Despite the constant refrain in modern day Christianity that the primary focus of the faith is, “your personal relationship with God,” the vast majority of scripture is focused not on each singular individual’s private relationship with God, but believers together as communities in relationship
with God. This is partially obscured by the English language making no clear distinction between the singular and plural “you”, making it easy to read many bible verses as speaking to the reader as an individual rather than plurally to “you” as a group, the local church, the community of faith who would have been reading these documents out loud and together. Mostly, however, it’s because we just aren’t actually reading the bible all that much and so we never have any reason to question such slogans.
However, this does not mean that personal piety is ignored altogether in scripture. There are, in fact, passages very much focused on individual worship and the believer's personal relationship with God. Among my favorite of these is Mathew chapter 6. Much could (and should) be said from this wonderful chapter, but today I really wanted to focus on three very practical things that Jesus Himself told His disciples in this chapter that they should be doing privately and individually, purely between themselves and God, and how they should be doing them. Even a quick reading of the text makes these things plainly clear: The giving of alms, Private prayer, and Individual fasting.
The giving of alms is the first example Jesus gives of the “righteousness” that you should not practice before the eyes of men, but rather secretly and purely between you and God. This does not include all giving, but is rather a specific
act of person piety. There is giving that the church does together,
(Acts 11:27-30, 1 Cor, 16:2). There is giving done within the family (like on birthdays and Christmas morning.) There is charitable giving that one does and declares to the IRS to get a tax break (you have your reward for this in the refund). Here, Jesus is talking about giving as an individual act of worship to God. One gives to God, who doesn’t need anything, by giving to the poor and defenseless, who do. This is dropping that dollar in the bell ringers bucket, buying that panhandler lunch, dropping off food and clothing at the local shelter without giving them your name, leaving that Wal-Mart gift card in a blank envelope taped to the door of your neighbor who lost his job, and doing all these things in a manner in which no one else ever knows that you did them, and you get no credit with any other human being. You know God saw it, and you did it only for His eyes, because you know God loves your poor neighbor and this gift is pleasing to Him. This is private worship. Between you and God, doing what is pleasing to Him when you get no credit, no praise, no benefit whatsoever. Every Christian desiring their own personal relationship with God ought to approach this relationship the way He Himself instructs, and this selfless and hidden giving is the first thing on the list.
The second is prayer. Again, churches and families and Christian friends and coworkers ought to pray together for one another and with one another. This is good, and necessary, and pleasing in God’s sight. However, God is also pleased in His children praying privately. Do you pray when no one else is around? Do you pray when no one else will ever know about it? Do you go out of your way to pray only to God, outside of the eyes of men where someone else might think you more spiritual and think better of you? Do you struggle with praying alone? Do you smuggle in an “accountability partner” to ask you regularly “how your prayer life is” so that someone gets to find out you have been praying and give you credit for it? This can be a difficult thing. Our flesh rebels against this. It takes a certain amount of faith to go regularly to an empty room and talk only to God, trusting that He hears you and is pleased, and never letting anyone else in the world know you have done it. Is it enough for God to know? Is it enough for God to delight in it? This is what makes it worship.
Finally, Jesus speaks of fasting. Again, there are important times where a church may call on its people to fast together. This is good. There are times of grieving where family and friends may fast together in tears and public expressions of sorrow. This is right, and healthy, and something we
as a culture could stand to get back to. But Jesus is here talking about devotional fasting, fasting as a personal act of worship to God. Fasting in this way can be a way of expressing that God is more precious and important that the pleasures and even the needs of this daily life. It can be a discipline that spiritually refines us and helps us to focus on Him. It is an act of faith, because giving up the pleasure and sustenance of food would be ridiculous if God were not really there. Here again, Jesus warns that such personal fasting in our devotional life ought to be utterly private. We ought to go out of our way to appear to everyone around us as normal as ever, so that they would not suspect we are fasting and perhaps think the better of us for it. It is not to look spiritual before men, it is simply to honor God and God alone. These things are put forward as individual acts of worship. We often call them “spiritual disciplines” and indeed it takes much self control (a fruit of the Spirit, one might recall) to do these and do them right. But they are not merely disciplines. They are more than just ways of resisting the flesh. They are that, of course, but they are more. They are expressions of faith that God is there, of hope in His reward, of love for Him above all else. They are worship. Worship doesn’t always feel good. Worship can be hard. Worship is not about us. But when we can begin to serve God privately in faith, to “practice our righteousness” before His eyes alone, to desire to please Him and care nothing of our own name and our own credit, then we will find ourselves engaging in what is truly and daily a personal relationship with God.
Luke Wayne is a bi-vocational Baptist
missionary in Utah and the chief editor for Perilous Trails. He holds an MDiv
from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and an MA in Theological Studies from
Midwestern Baptist College. He has served as a church planter in Olathe, KS and
a Homeless Shelter Manager in Kansas City, MO. He is also a husband, father, fisher,
hiker, security officer, and raiser of livestock.
raiser of livestock.