A widespread trend in American spirituality is what might be called “the buddy-fication of Jesus.” The trend is on display in the way that people pray, the expectations that they bring to their prayers, and the things that people assume are of concern to God. And it has been on display for a long time now.
Much of it is bumper sticker theology: “Let Go and Let God”, “Jesus is my co-pilot”, “Jesus is my airbag” (I kid you not), “God answers kneel-mail”. But much of it also appears in books that blur the line between the Christian faith and self-help, curating a Jesus who is – above all things – concerned with helping people become the best people that they can be. Titles that offer this kind of buddy-fication include Self-Love Made Easy, It’s All Under Control, and others that have become standards that are reprinted again and again, like The Prayer of Jabez (God’s got stuff. God wants to give you stuff. Pray and God will give you stuff.)
The motives and rationale for this kind of theology are not hard to imagine. Some see the buddy-fication of Jesus as the natural extension of the appeal for a “personal relationship” with Christ. Some naturally find enormous consolation and comfort in framing their lives in this fashion. In turn, that benefit is rooted in the reassurance of God’s presence. And, for still others, personalizing Jesus in this fashion is directly to the theory that nothing happens to them that is not the will of God.
On the surface of it all, some of these reasons are intelligible, but there are real spiritual perils in buddy-fying Jesus:
For example, as important as relationship is in the Christian faith, it does not make sense to treat Jesus as a cosmic chum. We are not peers with God. Our relationship with God is not predicated upon affinity or affection. God is God and we are not. God is in intimate relationship with us, but that relationship is initiated by God. The reliability of that relationship is guaranteed by the power of God made manifest in the Resurrection. And God is equally open to all those who accept his grace. None of us have a relationship of that kind with other human beings. So, paradoxically, the intimacy of our relationship with Christ is guaranteed by the transcendence, power, and otherness of God. God is not like our best friend, only bigger.
At first blush, those who have been taught that Jesus is their cosmic buddy, to say this may elicit alarm. If we don’t think deeply about it, we are inclined to think that our relationship with God is like our best friendships, only better. To say that it isn’t suggests to some that a relationship with God isn’t important. But the durability and reliability of our relationship with God in Christ does not rest on easy intimacy. It rests on the otherness and transcendence of God.
This realization also addresses another problem with the buddy-fication of Jesus. When our relationship with God is predicated on “feeling” a sense of intimacy with God, rather than on the saving work of God, we open ourselves to endless restlessness and despondency. Our confidence in God, our capacity for hope rides a rollercoaster of challenges, all shaped by the inevitable, mercurial changes in our emotions.
The realization that our relationship with God is initiated and made possible by God shifts that focus. It not only grounds our relationship with God in a place that is far more secure than our emotions, it also free us to live in a fashion that is more readily available to the purposes of God and the needs of others.
It becomes clear, then, that the life of faith is not a privately curated set of experiences, but a life hidden in Christ and lived out in deep connection with the needs of the world.