A while ago (probably more than a year) I was pleasantly intrigued by a reflection by Kyle Potter entitled “Antithesis 2: Jesus Christ is Not My Personal Lord and Savior. Or Yours.” Rather than being a thoughtless screed against evangelical or pietistic thought or language as some might assume by the title, Kyle is pointing out a very real danger in using a particular terminology without fully embracing the meaning behind it. Indeed, he may well be pointing out a draw-back to a particular sort of Christian apologetic in contemporary American culture. His thoughts were brought back to mind by a series of Sunday School lessons Bill and I have been presenting on evangelism and the discussions surrounding them. Here’s how Kyle started out:
I have a personal computer. I have a friend who works as a personal trainer. Executives (and some pastors!) have personal assistants. Some people have personal shoppers. In the Old Testament narratives, pagans had personal gods, called household gods, a.k.a. idols. Folks loved to steal them from one another (See these passages and ask yourself what Im trying to do).
The clear connotation of the word personal as we normally apply it to people and things is that those things serve our own individual needs as we understand them and wish to have those needs met. We would even refer to them as my personal ________.
And in terms of the biblical narrative, it is a grave thing to refer to the living God with such language.
I was reminded of Kyle’s post by a few things. One was a comment by a committed member of our parish regarding evangelism. The issue, as he put it, was not a reluctance to evangelize but rather the fact that everyone they spent the degree of time with that they would want in order to approach evangelism was already Christian. The other was a comment related to me by Fr. Bill, relating to something a friend of his had said to his daughter a few years before: “Our Lord paid a very public price for your private faith…” The first incident illustrates just how much we’ve all imbibed the cultural proclivity to “keep private things private,” including our faith. I’m not being critical of our parishioner here, just reflecting on the fact that his comment became a point of conviction for me and, I believe, the way our culture encourages us to look at our faith. For instance, why would a Christian be reluctant to share their faith with a fellow Christian? Certainly there could be ways of doing this that would be offensive, i.e. presenting one’s own faith as superior and/or denigrating the other person’s belief, not accepting their statement of faith in Christ at face value etc.. But in general, it seems to me that the same testimony we give in the course of evangelism of the unbeliever is, in the context of a relationship with a fellow Christian, simple exhortation. The fact that we find it so difficult to share our faith, not only in the course of evangelism directed at strangers who may sometimes get offended, but also in the midst of our relationships with our fellow Christians… the fact that we are sometimes reluctant to share our faith with our fellow Christians for fear of rejection or anger shows that we have bought into the great lie of our age: the privatization of religion.
The dangers of this privatization go beyond a simple neglect of evangelism or fraternal exhortation, and extend into our human tendency to want to control God, a troubling tendency to think of God as a sort of divine Jack-in-the-box for whom specific actions on our part results in specific reactions on his. This is of course, exactly backwards–God is never on the defensive with us, he is never truly responding to us, the initiative is always his–there are simply times when we forget this. Given these problems, it would be helpful for us to reflect on the words of the Apostle: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” (Rom 1:16 ESV)