By Debie Thomas

It was five o-clock on a Saturday morning, and I must have been the only person awake in my college dorm. That’s exactly how I wanted it as I slipped past my roommates, tiptoed down to the common room in my pajamas and slippers, and chose a comfortable spot to kneel down on the faded carpet. In my hand was a pamphlet I’d picked up the night before at a conference hosted by one of the Christian groups on campus. It was entitled “God’s Love Language,” and it contained — I can’t believe I’m confessing this — step by step instructions on “how to receive the gift of tongues.”

The theme of the conference had been “Developing Intimacy with God.” The guest speaker was a proponent of charismatic gifts — tongues in particular — and her primary claim was that God wants all Christians to enjoy ecstatic, unmediated spiritual experiences of his presence. “Our Creator desires an unfiltered, one-on-one relationship with each of his children,” she told the fifty or so of us who had gathered in the college chapel that early spring night. “He wants to commune with you in a profoundly personal way. The only obstacle to developing intimacy with God is your reluctance to claim what is yours.”

As if to prove her point even as she made it, the speaker paused several times during her talk to close her eyes, tremble, sway, and utter soft, enraptured phrases in a language only she could understand. God, it seemed, broke through to her quite regularly, communicating with such loving urgency that her mind and body could barely contain the experience.

After the talk, she offered an altar call for anyone interested in receiving one of God’s “love languages” for themselves. A few of my fellow students went forward, but I — too self-conscious and skeptical to risk a public display — did not. Only as I was leaving the chapel did envy get the better of me. Grabbing a pamphlet from the stack by the door, and tamping down whatever God-hunger had compelled me to attend the event in the first place, I fled.

But there I was on my knees at the crack of dawn the next morning, earnestly hoping to “claim what was my own.” Ready-beyond-ready to “commune personally” with God.

I don’t remember now the detailed instructions the pamphlet outlined. Something about confessing my sins and welcoming God’s presence into the room. Something about opening my mouth and allowing the “holy syllables” of God’s love language to emerge. Something about long streams of vowels and consonants.

I do remember that I followed the instructions with great earnestness, my hands shaking with fear and anticipation. But despite my efforts, I didn’t speak in tongues that morning. Or the morning after, or the morning after that. Or, in fact, ever. For maybe a week I tried every morning, and cried hard each time the experiment failed. Not so much because I cared about charismatic expression specifically, but because I desperately wanted that elusive, essential thing I had been primed from early childhood to consider the living heartbeat of Christianity: a “personal relationship with God.”

When I was growing up, having an intimate personal relationship with the divine was the number one metaphor the Christians I knew used to describe their faith. The metaphor was everywhere in our Sunday morning music, which often sounded more like romantic ballads than worship songs. It was ubiquitous in sermons, and in the favorite spiritual expressions of my fellow church-goers: “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion.” “Jesus is my best friend.” “God and I laugh together, cry together, do life together. “It’s a two-people-in-the-same-room kind of experience.” “I can feel his arms around me.” “He walks with me and talks with me and tells me I am his own.”

So saturated was my religious upbringing in this language of “personal relationship,” I assumed for years that the language comes straight from the Bible. It doesn’t. Nowhere in Scripture are we called to enter into a personal relationship with Jesus or with God. Nor, in fact, are we instructed to invite Jesus into our hearts as our personal Savior. I’m not saying that these expressions are wrong, or that they don’t hold value and meaning for many people. But I am wondering if contemporary Christianity’s emphasis on personal experience has more to do with our secular context — our therapeutic culture, our fascination with self-expression and personal narrative, our unhealthy dependence on quick fixes and easy highs — than it does with the Bible or with Christian tradition. Yes, it is absolutely true that the God of Scripture is relational — he loves, he cares, he saves. But it is just as true that the God of Scripture is mysterious, transcendent, and wholly Other. Even the most well-intentioned attempts to domesticate him must fail in the end.

Given my own story, I’m also beginning to wonder if the language of personal relationship might do more harm than good when it is universalized. I can’t speak for others, but I have spent many years now feeling spiritually deficient and fraudulent because I don’t have a personal relationship with God. I’ve certainly hungered for one for as long as I can remember. But to claim that I experience any kind of intimacy with God that is truly personal — that is comparable to the kinds of emotional, physical, and social intimacy I share with other human beings — would be a lie. God doesn’t “walk with me and talk with me and tell me I am his own.” I don’t “feel” his arms around me. We don’t laugh and cry together. Jesus is not my best friend.

I have no idea why the metaphor of personal relationship hasn’t worked for me. Who knows what complicated mixture of nature, nurture, personality, and history go into the ways we each find and commune with God? I’m not for one moment denying the experiences of Christians who do claim to share deep intimacy with their Creator. I’m just finally being honest enough to admit that I don’t, and to consider whether it’s time to let this long-held expectation go. Maybe it’s time to decide that I’m not deficient or fraudulent, and to trust that there are many ways of relating to God — communal, sacramental, intellectual, incarnational — that have little to do with personal intimacy or emotional catharsis. Maybe it’s time to accept the hunger itself — the aching hunger for God I’ve known since childhood — as itself a kind of holy intimacy, a promise of a union still to come. After all, what is faith but the living out of a hope that is not yet realized? To yearn for what is still beyond my grasp, to reach out with my imagination towards something distant, elusive, and Beyond — isn’t this the essence of faith?

And if it is, won’t my love and compassion for a broken, hungry world grow deeper if I acknowledge my own hunger? Won’t I become God’s hands and feet more readily if I confess his Absent Presence in my own life?

During his last days on earth, Jesus spent a lot of time talking about absence. “You will look for me, but you will not find me, and where I am, you cannot come.” After his resurrection, he allowed “doubting” Thomas to see and touch his scarred body, but commended more highly those who trust in God without the benefit of personal experience: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Despite everything I’ve just written, it still feels scandalous to admit that I don’t have a personal relationship with God. I hope someday it won’t sting so much to tell this truth. But I hope even more fiercely that I will learn to give voice to what I do have — hunger, yearning, and a limping but dogged faith that lives in the shadow of an irresistible, searing absence. Maybe these are holy syllables of another kind. Maybe these are the first words of my love language with God.

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