One of the biggest problems in the world of religion is that we get so used to using certain terms that we don’t realize we don’t know what we mean by them. I know this sounds surprising, but I’m convinced it’s true. Today it might be interesting to talk about what it means to have a personal relationship with God. Next time we wil talk about some inaccurate language often used to refer to believing in Messiah Yeshua.
I must confess that like many of my essays, this essay proceeds from something that annoys me! That’s when people say about Yeshua faith, “It’s not a religion it’s a relationship!” But what do people mean by such statements? I am not sure many of them have ever been asked or asked themselves that question, and I’m not sure they would know how to answer it.
I think for many people the statement “it’s not a religion it’s a relationship,” is a way of saying, “We don’t believe in hard and fast objective rules, but we believe in subjectivity and feelings.” When a person says she has a relationship with God, does she mean that she believes that God loves her? That’s nice, but that’s not having a relationship with God, that’s having comforting feelings about God. So what does it mean to have a relationship with God?
For some people “it’s not a religion to relationship,” refers to confidence that we have been forgiven our sins by God. So that means that we believe we have a relationship, that we believe we have the grounds for relationship, but is this what it means to have a relationship with God? Is it rather what we believe is the basis of our relationship with God?
I believe these people have the basis of a relationship with God. I believe that God cares for them and loves them. But I also believe that this is not the same as actually experiencing that relationship with God. Let me say, whatever a relationship is, at the very least it connotes some sort of experiential commonality between the parties.
Recently I’ve come to the conviction that having a relationship at its root us this: knowing what it is to wrestle with God. And for us as Jews, this is doubly the case, because as you will remember, our ancestor Jacob transitioned into a different level of relationship with God when he wrestled with the Divine Being at the Jabbok.
Gen 32:24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
The word used in verses 24 and 25 for “wrestle” is used only twice in the Tanakh, and both of those occurrences are here. And the word for Jacob prevailing over his wrestling partner also appears only twice in Tanakh. It has the connotation of exercising power over someone, in Jacob’s case, the power of persistent wrestling with this heavenly Being until Jacob could come away with a blessing. But isn’t that what we do with God when we have real relationship with him? We lay hold of him for something and will not let him go. We persist. We wrestle. And this is what it means to have a relationship with God: to be someone who knows enough about God’s character and cares enough about life in God’s world that one will wrestle with him over matters of concern.
I think it is important and respectable to believe and to obey a code of conduct. And it is certain that many people live in this manner because they have a personal relationship with God. But what is essential to having and demonstrating a personal relationship with Him is not good vibes, not warm feelings, not even knowing all the right answers and keeping one’s nose clean. It is wrestling with him—it is pleading with him, and arguing with him. You only wrestle, plead, and argue with someone with whom you share relationship. When you have no relationship with someone you instead simply ignore him.
I think there are many people who are believers in God and who live by the right code of behavior yet who don’t have a relationship with God.
I think we all need to heed the admonition of the Prophet Picard: Engage. Find something that matters to God and matters to you and wrestle with him. There is no telling what kind of blessing you might come away with, even if you limp as a result. But at the very least, you will discover, perhaps for the first time, what it means to have a relationship with God.