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Scope: I'm seeking answers from Protestant denominations.

The concept of a "personal relationship" is fairly natural and intuitive when we think of the interactions between two human beings, like friends, spouses, or parents and children. However, attempting to extrapolate this intuition and understanding to a relationship between a human and God isn't immediately obvious. Let me explain why I think this. In human interactions, we can dissect a "personal relationship" into several core components:

  • Awareness or Perception: In a personal relationship between two individuals, each person must be aware of the other's presence. Put simply, they must be able to perceive each other's existence and acknowledge their presence. It doesn't seem logical to claim that A has a personal relationship with B if A isn't aware of B's existence or cannot perceive B's presence. There must be a means for both parties to perceive and be aware of each other's presence for a genuine personal relationship to exist. In human interpersonal relationships, this perception and awareness is possible through our natural senses and a well-functioning brain capable of sound cognitive processing. This combination enables us to decode and interpret sensory input into meaningful concepts, like perceiving another person's presence.

  • Communication: In a personal relationship between A and B, communication is essential. A should be able to convey coherent messages to B, and vice versa. Moreover, A must recognize when B initiates communication and vice versa, which ties closely to the previous point on awareness and perception. A needs to be able to distinguish between moments when B is speaking and moments when B is not, making it possible for A to have reactions such as "Ah, B is addressing me now" (and vice versa).

  • Interactivity: Beyond communication, it should be possible for A and B to engage in many other forms of interaction. While communication is crucial, human interaction can extend to many more activities. For instance, A and B can play a game of chess together, play table tennis together, practice synchronizing moves in a dance routine (like tango) together, take turns driving a car together, and so forth. Notice how these specific examples require fairly equal involvement from both parties.

I might be overlooking some features, but the ones I've mentioned appear to be quite fundamental, particularly in human interpersonal relationships.

Regarding the concept of a "personal relationship" between a human and God, do the features I outlined (awareness or perception, communication, interactivity) retain their importance? Are there additional crucial aspects? Are there interactions that are possible between two humans but are not possible between a human and God? Conversely, are there interactions that are possible between a human and God but that are not possible between two humans?

In short, is there an established list of essential attributes in Protestant Christianity defining a "personal relationship" between a human and God?

References to official or reputable Protestant sources are encouraged.

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    1. The question is far, far too broad, and assumes a response will be a PhD thesis in scope. 2. The question attempts to humanise the relationship of God to the soul. 3. The question concentrates on human to God-ward, whereas the experiences documented in scripture are God-ward towards his own people.
    – Nigel J
    Commented May 9 at 20:48
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    This question has potential (hence the +1), and delimiting the scope to "canonical" is a good first attempt. However, what do you mean "canonical" here needs to be specified further; do you mean "biblical" (regardless of whose canon), do you mean recognized spiritual practice for over a long time (i.e. centuries) making it a "tradition"? And by "official sources", I hink you meant any tradition (Protestant, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, etc.) but you may want to delimit whether you would entertain LDS-only source. Commented May 10 at 1:28
  • You're overthinking this. It's not some special concept of relationship. It's just a normal relationship like with any other person. Does it make sense of talking about "essential attributes" of your relationship with your own parents or friends??
    – curiousdannii
    Commented May 10 at 4:05
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    @curiousdannii It's just a normal relationship like with any other person. - Are you sure? Does it make sense of talking about "essential attributes" of your relationship with your own parents or friends? - Yes. Everything can be studied and analyzed, including human relationships. If you disagree, how do you explain disciplines like sociology, social psychology, anthropology, ethnography, etc.? E.g., see apa.org/pubs/journals/fam
    – Mark
    Commented May 10 at 4:21
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented May 10 at 6:01

3 Answers 3

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You're right that relationships with both humans and God involve awareness and communication, but saying it's fundamental that relationships need interactivity beyond communication betrays a quite limited understanding of strong relationships based almost entirely on communication!

I don't think there is a distinctly religious concept of "relationship" which Christians use when talking about their relationship with God. It is fundamentally the same concept as our human relationships, though the outworking of that relationships will differ, just as the relationships between parents, friends, penpals, and internet friends will all be very different.

To describe what a Christian's relationship with God is like, we have the difficulty that how our relationship works now is not how it will be in the future. The pattern of our relationship with God is seen in Eden in Genesis 3, where it seems that God used to habitually walk through the garden with Adam & Eve. We have more of a taste of that during the incarnation, when Jesus ate and partied with his disciples. So in the New Earth I have no doubt that Christians will get to play chess or table tennis or go bird watching or anything else with Jesus. As the embodied revelation of God our relationship with God will be focused through our relationship with the person of God the Son, but that does not mean we will not still relate with the Father and Spirit. But I won't speculate on how that aspect of our resurrection lives will be.

After the Fall, the relationship between God and his people was strained. But throughout the OT, we still see that relationship portrayed in various ways: the relationship of a king and subjects, of a father and children, and as a husband and wife. These analogies all help us understand various aspects of our relationship with God, which cannot be reduced to any single way of looking at it.

In this life, a Christian's relationship with God is more limited in how its communication and interactivity can be expressed. We can start with awareness as the Bible's teachings are very clear, and not just that we have intellectual awareness of God, but that we have relational knowledge. So, for example, John 10:14-15: "I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father." If we think that our knowledge of God is limited we should remember that Jesus himself likens it to his own knowledge of his Father.

In terms of communication, Jesus goes on to say in John 14:27 that "My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me." The foundation of our present relationship with God is the asymmetrical communication of scripture and prayer. The scriptures are the living and active word of God, preserved for the whole church, and numerous passages show that God hears our prayers. By itself that would be adequate for a relationship with God, but many Christians also believe that at times God will also communicate through visions, dreams, or even directly audibly to his people. We should not think that the medium of communication must be symmetrical for a healthy relationship, as many human relationships show that is not the case, whether it's someone who can hear but not speak, and responds through sign or augmentative and alternative communication, or the very common case of an immigrant family whose children understand their parents' mothertongue, but only respond in English (or whatever else the common local language is.)

Lastly, the nature of our relationship with God has many dimensions. As our King we obey and serve him. As our father we trust him to provide for us and give us good gifts (Matthew 7:9-11). As husband and wife, Christ loves the church and gives up his own life to save us (Ephesians 5:25-32). As our friend Jesus weeps at the our pain and death (John 11:11, 35). As God's handiwork we are being increasingly conformed to the image of the Image of God who is Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18 and many others.) As the adopted children of God and siblings of Jesus we are being glorified as the children of God (Romans 8:18, 21). These are some of the most prominent Biblical depictions of our relationship with God, but there are many others too. Our multi-faceted relationship with God cannot be easily reduced or schematised, but instead should be seen as a fundamental category of theology in which the richness of Biblical data is to be explored.

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Last question first. (1) Is there an establish list of essential attributes in Protestant Christianity defining a 'personal relationship' between a human and God? Since Protestantism consists of a plethora of denominations that have different creeds and statements of faith, there could not hardly be an established list among them! However they may define such a human-God relationship, most do indeed aver that a Personal Relationship with Christ is necessary for salvation. He that hath the Son hath life. True religion is more than rite or ritual, but consists of relationship, they would all insist.

From the beginning of Creation, we are informed in Genesis, God is a God of dialogue. "He is there, and He is not silent", Francis Schaffer wrote in his book. [See Dialogue with Deity by Raymond Grant, commenting on every instance in Genesis where God talked to man, and man talked to God.]

Just as any relationship is broken when one is offended, so we were informed in Genesis, that man's offending God had broken that personal, intimate relationship. And such offence had to be forgiven before relationship could be restored; hence the necessity of Jesus's redemptive sacrifice on the cross to atone for man's sins.

Most Protestant denominations would agree on this much.

(2) Are there interactions possible between a human and God that are not possible between two humans? Absolutely! Many times in the Gospels it is stated that Jesus discerned their most inner thoughts. Jesus (God) knew what they were thinking. Unless a man is anointed with the charismatic gift of discernment, he does not have this ability...and is often deceived by the inner motives and schemes of another man.

Also, the Old Testament is replete with statements that declared that God looks on the heart of a man. And the eyes of the LORD look throughout the Earth to see... Thus, any relationship with God must be transparent and truthful. Or as Jesus said: God is a Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth. (John 4)

Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him with Whom we have to do. (Hebrews 4:13)

(3) Are there interactions possible between two humans but are not possible between a human and God? Of course not! Nothing is impossible with God who is almighty, all-knowing, etc. But this excludes sinful conduct, of course. It is impossible for God to lie (Hebrews 6:18) Which brings the discussion to the fourth question:

(4) Are there additional crucial aspects (to a personal relationship) besides awareness, communication, and interactivity? Yes. Ethical and moral qualities such as trust, faithfulness, truthfulness, transparency, et al. are essential. Without these any communication or interactivity is a sham. Just as in a marriage---which, by the way, God used as an example of God-human relationship both in the Old and New Testaments---so also in a God-human relationship, any violation of spiritual qualities leads to a divorce. And if not rectified, to eternal separation. Loneliness for all eternity would be a hell in itself.

Person Relationship with God is such an awesome privilege. Being able to communicate with Him any time, 24/7 is a blessing par none. And that He made it possible again, even though man has broken fellowship by sin, demonstrates the amazing attribute of God: unending love! Everlasting love. No wonder the psalmist composed so many hymns of adoration and exultation!

It goes without saying that a relationship with God begins with humility, confession, and repentance...and continues as a guilt-free life, wherein Jesus is not ashamed to call us brethren. (Hebrews 2:11), and God does not hesitate to call us sons (Galatians 4:4-7)

Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)

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It has been my observation and experience that the concept of a "personal relationship" with God, as it is often preached today, is a thing born out of the Revivalist movement. It centers around the "moving of the Holy Spirit," and similar theological philosophies, that provoke the feel-good emotions experienced during the animated services of this type of Protestantism. The "doctrine," if one could call it that, of a personal relationship with God, is most often encountered in the Pentecostal denominations, which place emphasis on baptism of the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, and being filled with the spirit of God.

However, while the concept of a personal relationship has become something of a household, common-man understanding throughout the Protestant denominations generally, the relationship, as described by those encouraging the perspective, is not Biblical. The Bible doesn't instruct us to seek out warm fuzzies or to daydream about going on walks in the park with God.

This is not to say that there is anything wrong with desiring such things, or with seeking them. By all means, if a person finds comfort in talking to God like a best buddy, all's the better.

But the relationship we have with God is a marriage. He is the husband. We are the wife. Our personal relationship with God is dictated by the bounds of this scriptural reality. If you want to understand the personal relationship, read Proverbs 31:10-31, and then the prophets in general. God interacts with us as the husband by providing us with the gifts of life and prosperity. We, as the wife, serve our husband by tending the sick, feeding the poor, educating the young, tending the stranger, etc.

As John says, "By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous." (1 Jn. 5:2-3)

That is the relationship. He provides, and we serve. He provides because he loves us. We serve because we love him. And serving him is done by serving one another.

The personal relationship has nothing to do with feel-good warm fuzzies or holding hands on the boardwalk. Nor do I think your criteria have much relevance with regard to the relationship with God. He's there, even if we can't sense or perceive him. We speak to him in prayer, and even if we don't always hear it, he speaks to us, sometimes with signs, circumstance, or incident. Whether or not we engage him, he engages us, and is always interactive with us.

I hope this gives you an edifying perspective to dwell on.

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  • It centers around the "moving of the Holy Spirit," and similar theosophies - Did you really mean "theosophies" (Helena Blavatsky?), or theologies perhaps? Relevant: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christianity_and_Theosophy
    – Mark
    Commented May 10 at 10:42
  • The definition I once read years ago was that theosophy was essentially a theological philosophy. But now that you’ve mentioned it, I checked myself, and I can’t find much more than this cult business by the same name. The intent was to say a theological philosophy. I’ll edit the post to reflect my intent.
    – AFrazier
    Commented May 11 at 0:09

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