Personal Relationship with Jesus

As an Evangelical I always heard people talking about the importance of a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’. The problem is, no one ever said what this actually meant. I wanted to know, what exactly is a ‘personal relationship with Jesus.’? I mean, what happens? How do you know you have a personal relationship with Jesus? What did it consist of? I didn’t ask these questions out of cynicism, doubt or mockery, but because I really wanted such a wonderful thing. Even now I do not ask the question in any sense of criticism of those good Evangelical folks who sincerely follow Christ. I do ask however, from my own experience and still want to know more.

As a boy of five I came home from Sunday night church and said a prayer with my mother accepting Jesus into my heart. I believed the faith I was taught and devoutly wanted to follow Jesus, but just what was this ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ that everyone spoke about? As a teenager I read my Bible, tried to pray and said I was sorry for my sins and thought about being a missionary. Was this a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’? I wasn’t sure, and the longer I went on, the more I suspected that what people were talking about might be hogwash. I felt bad about thinking such thoughts, but I never really got a good, clear answer explaining exactly what this personal relationship consisted of, and how you could make sure you had it.

I figured it must be that you felt good about yourself and about Jesus at certain times and that you knew you were going to heaven when you died. I figured it meant that you felt cozy and good about things when you went to church, and that certain sermons made you feel inspired and certain gospel songs made you feel penitent or grateful or happy to be a Christian. I figured it meant that you were assured of God’s hand in your life protecting you and looking after you when things were bad; that you prayed and God answered your prayers and you felt good about that. I figured it meant that from time to time you felt pretty good about being a Christian and that all of this was what was meant by a personal relationship with Jesus.

The problem I had was that I felt more and more that the ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ was more ‘personal’ than ‘Jesus’. As I grew older and got a wider experience of Evangelical Christianity it all seemed rather sentimental and subjective. Not only were the different denominations idea of the personal relationship different, but every individual’s personal relationship seemed as different as could be, and I naturally began to suspect that much of the , ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ consisted of sincere, but subjective emotions, and that the Jesus people had a personal relationship was often more of a reflection of their own inner desires, their own personality, their religious preferences and what they had been taught about Jesus than anything else.

I then began to meet a few Catholics who seemed to be closer to Jesus than anyone I had ever met, but they never spoke about a ‘personal relationship with Jesus.’ Then when I became a Catholic I began to experience the personal relationship in a way I had never experienced before. Suddenly things did not depend on my own emotional world, but on objective realities. Catholicism was something hard and real and solid. “Here” as John Henry Newman observed, “was real religion.” The Eucharist was real. Confession was real. The priesthood was real. The visible Church was real. The saints were real. Jesus was real, and my personal relationship with him was very, very real, and I was not sure that what I was experiencing was actually something I liked. Humankind cannot bear very much reality, and the reality of my relationship with Christ entered a new and disturbing dimension.

I began to realize that Jesus, like Aslan, is not a tame lion. He is, after all, the Lord of Life, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Only Begotten Son seated at the Right Hand of the Father in Majesty. He is the one through whom all things were made and in whom all things live and move and have their being. He is the dreadful judge, under whose authority all things in heaven and earth bow down in worship. To be sure he loves me and his sacred heart shines out in divine mercy for me, but am I really here and now to have a personal relationship with him which is only warm and fuzzy religious emotion?

I think not, and realize now that the personal relationship I have to him is of the sort that a servant has with the master, the subject to his monarch and the runaway son to the Father who welcomes him home.

"Catholicism has always defined the ideal but there are no limits on God's mercy and ..."

Tony Palmer: Is There Salvation Outside ..."
"With all due respect, Shaun, are you relegating the actual Faith to whatever the local ..."

Notes on Tony Palmer’s Funeral
"There are good parking valets and bad parking valets. There are good housesitters and bad ..."

The Case for Conversion to Catholicism
"did you vote for Bush Fr Longenecker? would you have?"

Understanding Iraq

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Ginger

    Well put. How can you get any closer to the Lord than through the Eucharist? We have it all!

  • Perhaps my “personal relationship with Jesus was not so “warm and fuzzy” as those you have put forth.I do know that I was very conscious of His Lordship over my life, and servanthood was uppermost in my mind. I was also very careful to confess sin to Him (directly) when the Holy Spirit brought it to my attention. “If we confess our sin, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sin, and to cleanse use from all unrighteousness.” (KJV, sorry) was one Scripture verse I memorized early and took to heart. My grandmother was baptized in the Methodist Church (in the creek), and one of her favorite songs was, “Nothing between my soul and the Savior; naught of this world’s elusive dream — Nothing preventing the least of His favor; Keep the way clear, let nothing between. Chorus: Nothing between my soul and the Savior, so that His blessed face may be seen, Nothing preventing the least of His favor; Keep the way clear, let nothing between.” She always advised us to stay “prayed up” [i.e. in a State of Grace, as Catholics would say.]I really never thought about whether the “personal relationships” others had were like mine or not. But my experiences led me to question the way Communion [“the Lord’s Supper”] was celebrated in the evangelical churches. Later, my Grandmother’s advice about prayer and confession were the perfect lead-in for understanding the Sacrament of Reconciliation in the Catholic Church, in which I now find myself delightedly at home.

  • My experiences parallel yours truthfinder. (I could sing ‘nothing between’ as a duet with you) I also consider my evangelical upbringing to be precious and an excellent preparation for my Catholic faith.

  • Carole

    John Paul II said it well:”Prayer develops that conversation with Christ which makes us his intimate friends: “Abide in me and I in you” (Jn 15:4). This reciprocity is the very substance and soul of the Christian life, and the condition of all true pastoral life. Wrought in us by the Holy Spirit, this reciprocity opens us, through Christ and in Christ, to contemplation of the Father’s face. Learning this Trinitarian shape of Christian prayer and living it fully, above all in the liturgy, the summit and source of the Church’s life, but also in personal experience, is the secret of a truly vital Christianity, which has no reason to fear the future, because it returns continually to the sources and finds in them new life….The great mystical tradition of the Church of both East and West has much to say in this regard. It shows how prayer can progress, as a genuine dialogue of love, to the point of rendering the person wholly possessed by the divine Beloved, vibrating at the Spirit’s touch, resting filially within the Father’s heart. This is the lived experience of Christ’s promise: “He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (Jn 14:21).” (Novo Millenio Ineuente 32-33) JP II’s writing is full of this idea of a personal relationship with Jesus–and it’s true, it’s kind of a new concept to us Catholics for some reason–but I think neglected for too long.First line of the CCC affirms with Scripture that we are meant to know him. So I suppose the question is, do you know him? Or just know about him? Tell him in your prayers that you want to know him,and ask him in your prayers to show you his deep, personal love for you.

  • Good one. I’m afraid whenever someone tells me they’ve “accepted Jesus” as their “personal Lord and Savior”, I always ask if that’s like a “personal trainer”.

  • What a great post! I have quoted you and linked back to this post.Thank you for posing the question and sharing your experiences and thoughts on the subject!!

  • Anonymous

    Soli Deo Gloria!This “personal relationship” nonsense is probably what gave ammunition to the Mother Teresa critics last year.They seemed to believe that if she had been a true Christian, she would not have been plagued by her dark night.In my personal relationship, I expect to have doubts and dark nights.For that “warm and fuzzy feeling,” I can always go up to the kids’ room and hug a plush toy.

  • Anonymous

    Master/servant paradigm strikes me as…Muslim.How about Father/son?

  • Uhh, the last image was of the prodigal son and father, and the master/servant image runs through the Old Testament and the gospels.

  • This reminds me of a prayer by St. Ambrose from a devotional in the Latin MissalO loving Lord Jesus Christ, I a sinner, presuming not on my own merits, but trusting in Thy mercy and goodness, with fear and trembling approach the table of Thy most sacred banquet. For I have defiled both my heart and body with many sins and have not kept a strict guard over my mind and my tongue. Wherefore, O gracious God, O awful Majesty, I a wretched creature, entangled in difficulties, have recourse to Thee, the font of mercy: to Thee do I fly that I may be healed, and take refuge under Thy protection. And I ardently desire to have HIM as my Savior, whom I am unable to withstand as my Judge. To Thee O Lord, I show my wounds, to Thee I lay bare my shame. I know that my sins are many and great, on account of which I am filled with fear. But I trust in Thy mercy, of which there is no end. Look down upon me, therefore, with the eyes of Thy mercy on me, who am full of misery and sin, Thou Who wilt never cease to let flow the fountain of mercy. Hail, Victim of Salvation, offered for me and for all mankind on the tree of the Cross. Hail, noble, and precious Blood, flowing from the wounds of my crucified Lord Jesus Christ and washing away the sins of the whole world. Remember, O Lord, Thy creature, whom Thou hast redeemed with Thy Blood, I am grieved because I have sinned, I desire to make amends for what I have done. Take away from me, therefore, O most merciful Father, all my iniquities and sins, that, being purified both in soul, and body, I may worthily partake of the Holy of Holies. And grant that this holy oblation of Thy Body and Blood, of which , though unworthy, I purpose to partake, may be to me the remission of my sins, the perfect cleansing of my offenses, the means of driving away all evil thoughts and of renewing all holy desires, the accomplishment of works pleasing to Thee, as well as the strongest defense for soul and body against the snares of my enemies. Amen.That line, “I ardently desire to have HIM as my Savior, whom I am unable to withstand as my Judge” strikes me to the very core. God by rights is our judge, but He has chosen to save us instead.To me this communicates most deeply the unconditional fatherly love with which He regards us. Often I feel five years old again when I talk to God.While I also found your use of master/servant somewhat jarring, I think it makes greater sense when one is a priest. Since you are acting in the person of Christ it is natural that you should feel so.”Nothing between” sounds like a lovely hymn. Are there any errors in it which would prevent its use in the Novus Ordo? If not, I shall recommend it to our choir director.

  • Thank you, praisedivinemercy, I had not yet encountered the beautiful prayer by St. Ambrose in my pilgrimage. It is now one of my favorites. Though I am no theologian, I fear that there probably is error in the rest of the hymn, “Nothing Between”. But Our Lord allowed me to remember the part of it which would eventually become a factor in my becoming Catholic. Another favorite of mine, “The Church’s One Foundation” is doctrinally correct, and is in our Catholic hymnal at church. I was delighted to discover it was there. And Carol, I rejoiced in the quote by John Paul II, and what you said about “knowing about” [Jesus] or “knowing [Jesus]” is excellent. I am so fortunate to be able to learn these wonderful things from other Catholics. And thank you, Father Dwight for your gracious response.

  • Margo B

    Thank you for posting on this, Father. It gets missed and understood plenty.There’s also Jesus’,”…but I call you friends.” I’ve been listening to Fr. Michael Sweeney’s 3-CD set, “Friendship with God,” which contains not only many good truths, but interrelates them in a way that helps me see how to grow in my relationship/friendship with the Lord. The good folks over at the Catherine of Siena Institute ( have more where that came from 🙂

  • Margo

    Whoops – “missed and MISunderstood” is what I meant 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Father,This “personal experience” thing was the thing that drove me out of the Evangelical circle.I remember working for a Christian company, and they would have Tuesday prayer meetings before work. Eventually the owner of the company, a born again Christian (and former Catholic) eventually started prodding me if I was “Saved?” He used, what I would learn were patented lines learned in a witness seminar. “Are you saved? Are you sure? If you died today and stood before the throne of God and he asked you why he should let you in, would have an answer?Short story long he was setting himself us as the arbiter of wether or not I was “saved;” or at least “saved” as far as he was concerned.He then went on to bankrupt the company due to financial misdealings. When I discussed this apparant contradiction with other born-agains at work (who were put out of work because of him), they told me that he wasn’t “saved” enough.Which I found was a common rationalization your “witnessing” or “altar call” was not genuine, or sincere enough.That’s the problem with “personal” relationships with Jesus. You are the judge and jury as to what it means, and dosen’t mean. It’s all subjective.How DO you know you are saved?

  • Hi Dwight,Wow!Apologies for jumping in between writing chapter 17 and chapter 18 of my book, but I’m on a writing break.This is an amazing piece!Everything you write just jumped out at me. It perfectly describes my spiritual journey…in reverse.You so clearly capture in crystal clear language, my move from the chaotic, anything goes, spiritual free-for-all, make-it-up-as-you-go-along, dry, style-over-substance Catholicism that I abandoned after forty years (tempted to say ‘wandering in the desert’) for assured, real, definite Evangelicism.Thanks for the affirmation!Now, back to chapter 19.BlessingsJamesPS. Little bit of the spiritual cowardice in your new book title? Inner healing is easy theology. Go on – be like Jesus and do the physical! Go on!

  • Jennifer

    Father,I wonder if your trouble is that you grew up with protestants? (Forest for trees and all that?)I’ve always understood the PRWJ to refer to a trinitarian faith that is consciously chosen and actively engaged. What we catholics might call a life of continual conversion.Exactly what it looks like would be just as varied among protestants as among catholics, wouldn’t you expect? Heaven forbid that the curious notice that for certain catholics the PRWJ means a devotion to the rosary, but others prefer chaplet of divine mercy, and use that variety as an excuse throw up their hands and announce our concept of practicing our faith is just another case of ‘what I feel like’.We are lucky as catholics to be able to have a *really* personal relationship with the Lord — I agree with you entirely. But is that any reason not to respect, even admire, protestants who try to get as close to that as they can? And are eager to see others do the same? Maybe we’re too rich sometimes.

  • I’ve never heard more about personal relationships with Jesus until I moved to SC. It’s like being on the set of Oprah all the time. And as a recent revert, it’s something I’ve been wondering about. Those 18 months I was an Episcopalian really left a lot of Protestantism lingering in me. I just read this post today, and addition to your brilliant post, it made me see the issue in a very clear, very beautiful way:

  • Not to denigrate the lovely souls, but examining doctrinal what-is-it of PRWJ…One priest here put it quite bluntly (the year I was rec’d into the Church); Unless you have a relationship with the Catholic Church, you don’t have a relationship with Jesus. Startling? yes, but as St. Augustine put it (paraphrasing), those who wish to embrace the head while rejecting the body, will likewise be rejected. “PRWJ” seems to be the logical terminus of “we are(ie: I am) church.” in the end, mirror worship, or pope of a flock of one. Remember His promise to the Apostles: Whoever hears you hears me… so how do you have a personal relationship with Jesus if you plug your ears when the Church speaks?If you hear his voice, harden not your hearts… Doe this seems harsh? it is the desire for the salvation of all! so please let us unite our hearts to the holy will of Jesus:And not for them only do I pray, but for them also who through their word shall believe in me. That they all may be one, as thou, Father, in me,and I in thee; that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. Jn 17:20-21PRWJ is just part of the unity breaking babel which keep the clear message of Jesus from being recieved.Then again, maybe I’m babbling. forgive me.

  • David

    My understanding is that having a personal relationship with Jesus is like being in his family. When God adopted me as his child through faith in his son, he gave me a relationship with him. He is my father. I am his son. This makes Jesus my brother. This is my relationship with him. I cannot think of anything more personal.I think people sometimes confuse this relationship with how they feel or how they think they are living against the Biblical standard. These things are really symptoms of our level of obedience to or fellowship with him. Our relationship is as unchangeable as our relationship with our earthly fathers. For example, no matter what the circumstances, my earthly father will always be my father.

  • Carole

    I know I’m coming i a bit late on this conversation, but wanted to respond to Mark’s comment about the homily he heard which identified a relationship with Christ with a relationship with the Church.That *sounds* a bit like Father Feeney whose insistence that ‘no salvation outside the Church’ meant that everyone who wasn’t Roman Catholic goes to hell. That position was condemned by the Church.As for me…although I’ve been Catholic all my life, God was just an idea to me, till one day when I was complaining about my problems to a Protestant friend…and she asked me if I had ever prayed about it. I knew my prayers alright (Our Father/Hail Mary etc.) but I was puzzled what that had to do with my problems. As we talked, I soon learned that she had a confident trust that God was looking after her. I did not have that. Because of her, I do now. So, I can’t agree that someone outside the Church doesn’t have a relationship with God. She certainly had one–moreso than I who was in the Church.Of course, you may be including non-Catholic Christians as ‘belonging to us’ and thus still technically part of us, though their communion is imperfect, as does Vatican II.

  • Never seen it more clearly or nicely put. Thanks

  • I’ve had a PRWJ all my life, but there’s a lot of people who loudly claim to have a PRWJ who then go on to utterly disregard the Gospels. Their PR is more important than Jesus’ actual life and teaching.Someone who reads the Gospels and lives it out…now that’s a PRWJ. Worth far more than mere consolations (which is just spiritual candy).