut off from God in the same way we were before believing. We are friends and not enemies. But we are not on equal footing with God, as we are in our human friendships. God is God, and we are not. We are His creatures, and He is our Creator. He is in charge of our lives and in charge of our relationship with Him in a way that does not mirror our human friendships.
In our human friendships, we have mutual expectations of one another. When we apply this model to our relationship with God, the expectations we place on ourselves to be God’s friend can be overwhelming. We often fail our human friends, and our relationships include our forbearance with one another. Though God does not fail us, we fail God routinely. If we are trying to be a friend to God in the same way He is a Friend to us, the pressure can be staggering. Again, the analogy with human friendship breaks down.
Aside from the pressure we put on ourselves to perform as a friend to God, perhaps the greater danger in our friendship metaphor is this: it distracts us from what is ultimately more important about our faith. We have come to believe that being on good terms with Jesus as our Friend involves routine interaction with Him, often in the form of a devotional or worship practice of some sort. And yet, one who enjoys a devotional life emotionally may believe that this experience of God is evidence for his faith. This person may be distracted into thinking he is pleasing God because he engages in a worship experience, all the while making daily choices which contradict faith. This is the New Testament’s picture of Saul of Tarsus. He experienced a life full of religious devotion, but later he looked back on his folly.
Our sin is subtle. Our modern Saul could be refusing to look at how his own evil works its way out in the context of his family. He “feels” in fellowship with God because he has confessed obvious infractions, but ask his wife if he is kind and loving, willing to look his own failures in the eye in order to repudiate them. The existential choices we make—not whether we have a particular experience of God—are what is important. I am not responsible to achieve a certain experience of God. I am responsible to make choices that reflect what I say I believe.
We must not seek to measure our faith on the basis of a subjective “friendship” experience of God. Each of us has a different experience of God, based in our different personalities and life experiences. The relationship we have with God will be as unique as our fingerprints. The real evidence for the work of God in our lives as believers is not the quality of our “friendship” or our worship experience, but that over the course of our lives, our choices reflect what we believe.
Likewise, our traditional picture of assurance of salvation is misleading. We are taught that because we have a conversion experience on which we can look back with a date and time, we simply should not doubt our salvation. This may allow us to excuse our sin: “I know I accepted Christ back then and that is all that matters.” On the one hand, this is true. Our abject moral failure, even after conversion, will not keep us from God. After all, He is the One pursuing us.
But on the other hand, it matters very much what we do. The hardest decision any of us faces is how we will respond when life gets difficult. Ultimately, the question is this: What are we going to do with the fact that God is in charge of our lives and we are not? How will we respond to the events and circumstances of our lives that He is authoring in ways that do not please us? Our suffering clarifies the big questions and helps us see whether or not we have faith. A routine devotional life or a subjective friendship experience of God pales in comparison as a litmus test of whether we believe the gospel. Over the course of our lives, our existential choices, especially in the midst of difficulty, will attest to God’s commitment to us. Eventually, we will see that at significant forks in the road we followed God, that He held onto us and kept our faith from failing. We are assured of our salvation when we look back—not at a conversion experience, but at those significant crossroads in our lives when we might have walked away from God, but didn’t.
Furthermore, the reality of our faith is reflected in the decisions we make daily. In the course of our lives we make choices that go beyond whether or not we will practice a certain worship observance. The decisions we make with regard to loving those whom God has placed in our lives reflect our faith more deeply than any observance. This process is not neat and tidy. We will fail miserably along the way. When we find ourselves at conflict with our spouse, how do we respond? In the moment, we may not respond well. But in the process, will we dig in our heels and refuse to be wronged or to be wrong? Or, in the midst of much uncertainty and often outright failure, will we eventually seek to forgive and to be forgiven?
One of the hardest things for us to do is to face our vulnerability in the context of our significant earthly relationships. No wonder we prefer to consider Jesus our best friend; He will never let us down. And God the Father will always exceed the expectations of our earthly one. Indeed, we are saved by Jesus’ profound act of friendship on the cross, by God’s relentless pursuit of us. But, rather than hiding in Him from our vulnerability, He intends for us to live out our faith in the context of frail human relationships. In Romans 12, Paul ties true worship to the choices we make in our relationships. By God’s grace alone, we will seek to confront our own evil choices for avoiding pain in the midst of our significant relationships.
The burden for our relationship with God is on His shoulders, for He has laid it there. After practicing my devotional life for several years, I finally asked God to show me what was true about who was pursuing whom in my walk as a believer. In one of the most frightening moments of my life, convinced that the result would be devastating, I abandoned my routine of devotional worship. I was certain that within six months I would no longer be a believer and that God would utterly abandon me. And yet, I had to discover what was true.
To my utter surprise, I was still a believer six months later. In fact, six years later I was still a believer. God has continued to pursue me over all these years, regardless of my varying interest in religious observance. My initial conversion experience served as evidence of God’s pursuit of me. Now, I am more convinced of His pursuit than ever, because at various crisis points along the way, He has held onto me when otherwise I would have walked away. And, I have profoundly emotional responses from time to time, when I see a rainbow, or when I consider what God has done for me. But my emotions come from my particular make-up as a person; they are not prescriptive for the way others ought to experience God.
Our subjective experience of God will be as different as we are. The choices we make about how we respond to the circumstances of our lives, and not whether we pursue “friendship” with God or practice devotions, will ultimately attest to God’s working in our lives. We are reconciled enemies, and over time our friendship with God will be shown by the choices we make as He grows us into mature believers, assured of our salvation.