A Personal Relationship With God?
Religious folks often speak of having a personal relationship with God. What does that actually mean? How personal can it be? When you read those aforementioned passages from the OT, it is not easy to grasp that God even wants a relationship with us that could be described as personal. To me, a personal relationship involves “warm and fuzzy” as a part of it, a feeling of closeness in which hugs (and maybe kisses) would be expected and enjoyed. Can we have that with God? Does he even want that? I know he wants us to fear and reverence him, for the OT makes that abundantly clear, but what about the personal part? Maybe those questions don’t come into your mind. If not, good for you. They do come into my mind, which you can surely understand by knowing my background with its struggles.
Answers have come to me in stages in a variety of different ways. One of the early stages was when I developed my teaching materials on the Book of Romans. This stage started early, for I originally developed a course on Romans in my early 30’s when teaching in the same Preacher’s School I had graduated from a few years prior. I became “the” Romans teacher in the school and taught the cour se repeatedly. It was pretty much the same material later found in my booklet, “Justified,” and then still later in my book, “Romans: the Heart Set Free.”
Interestingly, the title of the booklet encapsulates almost the whole story of grace in Christ. Justified translates a Greek legal term that means “not guilty” or “innocent.” I describe justified as meaning “just-as-if-I’d never sinned.” Through the years as I taught Romans many times in many places, my view of God was pretty much on target. Some of the illustrations I “stole” and included in my printed offerings thrill my heart and bring tears to my eyes every time I read them. Through the eyes of Romans, grace abounds and is everywhere to be found!
In my later years, I’ve not taught Romans much, which has been a recent realization. As a partial result, I have struggled more with my view of God and moved back toward my early tendencies. But God allows struggles for a reason. I believe he wanted me to look for and find other ways to deepen my faith in him, his grace and his personal interest in me as his son. Maybe that’s why I ended up in the hospital. One example may leave you scratching your head—or not. I woke up one day a few years back just feeling the need for a hug from God. He is said to be our Abba, our Dad, and I needed a Daddy hug. We were at our little cottage near a lake in East Texas, where we’ve spent a lot of time since we bought it in the summer of 2016. It’s a great place for writing and I’ve written several books and many articles while looking out the windows at the lake across the street. The pandemic increased our time at the lake.
Anyway, that particular morning when I felt a strong need for a hug from God, I started thinking about ways he would give hugs. The most obvious is when he hugs us through other people. I often tell people that whatever love they feel from me, multiply it a million times and they will begin to grasp how much God loves them. He uses people as vessels to express his love, but it must be multiplied many, many times to get the real picture. When God uses others to talk to me, write to me, or literally to hug me, I often am attuned spiritually enough to the spirit world to realize that it is God giving me a hug. But how else does God give hugs? Answering prayers with a yes would be another way but there are yet others.
The way I am going to describe in the following example I would have questioned earlier in life and probably have thought it just weird. That morning, as I said, I really wanted to see or feel God. I happened to look down on the floor of our bedroom at an air vent that delivered warm air in the winter and cool air in the summer. It was summertime and the air from that vent was blowing right in my face when I was sleeping. I was good with the warm air in my face during the winter, but the cold air bothered me. I started thinking about how to solve that problem.
I could just put a cardboard box in front of it to block the airflow, but I thought some customized solution likely existed if I could just think of it. I decided to go out into the garage and see if any answer made itself evident. As I opened the back door of the detached garage, the first thing I saw was a set of shelves where I stored all sorts of things. The first shelf my eye focused on held a plastic container that I didn’t remember seeing before. I immediately thought about the air vent and its size. I grabbed the plastic container and went quickly back inside to the bedroom. The container fit over the vent perfectly. All I had to do was cut off one end and I had a customized solution to redirect the airflow.
I didn’t remember having such a container in the garage. All I know is that it was sitting in the exact place that my eyes settled on after opening the garage door, and it was the perfect solution for my need. As soon as I saw it, I felt like I had received a hug from God. I think he somehow arranged that sequence on that day when I asked him for a hug. Does that sound crazy to you? At one time it would have to me, most definitely. But since then, I have experienced many similar instances which I believe God arranged as hugs.
In an article about my cancer experiences (one of the “Roller Coaster” articles), I made the statement that God is a God who wants to be seen and can be seen. I used my favorite illustration about going from not seeing something to seeing it everywhere in amazing fashion. If you haven’t read that illustration, you should. Also on my teaching website (gordonferguson.org) is an article entitled, “I Have Lost My Faith (in Coincidences).” It’s a long article and mentions many of the events in my life prior to becoming a preacher. It actually forms an unusual prequel to my book, “My Three Lives,” and is interesting for that reason alone. But the overall emphasis of the article is that I believe God is with me and in my life every day, all day, and has been my entire life, even during the years when I wasn’t close to seeking God or anything godly. Some days I “see” him; most days I do not. But he is there whether I see him or not. I love the days when I see him and feel him, and I’m quite sure he feels the same.
Relationship is definitely the operative word. Some months ago, I was thinking about the various terms in the Bible which describe God. He is Creator. He is the Lord of lords and King of kings. He is the Judge of all mankind. Many terms are used to describe him, many of which focus only on his power and authority. These I mentioned don’t bring a relationship to mind, at least not a warm, close personal relationship. Then what should have been obvious hit me. Prior to conversion, we have a Creator/created relationship with God. He wants it to be much more than that, and in fact he provided great motivation to bring it about by becoming a man to die for those whom he created. That’s the gospel story, which is too beautiful to be believed, yet it is true and God somehow enables us to believe it. Other religions have the concept of their gods visiting planet earth in human form, as Acts 14 illustrates, but Christianity is absolutely unique in the concept of the Creator dying for the created. Simply astounding!
Once we are converted and become spiritual creations of God, the relationship is far, far different. Now God is Father, in fact Abba Father, our Dad. He is our friend. I dearly love what Jesus said along these lines to his disciples. “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). Through the apostles, he has made everything known to us as well. As we work to carry out what we call the Great Commission (Co-mission, us and him), Jesus finishes up Matthew 28 with this very appropriate promise: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” He is that friend who sticks closer than a brother (Proverbs 18:24).
What does friendship mean to you? Although there are many types and levels of friendship, the most important one is well described in Proverbs 18:24. Whoever else fits into that definition for you, I know God does. The old hymn, “My God and I,” is on target in describing the possibilities in having a real friendship with God. Just listen to these words and picture them taking place with you and God.
My God and I go in the fields together,
We walk and talk as good friends should and do;
We clasp our hands, our voices ring with laughter,
My God and I walk through the meadow’s hue.
He tells me of the years that went before me,
When heavenly plans were made for me to be;
When all was but a dream of dim conception,
To come to life, earth’s verdant glory see.
My God and I will go for aye together,
We’ll walk and talk as good friends should and do;
This earth will pass, and with it common trifles,
But God and I will go unendingly.
During those long nights in the hospital, God and I were friends. I saw him as a friend, and I talked with him as a friend. That’s why I chose the initial title for the series, “Sitting With God on the Brink of Eternity.” That’s exactly what it felt like. I didn’t know whether I was about to enter it with him or not, but we talked about it. Sometimes I wanted to go and sometimes I wanted to stay, but even when I wanted to stay, I realized that if I did, I would likely have to go through another time like that one to escape this planet. We all die. We ended our conversations much the same every night. I said that he knew what I couldn’t know, as Psalm 139:16 states: “all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” Therefore, since knowing the time and circumstances of my death is beyond my pay grade, I just told him that I would try to get some sleep and let him worry about it (not that he worries). I think those times provided pretty good examples of real friendship.