“How do I build a relationship with God?” is a question I’m often asked, and it’s tempting to make the process more complicated than it needs to be. This post is revised and updated from its first appearance in 2014.
“Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection. If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into the thing that has them…They are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very center of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you: if you are not, you will remain dry.” ~ C.S. Lewis
Don’t make it complicated!
If you have a desire to build a relationship with God, that is the essential first step. That sets your intention and focus. The rest is a matter of taking regular baby steps towards God and being open to what happens.
A dear friend of mine used to say, “If you want to shoot ducks, you have to go where the ducks are.” I’d suggest this is saying the same thing that C.S. Lewis expresses much more eloquently in the quote at the top of this post. If you want to build a relationship with God, you have to go, metaphorically, to where God is and place yourself in His presence. Only in that way can you receive the gifts He wants to give you.
God is always present but never pushy
God is not going to knock you over to get closer to you. We have the freedom to invite Him into our lives or not. You’re not likely to wake up one morning with the certain feeling that you’ve become friends with God (though that could happen). Like human relationships, it usually takes an investment of time and attention and caring, and it’s up to you to take the initiative of moving closer to God—of placing yourself in His presence and just abiding there. It’s rarely dramatic. You might not even feel anything at all at first. But when you do this over and over again, the emotion and belief will follow, and you’ll begin to trust He is with you and is guiding you.
Apply the KISS principle
Don’t make this hard – the KISS principle (keep it simple, stupid) comes to mind. Think of building a relationship with God just as you would a relationship with anyone else. Suppose you wanted to get to know a certain person better. The way you would do that is the way you can approach your relationship with God:
- Take the time to touch bases with God, acknowledging and giving thanks for His presence.
- Invite Him to come close — to sit with you at your heart’s kitchen table and just hang out.
- Talk: Some days this will feel like pouring out your heart. Other days, it will be casual chit-chat. Occasionally, all you’ll be able to manage is, “Here I am, Lord. Please be with me.” Between friends, it’s all good.
- Listen: Remember to make it a two-way conversation and expect to hear from God, just as you would from a trusted friend. God wants you to know how much He loves you. He wants to offer support and guidance to you. If you don’t take the time to listen, you won’t hear His “still, small voice.” For me, this communication from God comes in any of various forms: thoughts, feelings, music, reading, nature, other people, or circumstances. Sometimes I only recognize God’s voice in retrospect.
- Make contact throughout your day. Being in touch with God doesn’t have to be only during times of meditation or prayer. It can be while you’re on the run, when you’re in the midst of activities, or when you have a moment’s break. Malcolm Boyd wrote a wonderful book back in the sixties whose theme is still relevant today: Are You Running With Me, Jesus?
- Take action when you hear God’s voice. If you feel God is guiding you or telling you something, take action on it as soon as possible. The insight you receive may only show you where to take the next step, but once you’ve taken that step, the following step will appear in front of you. Even though there is electrical power in your house, the light doesn’t turn on until you have flipped the switch to harness that power. God’s power is waiting for you to remember to flip the switch.
Can you improve your relationship with God? People are often unsure how to respond. The promises of grace suggest one answer; the experience of life often suggest another. In the confusion, we often do nothing. We stagnate.
But there is a way forward. Can you improve your relationship with God? Yes. Let’s turn for help to the seventeenth-century Puritan John Owen. In his classic book Communion with God, Owen says,
Our communion with God consists in his communication of himself to us, with our return to him of that which he requires and accepts, flowing from that union which in Jesus Christ we have with him. (Works, Vol. 2, 8–9, modernized)
Note how Owen makes a distinction between “union” and “communion.” In the gospel, through faith, we have union with God in Christ. From start to finish this union is God’s gracious work toward us. But this union leads to communion with God — a genuine, two-way relationship of give-and-take in which our involvement matters.
This provides us with a great incentive and a great assurance:
The great incentive is this: If we respond to the circumstances of our lives with faith, if we resist the lies of temptation, if we make use of the means of grace, then we will have greater joy in Christ — our communion with God will improve.
The great assurance is this: Whenever we sin and fail, we can fall back on divine grace. If we have true union with God, it is not affected by the ebbs and flows of our battle with sin. The union forms the great foundation of our lives.
You Can’t Improve the Union
This simple distinction between union and communion helps us resolve a common problem. When we want to stress God’s grace to us in Christ, we often say that nothing can make our relationship with God stronger or weaker than it is. We cannot make God love us any more than he does already. After all, God first loved us when we were deep in sin (Romans 5:8). He didn’t love us because of any beauty or goodness within us. Can you improve your relationship with God? In this sense — the union sense — the answer must surely be no. For we are loved in the Son (Ephesians 1:4–6), and we cannot be more loved than the Son. God’s love is not contingent on our actions.
One of the tests we sometimes use to check whether a person has really grasped the grace of God is to pose two scenarios.
Scenario One: One day a person has a great morning devotional time in the word. By midday they have shared their faith with three unbelievers. In the evening they go to the church prayer meeting.
Scenario Two: Another day, the same person gets up late and misses their morning devotions. At work they join in ungodly banter and duck opportunities to share their faith along the way. They feel too tired to attend the evening prayer meeting at church, yet manage to summon up the energy to have a blazing argument with their spouse. At night they turn to God in prayer.
Test question: Is God more likely to hear their prayer in scenario one? Is he less likely to receive them and accept them in scenario two?
The correct answer, of course, is, no. For we do not draw near to God in prayer on the basis of our works. We draw near to the throne of grace through the blood of God’s Son. And the blood of Christ does not require our good works in order to work more effectively for us. The person in scenario two has just as much access to God as the person in scenario one. They can come with as much confidence, if they come in Christ’s name.
Can you improve your union with God through Christ? No.
You Can Improve Communion
But we know by experience — and the Bible — that what we do does make a difference in our relationship with God. If I spend devotional time with him in the morning, then I typically find I’m less susceptible to temptation and more aware of God’s presence. It’s not an exact correlation, but there seems to be a cause-and-effect connection. In the same kind of way, I know from experience that when I sin, prayer seems harder, church involvement more of a burden, joy in Christ more remote. The apostle Peter does say that what we do and say can hinder our prayers (1 Peter 3:7). Does what I do affect my relationship with God? The answer seems to be yes.
Owen’s distinction between union and communion makes all the difference. Owen says we do have a genuine two-way relationship with God: He spends much of his book Communion with God explaining ways God relates (or “communicates”) to us and how we respond (or “return”) to him. There is a real giving and receiving. There is loving and being loved. There is delighting and being delighted in. God gives real and specific life, hope, freedom, and forgiveness, and we respond with real faith, love, and worship.
Can you improve your communion-based relationship with God? Yes.
Saved to Enjoy God
Salvation is not just about having our sins forgiven and escaping God’s judgment. God doesn’t simply save us from sin and death; he saves us forsomething. Owen says Christ’s “great undertaking in his life, death, resurrection, ascension, being a mediator between God and us . . . [is] to bring us an enjoyment of God” (Works, Vol. 2, 78). Our relationship with God is not simply an objective fact. It is also a subjective experience. Faith in Christ brings us into a real, two-way relationship of joy with the triune God.
What we do makes a real difference in our experience of this relationship. We can enjoy the relationship, or neglect it. We can pursue God, or avoid him. We can find joy in God, or look for joy in the empty treasures of this world. Our actions make a difference.
But as Owen helps us understand, our communion with God flows “from that union which in Jesus Christ we have with him.” Our union with God was initiated by the Father in election, secured by the Son at Calvary, and is applied by the Spirit in regeneration. It is all of grace. We don’t create this relationship, we can’t improve it, and we can’t break it. It rests on God’s electing love and the finished work of Christ. We are secure in him.
If today you feel far from God, do not despair. Like a swimmer in the waves of the sea, reach down by faith and feel the solid ground of your union with God beneath your feet. It will always be there. And then redouble your efforts to pursue the joy of communion with God.
What’s the “More” God Wants for You?
MARCH 26, 2018
“God can do anything, you know — far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us.” Ephesians 3:20-21 (MSG)
What are the deepest longings of your heart — the “more” you want in your life that you’re afraid to voice out loud?
Over the years, I’ve learned to trust God with the secret desires of my soul. And I can testify to God’s faithfulness when it comes to giving me more of His vision, His presence and His calling, all for a purpose bigger than mine.
Have you ever stopped to wonder what God’s response would be to your heart’s cry for more?
I believe the Savior of the universe would bend down in the most caring of manners and say, “More what? And how much more? My supply is unending. My mercy is limitless. My grace is more than you need.”
The more God wants for your life is beyond comprehension. Our key verse today, Ephesians 3:20‑21, tells us, “God can do anything, you know — far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us.”
It changed my thinking and my life when I realized the power of this truth: God can do anything.And not just a little bit more than we dream of. Far more.
So what are your craziest ideas, deepest longings and grandest plans — the things you’ve barely allowed your soul to imagine? Because even those grand plans aren’t enough. All of heaven is looking down upon you, shaking their heads and saying, “Is that all? Is that all she wants? Is that all he can dream up?”
Allow me to stretch your thinking, because we serve the ultimate Big Thinker. No plans of yours even compare to God’s. The amazing truth is, God can take every limitation that’s been put on your life — by you or by others — and expand your heart and purpose in a way that’s way bigger, wayhigher, way more effective than anything you could imagine. You can never out-dream God.