Who's Your Best Friend?
What to say when Protestants ask your family about your relationship with Jesus
© 2001 by Paul Thigpen
"Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ"? As a teenage Pentecostal evangelist, I used to ask that question often when I spoke to crowds of young people. Now that I'm Catholic, I wonder sometimes how many of the Catholic teens in my audience really understood what I was talking about.
Of course, the notion of "a personal relationship with Jesus Christ" isn't exclusively Protestant; millions of Catholics know what it means to be devoted to Him. But Catholics aren't always accustomed to speaking of their faith in these terms, and that can lead to confusion when your children are challenged by zealous Protestant friends. Here are a few insights to keep in mind if that situation should arise.
Knowing, Loving and Becoming Like God
What exactly do Protestant Christians mean when they ask whether we have a personal relationship with Jesus? The intent of the question is to press us into recognizing what is actually an essential claim of the Catholic faith: Our lives should have an overriding goal — namely, knowing, loving and becoming like God, which is possible only through knowing, loving and becoming like Jesus Christ, His Son. This truth is affirmed by the Scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the pronouncements of Church councils and the lives of the saints throughout the ages.
St. Macra, a martyr of the early Church, summed up what it means to relate personally to Jesus in this way. "Jesus Christ is my all in all," she told her persecutors. "He's my treasure, my life, my happiness … and nothing can separate me from Him." Even a Pentecostal evangelist could say a hearty amen to that!
The question about a personal relationship with Jesus is a useful one for Catholics and all Christians to ask themselves because we sometimes have a tendency to treat religious activities as an end in themselves. Yet the Church makes it clear that prayer, the sacraments, Scripture reading and meditation, works of charity, and spiritual disciplines of all kinds are intended to take us to God. These things enable us to know, love and become like Him so we can enjoy Him both now and forever.
Lord, Savior, Friend
Your children might well wonder: Exactly what kind of personal relationship with Jesus are we talking about? The beginning of an answer to that question lies in a more specific challenge they may have heard from Protestant friends, who often ask: "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?"
To accept Jesus as Lord is to agree that He's the rightful Ruler of all things, the One in charge of the universe. To accept Jesus as your personal Lord is to recognize His authority over your individual life — to acknowledge that He has the right to command, and you have the duty to obey. It also means, of course, that with His help, you'll do all you can to obey Him.
To accept Jesus as Savior is to accept that He's the only One who makes it possible, through His life, death and resurrection, to be forgiven of the guilt of sin, healed of the consequences of sin, and made fit to live in fellowship with God forever. That's what it means to be "saved." To accept Jesus as your personal Savior, then, is to look to Him to provide you personally with the grace to be saved.
Yet there's more. At the end of His earthly ministry, Jesus told His disciples that, having accepted Him as their Lord, they weren't to think of Him only as Lord. "You are my friends if you do what I command you," He said. "No longer do I call you servants. …but I have called you friends" (John 15:15).
To have the personal relationship with Jesus that He desires to have with us, then, is to obey Him as Lord, trust Him as Savior and enjoy Him as Friend — in fact, as our best Friend. Not surprisingly, as with any other friendship, we have to invest time and effort to cultivate it. That's why God gives us the spiritual resources of the Church.
Becoming Friends With the Lord
To become good friends with someone, we have to spend time talking together to get acquainted, to share what's inside. When that Someone is God, such conversation is called prayer.
If a friend continually wrote us letters, how could we deepen that friendship if we never read them? The Scripture and the other teachings of the Church are God's "letters" to us. The more carefully we pay attention to them, the richer our friendship will become.
Friendship is built on truthfulness and trust as acquaintances reveal to each other who they really are. They have to identify and overcome whatever differences come between them. Since God is totally holy, but we sin daily, our sins come between us. So to overcome that difference between our sin and His holiness, He's given us the sacrament of Reconciliation. There we admit the truth about who we are and trust Him to forgive us and change us.
Friendship thrives in intimacy — a word that comes from the Latin term for "innermost." To achieve that kind of close contact with us, Jesus gave us the Eucharist, in which we receive His own Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity into the innermost part of ourselves.
Finally, friendship grows strong between those who do things together with a common purpose. Whenever we act in love, justice and mercy toward others, we're joining ourselves with Jesus in His constant work of caring for the world.
So how should you and your children respond when a Protestant inquires about your relationship with Jesus? If you're a faithful Catholic, doing your best to follow Him, then you can answer with confidence: Yes, Jesus Christ is my personal Lord and Savior — and not only that; He's my best Friend.
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