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.