People talk about having a “personal relationship” with Jesus. In fact, if you use the word religion, some will correct you and say that they have a “relationship, not religion.” And relationship is the right word because God is not an impersonal hovering mist or cosmic cloud, but a relational being who created us and desperately wants to be with us and interact with us.
How does relationship work? The nature of a relationship—if it’s a good one—is typically conversational. Beings in relationship talk together, work alongside each other, and develop the “same mind” about things. That’s the kind of relationship the Trinity builds with us. We talk together (Exodus 25:22; Luke 1:11-21), we co-labor (1 Corinthians 3:9, King James Version), and we grow to have the same mind (1 Corinthians 2:16; Philippians 2:5). All of this interaction creates space within us for the Trinity to make its home within us (John 14:23).
For me, the study of Scripture and the slow daily reading of shorter sections of Scripture have provided the Starbucks, if you will (or the café or the cozy back porch), in which God and I meet. These times provide not only words and ideas from God’s mind, but a holy open space where I receive input about the events of my day, the people I interact with, and the projects I’m venturing into. They give me a launching pad for discussions with God that continue all day long as I am practicing the presence of God.
Some years ago, the time I spent contemplating Scripture changed from obligatory “quiet time” to—OK, forgive this crude analogy—a “date.” As my longing for God grew, I wanted much more of God than I had.
That hunger grew out of hearing meaningful teaching, but also by observing and knowing those teachers. These people had what I wanted—a life with God, and a life that was different from mine. They didn’t put themselves forward in small ways; they looked people in the eyes when they spoke to them. They never hurried; they came up with connections within Scripture I’d never heard before.
I knew their lives were continual conversations with God and that this grew out of their daily time in the Word and their loving embrace of the Word by “learning it by heart” (i.e., memorization). For them, the Scripture was more than a book, even a special book. It was a place and atmosphere where God interacted with them. Interacting with Scripture for them wasn’t mechanical; it was about meeting God. I was hooked.
In these meetings with God in Scripture, I come to “take and read,” as Augustine learned to do. But once I’m in the “meeting with God,” all kinds of things come up: whom I’m frustrated with, what I’m putting off, whom I’m being called to love, what might be my next step in a difficult situation, and most of all, how deeply I am loved by God. Nobody else talks to me about those things, or talks to me like that.
In our meetings, I often see in Jesus the person I want to become. Here’s a recent example:
When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”
Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy. Then Jesus said to him, “See that you don’t tell anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses commanded, as a testimony to them” (Matthew 8:1-4).
In those days, a rabbi typically would shun such diseased people, and it wasn’t uncommon for these religious leaders to throw stones at lepers to chase them away. But something about the Lord let this outcast know that Jesus—the embodiment of the kingdom of God (Matthew 12:28)—could be within him too (Luke 17:21). (Perhaps the leper heard Jesus say, “Blessed are those who mourn”?)
He approached Jesus, who then did an unthinkable thing that no one would ever do. He stretched out his hand and touched the man covered with sores (Luke 5:13; Matthew 8:3). Healing the man was not enough; touching him was important. Perhaps this provided the social and inner healing this man needed.
What I love about Jesus in this moment is that he did this automatically. When I do a good deed, I may pause and think about it for a moment. I weigh the pros and cons, wondering how much time it will take. But Jesus was “filled with compassion” (Mark 1:41, New International Version, 1984). He had compassion filling his gut, whereas I just think it’s a good idea if I can fit it in.
So as I reread the passage, I paused to picture this scene and gaze at the beauty of Jesus’ compassion. He really is who I want to be if and when I grow up. Compassion filled him because he lived in the continual posture of interacting with his Father in a reciprocal dynamic of love. So the love he was filled up with—love that is patient, kind, not irritable, not resentful, always protecting, always trusting, always hoping, always persevering (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)—naturally poured forth because of who he was the rest of the day.
If I’m to grow into such a person, I need to hold that picture of Jesus in my mind. I’ll have to see him alongside me as I volunteer at a drop-in center for the homeless and as I commiserate with my friend and as I politely answer the telemarketer who has interrupted my train of thought.
I get a vision of this beautiful conversational life with God from these pictures of Jesus and the pictures of God’s servants, set out for me in Scripture—waiting for me to savor them.
Jan Johnson is an adjunct professor at Hope International University, Fullerton, California, and the author of many books including Savoring God’s Word and Invitation to the Jesus Life. Her website is www.JanJohnson.org.