Unfortunately, many who claim that Christianity is a relationship fail to understand that being in a relationship with God isn't necessarily good. In fact, it can be extremely harmful. "From everyone who has been given much, much will be required." To be in relationship with God is a huge responsibility. The man who hid his talent from his master, or Judas, the betrayer of Christ who now wishes he would never have been born, or the unforgiving debtor who owed his king - they all came to a point of realization that it would have been better for them had they never been in relationship with their masters. Being in relationship sometimes brings with it greater accountability and consequences. To have knowledge of God and/or experience with him and to disobey or reject him is very serious. As I write, many who think they are Christians are heaping up consequences upon themselves as they are in some sort of relationship with God, but not following his commands. These "Christians" know about God. They defend God. They study theology and apologetics. They are in an intellectual relationship with God. But they don't commune with Him. They are stalkers. They study God, dissect his words and actions, and make intellectual arguments for him and his supremacy, but they don't know Him experientially.
We're all familiar with the concept of stalkers. Generally, they elicit thoughts of Hollywood and the famous. The stars often have a small group of followers who are so infatuated with them that these stalkers may send them gifts and cards, defend them vehemently on social media, purchase memorabilia and personal objects relating to the stars, study the stars, and even show up at their residence seeking to interact. The stalker relationship is rather creepy, as it's really a one way relationship. There is no reciprocity. Stalkers often have an intellectual knowledge of their target to the extreme. They know their favorite colors, their schedule, their history, and all sorts of minutia, but the stalker does not have social access. They have no contact. They have no experiential knowledge. The "Christian" stalker is the same. They study God, buy books and memorabilia about him, show up in his churches, and defend him on social media. They honor God with their lips, but their hearts are far from him.
Others have the opposite problem. Rather than get to know God for the sum of what he reveals himself to be, these individuals take particular experiences of God and emphasize them. Some take their experience of God's love and extrapolate universalism from it. They can't fathom a God who could be wrathful and punish sin because they only want his warm and tender love. Some do the opposite. They may have an experience with extreme injustice in their lives, or they may have lived such a sheltered life that they never experienced significant sin in their own life or in the lives of any in their community. In both cases, the justice of God becomes the focal point and these individuals tend towards legalism. They have little compassion or mercy for real "sinners" and those on the fringes of society. They love the thought of God's justice either because they want wrathful vengeance for the evil done to them, or because they are so removed from egregious evil that they think themselves above such sin. Though both of these individuals come to significantly different or unrelated conclusions, their reason for arriving at such conclusions are often the same.They are mistresses of God.
Mistresses experience their lover in short, intense experiences. Each rendezvous likely involves an intimate encounter. There are gifts. There is stimulating conversation as the lovers catch up with what has happened since their last rendezvous. And of course there is the intense, passionate, sexual encounter. Unlike a wife who experiences all the good and bad of her husband and chooses to love him through both, a mistress tends to only experience the good - until she tries to deepen the relationship, of course. The gifts, conversations, and sexual pleasure upon each encounter with her lover are all she knows. She doesn't have to work out a fair division of labor in the house, experience her lover's annoying idiosyncrasies day after day, or bear the weight of her lover's condescending remarks. The mistress doesn't have to practice forgiveness. The mistress's role is easy. She isolates the good experiences without having to put in any effort for understanding and love.
Mistresses of God do the same thing. They isolate their experience of God. The universalist isolates God's love so they don't have to deal with the uncomfortable notion of God's justice and wrath against them or those they love. The legalist isolates God's justice so they can either condemn those they hate or elevate themselves as better than others. When you're better than "those" terrible people out there, you don't have to worry about your righteousness, your standing with God, or the uncomfortable necessity of repentance. Legalism protects you from the difficulty of facing your own sin and need of a savior. The list could go on. The takeaway is that there are many today who are in relationship with God, but are only in an experiential relationship. They isolate God's actions in the world and in their lives, but refuse to know God enough so they can accept him for all that he is. In reality, then, they don't love God for who he is. They love isolated attributes of God like justice, compassion, or something else.
Please don't take the above as condemnation. I am by no means saying that stalkers and mistresses can't be true Christians. I often found myself passing through life as a stalker of God, and I have been several mistresses too, as I have isolated different experiences of him at various points in my life. Even now I would probably say I feel more like a stalker or a mistress than I do the bride of Christ. The assurance of my Christianity doesn't come from avoiding the pitfalls mentioned above, but in trusting that only Christ can and will save a sinner like me and in seeing the fruit that ripens in my life as God convicts me of sin and leads me to repentance time and time again. As I evaluate my pendulum swing relationship, it makes me wonder about the two extremes. It seems hard to rectify what a true relationship with God is because as I learn more about him, I tend to be puffed up with arrogance and become a creepy stalker. But when I stop focusing on knowledge and experience God's love, I become self-righteous and legalistic as I condemn others in my heart for their surface Christianity. And when I combine the two and become a stalker/mistress, I just end up being an arrogant, intellectual, self-righteous, legalistic follower of Christ. It doesn't seem like combining the two groups here solves the relational problem. So what is it that makes obtaining information about someone and experiencing someone merge together into a healthy relationship?
I think Christ identifies the solution pretty simply. If we love him, we'll obey him. A stalker seeks information for their own benefit. They want knowledge, status, affirmation, attention, or some type of reward for what they do. Though their infatuation about the person they stalk is great, their goal is not the other person in the relationship. Likewise, a mistress seeks many of the same things. She embraces pleasure at the expense of others and puts in little relational work between her and her lover. The mistress seeks to ride the crests of pleasure while the wife continues her experience and love even through the troughs. Both the stalker and the mistress are power positions. They are not positions of submission and they are not positions of self-sacrificial love. To be in a truly deep relationship, that relationship must be accompanied by love. This love is a willingness to submit and sacrifice for what the other wants, which is exemplified through obedience. This type of relationship isn't power. It isn't easy. It isn't intense all the time. It often isn't very exciting. But it grows, it fulfills, and it lasts. It is a tree which bears fruit and endures to the end.
Christianity is indeed a relationship, but then again, so is pretty much everything else. If there is something or someone we come in contact with, a relationship exists. As Christians, we need to be more precise about this relationship. Churches are filled with people who stalk God or experience him in isolation as his mistress. This will always be true. It's part of the human condition on our road to restoration. But we do a disservice to those who think they're in true relationship with God if we don't better explain what a living relationship with him really means.