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In this final article on discipleship (see Part I here, and Part II here), I want to cover the topic of having a personal relationship with God and what it has to do with being a disciple of Christ. “Isn’t that just a Protestant thing,” you might ask? Or you might wonder, “Even if I am called to have a personal relationship with God, how in the world does one go about fostering it?”
First, let’s look at whether or not being a disciple of Christ requires me to have a personal relationship with God. The short answer is yes! It does require it. Hopefully, you think that is an obvious answer, but there are many who claim to be disciples who can’t begin to articulate verbally what their personal relationship with God looks like. One might say that he goes to Mass every Sunday, frequents the Sacrament of Confession often, and prays a lot, but do those actions guarantee that he has a personal relationship with God? Almost everyone, witnessing that person from afar, would say unequivocally that a person who does those things is indeed a disciple of Christ and definitely has a great relationship with God–but might we be fooled?
I will use myself as an example. I used to do all things Catholic in my young adulthood days, but I did them mostly out of duty and fear, and not because I loved God and wanted a relationship with him. It was a very mechanical faith. It just so happens that I was also very scrupulous at the time and greatly feared God sending me to Hell if I didn’t do what Catholics were supposed to do and do them extremely well! I’m sure many thought, from without, that I was a wonderful disciple of Christ… but was I?
Jesus wants to have an intimate, personal relationship with us and he definitely is not out to get us if we mess up. He is also not a distant God who has done his job and now sits in Heaven with the Father eating bonbons and watching football while the Holy Spirit does his thing. No, he repeatedly gives us a perfect analogy in Scripture that fits the relationship that he wants with us: one of marriage.
Over and over, Scripture mentions how Jesus is the bridegroom and we are his bride. That is the level of intimacy and love that he wants with us. He poured himself out for us throughout his life, but most especially in his passion and death. No greater love could he have showed us. What then should our response be as his spouse?
A deacon friend of mine likes to say that many who attend Mass, even regularly, do it as an insurance policy just in case there is a Heaven and a Hell. “I don’t want to go to Hell,” they might think, “so I better get to church and do some of those other Catholic things I was taught as a kid.” Imagine Jesus’ reaction to that kind of immature faith. He poured himself out for us and that is what he gets in return! I would guess he would be very sad and feel the same as he did when his chosen people repeatedly broke the covenants with him in the Old Testament. We were unfaithful while he was faithful. In a very real way, we committed adultery as his unfaithful spouse.
Putting it another way, if you are currently married, think about how it would have gone for you if you had asked your spouse, shortly after you were married, “What’s the minimum amount I have to love you to make this marriage thing work?” Good luck with that one! But don’t we do exactly that when we make little to no attempt to pursue a personal relationship with our God?
Okay, now that I have, hopefully, convinced you that we might need to develop more of a personal relationship with God, how are we to go about doing that? Let’s start by looking at how we form relationships with other people. We meet them, talk to them, listen to them, maybe ask them to join us for coffee where we can get to know them better.
Can we do that with Jesus? Wouldn’t that be great to have coffee with Jesus! Well, unfortunately, we can’t. At least not in exactly the same way. However, we can talk to him and he can talk to us. How? In all kinds of ways.
First and foremost is prayer. By definition, when we pray we are communicating with God. There can be many difficulties in prayer and I don’t have the space here to cover them all, but probably the main one is leaving time for God to respond to our prayer. Effective communication with anyone requires good listening skills. Do we spend time listening to God during prayer? Do we hear his voice? Granted, it is more difficult to hear his voice than, say, a friend of yours.
But God does speak to us! The simplest way we can hear God is to read Sacred Scripture. We don’t call the Bible “God’s Word” for nothing. It is the preeminent way he speaks to us. But there are also other ways.
In my personal experience, God usually speaks to me through other people and through having particular thoughts come to mind during prayer. For example, in those times from my past when I started to stray from the narrow path that Scripture talks about, God has nudged me back on track on numerous occasions by using others as instruments of his. (Okay, maybe a few of those times were more than a nudge…) This happens a lot when I get a little too prideful and give a little too much credit to myself and not enough to him. If you don’t humble yourself, he will do it for you!
God also opens and closes doors for me, especially with regard to my vocation as a catechist and teacher. I would dare say that many of you have experienced an example of this if an employer has ever let you go from your job. I have heard over and over again stories of how God has answered prayers by providing a much better job for those people than they had before. Something that seemed devastating has become a blessing. This is often the case with physical illnesses too. We tend to see how God has worked in our lives after the fact. With the benefit of hindsight, we can look back and see how he has taken care of us. Keep that in mind the next time you are experiencing hardship. You may not understand what God is doing with your life in the current moment, but six months or a year from now you might!
So to answer our initial questions: yes, a personal relationship with God is absolutely necessary to discipleship. And nurturing that relationship requires spending quality time together and careful listening.