Ever struggled to comprehend what God is like? What is his personality, his character? What are his true desires and attitude toward you? In Hebrews 1:3, God’s word says “The Son [Jesus] is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.” So we can look at Jesus and know we are accurately seeing the whole person, God. But have you ever longed for a fuller picture of who Jesus is? We’re provided conversations and stories of his life in the gospels, but they still feel a bit like an outline vs. a three-dimensional figure. I often have strained for more.
During each year I’ve walked with Jesus, he continually points new light into areas I’ve relegated to “been-there” status. So many times I’ve entered well-tread portions of the Bible only to have new insight catch my eye. Spelunking through the caverns of God’s word with the guide he provided, the Holy Spirit, is where a textured, rich picture of him as a person is found. During these expeditions, I’ve gradually discovered the biggest obstacle to knowing him better had been me; not because of the effect of sin, but because I have not treated him as a person at all.
Think of how you interact with someone you care about and who cares for you. What attributes or gifts are inseparably tethered to them in your mind? Are they jovial or dour? Do they laugh much and loudly or rarely emit a chuckle? Perhaps they are quick to affirm your strengths? These are the colors that fill in the outline. And what is your speech like with them? A conversation with one who knows you, and whom you trust, is unfettered by fear or posing because those elements arise from mistrust and self-protection. Intimacy with a friend does not require any special rhythm or tone; no key words or phrases are needed. Does this characterize your prayer time with Jesus? Or do you find yourself attempting to generate a feeling, trying to imagine the sensation of really talking with Jesus? I have certainly caught myself working hard to that end. Wouldn’t that suggest we don’t really believe Jesus is listening or even there at all?
Continuing to wish for actual conversation with Jesus while pretending to pray validates the world’s perspective on prayer. I’ve read many articles in secular publications observing rather condescendingly that, while prayer is imaginary and a bit delusional, if it makes people feel better, why not? So, let’s put ourselves under that lens and ask the question: Is feeling better really the purpose of our prayer, the reason we seek God’s help? If the answer is yes, it’s not surprising we struggle with getting to know Jesus as a person.
Talking with Jesus the man ought not to take place in a detached or unique manner any more than with other people. This is where I suspect many of us have accepted the idea that making prayer easier makes it better. In some cases, we’ve allowed our appreciation for formulas to infiltrate and influence the presentation of prayer. It is embedded in our flesh – structure, predictability, low risk, comfort, and safety have overwhelming allure and snake their way into our dealings with each other and God. But none of these are present in the actions of Jesus the man, and none belong in a healthy intimate relationship with anyone. They actually impair intimacy by constraining free and true expression, all for the spurious promise of warmth and pleasant, non-confrontational living. The result is a meaningless and irrelevant relationship. Even praying God’s word, if devoid of genuine need and honest expression, can be empty and without value. So then, how should we pray?
Think about how those who were blessed to physically spend time with Jesus interacted with him. Read through the dialogues captured by God’s Spirit in the gospels. What sort of relationship and conversation do you find? While the situations vary dramatically, I see three elements common to “gospel interactions” which are consistently commended: Honesty, humility and hope.
Honesty is the only place from which any of us can truly begin. Until we are honest with ourselves and Jesus, healing will remain a longed-for but unrealized gift. This hit me hard one day when I abruptly understood the absurdity of hiding truth from him prayer. Who am I talking with? God – he already knows all of it, has known longer than even I! Yet that reality escaped me for years. Hiding the truth from myself and from others was equally futile – I sought to conceal my faults, my weaknesses, my flaws in an attempt to put off experiencing the severe pain of reality, just until I could figure out how to heal on my own, clean up my act. Ironically, all my hard work was ensuring that healing could never take place, because before a wound can be cleansed and restored, it must be exposed and examined. When talking with God, the creator of all things, the one who gave up everything in exchange for me, honest words are the only ones worth speaking.
Humility and honesty are swatches of similar but different fabric, inextricably threaded together. While honesty opens the door to healing, humility lets us step through, relying on Jesus to deal with the risks over which we have no real power. Here is where faith in him emerges from pleasant idea to powerful ally and from comforting thought to unearthly peace. Genuine trust in God being for us (Romans 8:28;31) and longing for and loving us (Isa. 30:18; 62:5; Ps. 86:13; 1 John 4:8, 16) begins to solidify. Humility is unlike honesty in that it tends to be learned gradually, our spiritual eyes becoming accustomed to looking into reality unfiltered. But once we begin and have experienced the freedom and relief of walking with the Holy Spirit in this way, we realize simultaneously that we can never go back. And we never want to.
The sustaining energy buoying us along through all of these hard changes is hope. Without hope, or if hope is put off or rests on nothing substantial, our hearts grow ill and weak (Prov. 13:12). Like wood to the invigorating warmth of a fire, hope charges our passion and wakes us to crackling, genuine life! But the hope of true life must be driven by a real source, an eternal source, or we’ll overburden whatever source we find, heaping dreams on until it collapses and disillusionment threatens to drown us. In my life, I’ve tried to recruit many things and people to carry my hope – family, friends, my work, myself, even worshiping, serving and teaching in church. None could bear the infinite weight hope demands.
There is only one person who can lift it; he’d been offering since I first met him, but I hadn’t quite exhausted the other options – those which didn’t demand honesty or humility. But once I relented to Jesus, hope surged and his love wove all three of these threads of the gospel into a stunning, enlivening fabric.
Even understanding all of this, however, it can still be difficult for me sometimes to truly grasp Jesus’ person-hood. I don’t want to settle – I want to know him like I know my best friends, but it can be difficult to connect the dots, even though God’s word reveals him perfectly. The connections are there, but my tendency at times is to just read a passage of scripture and be done. It’s when I dig deeper, when I ask him to show me more, that barriers dissolve and new caverns appear, rich with treasures.
Read 1 John 4:16 again. Three words leap at me: “God is love.” The words alone are profound, but I’m not sure they really help me relate to Jesus as a person. After all, what is love? Now since God’s word is a whole, not just a collection of parts, we can (and often must) use other pieces of it to help us understand what is being said. 1 Corinthians 13 is one of the most frequently referenced portions of God’s word, often referred to as the “love chapter.” Reading through, we find wonderful illumination of the many facets of God’s complete love which are to characterize how we treat our brothers in him. Now, try reading the statements in 1 Cor. 13:4-8, but this time substitute what we learned from 1 John 4, replacing “love” with “Jesus.” Illumination!
Such simple connections as this, overlaying the word of God onto itself, have dramatically refined my insight into Jesus’ desires, his strength, his empathy, and his heart for me as his friend and brother (John 15:12-14; Romans 8:17). These are real descriptions of his personality! In response to digging just a little deeper, the word of God blooms from distant dissertation to intimate letter; from astringent antiseptic to the rich, warm aroma of a bakery. My prayers, once stiff and delivered cautiously, become raw, confiding in my closest friend, laughing and crying with the one who knows my dreams and feels my suffering and loves my heart. It isn’t irreverent; it’s real and the only prayer Jesus is truly interested in listening to. There is no need to shape what I say to him in certain phrases or patterns. Jesus is here, closer than I can know, and he is always available. We don’t talk over a cellphone or online – I hear his voice and feel his touch in my soul, and praying becomes easy and flooded with restoration and assurance of his love.
So release any constraints you feel from expectations or etiquette when you go to your dearest friend. He wants to hear the pure truth from your heart, and with it, he will make you truly free.