Rules Don't Change Us—Relationships Do

MY GOD, Thou has helped me to see . . . that blessedness does not lie so much in receiving good from and in thee, but in holding forth thy glory and virtue: that it is an amazing thing to see Deity in a creature, speaking, acting, filling, shining through it; that nothing is good but thee, that I am near good when I am near thee, that to be like thee is a glorious thing: This is my magnet, my attraction.             Valley of Vision

When I was fourteen, my life radically changed. Until then I lived in Chicago. I was the oldest of three children, and we lived with our mother in a tiny one-bedroom apartment on the north side. I slept on the couch; my siblings slept on the floor.

Mom was an alcoholic and had many emotional problems. She gave us little supervision. At fourteen I thought that was great. I could do whatever I wanted. I had no one telling me what to do, no rules other than "Don't get in Mom's way."

Then the unthinkable happened. My father was awarded custody of us. After my parents' divorce, he recommitted his life to Christ, remarried, and moved to the Chicago suburbs. He knew of my mother's behavior and had been petitioning the court for years to get custody but had never won. This time he did.

I had to move, and at his home there were rules. Lots of rules. We could not go to movies or dances. We could not play cards. We had to attend church two times on Sunday and once during the week. We had to go to school regularly and do our homework. We had chores to do and could not use the phone whenever we wanted.

There were other rules, but I can't recall all of them. What I do remember is being angry—very angry—and having a heart that was as warm as a stone in Alaska. I didn't like all the rules, and I especially didn't like having this God business shoved at me.

But I remember something else, too. My father and stepmother were patient with me. They understood that I was experiencing a radical change. I remember my outbursts, and their kindness when I deserved punishment. I remember my stepmother taking me shopping for new school clothes after I arrived with nothing but the clothes on my back. I remember getting three meals a day (something I don't ever remember getting before) and even regular snacks.

I remember their prayers, and most of all I remember their love, which began to dismantle the brick wall I had built around my heart. It was their love, not their rules, that began to affect my life. Yes, the rules helped to provide me with some structure, but my heart was not responsive to the rules. It was responsive to the love that was behind them.

Has anyone ever significantly influenced your life? Caused you to change direction? Perhaps a teacher, coach, good friend, mentor? Maybe your spouse or even your parents? If so, this is how it should be. God has made us relational beings, and we are significantly affected and changed by our close interpersonal relationships.

Psychologists and counselors have known for years that the most important ingredient for successful therapy is a good relationship. Study after study confirms that many different therapeutic models can be effective in counseling someone, but without a good relationship the client cannot be helped. As a counselor, I might have great skills and all the information necessary to help someone, but if that person doesn't trust me or can't relate to me, I will never impact his life in a positive way.

I'm afraid that we Christians sometimes lose our way toward spiritual maturity because we focus more on the rules of the faith than on our relationship with Jesus. We understand Christianity as "contractual instead of personal."(1) We think that if we confess our sins we get forgiveness and eternal life. We do, but Jesus offers us far more than forgiveness. We now have a personal and intimate relationship with him in which he calls us his family and his friends.

For a long time I was content with being saved and making sure that my doctrine was correct. My devotions, when I had them, consisted of reading the Bible and looking for what I was supposed to do or obey. I did not know God deeply or intimately. When I was honest with myself, I had to admit I didn't experience the joy of the Lord or God speaking to my innermost heart, which I'd heard other Christians speak of. I knew the right things to believe, and I "believed" them, but my belief never resulted in any significant change of heart. I was the same person, struggling over and over again with the same sins.

Over the years I have learned that being saved is much more than getting a ticket to heaven. Jesus explained this when he said: This is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent" (John 17:3, italics mine). Knowing God starts now and lasts throughout eternity. We will never know him completely because he is infinite. But knowing God will change us, for we cannot encounter the eternal I AM and remain the same.

In my journey to know God I have taken many paths that I thought would lead to deeper intimacy with him. As a young Christian in my late teens and early twenties, much like a young child with her parents, I related to God mostly by asking him for things. I prayed for good things to happen and bad things to stop happening. As I matured, I asked God for more spiritual things. I wanted the fruit of the Spirit and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Then I wanted experiences with God. I wanted to see miracles. I wanted to feel the Holy Spirit's power in my life. Throughout this journey, my prayers consisted of one-way conversations. I talked to God, telling him what I wanted and needed, but I didn't take time to listen to him, to allow him to reveal his heart to me.

Recently God showed me this through my son, who is away at college. During a typical phone conversation, Ryan was making requests for money and other needs when he suddenly stopped and asked, "Mom, how are you?" I nearly dropped the phone. His question marked a radical change in our relationship. I was no longer a parent who just provided for my child's needs; I was a person in a relationship with another person who cared about me. It felt really good.

These days my prayers have changed. I no longer think of prayer as presenting my list of needs or wants to God and then waiting for him to respond with a yes or no. I no longer pray for special spiritual experiences (although I would be thrilled to have them). More than anything else, I want to know the person of God. Beyond enjoying his gifts, I want to know the giver. As the apostle Paul prayed, "I want to know Christ" (Philippians 3:10). My prayer life has turned away from getting answers from God toward knowing God.

But how? What does it take to know him, to have an intimate walk with him?

From The Truth Principle by Leslie Vernick copyright 2000, WaterBrook Press. All rights reserved.

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