The Downside of a Personal Relationship with God…

I have had working relationships with pastors over twenty-five years , getting to know them pretty well.  I have a pastor in my family.  My best friend is a pastor.  In my experiences with all of them, I have discovered they have several things in common, but let’s pinpoint a specific thing that concerns them all.

How many people show up in the pews on Sunday morning…

Now let’s stop before we get too negative.  [Yes, a comment like that can be negative; I have heard disparaging words that some pastors can be too obsessed with church attendance, so obsessed that they are referred to as “bean counters”.]  But maybe paying attention to attendance is not completely a bad thing.  Pastors can just be concerned about the spiritual health of their congregations and poor attendance is a sign that their congregations don’t value corporate worship.  If no one is coming to church, maybe that is a sign that a pastor is doing a poor job of preaching.  Maybe it is an indication that the church’s approach to worship is outmoded or possibly it could mean that people in general have just lost interest in going to church?   The list could go on and on…

And it does…

Go on and on and on…

In the study of our book Knowing God, J.I. Packer zeroes in on another aspect of this concern.   Maybe some pastors are emphasizing the “personal” nature of a relationship with God so much that they are forgetting that God is majestic.

Let’s be honest here.  In an effort to get more people interested in church, are today’s pastors referring to God too much as a “person”?  Are some of today’s pastors giving the “impression that God is a person of the same sort as we are—weak, inadequate, ineffective, and a little pathetic” [Packer, 83]?  Packer cites a well-respected author [J.B. Phillips] who has written a book entitled Your God is Too Small.  In an effort to get people comfortable with church, are pastors preaching that God is smaller than He really is?

I have already used the appropriate word to refer to God a few sentences back; that word is not weak, inadequate, or ineffective. It is majestic.

Majestic means “greatness.”  When you refer to someone or something as majestic, you are really acknowledging their greatness and your respect for them.  Psalms 93: 1-2 says “The Lord reigns, He is robed in majesty….Your throne was established long ago” [italics mine]. “They will speak of your glorious splendor of your majesty, and I will meditate on your wonderful works” [Psalms 145: 5] [italics mine].  Peter in recalling his vision of Christ at the transfiguration says “We were eyewitnesses of His majesty” [2 Peter 1: 16, italics mine].

Let’s stop before we go too far, before we give the impression that God is distant and uncaring.  He is not distant because He is majestic but He is “far above us in greatness,” and therefore He should be adored, He should be worshipped, He should be praised.  When we make God too small, our faith is “feeble,” our worship is “flabby” [Packer’s words].

It is so common today to hear references to God in everyday talk.  Maybe that everyday talk is an indicator of how we have lowered our ideas about Him.  When a prize is won on a game show, the response is often “Oh my —!”  When the renovation specialist reveals the “do-over” on HGTV, the homeowners exclaim “Oh my —!”  It does not take much for us to invoke our Lord and Savior it seems.   When God is invoked, His majesty is probably not on that person’s mind.

But the God of the Bible is infinite, unlimited in space, time and knowledge.  God is all-powerful.  Packer says that “God has us in His hands; we never have Him in ours” [83].  Granted, God is personal but unlike human beings, God is truly “great.”   Packer urges pastors and parishioners to focus on the Bible.  “In all its constant stress on the reality of God’s personal concern for His people, and on the gentleness, tenderness, sympathy, patience and yearning compassion that He shows for them, the Bible never lets us lose sight of His majesty and His unlimited dominion over all His creatures” [83].

Packer writes that we don’t have to go too far into the Bible to see evidence that God is both personal and majestic.  In Genesis, God deliberates with Himself, He brings the animals to Adam so he can name them, He walks in the Garden of Eden, He calls out to Adam, He comes from heaven to find out how His creatures are doing, and He is grieved by Adam and Eve’s wickedness.  In short, God is not impersonal and indifferent; He thinks, feels, approves, disapproves, and shows interest in man.

But God is also the creator God who brings order out of chaos.  He brings life into being by His Word, makes Adam from dust and Eve from Adam’s rib.  He is the Lord of all that He has made.  He subjects mankind to physical death, flooding the earth in judgement.  He confounds human language and scatters the builders of the Tower of Babel.  He overthrows Sodom and Gomorrah.  He is present everywhere and He observes everything.  Packer writes the name God as El Shaddai “God Almighty.”  “It is not only at isolated moments that God takes control of events, either; all history is under His sway” [Packer, 85].

It is a delicate balance that pastors must find, that God cares for us all, but God is not on our level. 

God is a personal caring God, but God is not a person.  If pastors are emphasizing the “personal” nature of God at the expense of God’s majesty just to get people in the door, they should reevaluate their approach to their parishioners.  God’s word does not support this message.  Maybe the reason this approach is so popular is that it is just people being who they are; Packer calls them “modern people, and modern people, though they cherish great thoughts for themselves, have small thoughts of God” [83].

Maybe modern people really lack knowledge of God’s divine majesty…

The result: “feeble faith” and “flabby worship.”   

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