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Jesus and me broke up*

February 24, 2010

It’s true! Funny thing is, it was a gay man who helped break up this relationship. But before you jump to any conclusions, and before you panic and try to decide which side of the relationship to remain loyal to and keep in touch with, before you send your cards of commiseration, I want to stress that what follows is not a joke. I am seeking to tell the truth as best I know how.

Some years ago now I had what was commonly called a relationship with Jesus. Boyfriend was not the term we used, of course, but he was effectively a kind of invisible friend. I talked to him. Not all the time of course. In fact it was mainly when I was stressed. ‘Help me Jesus, I’m in over my head here’ or, alternatively, ‘Thank you Jesus for this lovely sunny day.’ I wouldn’t have said that Jesus and I were close, because that would seem immodest. But that was the aim of it all. However the relationship was clearly, in retrospect, one-sided. I did all the talking. It was all about me. I knew that Jesus was meant to do some of the talking. He didn’t really. I knew there were supposed to be techniques for listening so I tried to do some listening. You were supposed to read the Bible and then your take on what you had just read was taken to be what Jesus was saying. Alternatively when I had questions and asked Jesus about them I was supposed to wait and see what ideas came into my head. And if they persisted and I felt them impressing themselves strongly upon me, then I was warranted in regarding that as Jesus talking. It was a strange relationship!

 

Looking back it was hard to distinguish from a kind of relationship with myself. I never actually heard a voice with my ears, just as I never saw my invisible friend with my eyes. I am trying not to caricature the situation, just to see it clearly. I’m not quite sure why I called my invisible friend Jesus rather than God. I notice nowadays young people talk more about their relationship with God and it sounds like they have the same kind of ‘invisible friend’ relationship with God as I had with Jesus (it’s a fact that gets the theologian in me thinking). When I was young it had a lot to do with asking Jesus into your heart or life. But it had very little to do with the actual life of Jesus as we know it from the gospels. It wasn’t that I didn’t know about that, but it had very little in practice to do with my invisible relationship. The relationship was all about my fears and my needs and my wants and, the benefit of talking to someone about them. I was constantly being told that ‘Jesus loved me’ so it was easy to assume (without thinking too much about the sexual overtones of it all) that this was the basis for a romance – Jesus & me 4 eva.

It wasn’t that I didn’t realize that something was wrong with this egotistical relationship. I certainly sensed it. However I had been constantly told that somehow my faith depended on it… and I wasn’t quite prepared to ditch that in a hurry. So I persevered, carrying with me also the weight of responsibility and the idea that my spiritual growth depended on my ability to maintain this relationship. This is deeply ironic given how self-centred the relationship had become.

If I can return for a moment to having a relationship with Jesus as opposed to, say, God. For me the question was a live one early on, and the reason I retained that focus rather than another is a long story which I will keep for another occasion. But in my younger days there was a sense that ‘a rose by any other name’ might do just fine. To put it another way, provided the store provide the goods it didn’t matter which face was serving at the shop front. We might say that, initially for me, Jesus was a friendly face (one could say ‘user-friendly’!) for an invisible God. Only problem was, the concreteness of Jesus, the real face, so to speak, got lost in my endless chatter.

 

However, to cut to the chase, what put paid to it in the end was, quite simply, that the nature of my relationship with Jesus was almost the opposite of the one presented by historic Christianity. The invisible Jesus, who was a sounding board for my thoughts and the supplier of my felt needs (a therapeutic commodity) needed to be cast out, and replaced by a visible Jesus – visible in a specific way. If historic Christianity was to be believed, what I needed was a Jesus who would change the very structure of my desires and my identity – one who would save me rather than help me. An invisible Jesus would never confront me and never change me. And it would make no difference if I swapped to a relationship with ‘God’. An invisible God would be equally impotent. The language of relationship had become a fraud, a kind of narcissism.

The man who took the romance out of my relationship with Jesus was a theologian called James Alison and he pointed out that, if the witnesses are to be believed, Jesus had some quite specific concerns about the ongoing relationship that his disciples would have with him. The same Jesus who gave himself again to his disciple after they had contributed to the process by which he was killed, this same Jesus was concerned (prior to his death) that he be remembered precisely for and in his death. This is my body broken for you. This is my blood shed for you. Do this to remember me! The Jesus of Christian faith is not an invisible psychological aid. The experience of resurrection is this: living he confronts us with his death. He wants us to know him as a man who poured himself out for the world and also as a man who was broken by the world. This death is the culmination of the person and it is this that determines whatever kind of ‘relationship’ we might have with him.

I guess if there is a sense now that I have a ‘relationship’ with Jesus (and the term relationship certainly sticks in my throat) it is in the sense that I know Jesus now as my ‘victim’ – my divine victim. What I need is something like a ‘liturgical’ relationship with Jesus rather than a romantic one. I need to be constantly addressed by the drama of God’s encounter with the world as it culminates in the great revelatory victory of the cross of Christ. As I am addressed by this drama I learn to respond to it, to act a part within it. After all in spite of it I still find myself constantly drawn into a world process which produces new victims and I am constantly drawn to deny my complicity in this process. Unless I am liturgically confronted by the forgiveness of my divine victim, Jesus, I will never be truly human nor truly participate in God’s life for which I was created. My hope is that eucharistic liturgy is the Spirit’s way of casting out romantic narcissism and making disciples.

* I stole this title from a blogger who no longer has the posting on his site, although traces of it remain across the web.  http://peaceablezealot.wordpress.com/about/

28 Comments leave one →
  1. February 24, 2010 9:53 am

    So how did you break it off? “I don’t think we should see each other anymore?” I think the “personal relationship” with Jesus is a byproduct of the Baby Boomer obsession with intimacy which is more sentimental than in touch with reality. I can’t imagine the disciples sitting around Jesus singing him love songs, telling him they’re so falling in love with him…

  2. Bruce Hamill permalink
    February 25, 2010 8:53 am

    As far as good break-lines I don’t think that would fly Duncan as the problem with my ‘relationship’ was that I wasn’t ‘seeing’ him at all, just talking to him. If it was intimacy it was pseudo intimacy and self-deception.
    As for the disciples, I agree… can’t imagine it… Romantic love these days is more like ‘possessing the other’ (your mine or I’ll die) rather than ‘discipleship’

  3. March 2, 2010 12:12 pm

    Thanks so much for the post! You have summarized the experience of many in a penetrating way. Everywhere I look in the evangelical world I see people who are burdened with guilt over the poor quality of their “relationship with Jesus.” I hope this helps open some eyes. I especially like the liturgical focus you bring in as a solution (particularly because it is in worship that a lot of this stuff comes to a head for contemporary evangelicals).

  4. March 3, 2010 1:35 am

    I don’t see why you have to ditch Jesus in that way. Couldn’t your new understanding shape this “relationship” you had with him, rather than make you wanna throw it out completely?

    I guess I come from a solid gospel (what God did for us in Christ is totally outside of us and apart from our works and feelings) foundation and my concern is moving towards the other side – being more open to listen to the Spirit’s voice and have that relationship with God. Maybe both aren’t mutually exclusive?

  5. March 3, 2010 9:42 am

    Much of so-called ‘worship’ music sung today is not that different than conventional love songs sung to or about one’s boy/girl-friend. This sort of language tends to reveal the nature of such ‘relationships’ as essentially self-centered (this is how you make me feel) and need-centered (this is what you do for me). While of course one’s subjective feelings and experiences cannot be divorced from relationships, the reduction of relationships into these categories reveals an essentially immature relationship at best, and a rather severe case of narcissism, at worst.

  6. Jock permalink
    March 3, 2010 10:44 am

    Every time I hear a person’s own account of leaving what sounds like a Pentecostal church I am simultaneously grieved and relieved: grieved because it causes so much hurt for so many people; and relieved ’cause I’m not the only one who has gone through what you described for yourself.

    Thanks for your post.

  7. roger flyer permalink
    March 3, 2010 1:50 pm

    Provocative post, Bruce. Thank you.

  8. Ann permalink
    March 3, 2010 10:41 pm

    Yes and No, I want to say.

    Yes, in that the sort of relationship evangelicals are taught to have with Jesus is narcicisstic. The prayers are to persuade God to give them what they want, more stuff, more power, better jobs, etc. And it’s hidden in all sorts of junk like “Prosperity Prayers” – get so that one has more to give back to God…yeh right, but while keeping the other 90%.

    And Yes, in that people are taught techniques to hear God, when when they try to apply them, they may well be just hearing their own thoughts, but don’t know how to discern the difference.
    And Yes, in that the relationship is one way, and people fret about that.
    All those Yes’s because too often the phrase “pick up your cross and follow me” is left out of everything.

    There are the legitimate mystics in the history of Christianity who had the sort of relationships with Jesus that I believe everyone wishes they had. And not knowing how to make it happen, since they can’t, they are taught to feign it, hoping to make it a reality. It ends up very unsatisfying.

    And now the No. No, in that I don’t think there’s anything wrong at all with talking to Jesus a lot. But it helps a great deal if what we say is grounded in a real understanding of what we are called to become – disciples, as you point out so clearly. So the prayers need to be, “Jesus, please give me the strength to hold my tongue when I’d really like to lash out when I’m wrongly accused. Jesus, please reveal to me the places where I value stuff or other idols more than your will, and give me the strength to let go of them. Jesus, please enable me to regard temptations as gifts to recognize my perpetual state of weakness.” And things like that.

    There is a great deal of discussion in the mystics about how it is NOT desirable to want the presence of Christ because of the consolations. What is important is wanting God, God’s will, and as for romance…I like to refer to Von Ruysbroek. He talked about various sorts of relationships with God, and at the bottom he placed those who do what is right out of fear. We all know that’s no good. Then the ones who wanted to do right because it’s right, and that’s better, but God’s still not the object of desire. Then there are God’s lovers, who are in this sort of romantic state…and that’s fine being in love with Jesus, however, it’s still a lower state than being in a filial relationship, where one wants to do God’s will, because one cares about what the Father cares about.

    The problem with those who are “stuck” in the romantic phase is that they want the sweets but not the cross, the pain, the suffering, or the responsibilities of sonship.

    However, I have seen some naturally outgrow this. It may be that in the evangelicals this worship music is for a phase of a relationship with Jesus, and then it needs to grow into something more mature.

    Does the romance go away when it matures? I don’t think it needs to, but just that it ceases to be all that is going on. Doing the will of the Father and feeling nothing becomes preferable to all sorts of romance but not being in that filial relationship.

    And the whole liturical process should be a support and contact point for God to bring about this transformation from a selfish, miserable, wounded human to a self-emptying, joy-filled, and healed human which can take place if the person prays for it and co-operates with God’s activity.
    -Ann

    • Bruce Hamill permalink
      March 7, 2010 3:31 am

      Thanks Anne, good comments. I think my view of ‘romance’ is more critical – a kind of idealising of the other.

  9. Jen permalink
    March 4, 2010 2:58 pm

    Love it. Well put. I ended my pneumakinetic relationship with God in favor of historic Christianity too. I became a Lutheran Christian.

  10. michaelvdifuccia permalink
    March 5, 2010 4:43 am

    Ok, I will stick my neck out here as a pentecostal… I think a lot of the points are valid, and I will be the first to say that I have seen a lot of goofy things going on in pentecostal churches.

    However, it seems that several have implied that those of us who have broken ties with a “relationship” with Jesus have somehow arrived. I think it’s important, as noted, that we remain connected to the true historical Jesus, but “relationship” does not take us away from this.

    What takes pentecostals away from the historical Jesus is their lack of tradition. It’s only 100 years old. However, there are streams of extremely intelligent pentecostal scholars who acknowledge the traditions of Christianity in their work. i.e. Amos Yong.

    As a pentecostal, its posts like this that remind me not to be overly emotional.

    All good points.

  11. Kat permalink
    March 6, 2010 5:29 pm

    I find the “Jesus is my victim” language deeply troubling. This line still entails a relationship, even if it is not explicitly named as such. It’s an oppressor – victim relationship in which you are the oppressor. I know that it is necessary for the privileged and powerful to recognize their power, yet the word “victim” robs the other party of his/ her power, and, when used for Christ seems to forget the Resurrection. As a woman, my relationship with Jesus is one of identification in our common abuse and mistreatment at the hands of power. Hope lies in the Resurrection of the body, which overcomes victimization and speaks of survival and a whole life after subjugation.

    • Jen permalink
      March 6, 2010 6:24 pm

      Kat,

      What has happened to you is TERRIBLE. It is a result of sin (the sin of others, the sin common to all). But, please don’t project your victimhood onto Christ’s because there is no comparison. God emptied Himself and became man (God-man) and gave up His life willingly for your sins, my sins, and the sins of your attacker(s). His victimhood was an act of His Power. He gained victory over sin, death and the devil by His passionate act of victimhood. He purchased us from death.

      • Bruce Hamill permalink
        March 7, 2010 3:58 am

        @Jen, why are you so concerned to separate Kat’s experience of victimhood from Christ’s. Surely his was revelatory because of its similarity to victims (like the prophet’s slain at Jerusalem) since ‘the foundation of the world’. After all what have ‘death and the devil’ been doing down the ages but creating victims like Christ (albeit hiding their tracks under the guise of justified and sacred killing or demeaning). It is because of his similarity to all of that that he ‘purchased us’ from it.

    • Bruce Hamill permalink
      March 7, 2010 3:48 am

      I’m probably not fully understanding where you’re coming from but I think the discovery that Jesus is my victim is troubling because the resurrection of the crucified one is also the revelation of the fact that all of us are not just victims but victimisers. In particular the kind of way in which Jesus was victimised is part of a universal human pattern of victimising. What is troubling is the revelation of our bondage to sin …. I don’t know about the word victim robbing people of their power… in many ways in our time claiming the status of victim is the first stem in a strategy for gaining power. However in Jesus case his victimhood coincided with a choice to surrender power (cf temptations and predictions of death etc). I agree that hope lies in the resurrection of the body, however Christ’s resurrection gives hope first of all because it is the giving back of the body of Christ and thus the forgiving of those who took his life (including us who in different ways continue to take his life)

      • Bruce Hamill permalink
        March 7, 2010 3:59 am

        ps: this latter comment was a response to Jen – I’m not sure if I’m getting the boxes right.

  12. John Harrison permalink
    March 7, 2010 2:07 am

    This phenomenon is constantly re-inforced by the pap that pass for praise and worsship music these day.

    • Bruce Hamill permalink
      March 7, 2010 4:00 am

      Yes! Although I have been reflecting recently how a certain kind of contemplative worship can be ultimately just as narcisistic and lacking a christological focux

      • Ann permalink
        March 8, 2010 2:51 am

        Where Christ does not challenge, does not call to repentance or sacrifice, I have to admit that I’d be watching with a critical eye, since the fathers say that all we do on our own is sin.

        There is something boundary-crossing about the passion of Christ that pure narcisissm can’t comprehend. It is that willingness to suffer for the sake of another that is lost on the selfish mindset.
        Ann

  13. Mark permalink
    March 17, 2010 4:51 am

    Whilst I agree with the critiquing of the ‘me and my boyfriend Jesus” I am not sure about the ‘liturgical’ relationship as its replacement. I guess it depends what you mean (what do you mean exactly?).

    To me it sounds a bit like when I hear people defending a traditional form of worship (its ‘liturgical’) when their churches are declining (not that growth is the goal). I find it interesting that in the NT writings, especially Paul, worship is not talked about as the centre of Christian life. The closest is Rom 12:1-2 and there it is about worship as the whole of life. Instead the focus is on how the community will LIVE as the New Creation – and while worship is an important part of that, it is not the be all and end all.

    • Mark permalink
      March 17, 2010 4:56 am

      PS participation in Christ, living in Christ etc .. both individually and communally seems to me to be the goal so that we may all ‘grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ’ that we may live as witnesses to the KOG

      • March 17, 2010 9:57 am

        By liturgical I do not mean a particular ‘genre’ of worship… I do however mean an encounter with Christ ‘and him crucified’ – i.e. a eucharistic relationship which conforms me to his cruciform existence. Here I am thinking of Phil 3 and Paul’s account of ‘knowing Christ’ by means of being conformed to his death and thus sharing in his resurrection. In this sense the relationship is one-sided, being drawn into his relationship to the Father. So liturgical really covers things like objectively and christologically focussed, receptive, eucharistic, and communal (with others who are also undergoing the same God). Let me think a bit more about the link between participation in Christ and worship… its getting late

Trackbacks

  1. Narcissicist Christianity « Apprentice2Jesus
  2. Jesus and me broke up « Pewter Lane
  3. Confessing Evangelical » Relating to Jesus
  4. Confessing Evangelical » No more scapegoats
  5. break up with Jesus « a time to rend
  6. Savior not friend « John Meunier's blog

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