When Adam and Eve were feeling lost in the lone and dreary world, they called on God for guidance. Satan came and offered religion as a remedy for their lostness and fallenness. He offered to have someone to preach to them. It seems a little surprising that Satan would recommend religion—unless we contrast Satan’s recommendation with God’s.
God and His messengers call us by name. They grasp us in an ever-tighter hold. And they promise to provide a Redeemer who can bring us back into the presence of God.
Satan offers religion; God offers a relationship. Religion without relationship is not redemptive! Religion by itself is a load of propositions about truth. It is more likely to create contention than connection. Relationship is about a bond, a connection, a commitment. When our faith is based on religion, we are built on the sand. When we have a solid connection with Jesus, we are built on the Rock.
Lehi’s end-of-life summary expressed this beautifully.
But behold, the Lord hath redeemed my soul from hell; I have beheld his glory, and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love. (2 Nephi 1:15)
Picture that: Encircled about eternally in the arms of His love! What a great description of relationship!
When have you seen Him reach out His hand to you offering fellowship and love? Have you made a list of times when He has reached out and embraced you?
My first undeniable and overwhelming embrace from God came when I was a teenager working a summer job at a print shop in Sugarhouse. As I carried freight and filled orders, I began to feel overwhelmed by joy. Alone in the warehouse, I couldn’t keep myself from singing hymns. Sometimes the joy got so unbearable that I retired to the restroom to pour out praises in prayer. And, most mysterious of all, I spontaneously began fasting—which was quite uncharacteristic of me. I fasted three days before I decided that all things should be done in wisdom.
The question is, what did that unexpected outpouring of joy mean? I was an earnest but imperfect kid. The experience did not come in answer to prayer or any surge of goodness on my part. As far as I can tell, the joy was Heavenly Father reaching out to a son keeping him company as he went about his doings. It was Father building a relationship with a son.
The pattern of joy became more predictable later when I served a mission. I found that loving God’s children and testifying of His goodness reliably brought joy. God naturally overflows our loving relationship with Him into loving His children. I cannot count nor name all the times God has embraced me while a missionary and since.
Maybe the most common ways we allow religion to crowd out a relationship is when we measure our spiritual well-being in terms of tasks completed—like scriptures read, prayers said, meetings attended, and service rendered. This can be like having Jesus as a guest in our home and, while he sits waiting for a conversation with us, we are busily tidying and dusting. Scripture-reading, prayer, meetings, and service can help us know Him—and they can also distract us from a real conversation with Him.
We can read scriptures not as a duty but as a dialogue—listening for the commentary He adds to guide our lives.
We can pray not as a bounded moment of begging on bended knee but as a continuing expression of wonder and appreciation.
We can attend meetings not as a grudging duty but as an opportunity to learn of Him, serve Him, and worship Him. We can be uplifted by meetings.
We can serve in order to check a box, or we can see ourselves as messengers for Jesus with an opportunity to minister to His children.
There are opportunities to connect with Jesus in everything including the mundane and the difficult. Consider the mundane. Everyday life can seem quite ordinary—unless we tune into the miracles. Life itself is miraculous. The magnificence of God’s creation is marvelous! If we use our spiritual eyes, we will see God blessing us in countless ways.
I have become something of a joy junkie. In addition to filling in a calendar with a list of doings, I keep a “journal” in which I write messages from heaven. I do not write a narrative. In fact, if you read my journal, you might have a hard time making sense of it. For example, last Sunday I wrote a few words and phrases including some words from hymns that were illuminated by the Holy Ghost. “Grant us, Father, grace divine.” “Pardon faults, O Lord we pray.” During the sacrament, I felt embraced by Jesus. So, I wrote: “Embraced by Jesus” followed by a plus sign that for me signifies the heavenly clasp delivered by the Holy Ghost. And there it is! The heavenly embrace that reassures us of a relationship.
That is different from religion. We can argue that LDS theology is the most rational, biblical, and uplifting on the planet—and I absolutely believe that it is! But a rational theology cannot save us. It is a relationship that saves.
Jesus is also in the difficult. I have written previously about the many miscarriages that Nancy and I suffered and the frustrated protest they evoked in my soul. Until. Until I stopped asking God to explain things to me and simply leaned into His love and goodness. When I simply started thanking Him for each miscarriage, everything changed. I still didn’t have an answer about any heavenly purpose they served. But I did have a soul-filling assurance that God is in His heaven, and all is right in our little world.
When I turned to God not to accuse and challenge Him but to thank Him, He enfolded me in His love. I said with Nephi, “I do not know the meaning of all things . . . [but] I know that he loveth his children” (1 Nephi 11:17).
That’s a relationship—to love Him and to be loved by Him. Having that loving relationship is far more important than having any amount of theological sophistication or dutiful obedience. It is in accepting His love and loving Him in return that we are healed of our earthly loneliness and drawn into His embrace.
He is all around us and a part of all our doings. As we become aware of Him and build a relationship with Him, we overflow with reassurance and joy.
Invitation: If you are interested in applying gospel principles to having greater happiness, a better marriage, and more effective parenting, get a copy of my new book, Discoveries: Essential Truths for Relationships—available at Deseret Book or Amazon.
Thanks to Barbara Keil for her insightful additions to this article.Discoveries Essential Truths for Relationships: Essential Truths for Relationships – Deseret Book: Religion without Relationship is not Redemptive Discoveries: Essential Truths for Relationships: H. Wallace Goddard PhD: 9781599922928: Amazon.com: Books: Religion without Relationship is not Redemptive