During my first year in seminary, I stumbled across a sentence that would deeply shape my relationships with God, those closest to me, and the people I would counsel. It was a year when Scripture appeared to me as a series of fragments. They were all good fragments, but the pieces seemed to lack coherence — and that lack of coherence could sometimes feel painful. So I was always alert to books and ideas that could help me see one story in Scripture rather than an anthology of short stories.
I was reading J. Gresham Machen’s book The Christian View of Man with that in mind, and a comment caught my attention. It was something like this: as God is personal, so man is personal. Ah, here was a grand unifying principle for Machen; perhaps it would become one for me. Then I searched the book for how he defined personal, but I never quite found it. I did, however, file the observation away.
Around the same time, I read Biblical Theology by Geerhardus Vos. He wrote so well about Christ as the center of Scripture, which set me off in a direction that I am still on. As a result of that book, I would keep track of literature from Vos (and Catherine Vos’s children’s books), and that’s how I stumbled across the sentence. Vos gave me a perspective on God-as-personal that was both cognitively and spiritually satisfying.
To be a Christian is to live one’s life not merely in obedience to God, nor merely in dependence on God, nor even merely for the sake of God; it is to stand in conscious, reciprocal fellowship with God, to be identified with him in thought and purpose and work, to receive from him and give back to him in the ceaseless interplay of spiritual forces. (Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, 186)
Back and Forth
All these years later, I still remember what it was like to read those lines.
“Our relationship with God depends on words in which the conversation is passed from one to the other.”
“To be a Christian is . . .” Vos is giving me his understanding of the heart of the Christian life. I’m all ears. “Not merely obedience . . . nor merely in dependence . . .” Where is he going? Had Vos drifted into heterodoxy, and I am the last to know? “To stand in conscious, reciprocal fellowship . . . to receive from him and give back to him in the ceaseless interplay of spiritual forces.” That is what Machen meant by personal. Something was unlocked.
Today, the sentence might appear in shorthand whenever I say or write the phrase “back and forth.” Our relationship with God depends on words in which the conversation is passed from one to the other.
God says, “Let’s talk” (Isaiah 1:18). The conversation can then begin with him or me.
God says, “What is on your heart? Tell me” (Psalm 62:8). Then I tell him, and he hears what I say. He responds with compassion, or he simply enjoys that his child talks about what is important to him, and he acts.
Then he continues to speak, through his word, by his Spirit, and I get to be affected and changed by what he says.
Back and forth. Reciprocal fellowship. The ceaseless interplay of spiritual beings.
Brought Near in Christ
Moses comes to mind. After the exodus from Egypt and the people’s immediate descent into idolatry, God speaks to Moses about the people “you brought up out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:7). When Moses doesn’t protest, God speaks to Moses about how his consuming wrath may, indeed, be up ahead for the people. Then Moses understands that God is giving him room to respond, and he accepts the invitation. He appeals to God’s past promises to the people, his reputation before the nations, and the fact that they are “your servants . . . your offspring.” In response, the Lord “relented” (Exodus 32:14).
And the back-and-forth continues. The Lord says, “My angel shall go before you” (Exodus 32:34). In case Moses missed another invitation to speak, the Lord clarifies, “I will not go up among you” (Exodus 33:3). Moses, perhaps emboldened by the previous conversation, responds, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here” (Exodus 33:15). God’s response is again a simple one: “This very thing that you have spoken I will do” (Exodus 33:17). Back and forth. This series of conversations between God and Moses reaches its zenith when the Lord reveals that his steadfast love and faithfulness will now be expressed in forgiveness of sins (Exodus 34:6–7), which means that Moses might not be the only one who can engage God with confidence.
And then the Gospels come to mind. “The Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29), descends the ladder that separates heaven and earth, and his face is turned toward all of his people in the most intimate of ways. Jesus speaks, we listen and are reshaped by what he says, and then he invites us to speak, and he, God himself, is affected by our words to him. This is what God has accomplished in the gospel. In Christ, we have been brought near to God (1 Peter 3:18). Like Abraham, we now have been called friends (John 15:15), and we speak with each other.
God has now placed me among his people. This means that he brought me close to himself, and he invites me to speak — the more words the better — in a personal back-and-forth of knowing and being known. And he actually desires this personal closeness. Who would have thought it? When I look for how this has taken root in my heart, I notice that I am more eager to pray. I speak to God about the good and about the hard, often without any requests attached. I tell him more often that I love him. This, I think, has actually enhanced the fear of the Lord in my life rather than reframed prayer as though it were merely casual talk among friends.
“God has brought me close to himself and invites me to be personal with him, knowing and being known.”
This overflow has certainly affected my relationship with my wife. Until the ways of the personal God became part of me, I would invite my wife to share her heart, but I shared my own heart less — not because I was ashamed or she was reluctant to hear, but because I was more interested in hearing about her than I was in talking about myself. Now, each day, I prepare. What is on my heart today that I want to speak to Sheri? Then, of course, I aim to speak it to the Lord, who cares for me (1 Peter 5:7).
Each week this finds its way into my counseling. For example, after someone shares his or her heart with me, at some point I will say, “Let’s speak those things to the Lord.” With anxious people, God’s invitation to speak with him is the central message. Philippians 4:5–6 captures it: God is near, so don’t just be anxious and try to manage your world — talk with him. Collect your thoughts. Find words for your anxiety. And what are your worries saying? There is usually a message in them.
In my teaching, the Psalms appear more frequently. They are, after all, lessons in how to speak with God. I usually suggest that each psalm is a response to a question. “Tell me,” asks the Lord, “what is on your heart?” In my writing too, a recent book was titled Created to Draw Near. Vos was used to set me on this course decades ago.
As I observe the world around me, I find that this back-and-forth is so fundamental to the ways of God and his kingdom that it overflows throughout the world. For example, good friends share their hearts with each other. Spouses share their hearts with each other. That’s what you do with people close to you. Hold back and it feels like a betrayal.
All this is to say, here is a long sentence from a Dutch theologian that has touched my heart, and I pass it on to you. “To be a Christian is . . .” To obey? To depend on? To glorify? Yes, all these, but let your answer be reshaped by the personal God who created us in his image so that we can participate as no other creature can in the pleasure of an unending back-and-forth of words spoken in love.