Are there characteristic features of a proper relationship with God?

  • Clarifying the question

    This question plays a role in several discussions relevant to apologetics. For one example, a prominent argument against God's existence says that, if a loving God existed, that God would ensure everyone knows He exists, in order to allow all persons to have the opportunity to be in relationship with God, just by trying. One response says that God may actually not ensure that a given person believes, or may delay ensuring it, if God knows that person at that time would just enter into an improper relationship with God. This requires, of course, that there be characteristic features of a proper relationship that some persons may lack even while they pray and worship God. Here are more specific ways to word this question:
    a) Are there characteristic features of a relationship with God that are necessary in order for the relationship to be good at all?
    b) Are there characteristic features of a relationsihp with God that are necessary in order for the good relationship to be of an especially good quality.

  • Intuition justifies these

    For the most part, the justification for each of these reasons given to answer “yes” is going to be primarily grounded in our faculty of reason or intuition, which is a generally reliable way to justify beliefs. This article takes for granted that there is such a thing as proper relationship (being good, healthy etc.), as well as a notion of an improper or evil relationship, which we are stipulatively saying is a relationship which is better to not exist at all.

“Yes, after all…
  • Proper: God is seen as all-good

    Proper (or mature) relationship with God involves recognizing good as the ultimate good. (which might entail some of the other features on this list, like desiring God, granting God's rightful authority in allowing suffering, granting God's rightful authority over all power in general).1

    1. Reinforcing this intuition, consider Christian theology. God strongly disallows relationships while the human regards Him as evil, rejecting such relationships both now and in heaven:

      Matthew 12:24-32 -- “This man [Jesus] casts out demons only by Beelzebul the ruler of the demons.” And knowing their thoughts Jesus said to them, ... He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me scatters. “Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.”

  • Proper: God is properly desired

    Proper (or mature) relationship with God involves a genuine worshiping, revering, and desiring of God, not merely treating God as a means to an end.1

    For example, a relationship where the individual is not worshipping and praying etc. …

    This is relevant because, for some individuals, even if they believed in God, they would perpetually be in relationship with God primarily or exclusively for reasons that don't involve a proper way of relating to and desiring God.

    1. The intuition here seems widespread. Consider the words of this early Muslim mystic,

      Rabia Basri: “O God! If I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise. But if I worship You for Your Own sake, grudge me not Your everlasting Beauty.”

      Or more canonically:
      Westminster shorter catechism: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” As an interesting sidenote: some argue that desiring God is satisfied merely in loving “the good.”

  • Proper: the human is open to moral transformation

    Proper relationship with God involves openness to moral transformation (deeply loving/worshipping God more than their sin or the world). This is relevant because a relationship lacking this property would improper, such that it is either of diminished value, no value, or negative value.1

    Matthew 6:24 -- “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. (cf. Luke 16:13)2
    Revelations 3:16 -- So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.

    1. This idea can be further bolstered by adopting anything akin to Eleanore Stump's concept of what relationship with God means. One way of summarizing her view is as follows:

      Paul Draper (Philosophy professor at Purdue): “(1) God loves me and so desires to be united in love with me. (2) Such union is impossible even for God in my current psychically fragmented condition. To make union possible, I need to be internally integrated around the good and (3) to achieve such integration, I need to undergo a process of justification and sanctification.” [“'Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering' Reviewed by Paul Draper” at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (2011) online.]

      Consider how well this fits with Moser's understanding:
      Paul Moser (Philosophy professor at Loyola-Chicago): “Careful reflection on the distinctive character and purposes inherent to a perfectly authoritative and loving God recommends an approach less cavalier than that typical of humans, including philosophers. We are, after all, inquiring about a very special kind of personal agent with distinctive, perfectly loving purposes, and not an ordinary household appliance or laboratory specimen. Perhaps we humans can’t easily abide a perfectly loving God who, for our own good, evades our sophisticated and self-approving cognitive nets. A perfectly loving God, as suggested, wouldn't be after mere justified true belief among humans that God exists. God would care about how we handle purposively available evidence of God’s existence, in particular, whether we become more genuinely loving in handling it, in fellowship with God. Contrary to a typical philosophical attitude, then, knowledge of God’s reality wouldn't be a recreational sport for casual spectators. It rather would be part of a process of God’s extreme, even thoroughgoing makeover of a person as a moral agent in relation to God. From our side of the process, it would be an active commitment to a morally transforming personal relationship of volitional fellowship. We would come to know God’s reality more profoundly as God increasingly becomes our God, the Lord of our lives, rather than just an object of our contemplation or speculation. A perfectly authoritative and loving God would refuse, for our own good, to become a mere object of our cognition, imagination, or entertainment. We exhibit self-destructive arrogance in assuming that we can have knowledge of God’s reality without facing God’s authoritative call to undergo deep, even painful, moral transformation toward God’s perfectly loving character, in fellowship with God.” [The Elusive God: Reorienting Religious Epistemology (Cambridge, 2008), 122.]
      Remember that relationship with God is holy/sacred:
      Matthew 5:8 -- “Blessed are the pure in heart, fo r they shall see God.

    2. Consider:
      1 John 3:14 -- We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death.
      1 John 4:8 -- The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

      With this in mind, consider:

      John 14:21-24 -- He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.” Judas (not Iscariot) said to Him, “Lord, what then has happened that You are going to disclose Yourself to us and not to the world?” Jesus answered and said to him, “ If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine, but the Father’s who sent Me.
      This mindset which puts love of the world first over love of God is repeatedly denounced:
      1 Corinthians 1:18-21 -- For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. ... Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? [E.g. “pursuing pleasure is best!” (See: What is wordly wisdom?)] For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe."

    3. Relatedly: on Christian theology, some individuals may be misguided because God does not grant them to grace to be saved from their delusion, a delusion which came about from the Fall (see here). This could be as a kind of judgment, or because they are unwilling to be morally transformed.
  • Proper: believing God alone should have all power

    Proper (or mature) relationships with God involve recognizing that only God (being all-good) ought to have all power (and not growing jealous of that). For any potential relationship with God, this is a living danger.1

    1. Dumsday seems to have published on this idea first, offering the following analogy:

      Travis Dumsday: “Analogies are always tricky, and never moreso than when doing theology. But for a first pass at the sort of concern I’m referring to, consider three beginner hockey players. They haven’t started playing yet, but they’re excited about it, have studied the rules carefully, and aspire to be great at the sport. Assume too that the three players are all basically virtuous people not known for any special proneness toward the cardinal vices. Now transport these three beginners back to one of Wayne Gretzky’s games during his glory days with the Edmonton Oilers. As they watch the Great One, what are the irreactions liable to be? Awe, admiration, intellectual appreciation of Gretzky’s strategic brilliance, will all be present (if they’re paying attention). Perhaps also a hint of envy. Perhaps even a darker relative of envy, namely a desire that Gretzky’s phenomenal skill not be quite so phenomenal, that the stark contrast between his brilliance and their own mediocrity might be somewhat mitigated. A direct encounter with greatness can be a humbling experience, and not everyone takes well to being humbled. Now take the case a bit further. Imagine that these three beginners discover that Gretzky is to be their coach, that all their future hockey-related decisions should be ordered in relation to Gretzky’s will. Imagine still further that, per impossibile, Gretzky has complete control over these three players’ abilities. He can transform them instantaneously into fantastic hockey players. He even has the ability to add to this fantastic hockey proficiency an equally great proficiency in baseball, soccer, badminton, and Judo - in fact, any sport, real or fictional. And yet Gretzky declines to do so (presumably for a good reason - assorted possible reasons come to mind, but I leave these as an exercise for the reader). So now we have a case where the beginners are confronted with an awe-inspiring, humbling greatness, one they must submit to and yet one which refrains from immediately bestowing on them a vaguely comparable greatness when such an action is well within its power. Supposing the beginners managed to get through their initial humbling encounter without any vicious reactions, will they withstand these additional developments with good grace? Perhaps, but perhaps not. At the very least, it may constitute something of a trial for each of them.” [“Divine hiddenness and creaturely resentment” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 72 (2012): 43-44]

      Incidentally, Satan reportedly resented God for reasons akin to this (assuming this verse refers to Satan, which is a common understanding).
      Isaiah 14:12-14 -- “How you hve fallen from heaven, O star of the morning, son of the dawn! You have been cut down to the earth, … “But you said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God, … ‘I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’
      Similarly, Satan enticed Adam and Eve to sin in their similar hope to match God in a capacity.
      Genesis 3:4-5 -- “The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,
      By contrast:
      Philippians 2:5-8 -- Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

  • Proper: believing God can rightly allow suffering

    Proper (or mature) relationships with God trust in God's goodness in His decisions regarding world suffering, both the amount and usage

    1. Dumsday published this idea, offering the following example of how a relationship with God could suffer or move on its way towards becoming a non-relationship (or wicked relationship):

      Travis Dumsday: “Consider a ten-year-old girl being severely bullied on the playground, or suffering the wrenching heartache of her parents' divorce, or the death of a sibling. All the while she is aware of God's presence. One might think that such an awareness would provide comfort, and perhaps for some it would. But it only embitters her. Alter weeks of begging God to stop the bullying/divorce/impending death and being gently told in reply that He must not due to the need to preserve moral freedom (or the stability of the laws of nature, or some higher explanation beyond her finite understanding, etc.), her response is growing enmity towards God.” [“Divine Hiddenness, Free Will, and Victims of Wrongdoing” Faith and Philosophy 27:4 (2010): 430]

      • In fact, consider a world where relationship with God was accessible, dynamic, and common. (Not a quote.)
      • God would still have his reasons for permitting suffering and so, inasmuch as there would still be suffering, this God would more explicitly refuse the cries for help from his friends. Imagine one's daughter suffering to death, with a family-familiar God verbally refusing the father's request for help by saying, “I have my reasons,” or giving him reasons he won't like. Consequentialist notions of a greater good, and/or goods which the father/family may not agree with, may often not be seen as justifying at the time. With more explicit refusals to help from God, individuals may feel betrayed, feeling that God (“their friend”) is obligated in some sense to help despite the greater good. This could yield a dynamic that might result in many enemies and haters of God very quickly that would not otherwise exist if they had been given time to develop a healthier trusting relationship with God first. In fact, it getes worse. These unprepared persons can galvanize other unprepared persons (friends, and family, or fans [e.g. great writers]), pulling them into their cause of hating God. Demons, if such things exist, could also can make heavy use of these situations, all because God indiscriminately made His existence clear and accessible to people who were not ready.

  • Proper: believing God can rightly choose self-revelation

    Appropriate relationships display cognitive modesty and humility before God, as the rightful chooser of God's own self-revelation. For some individuals, if they came to belief in God, they would only do so having condescendingly sent God through impersonal hoops of their own making, like a circus animal. Making God submit and cow to their demands could permanently and negatively affect the divine-human relationship.1, 2

    1. Moser speaks of this in terms of “cognitive modesty.” If one has ever prayed to God anything along the lines of, “if you want me to believe, you're responsible for giving me the evidence xyz,” then one could be in severe danger. If God cows to the demand, how would the relationship with God stand?

      Paul Moser (Philosophy professor at Loyola Chicago) & Daniel Howard-Snyder (Philosophy professor at Western Michigan): “[Possibly] God hides and thus permits … nonbelief because, if He were not hidden, humans would relate to God and to their knowledge of God in presumptuous ways and the possibility of developing the inner attitudes essential to a proper relationship with Him would be ipso facto ruled out.” [“Introduction” in Divine Hiddenness: New Essays (eds) Moser & Howard-Snyder (Cambridge, 2002), 10.]
      Paul Moser: “As a result, in redemptive judgment, God would hide God’s ways from those who are “wise and intelligent” on their own terms in a way that devalues God’s cognitive authority and supremacy (cf. Matt. 11:25–27, 1 Cor. 1:19–21). Given people who aren’t ready, owing to whatever deficiency, for authoritative divine self-revelation of perfect love, God would hide on occasion from those people to avoid their harmfully trivializing divine self-revelation. Clearly, God wouldn’t be obligated to give divine self revelation to prideful supposed cognitive superiors who are resolutely and irredeemably opposed to God’s ways. Even so, a perfectly loving God would work noncoercively to undo such opposition as long as there’s hope for human redemption.” [The Elusive God: Reorienting Religious Epistemology (Cambridge, 2008), 52.]
      Paul Moser: “[i]f we aim to make a perfectly loving God jump through cognitive hoops of our own making, we are bound to be disappointed. Such a God wouldn’t play our intellectual games, given that they (including the ways we distortingly set our cognitive standards, such as in Humean empiricism, in logical positivism, or in Cartesian rationalism) typically insulate us from being challenged by authoritative evidence from a perfectly loving God.” [The Elusive God: Reorienting Religious Epistemology (Cambridge, 2008), 60.]
      Paul Moser: “Russell (1970) thus anticipated his preferred response if after death he met God: “God, you gave us insufficient evidence.” We thereby exalt ourselves as cognitive judge, jury, and executioner over God. God, we suppose, must be revealed on our cognitive terms. In such cognitive idolatry (see Moser 2002), we set up our cognitive standards in ways that preclude so-called “reasonable” acknowledgment of God’s reality. Our cognitive pride thus becomes suicidal. We play God to our own demise.” [“Divine Hiddenness, Death, and Meaning” Philosophy of Religion: Classic and Contemporary Issues, eds. P. Copan and C. Meister (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007).]
      Paul Moser: “To the extent that we violate God’s program of human volitional transformation, we are slaves to selfishness and need to be set free. Cognitive idolatry can keep us from the needed transformation toward freedom. It often rests on a principle of this sort: Unless God (if God exists) supplies evidence of kind K, God’s existence is too hidden to merit reasonable endorsement. The problem is not with a principle of this form; it is rather with the specification of kind K. If we specify K in a way that disregards the character and intentions of the Hebraic God, thereby protecting ourselves from the divine challenge of transformation, we manifest cognitive idolatry. We then wield a cognitive commitment designed to exclude God. This is the heart of cognitive idolatry.” [“Divine Hiddenness Does Not Justify Atheism” in (eds) M. L. Peterson, R. J. Vanarragon Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion (Blackwell, 2004), 47-48.]
      Paul Moser: “Knowing God as Lord requires our surrendering to God as follows: “Not my will, but Your will”; “Not my kingdom, but Your kingdom.” Filial knowing of God thus involves Gethsemane, as the way to the cross, in that it depends on our volitional sensitivity and submission to the will of God. Such knowing requires a genuine commitment to obey God’s call, even if the call is to give up one’s life in sacrificial love on a criminal’s cross. We thus come truly to know God not in our prideful cognitive glory but rather in our own volitional weakness relative to the priority of God’s will.” [“Divine Hiddenness Does Not Justify Atheism” in (eds) M. L. Peterson, R. J. Vanarragon Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Religion (Blackwell, 2004), 50.]

      As a related thought, perhaps this will reasonate with the reader: it would be twisted for God to forgive someone while that someone wrongly believes God owes them forgiveness. Similarly, it may be twisted for God to give someone evidence or a particular kind of evidence when they feel God owes it to them.

    2. Relationship with God is holy/sacred:

      Matthew 7:6 -- “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.
      Matthew 11:25-26 -- At that time Jesus said, “I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants. 26 Yes, Father, for this way was well-pleasing in Your sight. (cf. Lk 10:21-22)