What would you say? How do I explain this unseen relationship upon which I have built my life to a skeptic? This was a snatch of actual ‘conversation’ (online) I had with ‘the Lady’ as I will refer to her. She is in her 70’s now and appears quite smug and self-satisfied having abandoned the faith of her upbringing. By way of introduction here is her story in her own words:
"You are right about upbringing as I was raised in a church [Episcopal] and my siblings (five of them) either are still in that church or have converted to Catholicism (because of marriage in two cases) I am the only atheist of the six of us, but of our 18 children, only 4 or 5 are active church members. My child had no religious upbringing, nor did her two. We are all happy, moral people who feel no lack (or even consideration on the part of my daughter and her two) of the absence of such "a pursuit of the knowledge of God" In fact to me it would be akin to chasing a will o' the wisp.
Don't you think it is interesting that what you consider a central and significant part of your life has no part in the lives of many and yet we all think of ourselves as having very full and complete lives?"
So what is there to say? The ‘imaginary friend’ allegation is not original. It comes straight out of popular atheistic works. It of course feels insulting but there’s little value in reacting. I had in another post attempted to differentiate between religion and relationship to which ‘the Lady’ responded:
"The statement you make about having a "relationship with Jesus" confuses me. In fact as soon as I read it I called my sister (whom I had wanted to speak to anyway) and asked her if she, as a Catholic, had a "relationship with Jesus" and she said she had not and so I asked her if she knew what it meant and she did not."
I was encouraged by this indication of her curiosity and by the fact that she discussed the concept with her sister, who is incidentally involved in a Bible Study at her church. This too fuels my hope that God can yet reveal Himself to these ladies. Eventually she asked me to spell out what I mean by ‘relationship’. She addressed these questions to me and the other Christian active at this site:
"What exactly is a personal relationship with Jesus? Since that is the essence of Christianity, please explain it.
Do you speak to Jesus and does he answer? Do you pray and enter a trance state? Do you meditate and reach a different level of consciousness and call that a personal relationship? What exactly does personal relationship mean? Does each individual who claims to have one, define it differently?
Is it pointless for you to describe, since the unbelievers could not grasp the deeply mystical significance of such a relationship? If so, isn't it your responsibility to convince us?
In claiming this, unlike for instance, saying you believe in Jesus and in God, you are elevating yourselves to a grander standing than most of those who merely "think" they are Christians. So what exactly does a personal relationship mean and how many people do you think have one?"
What would you say?
Explaining who Jesus is to you in a context of hard-core skeptics, many of whom doubt the very historical reality of Jesus Christ, is a little like casting pearls before swine. I had a sense that ‘the Lady’ was not so much asking out of personal interest as she was looking to mock my naivety. But we are to be prepared to give an answer for the hope that is in us so I thought and prayed and came up with this answer:
“Lady, …Your question is a fair one, and assuming it is an honest one, deserves a well-thought out answer. This is going to be tricky without referring to the Bible, (which seems to ‘push your buttons’, so bear with me here ( : I will try to speak for myself, as I suppose, as in any relationship, different people will have different experiences and ways of explaining what they appreciate about their relationship, not to mention the different phases a relationship goes through as two people grow together. All these things are true of a relationship with Jesus. Except that in this unique case, problems in relationship are always the fault of the human factor.
I could run through and answer your questions: Yes, yes, yes and no, no, and probably yes. But I’m afraid you still won’t get what I’m saying, not because it’s ‘deeply mystical’ but because this is a spiritual relationship. Obviously, Jesus is not here on the earth in bodily form. But He is alive and His Spirit lives in every genuine believer. This is in fact what distinguishes a Christian from one who merely follows the ‘Christian’ religion. How can I explain this to you though if we are only material beings in your line of reasoning? And no, it is not my responsibility to convince anyone of anything, only to share the good news I have found. No one has to believe it. The convincing job is where God’s Spirit comes in. (We call him the Holy Spirit) All right, I’m already sensing that I’ve lost you… The one basic obstacle we have here is that spiritual concepts (and you’re not going to like the sound of this) are only discernible to spiritual persons. And I don’t mean ‘spiritual’ in some vague way, but in the sense just mentioned—persons who have the very spirit of God residing in them. That may sound pious and other-worldly but it can be your experience too, same as any other believer. It’s not some unattainable state.
There is in fact a rather famous conversation between a teacher of the Law and Jesus that explains this. This man didn’t ‘get it’ either but saw clearly that Jesus was no ordinary man. He arranged a private interview, and Jesus came right out and told him that unless he was born ‘from above’ he could not comprehend God’s kingdom. When the man asked how this could possibly happen, being ‘born again’ (an overused term but this incident is its origin) , Jesus said it was a spirit thing. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit”. He then compared the Spirit to wind which we cannot see but we surely can see and know its effects! Without his spirit all the talk about having a relationship with Jesus will sound like foolishness.
So when I say yes, I talk to Jesus, and yes, He talks back, if you’re thinking in merely physical terms you’ll think ‘ah, she’s looney’. But though I may or may not speak to Him in voiced words, his response is one that communicates with my spirit. It is a strong ‘sense’ of knowing something, an impression that goes beyond mental conjuring. It is communicated to my spirit. Here lies another obstacle to this making sense. The spirit of man. It is a dead entity until God gives it life. And because God is spirit, its being alive is necessary for one who wishes to hear from God. The Bible teaches that at the moment of entering this relationship, the believer’s spirit is made alive. It is then the place of communicating with God who is Spirit. This goes on 24/7. He’s fully present to me and I to Him. We can be silent together, or talk. To know I am fully known and loved at all times by the all-powerful God who created me is enough to face anything that may arise in my life. That’s the long and short of what I mean by relationship. Don’t know if it really answers your query. And I don’t doubt that it sounds strange, esp. if you’ve not considered the reality of a realm other than the physical one. Also, it is far more complicated to describe one’s own relationship with a spiritual being than it is to give information on how to enter this relationship (which I believe would be considered proselytizing on this thread). I guess to state it simply is to say that it’s a relationship in another dimension than the physical. It’s an ongoing, growing thing which doesn’t come naturally to any of us. An excellent book on the subject that I’ve read lately is called Hearing God. It is a sound, non-sensational explanation of what it means to develop a conversational relationship with God. It is, of course, written by a Christian ( Dallas Willard, who happens to be a long-time professor of philosophy at the U. of California) and for Christians, but you might glean some insight here.
And as for this notion of ours being a ‘grander standing’ than those who merely believe in Jesus and in God. First off, there are plenty of people who believe in ‘God’ in a vague sort of way, but want nothing to do with Jesus. That gets too personal for some reason; it demands I talk about sin and needing ‘salvation’ for instance. The Bible makes clear that it isn’t enough to merely believe God exists. Jesus said, even the demons do that. [ Yes, if there’s a good spiritual world, there’s a bad one—God’s enemies, the Devil and his demons (fallen angels)] |”You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that-and shudder”.James 2:19 So no, this isn’t an exclusive club, just one that most choose not to join.
As for numbers, it’s difficult to speculate but there is much reference to sheep vs. goats in the Bible and this way of relationship is called a narrow road that few find (as contrasted to the wide road leading to destruction)-- Pilgrim’s Progress depicts this excellently in allegorical terms-- So the numbers are limited, fewer than polls suggest I would expect. This is not to say the way is not clearly offered to all. There are just few willing to pay the cost of following it. To me the benefits far outweigh the costs, but to the skeptical onlooker this does not seem so.
For further reading since I’ve eliminated quotes a.m.a.p. I would commend to you these chapters in the Bible:
John 3 (the famous conversation)
Ephesians 1 & 2 (the ‘scoop’ on being dead vs. alive in spirit)
John 10 (Jesus likened to a good shepherd. His sheep hear His voice)
I Corinthians 2 (the spiritual man described)
Hebrews 1 & 2 (the big picture. God communicating down through time, and now in Jesus)”
So that is how I answered. What would you have said?
Her reply was brief, nothing unexpected:
"Well, … I do thank you very much for your explanation of your personal relationship with Jesus and I do understand what you are saying. I don't doubt at all that you experience what you say you experience. I don't understand it, except that I would probably say it is some form of self hypnosis, or wish fulfillment or such. I really am not enough of either a psychologist, psychiatrist or person like Joseph Campbell who may have some explanation for people like you. When I say "people like you" I do not mean that in a pejorative sense."
She has no good explanation for ‘people like me’… but at least now she has ‘met’ one. And I pray for her sister to come to the knowledge of the truth and be able to report back to her that ‘Yes! She does now know what a relationship with Jesus is!’ Until then, I guess I’m just a teeny light shining into a bunch of dismal darkened intellects.
Shortly after that conversation I came upon this poem and was encouraged. It is quoted in C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Malcolm in answer to the taunting of a skeptic that prayer is nothing more that talking to oneself…
“They tell me, Lord, that when I seem
To be in speech with you,
Since but one voice is heard, it’s all a dream,
One talker aping two.
Sometimes it is, yet not as they
Conceive it. Rather, I
Seek in myself the things I hoped to say,
But lo! My wells are dry.
Then, seeing me empty, you forsake
The listener’s role and through
My dumb lips breathe and into utterance wake
The thoughts I never knew.
And thus you neither need reply
Nor can; thus, while we seem
Two talkers, thou art One forever, and I
No dreamer, but thy dream.”
When all is said and done, we are His children and it is God who initiates and sustains this relationship we claim to have. Who can really explain it?! And yet, it is more real than life itself. And that gives me something to shine about!
“But you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba, Father!’” Rom.8:15