“Relationship not Religion”, Does empathy drive the church emotional experience?

I have been a Christian for about 17 years, I’m very certain of that, comfortable in that and won’t be swapping religions like handbags or shoes, ever. . There are lots of reasons for my certainty, and I’m grateful those reasons are not subject to the ebb and flow of emotion only, or I’d be a big conflicted mess. Ah, someone might say I’m one of those anyway, but not about this subject.

For my entire adult life, since well before I was a believing Christian I’d been told that Christianity was not a religion it was a relationship. This was usually done in the context of witnessing to me; it had a nice nonthreatening appeal to it, and was generally employed to address my objections against rules, or “organized religion”, or rituals. Even as an unbeliever I gave it credence for being a passable work around for those objections. Once I became a believer I embraced that line with the same zeal it had been used on me, and found myself with concern furrowed across my brow saying to others that no! no! no!, they had it all wrong about rules and holier than thou things, this was a relationship thing, not a dogmatic institution. Not sure if my words resonated with many folks, because looking back I realize I wasn’t comfortable with that cliche at all. Still not.

Since Ive read my Bible a lot, interacted with a wide range of Christians, done missions and prison ministry, and grown quite comfortable in my faith and the things of and about the faith, Ive finally established some confident beliefs of my own that do not coincide with many of the cliches that inform so much of today’s western evangelical Christianity. This relationship thingy is one of them. Lets look….


1. the state of being connected or related
2. association by blood or marriage; kinship
3. the mutual dealings, connections, or feelings that exist between two parties, countries, people, etc: a business relationship
4. an emotional or sexual affair or liaison
5. logic, maths 

So that’s the list of definitions for relationship that I found, we can argue on the nuances but lets stick with these as stated. Now look at the word relationship in terms of how its meant when we say “a relationship with Christ”. Number 5 is out. The back half of number 4 (sexual) is out, and I contend so is the emotional mention in number 4 because it says affair or liazon, like a one off one time thing, number 2 is out (lets not get into how the ‘blood’ has a meaning in Christianity, that’s clearly not what this is about). What does it leave?

Relationship per number 1., a state of being connected, and number 3. mutual dealings, connections or feelings between two parties. That’s what we have to work with.

Maybe it helps to state first what I am NOT saying. I am NOT suggesting that we do NOT have a relationship with our creator, not at all, quite the contrary. I am suggesting that the relationship not religion cliche implies something that is over spoken and over done. This thing finds its way into our music, our prayer language, and even certain routes of witnessing and emotional Christian apologetic discourse.

So, do we have a relationship with Jesus? Depends on what we mean by relationship. The cliche suggests its a relationship like parent/child, like husband/wife, or like friend/friend. I’m just asking here……really? Do we really want to make that assertion? Are we afraid to not go along with that assertion because it may out us as one of those seat warmers and not a real believer because real believers have this relationship? I confess, I suffered that fear thinking it would be a horrible reflection on me to admit these questions about the nature of the relationship aspect of my faith.

We ARE something ‘in relation to’ Christ, hence in that way there is a relationship. Our faith allows that we share feelings for one another, the Bible tells us His has feelings for us for us, and we know our feelings for Him if we have them….but lets unpack that. The feelings one has for Christ, do they look the same as the feelings we have for living people? Or is it really that kind of love we ought to default to anyway, meaning a commitment and willingness to sacrifice for Him/them? I say its the later. Relationship as a relational thing, say man/wife, is an observable two way dynamic, both sides observable to a third party, objectively and unambiguously. Is it possible to have that with Christ? The workaround here will be the fruit argument, but there again, that’s only observable in the human half of the couple, Christ and you.

Some will point to what Christ did, the ultimate sacrifice and its impact on mankind for all time as evidence of His love for us, taking care of that side of the two way street that is envisioned by relationship. Indeed His sacrifice is and should be more than sufficient to demonstrate love, no question there. He also lives, as our Bible tells us clearly, so he still loves us. But is it “relationship” as suggested?

I submit we are related to Him, hence we have a relationship TO Him, and while I can even say somehow we have a relationship with Him, I can’t leave it like that, and to leave it like that has invited all kinds of problems into our churches and the teachings of our hyper emotionalized churches. We presume much when He becomes a close and empathetic friend who we can kinda sorta work with on things ya know, seeing Him as being in a relationship with us where we can reason with Him, where we can garner His sympathy, or empathy, then bask in it, where we can convince Him that even though he may have said in scripture that something is ill advised, we now have a relationship with Him like we do with friends and family, where He (like they) will consider our circumstances and need and wants and offer us lots of “subject to interpretation” leeway.

The ultimate empathy buzz is to imagine the empathy of the creator of everything…..for you. “He knows how you feel”…..wow that’s great stuff, it truly is. But is that the most basic  composition of this relationship, or, is there some room for religion?

If we can get past seeing religion as mindless rote or idolatry, and see it as reverent worship and awe, I see those as good and worthy things, and I believe we have left them sadly behind in the quest for an emotional experience. I believe men are drawn to awesome things, to power from a benevolent God, to the promises of that same God, and to the fear and respect for God. These manifest outwardly more in religion than in relationship. In relationship we can wiggle around as to where we stand, we can try and convince the person we are in relationship with to see things our way, and if we imagine that person empathizes with us….which is the glue that makes love sticky, we can take “he understands” not to mean he comprehends, but to mean he endorses this behavior because He sees why I’m doing it…..He empathizes with my plight, I’m sad, lonely, and I need to divorce for example.

In that way, the imagined all empathy all the time over emotionalized relationship-NOT-religion is but an emotional construct that borrows some terminology from the Bible. Meanwhile Christianity is also, indeed, a religion.


4 thoughts on ““Relationship not Religion”, Does empathy drive the church emotional experience?

  1. In a way modern people struggle with this one on a different spectrum from people in Jesus’ time. I’d put it as that Jesus is Lord, the expected King, and yet we have a personal relationship with God through him. This is kind of like being brought into a royal family. You are obliged to obedience as well as bound by familial ties.

  2. It occurs to me to think about exactly how Jesus related to the people around Him. he was absolutely not the “personal Jesus” we see as His image today in churchianity. He didn’t become a husband to the women who needed more emotional connection for example, he didn’t literally replace human inter-relationships as much as he insisted folks be willing to drop those to follow Him. Imagine that, now.
    Telling the women that its great she wants more from her relationship with her husband, but that the pinnacle of her faith would be to set aside human relationships and FULLY rely on Christ, BUT….BUT…realize that that is not the same thing as is being taught today, where Jesus drops into a slot of human relationship, and is like the super duper bestest best friend she can ever have. The amount of submission to Christ that we all should demonstrate penetrates even the emotional realm and taking our thoughts and feelings captive….NOT validating our feelings no matter what.
    The royal family example is good to show the manner and hierarchy involved. Im just wondering if they get to feel shared empathy with the king as much as they crave, where He reacts overtly to each and every emotional whim…..the Jesus they have created does that. I have said before its like an imaginery best freind when you are a child, who always wants to play what you want.

  3. I like this. I’ve always had a little trouble with this idea of it being a relationship rather than a religion, and it wasn’t really a statement I felt at liberty to disagree with. I finally decided that I was ok with it as long as you specified what kind of relationship it was: subject/king, disciple/teacher, even daughter/father if you didn’t mean spoiled daughter. Sometimes it seemed what they meant was best friend or wife/husband, and I never really felt comfortable with the idea that each of us individually was the bride of Christ (the big time polygamist).

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