Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.—Matthew 22:37,38
“…they broke my covenant,
though I was a husband to them,”
declares the Lord.—Jeremiah 31:32
God has done some really kind things for me in preparing me to live the privileged life of a pastor, and one of them was to give me a mentor. For several years, I got to work alongside Mark Hanke, an older, wiser brother who taught me much of what I know about what it means to be a leader and a man of God. I have been a lead pastor for almost 15 years now, and I still find myself drawing upon the things I learned from Mark.
One of the most helpful things he did for me was to teach me to take very seriously the phrase “relationship with God.” Christians say all the time that we have a “personal relationship with Jesus,” and that “Christianity is not just a religion, it’s a relationship,” but then we turn around and approach our faith as if it were a formula, or a business, or a political movement, or a self-help program. Mark taught me that when we want to understand the ways of God with people, there is much we can learn by looking at the closest human relationships, such as those between husbands and wives and parents and children.
I remember once a woman who was a brand-new Christian asking Mark “What does it really mean to have a ‘personal relationship with God’? People say that all the time, but what does it actually look like?”
Rather than give some answer from a theological textbook or quoting a Bible verse, Mark said:
“Well, do you have a personal relationship with your husband?”
“Of course,” she said.
“And what’s that like?”
“Well, I mean, we share a life together. I get up every morning and he’s there, and we just do life together. We’re partners in raising our kids and doing what needs to be done. And we really know each other. I tell him everything that’s going on with me, and because we live together, I don’t have any secrets from him. I guess you’d say he’s the one person who knows the real me.”
Mark didn’t say anything; he just nodded and sat there patiently waiting for the light bulb to turn on. After a moment it did, and a surprised look came over her face.
“Oh! Really?” she said.
I still remember the moment I was sitting on the floor as my two-year old daughter was doing something I had told her repeatedly not to do. When I scolded her and told her what she needed to do to make it right, rather than do what I had asked she turned and gave me a big hug and a kiss. Without even realizing what I was saying, I said “Thank you, baby, but if you want to show daddy that you love me, you need to do what I say.” Then I realized what I had just said. Since then, I have never read John 14:15 in the same way: “If you love me, keep my commands.” So this is how God feels, I thought, when I ignore what He’s telling me to do but then turn around and sing songs to Him on Sunday.
Everywhere we turn in this life, human relationships give us a window into our relationship with God. When our spouses are cold to us, or are tempted to go after other lovers, we know how God feels when we lose our affection for Him, our First Love. When we feel that we would do anything for our kids, we are getting a glimpse of His heart toward us. When our hearts break over their poor choices, we know a little of His pain.
Carey and I have been married 22 years, and lately I am more conscious than ever of the fact that we will not automatically stay close. Between a busy church and 3 busy kids, there is no time left for the two of us if we don’t make time. I love her, but because I love her I have to work to maintain our relationship. We won’t stay close, or get closer, without some effort. I’ve been patting myself on the back for being so aware of this over the last few weeks, and then it finally hit me: why would I think things would be any different in my relationship with God? I love Him, and He loves me, but if I don’t make it a priority to stay connected with Him, why would I assume we won’t drift further apart? If it’s truly a relationship, then it works the way all relationships work.
Looking at my spiritual life through this lens, it’s sobering to realize that there are things I do to God that I would never to do my loved ones, or that I wouldn’t want my loved ones doing to me. How would my wife feel if I never made time to talk to her unless I wanted something? She’d feel used, not loved. But often the only thing that drives me to prayer is my own selfish needs. How would I feel if my children ignored my counsel, got hurt by doing what I told them not to do, and then vented their anger at me when life didn’t go the way they wanted?
The more I think about it, the more amazing God’s grace is. I’m often a selfish partner, a stubborn child, a bad friend, and yet He loves me still. This week, ask yourself: how is my relationship with God, really? If He were a physical person living in my house, would I feel good about the way I’ve been treating Him? What could I do to stay connected? How can I show Him my love?