Developing a Personal Relationship With God
The Process by Rich Van Winkle
I ask you – bluntly: do you have a real personal relationship with God. Define it as you may, but be honest with yourself. If there is any doubt – even a trace of doubt, I assure you that you do not have such a relationship. It is an experience that you cannot mistake or forget. If your answer is “yes”, then I can hardly wait to embrace you. However, I suspect your answer is otherwise. It is more likely that you have a wishful relationship with God or a relationship defined by others that doesn’t seem real to you. I hope that your answer is not to be defensive or to take offense. My desire is to share something special with you – totally free of cost or obligation (well, at least not to me).
To develop a personal relationship with God costs only the delusions that you have built to avoid personal accountability to God. It obligates you only to a commitment: to the truth and a simple process. No one else needs to know either your decision to proceed – or otherwise. It is between you and God. My involvement is as catalyst and protagonist. Either function may be accomplished without personal involvement, although it seems helpful to have the support of others who share both the goal and commitment. If you continue reading, then I’ve already succeeded in the first role.
Committed or curious? It doesn’t really matter for now. We shall “walk” together down the path of possibilities. It doesn’t matter to me why you want to proceed – only that you do so with an awareness of what we will experience along the way. Consider this a warning, if you want. The path to God is glorious, but reveals truths that can be rather unsettling. These truths are about you – and about your life. You already know these truths and at their very mention, you may have already begun to recoil from them (reflexively). As we proceed, you should expect to experience both “fear” and emotion. This is normal and healthy. If you don’t that’s OK – you’re just “tougher” than most. I’ll tell you right now, however, if you can face God without tears in your eyes, you’re more than “tough”.
So, here we go – our first confrontation with a Divine truth. You are special – and you know it. You’ve always known it. From your earliest self-realization, you also realized that you were given the gift of life for one purpose: to serve God. No, I’m not suggesting that you were supposed to be a minister or a missionary. Our roles are individual – as individual as our gifts, aptitudes, and opportunities. Your role in life is not the same as mine. You are to serve God in the way God intended. No mortal can tell you how to serve God, but embedded within you is a “voice” that cries out for you to fulfill your Divine role. To the extent that you have done so, you have experienced great joy. And, to the extent that you have chosen otherwise, you have suffered. Perhaps your “suffering” has been primarily the lack of joy? We are capable of enduring/ignoring great suffering with great distraction. How much distraction have you built into your life?
Please know that I have no intention of being critical or judgmental. Nor is there any claim of “sinlessness” here. We all need distraction, recreation, and reprieve from the pressures of life. What we don’t need is the additional pressure caused by the choice of godlessness. By reestablishing your relationship with God, you will find less need for distraction. That is merely an incidental benefit.
One of the great mistakes in the doctrine of the Old Testament is deeply ingrained: “But the Lord your God ye shall fear…” (II Kings 17:39; KJV - and many other similar). It is human nature to fear the powerful. The common experience of being called into the Principal’s Office or the boss’s office should demonstrate the principle. God is overwhelmingly powerful and when confronted by such potential, we may well tremble. Because we have been taught to fear and since it is in our nature to fear in this circumstance, it would be unusual for one to approach God without some trepidation. Thus, we shall take a moment to deal with the fear of God.
Those lacking a personal relationship with God have little or no basis for trust. And, although church doctrine instructs us to trust in God (and our national motto says we do), we don’t do so easily. Likewise, you may not have reason to trust me, so my reference that God is trustworthy may have little value. I propose that the best way to gain trust for God is to assent to the reality – you have no choice but to trust God. If God is untrustworthy, you can neither fix it nor avoid it. Luckily, God is most trustworthy and you have no reason not to trust God. Having nothing to lose and much to gain, why not try trusting God?
Why is trust important? First, trust is essential to all meaningful relationships. Second, one can only expect to be trusted as much as they are willing to trust. And, finally, your relationship with God requires a commitment by you. In exchange for your commitment, you trust that God will offer grace. (Grace = A generous and helpful disposition with mercy and indulgence sometimes taking the form of an unmerited gift). After all, if there was no tangible benefit in forming and developing this relationship, why bother? If you’re the tallying type, then the tally for going ahead should include my promise that a relationship with God will improve your life and God’s promise of grace. In return, you are expected to offer a commitment to honor the purpose for which you were given the gift of life.
Let us move ahead to this commitment of yours. You must be very clear about what is required – a sincere commitment to honor the divine purpose inherent in your creation. I have no test for your sincerity and will not attempt to evaluate it. If you say that you’ve made this commitment, then I will accept that. God won’t. You might fool others. You can even fool yourself. You will not fool God. If you are not sincere, God has no interest in you. Neither do I. Neither should you. It is far better that you accept and acknowledge your unwillingness to make a commitment than to fake it. Perhaps more likely is the tendency of self-deception. We are perfectly capable of convincing ourselves of our sincerity – until tested. I promise you that you will be tested.
Looking ahead at the process, this is the basic progression:
God gave you life with an inherent purpose,
As you became self-aware, you also became aware of your purpose,
Things distracted and obstructed you so that you were diverted,
You knew that this was a mistake, but you went with the flow,
Over time, you grew increasingly aware that something was wrong,
Life became less joyous and you needed more distractions,
The emptiness or sense of incompleteness grew, but you couldn’t identify
the source or cause of it,
You began to search for answers – religion, meditation, psychotherapy,
drugs, other worthwhile commitments (distractions), etc.,
You made contact with me,
You read/are reading this work,
You either proceed with a commitment, try to proceed without, or
find some excuse not to,
If you make a sincere commitment, we’ll stop and discuss it,
There will be an exercise of guided introspection where we regain
awareness of your imbedded sense of Divine purpose,
We will suffer through the realization of failure and regret,
You will purge yourself of the past and become focused on your future,
You will seek God’s guidance and involvement in your future,
To the extent that you are sincere, God will respond,
You will be overwhelmed with awe and joy,
You will be tested by the rigors and distractions of life,
To the extent that you honor your commitment, God will become
part of you and your life.
You will develop a personal relationship with God that will become the
most valuable part of your existence.
For those with common Christian learning, you will see parallels in this process with those advanced by Jesus. The theme of repentance, forgiveness, and commitment is not new. This process has no underlying dogmatic assumptions and is very personal. There are no rituals, there is no penance, and there is no worshiping (although they don’t interfere). In effect, this is the shortest path I have found to God. There are certainly other paths – perhaps better ones, perhaps shorter ones. God doesn’t care which path you take so long as you seek the Divine.
For me to assist you, there are two options: indirect/impersonal or direct/personal. Although I am always willing to assist, I can’t be everywhere. So, I will continue to describe the process as best I can under the indirect/impersonal approach. This, of course, puts a greater burden upon you. (My role in the direct/personal path is combinational: encouragement, guidance, and a bit of pushing when needed). There is certainly no requirement for assistance or accompaniment. No one can lead you to God or offer any “introduction” regardless of how well “connected” they are.
The two parts of the process where I have found my participation to be most helpful have been in purifying commitment and guiding introspection. I like to think that my “moral support” is also helpful and I believe that we all benefit from loving goodwill. I had no one else along on my journey and still managed to find God. You can too. This work is somewhat of a “map and compass”. Follow it properly and you won’t get off track.
How easy is it to say the words: “I give my life to you”? How difficult it is to mean them. And yet, day in and day out, we give part of our lives to others without even considering it. As parents, we give a big part of our lives. Occasionally, we are moved by those who willingly risk (and sometimes sacrifice) their life for a cause or a fellow being. How difficult is it to give your life back to the One who gave it to you? It can be very difficult, but why?
I’ll be blunt: we’re all a bit more hedonistic than we like to admit. We hate to give up the “pleasures” of life. We know its wrong to be diverted by those pleasures, but our self-discipline is simply inadequate to overcome the temptations. This has nothing to do with “sin” – I’m merely acknowledging a natural and normal human trait. Life is not a game that God plays with us as the “pieces”. Instead it is an opportunity where God risks the investment of life on the hope that we will choose (with free will) to return the favor. There is no “punishment” for refusal or failure to do so, however, there is a price. That price is the relative loss of God’s continuing favor and grace. God doesn’t punish us for failure – neither does God reward it. And, there’s the intrinsic mechanism (conscience) that makes life less enjoyable when we choose to be less than God intended.
Getting back to the process and the next phase – your commitment to God… I hope that you can dig deep within yourself and find the will to renew your life. (No, this is not the Christian “re-birth”, but there is a similarity). You don’t have to give up your life to renew it. In other words, there’s no impetus here to quit a job, move to a mountain top (monastery) or otherwise modify the foundational parts of your life – unless those things are destructive, wrong, or plainly ungodly. You cannot make a commitment to God without also making a commitment to yourself. Your life is a precious gift. How can you face God while flaunting a wasted life? Your body is the vessel of this precious gift. Can you justify vandalizing this work of God? If you’re going to make a serious commitment to God, you must consider, address, and, if necessary, correct such things before you face God.
Again, there is no specific requirement that you “put your house in order” before you begin this process. There is the possibility that your commitment to do so is enough. My simple concern is that a sincere commitment doesn’t rest upon future action – it results in immediate action. I recognize that many will hope that God will assist them in meeting their commitment. This notion tends to arise from common Christian teachings: that God’s grace extends to all who ask for it. While I cannot say that God is not that gracious, I would remind Christians of the first teaching of Jesus – Repent! I suggest that the first step (and perhaps requirement) in seeking a relationship with God is to demonstrate worthiness of a second chance. An apology is a good start; a commitment to correction is a good follow-up; but the most convincing start is a sincere commitment that results in tangible positive change. (This is the core teaching of the Epistle of James). It is your choice, but I advocate the self-test of significant positive personal change as a preliminary step in approaching God.
There is no pattern or model for your commitment. It serves no purpose for me to propose mine or to suggest some commitment made by others. Besides, to do so deprives you of the “soul searching” that is a desirable part of this process. Truly, if you stand and look at yourself in a mirror for a while, and can’t come away with a clear vision of what is necessary, then you’re the odd one. If can you sit and peer through all the veils you have erected in your mind to hide the bright light of God’s purpose and not come up with an idea of the form for your commitment, then you are unusual. If you can sit quietly and listen to the voice inside and not hear what is necessary, then you are selectively deaf.
Feel confident that once you honestly seek your Divine purpose that it will make itself known – and that there will be no doubt about it. You won’t have to analyze, reason, or choose. It may not come in clear and complete conceptualization. You may not have a plentitude of details. But you will have a singular and compelling direction for your life. Again, don’t try to “figure it out”, just look or listen – it’s already there. You’ve simply hidden it from yourself.
There is no reason to continue until you’re sure about your commitment. Don’t presume that it will come in time or as you follow along the process. Proper commitment is a prerequisite. I know that you can’t know what comprises a proper commitment. Neither do I. But I know that you will gain a solid sense or surety when you’ve made a sincere commitment to God. It might be something seemingly simple. The key, again, is sincerity.
Once you have this commitment, and are sure of its worth, you’ll be pleased to share it. You don’t have to, but I think it’s a good idea to try it out on some mortal before taking it to the immortal One. You’re not looking for “feedback” from them, you’re listening to yourself. If you can look me in the eye (or someone you trust) and share your commitment, then I think that you’re ready to proceed.
The next step is the easiest and the hardest one. There is nothing complex or demanding about approaching God. There is nothing more frightening. (I’m a mountaineer and a bit of a daredevil – the fears I’ve experienced there pale by comparison to that of facing God for the first time). I’ve already mentioned this fear. Perhaps you won’t feel it. Don’t think that you need to or should fear God. I tell you, there is no basis for this fear. But then I tell climbing students that there’s no need to be afraid of heights and that doesn’t remove it.
I don’t know how you’ll feel about this experience. Commonly, there is a strong combination of awe, elation, and humility. I think those are wonderful, but they come after you’ve taken the first step (a bit like rappelling off a cliff). This “first step” seems difficult, and that’s all right. Again, there is no single right way to proceed. The best I can offer is general guidance.
Many people in human history have taken this step towards God. No one (that I know of) has hinted that they regretted it. Many have written about their experiences and they are quite diverse in their nature. I have both personal experience and direct experience with others. So, I will try to generalize the sum:
Approach God with humility,
Approach God with appreciation,
Approach God with contrition,
Approach God with trust,
Approach God with love.
I doubt that these need much explanation. Frankly, I suspect that one could approach God with a “Hey Dude, What’s Happening?” and God would smile upon them. It doesn’t seem to be that simple, and, in truth, I’m not sure why. Again, there may be other means; all I can do is tell you about one that works. I think of it as dialing the right number on the telephone. You only get the party you want if you dial the right number. Here, you only get through to God if you have a working combination of humility, appreciation, contrition, trust, and love. There is no “formula” or secret balance that I know of. Thus, I suggest that the answer is to come prepared with plenty of each. In that case, there is always success.
Yes, I said “always successful”. That doesn’t mean that everyone who seeks God with some humility, appreciation, contrition, trust, and love will make the connection. But it is both my experience and belief that everyone who makes a sincere commitment to God and finds in themselves abundant humility, appreciation, contrition, trust, and love will make the connection. I can’t tell you how much is enough, but you’ll know. It will “feel” right.
When assisting in the process, there is opportunity to discuss these things as is suited to the individual. Here, I must take a minute and discuss each briefly. I hope you will bear with me…
Humility is easy for some, difficult for others, particularly some men. We seem to equate humility with weakness and some men are loath to acknowledge weakness. Other than recognizing why we resist humility, I think the basis for humility comes from an accurate conception of God. This isn’t
and the movies – it isn’t Charlton Heston that you’re seeking to meet. There is no semblance of man and God. The entity and being of God are more unexpected than the wildest alien creature ever conjured up for TV (although not “scary” in any sense). While this may or may not be accurate, I propose that you think of God as a departed/deceased relative that you care about – who now knows your every secret, every deed, and every thought. Think of God as the parent who controls your allowance for eternity. Think of God as the Great-Aunt who might bequeath you twenty million dollars. Think of God as the coach who decides if you get to play in the big game. Think of God as the teacher whose grade determines if you graduate. Think of God as the Creator of the Universe, the most powerful being anywhere, and the giver of life. Is humility so difficult? Hollywood
Appreciation is easy for many, when they consider what they have to be thankful for. For those who are destitute, ill, or depressed, it may be more difficult to find appreciation. More than a few times I’ve been asked, “What do I have to thank God for?” The answer is pretty much the same: the gift of life. The obstacle here is that many think that because God gave them life, there was a concomitant duty to make it a “good” one. My response is “why?” Why did God assume responsibility for your life? You were given the gifts of existence, self-awareness, opportunity, and access. Did you make good use of them? Did you have choices that would have made better use of them – options you decided against? Of course you did. We all did. God didn’t assume responsibility for your life by giving you the gift of life. Whatever misfortunes you’ve suffered have either directly or indirectly been the result of your choices or random selection – not God. Your appreciation is for the opportunity of life, regardless of the result (so far).
And, while I’m on this subject, I will digress a bit more. Much of what we consider “hardship’ or “suffering” is hardly either. In relative terms, we need not look far before we see others who deal with greater hardships and far more suffering and still find grounds for appreciation. Some have learned to appreciate that suffering, like satisfaction, is a good part of living (although that can be carried to improper extreme). I propose that if you are unable to find appreciation, then there are easy exercises to help you. Visit a mental hospital. Live with a “street person” for a week. Spend a day or two in a large city jail. Try doing without your remote control. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist).
Contrition is difficult for some. It requires acknowledgement of your error – the mistake of choosing to be less than you were meant to be. This begins with recognition of what you were meant to be, continues with admission that you made conscious choices knowing they were contrary with your intrinsic purpose, and concludes with an honest regret for having done so. Contrition fails under any of the three steps: lack of recognition, refusal of admission, or denial of regret. Each can be a complex matter with some persons, but the essence is pretty basic. It appears that most people easily recognize that their potential was much greater than their realization. Many place the blame elsewhere or deny that they had a choice. A few simply have difficulty showing honest regret – often because they have yet to affirm that they would do otherwise given the same choice again. If there is difficulty here, there is great advantage in a “second opinion”. It is far easier to see mistakes by others than by us. If you are having trouble with contrition, I suggest that you find someone whose opinion you trust and ask them to assist you in reviewing your major life decisions. Parents and siblings tend to have a talent for this.
Trust (already discussed) is easier said than felt and easier felt than applied. Saying that you trust God is a start, feeling trust for God is minimum, and showing that you trust God is preferred. The Christian notion of “blind faith” is a step beyond necessity, but faith is a key component in the showing of trust. I think of the goal here as “applied faith”. It is difficult for me to reflect back to a time when I had to accept the existence of God based of faith alone (having no experience with God). For me, the foundation of faith arose from science and reason: I found that the evidence led to only one logical conclusion – God must be real. (Since some think that faith is the belief in things for which there is no evidence, I counter by saying that they must not have faith in God because there is plenty of evidence). What’s lacking is proof. I can’t “prove” the existence of God because I have no physical evidence that is compelling. My “faith” was the translation of evidence and logic into firm belief – but that was just my way of finding faith. I have known others who were capable of acceptance and belief without rigorous intellectual testing. You need only to determine what method will lead to your faith.
Love is a many splendor thing. The splendor of God’s love is beyond words, beyond reason, and even beyond imagination. Love is measured in sacrifice and for you to demonstrate love of God you must assess your willingness to sacrifice for God. If your love is mere thoughts or feelings, it will probably be too little. The problem here is straightforward: you’ve yet to get to know God, how can you love God? Some find it easy to love unknown others. The firefighter that enters a burning house to save a stranger has demonstrated such love, even if they don’t consider it such. We tend to confuse the feeling of love with the existence of love. It doesn’t matter whether you “feel” love for God at this point. What matters is that you express love through action. Can you express love that you don’t feel? Of course you can – just consider your acts of kindness, your anonymous charity, or your compassion for unknown others who have suffered. These are acts of love that are not based upon any feelings of love for the person. Indeed, the very same actions demonstrate your love of God, because every kindness, most charity, and all of your compassion are Divine.
Once you’ve carefully considered your commitment and prepared your “package” (humility, contrition, appreciation, trust, and love), you are ready to meet God. In some cases, you won’t need to do anything. At some point in your preparation, it will simply happen. Your desire, commitment, and preparation will automatically open the “channel” and you will find yourself with God. But don’t fret if this doesn’t happen. Sometimes it takes a little more focus or effort. In no case should you get frustrated or upset – neither with God nor yourself. Patience is a virtue and persistence pays, so keep at it. But don’t rely upon ritualistic or tokenized efforts to make the connection. In short, don’t pray for it.
I do not mean to speak against prayer, but we have been indoctrinated into both misunderstandings and flawed expectations regarding prayer. I guess I may as well go ahead and say the same about “church.” If you find it helpful to focus or otherwise to pray, attend church services, or seek God in church, there is no reason not to. There is also no reason to do so. God is neither confined to particular buildings (or places) nor to a particular form of address. Prayer doesn’t work because of carefully chosen words, the manner of prayer, or the “proper” place. Prayer works when your “heart”, your faith, and your spirit align with God’s purpose. Enough said.
Meditation may be a better approach than “prayer” (although I think they go together). In this regard I find that the Hindus are well ahead of we “westerners”. If you want to study methodology for connecting with God, there’s a starting point. But the issue is not methodology. God doesn’t care about your method of seeking connection. God wants you to succeed – but on your own. Like a parent wanting to help their child learn to walk, the best approach is to let them work it out in their own way. Accept that falling down is part of the process. God is going to be there, but wants you to learn for yourself, even if it means falling down. Such is both a requirement of the free-will promise and the love of God at work.
I suppose that you’ve already guessed that I’m not going to pass along some “magic chant” that makes the connection with God. I can’t tell you to go a special place and follow a specific checklist that will connect you to God. What I can do is promise that the foundation detailed herein works. I can promise that you will connect with God if are sincere and diligent. And, I can offer to help when there’s a problem. Beyond that, its between you and God. I know that God wants the connection and will be “listening”. It is therefore up to you.
Finally, I offer two general thoughts. First, don’t expect “magic”, voices, a vision, or any other particular result. Such expectations interfere with the process. Besides, the result will exceed any expectation you may create. Secondly, don’t try to “push” or “force” it. This process is one of reflection, consideration, and profound change. Few will manage to make the connection quickly. Most will take days, some longer. Even if you don’t succeed as quickly as you’d like, honor the process - it works. (You might even want to “back off” and enjoy the process - without getting bound up in it).
I know you’d like me to tell you about the result. Many have asked about my personal experience. But, it’s just that – a personal experience, a very personal experience both in terms of being private and in being unique to me. When I believe that it will help in a particular situation, I open up a bit, but frankly, there is no relationship more special, more personal, or more private than that which one shares with the One. It’s my opinion that few (if any) of those who go around exclaiming their relationship with God have actually made the connection. That is contrary to my experience and to that of those who I know to have a connection. I would be pleased to hear about your experience, but I certainly understand if you choose otherwise.
May God be with you.
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