If You Want a Personal Relationship With Jesus, Become a Catholic

As a Protestant Evangelical, if there was one criticism of Catholicism that I heard more than any other, it was that Catholics didn’t have a “personal relationship” with Jesus the way we Evangelicals did.  Indeed, this idea of “personal relationship” was at the very heart of my understanding of American Evangelicalism and was what, in my mind, most set Evangelicalism apart from Catholicism, with all of its “impersonal” rituals, hierarchy, etc.  The hoopla over the “Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus” video earlier this year is an exemplar of this.[1]  Once I started scratching the surface of the stereotype, though, I discovered that the truth is the exact opposite of what I always believed as an Evangelical, and Catholicism actually emphasizes an individual’s personal relationship with God far more than anything I encountered before becoming Catholic.

The reason for this is actually fairly simple.  When, as an Evangelical, I talked about having a “personal relationship with Jesus” and how that set me apart from Catholics, I wasn’t really talking about my ability to pray directly to God or do anything else that might increase my chances of one day seeing God face to face.[2]  I vaguely knew that Catholics didn’t really object to that notion of “personal relationship.”  Rather, what I was talking about was my own personal ability to interpret the Bible and determine, for myself, what was (and wasn’t) true Christian doctrine.  It eventually occurred to me, however, that this had nothing to do with whether my relationship with God was “personal” or not.  In fact, it actually made it harder for me to have any kind of relationship with God, as I’ll try to explain.

To start with everyday experience, I think we can all agree that it requires at least two people if there is going to be a “relationship.”  For example, no one ever says, “Do you know that guy Joe?  He has a great relationship with himself!”  If someone said something like that, we’d think they had a screw loose.  But, by asserting that Joe has the authority to determine for himself what is and isn’t true Christianity (which would include determining the orthodox understanding of who Jesus is) and then praising him for having a “personal relationship” with that Jesus, Protestantism is essentially doing exactly that when it praises Joe.  And this approach just doesn’t work.  As Chesterton put it when making a similar point:

I want to love my neighbour [and Jesus] not because he is I, but precisely because he is not I.  I want to adore the world, not as one likes a looking-glass, because it is one’s self, but as one loves a woman, because she is entirely different. . . .  A man may be said loosely to love himself, but he can hardly fall in love with himself, or, if he does, it must be a monotonous courtship.

Only when I gave up the supposed “freedom” to decide what constituted an orthodox understanding of who Jesus was—and recognized that responsibility rested with the Catholic Church—did I begin to realize what I’d been missing out on and to see what “personal relationship” really meant.  As a Protestant, I’d been totally caught up in just trying to figure out who Jesus was.  Was he the Jesus of the faith healers who promised me health and wealth?  Was he the Jesus of the liberation theologians who promised an end to oppressive political regimes?  Was he the Jesus of the white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants in this county who oftentimes seemed to believe that the point of Christianity had been to lead to the founding of the United States?  Etc.  Once I was released from the futility of these questions, I could see that none of them really had anything to do with how I “personally” related to Jesus.

So, you may ask, what does “personal relationship” mean within the context of Catholicism?  I think the answer is this:  God, who is wholly “other” from me, desires for me to live with him forever and, because of that, he gives me his grace to help me develop and deepen my friendship with him so that, when I die, I will hear the words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. . . .  Come share your master’s joy.”  And I do that, individually and personally, through:  praying, reading Scripture and other devotional literature, participating in the sacramental life of the Church, and striving each and every moment to live my life in accordance with the Church’s teachings.  Through each of these, I can come to know—and love—Jesus more and more and experience His love for me more and more.

This is particularly true of receiving Our Lord in the sacrament of the Eucharist.  What could be more personal than receiving Christ Himself—Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity—in the consecrated bread and wine of the Mass?  Each time I receive, and the priest or Eucharistic minister holds up the host and says, “The Body of Christ,” I’m blown away by the fact that I am literally beholding Christ with my own eyes and that He has humbled Himself to become His people’s very food.  Nothing could possibly be more personal.

The same is true of the sacrament of Reconciliation.  Once I understood that the priest can only speak the words of absolution because he is acting in persona Christi (in the person of Christ), I saw that going to Confession is an encounter with Christ himself, working through the priest.  As with the Eucharist, the Confessional is an extraordinarily personal thing.[3]  When done correctly, you are out loud baring your soul–all the worst things about yourself–and then, in response, hearing out loud that you are forgiven.  Nothing I experienced in Evangelicalism came close to being as incredibly personal.

So, if all of this is the case, what is it that Evangelicals are criticizing when they take Catholics to task for not having a “personal relationship” with Christ?  Well, I think it’s actually two things, neither of which has anything to do with the personal-ness of a Catholic’s relationship with Jesus:  (1) Evangelicals’ perception that many Catholics don’t take their faith seriously; and (2) their sense that much of Catholic practice is ritualistic and repetitious.  On the first of these issues, it would undoubtedly be a good thing if everyone who calls themselves a Catholic knew their faith and practiced it consistently.  But that has no bearing at all on whether the Church calls her children to a “personal relationship” with Our Lord.  The simple fact of the matter is that she does.  And, on the second issue, I can only say that, as a Protestant Evangelical, I was only too quick to judge the hearts and intentions of Catholics participating in the Mass or reciting the Rosary (for example), both of which are admittedly repetitious.  But Scripture never says that there’s anything wrong with repetition, in and of itself.  It’s only vain repetition (or, in the words of a more modern translation, “babbl[ing]“) that presents a problem.  And, as I’ve discussed before, our day-to-day life—including our most significant human relationships—is full of repetition so it’s quite natural for our faith lives to be as well.

The bottom line to all of this is simple:  on this issue of “personal relationship,” as with all of the others I struggled with in the process of becoming Catholic, my objection was based on a completely wrongheaded notion of what the Catholic Church really taught and utter confusion  regarding the meaning of the terms I was using.  So when I finally woke up to the fact that what I really wanted was a “relationship” with God, not the ability to define God for myself masquerading as a relationship, the choice was easy, and Christ’s Church was waiting for me with open arms.


[1]               For EXCELLENT Catholic responses to this likely-well-intentioned-but-nevertheless-hopelessly-confused take on Christianity, see here, here, and here.

[2]               Indeed, in my more Reformed moments as a Protestant, I would have denied that there was anything that I personally could “do” that was beneficial to my salvation.  Rather, it was all up to God.  And that makes for a pretty one-sided “relationship,” so what does it matter if it’s particularly “personal” or not?  Saying that a person has a “personal relationship” with the Calvinist God is like saying a robot has a “personal relationship” with the engineer who programmed it.

[3]              And the fact that another human being–the priest–is involved in Confession doesn’t make Confession any less a personal encounter with Christ.  If we have a problem with God using matter and human, tangible things to convey grace to us, then we have a problem with Christ Himself–who was fully human in addition to being fully divine.

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15 Responses to If You Want a Personal Relationship With Jesus, Become a Catholic

  1. This was so good!

    When I converted to Catholicism after years as an Evangelical (and later a “Reformed” Christian), the #1 warning I heard was that I would lose my “relationship” with Jesus. “So where is that in the Bible?” is my favorite response. Indeed, it’s a newfangled American idea. You hit the nail on the head with the fact that the driving motivator for this so-called relationship is the ability to interpret Jesus as a person deems fit. Is there any wonder the Protestant church is in the state its in?

  2. Pingback: Andy Warhol was a Ruthenian Catholic Sacred Liturgy | Big Pulpit

  3. russ rentler says:

    Great to see you guys putting it out there! I too have found Christ much more personally in Catholicism than in 31 years as an evangelical.

  4. Peter Soet says:

    HI Jason,
    I like to consider myself a Cathlostan ,, I love the Catholic church and I love the Protestant church as well. Jesus has and will always use what we foolish humans mess up to His Fathers glory and if you look at the beauty of the true Entire Christian Church as a whole it looks a bit like a big Old Oak Tree. With the Orthodox and Catholic Church as the Solid trunk, the Baptist and Mennonite big branches and the Evangelical, Alliance and leading up to the new church plants in Elementary schools and movements like Young Life, who plant in High Schools to Love Teens where they live and brings them the Gospel, it is all very very awesome.. We need to remember who is in control and his plan is working.. Put yourself aside as our new Pope has done and stand back and look at the bigger picture.. There is a Christian Church in every corner of North American neighborhoods that will meet any broken soul and help them be released from their bondage.

    Personally I feel that the Catholic Church could learn from the Evangelical Churches and look for what is good in them and what has been saving souls. Martin Luther was “Protesting” the indulgences mandated by the Pope of the time whereby the church was charging for confession. He was kicked out of the Catholic Church. But on the other hand a certain King in England had a wife that could not produce a son (as he thought), and when the Catholic Church would not grant him an Annulment, he took the Churches away from Rome and started his own Anglican Church.. All man, but Jesus has turned that to work for the bigger picture..

    Why not have more songs and Worship music to prepare more fully for Mass before it starts. I witness the power of Worship Music prior to Mass when I took my Youth Group from St.Clare’s Catholic Church to a Eucharist Midnight celebration and we had about 600 kids singing to music they could relate to and feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit before the Mass started and by the time Mass started you could feel the strong presence of the Holy Spirit in the huge room. Everyone wants to cut the Mass to a quick 50 minutes because most Catholics do not understand what all the ritual is and they are there because they want their kids to go to church and have not been Born Again in the Spirit themselves yet. We need to focus on Jesus and forget about the politics of which of his Church’s is the best.. Go to the one the you can connect with him the best and where you feel the true presence of the Holy Spirit.. I have been to some really bad Catholic services where the Priest were freaking out at kids that were too noisy ..I moved on. I been to Catholic Masses where I truly felt the presence of the Holy Spirit and felt the Priest was very blessed and Pi

    I experienced the Holy Spirit’s strong presence during a Cursillo weekend which is an awesome Catholic Evangelical movement… Which by the way means to Evangelize and that is what Jesus calls us to do “Feed his Sheep”. Cutting down Protestant faiths to build up the Catholic Church or visa versa is counterproductive to “Feeding his Sheep” .. yes there are problems with all denominations and there always will be as long as the enemy is in the World.
    In General though on both sides we have Christians that are going to church on Sundays and do not know their Bibles at all.. We need to study more and know the word so that we can speak to others about “what would Jesus do” and know ourselves what He would say so we can better re-act like Christ would to situations that those of the world will throw at us. God’s Love is abundant and bigger than the Catholic Church and the Protestant Church’s. He is in many many Ministries and out feeding the Hungry and Loving the Captive with many many different colors and creeds. I pray that the Holy Spirit will fill the Hearts of all Cathlostans worldwide and that we all will be truly Born Again as Jesus calls us to be.. Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
    John 3:2-4

    Personally, I am learning more from the Christian Alliance Church, I am attending and do not feel my home is in the Catholic Church right now , maybe partly due to my Divorce, but also to do with weak sermons I receive whenever I go to a Catholic Service. Jesus said that Divorce is never acceptable , I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Matthew 19:8-10 Yet even in the case of “sexual immorality” the Catholic church will not grant thousands and thousands of Catholics to be remarried in the Church all because of one bad King. There are many reasons I do not attend the Catholic Church regularly, Partly due to the attitude that you must be Catholic to share in the Eucharist (which is not of Christ). . I see that the Protestant Churches relate far far far better to the youth and young adults. I could go on for days on my experiences there where I have personal stories Church’s priority on paying down the mortgage over the needs of the youth.

    I love the Eucharist yet, I feel Jesus is present in Communion that I receive and there only criteria in receiving is that you accept and believe in Jesus. I confess my sins to Jesus and Brothers in Christ and I was re-baptized as an outward symbol and profession of my Faith in Jesus as He commanded us to do. Yes, sometimes I feel that the Church I am in changes too easily and is trying new things too quickly and I hold my breath and miss that solid slow-to-change way of the Catholic Church.. My prayer is that all the Truly Christ centered Christian Churches in the World would recognize each other’s similarities and stop badgering on our differences. We all Love God and His Son Jesus and hope to walk through this life with the Holy Spirit doing His works through us and in-spite of us.

    Go in Peace to Love and Serve the Lord as ‘our’ new Pope also does.

    Blessings Brothers and Sisters in Christ.

    Peter

    • Jason says:

      Peter,

      Thanks for writing. In a number of blog posts, Nikki or I have addressed a number of the issues you raise with Catholicism. For the reasons we’ve stated in those posts (like this one and this one), I can’t go along with you on your two basic premises: (1) that the differences between Protestantism and Catholicism don’t matter; and (2) that individual believers get to choose which doctrines they’ll accept or not. I believe with every fiber of my being that the differences do matter. That’s not to say I believe non-Catholics are necessarily headed to Hell or that Catholics are necessarily headed to Heaven. I don’t believe that, nor does the Catholic Church teach that, as I discussed here. On the particular point you raise about the Eucharist, I do feel compelled to say that, just because you “feel” like Christ is present in Protestant communion, that feeling doesn’t make Him present–particularly since the Protestant congregations it sounds like you are attending expressly deny His Real Presence. Do you believe your feeling trumps their doctrine?

      Beyond the above, I can only say in response to you that I was a Protestant from the time I was born until I was 35, and I never experienced such peace and joy in my faith life as I have since becoming a Catholic. I’ll be praying for you, as I hope you’ll be praying for me.

      Blessings,

      Jason

    • Peter says:

      One should attend services at Monastic order parishes for a tremendous experience. Personally, I attend Benedictine services. Monastic masses are once a day, different than the other services. This is at St Anselms in St Louis. Each service on Sunday has a little different feel and style, yet adhering to the essence of the tradition Catholicism embodies. I enjoy each of their distinct presentations.
      While I appreciate your critiques of the Church and the Magesterium, I feel that it is oversimplified and inaccurate, e.g. that current views on divorce for example are completely formed by ‘one Bad King’ hundreds of years ago…this is not helpful in promoting open discussion. While one might think that the Benedictines for example are as rigid as they come (and perhaps they are) with respect to adherence to the Doctrines, even they respectfully non judgmental and surprisingly ecumenical. I personally have had many lively discussions on a range of controversies. Every instance walking away refreshed and enlightened but not necessarily convinced to alter my opinions. The take home message: no one is condemned for incomplete adherence to the Doctrines but encouraged to strive to the pinnacle Christ sets before us. Good to strive but being human, by definition, means we will likely fall short lest we all be saints. I for one believe that maing this honest effort and dedicating my existence to trying to have daily growth and improvement will get me where I when I fall shy of the aforementioned pinnalce.

    • Alray says:

      Jesus is talking about the Sacrament of Baptism

      John 3:5-6
      5 Jesus answered: Amen, amen I say to thee, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
      6 That which is born of the flesh, is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit, is spirit.

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  6. I love this post and can totally relate to it. When my husband and I came into the Church in 1999 (after being evangelicals), I can remember thinking “Whew, I don’t have to read the Bible anymore.” Of course I knew that wasn’t true, but what I was feeling was a sense of relief that I no longer had to figure our for myself which Bible translation, which commentary, and which Bible study I were the right ones. My entire relationship with Christ no longer hinged on my ability to find a “quiet time” and read he right Bible passages and the right interpretation. I was (am) grateful for the authoritative teaching, but also for the intimacy with Jesus that can only be found in the sacraments.

    Thanks for this post!

  7. Pingback: GYPSY Religion | The Roman Road

  8. sariaru says:

    Great article! I have really tried to make this clear to my Evangelical parents (I recently joined the Catholic Church myself). They seem frightened or put off by the Mass, when really there’s no other more personal encounter than receiving Our Lord in the Mass.

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