Back in April, I quoted the following passage:


Many will say to me on that day,
‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name
and in your name drive out demons
and in your name perform many miracles?’
Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you.
Away from me, you evildoers!’

~Matt. 7:22-23


And then I promised that “when we take up the idea of a saving relationship, we will look at it in more detail.” Now is the time. I can’t speak for anyone else but my resume doesn’t look nearly as impressive as those described in these verses. I cannot lay claim to any of those achievements: prophesying, driving out demons, and performing “many” miracles. And Jesus does not challenge their claims. He does not say, “You are liars,” or, “You are deceived,” because “you have not done these things.” No, He does not contest their claims. Instead He says something infinitely more puzzling: “I never knew you.”

These words challenge our understanding of who God is. After all, the Psalmist tells us:

You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.

~Psalm 139:1-4

Jesus told us that the hairs on our head are numbered (Matt:10:30). We believe that God is omniscient, all-knowing–and yet, and yet–Jesus is the very one who described what He will say to some in the day of judgment, to some who claim to know Him: “I never knew you.” How can this be?  More to the point, what does it take and how do we go about being known by Him? For clearly, that is the key. It is more important than prophesying, more important than performing miracles in Jesus’ name, more important than casting out demons. Somehow, we must know God. Because:

Now this is eternal life:
that they know you, the only true God,
and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.

~John 17:3

And at the same time, those who enjoy a saving relationship with Jesus have become known to Him. Known in a way that goes beyond knowing physical facts about us, like the number of hairs on our head, and beyond even knowing our thoughts.

I found the answer to this riddle is to understand what a saving relationship means. As it turns out, our relationship with Jesus grows and develops in almost exactly the same way a relationship with anyone else does.

A number of years ago, Pastor William Underwood gave a series of sermons on “The Stages of Friendship,” helping members understand how to grow and maintain healthy relationships. As time passed, I began to apply these stages to our friendship with Jesus. And that has changed my life, my family, and my church. And pastors with whom I have shared this have had similar experiences.

First I will simply list the stages, along with a simple definition.†

The Seven Levels of Friendship

1) Surface

Weather, time of day, general information–the kind of thing you might say to someone in a queue at the grocer’s or the airport

2) Facts and reports

More specific information, including personal, but not private information such as name, marital status, occupation, time of next bus, etc.

3) Opinions and judgements

What you think about a whole range of things from current events, sports, your favorite TV show – to religion, politics and morality

4) Feelings

Your personal emotional status and reaction to various situations

5) Vulnerability

Admitting your faults to another

6) Intimacy

They can tell you about faults you do not see in yourself

7) Complete

Total openness, total trust

Human friendships, to be healthy, must be reciprocal, that is, balanced. If you are sharing your faults (level 5), with someone who is only sharing opinions and judgments (level 3), your relationship is seriously out of balance, and almost certainly dysfunctional. One or both of you are manipulating the other.

I’ll get into which level(s) would indicate a saving relationship next time, but this time I will simply look at how these levels of friendship play out in our churches.

For example, our churches primarily function on an Opinions and Judgments level, level three. For baptism, we ask candidates to affirm a series of statements about God and the Bible. If they agree, we baptize them. Putting it another way, if they agree with our opinions and judgments on these issues, we accept them into membership.

The Sabbath school lesson is usually an exercise in opinions and judgments about selected passages of Scripture. “Discussion” amounts to airing our opinions, stating our judgment, and attempting to persuade others of the correctness of our opinions and judgments. Our traditional worship services have been primarily opinions and judgments as well. If we agree with the opinions expressed in the sermon, we declare ourselves “blessed.” If we disagree strongly enough, we suspect some “heresy” or “misleading doctrine” has been presented. We seldom wonder if we are operating at a relatively shallow level of relationship. At this level, people seem to think that there will be an entrance exam to heaven, and it will consist of short answers to questions about “Which day is the Sabbath?” and “What happens when we die?” or perhaps “What does 666 stand for?”

African-American congregations in the U.S., along with Pentecostal and increasingly contemporary Caucasian churches have turned to more emotional, feelings-based worship services. And no wonder. As we examine the stages of relationship, we see that this move from opinions and facts to feelings is a move toward a deeper relationship. It is not surprising that we should seek a deeper relationship, a more satisfying approach. But emotions are notoriously ephemeral, fleeting. In the end, this will not be sufficient, either.

One major problem has already been alluded to. Too many in our congregations feel entitled to point out the faults of others (Level 6), while only allowing an opinions and judgments (Level 3) relationship the other way. And when the recipient of such “straight testimony” objects, the abuser declares them to be “unrepentant” or “rebellious.” This is one of the chief reasons opinion polls repeatedly show that people think Christians are “judgmental.” The real offense is not judgmentalism; it’s presumption. They presume a level of relationship they have not earned.

One of the first lessons of Christianity as relationship is that ministry beyond supplying felt needs must be earned. In the parable Jesus says, “I was hungry and you did not feed me,” not “I was ignorant and you did not lecture me.” It was after Jesus fed and healed people that they wanted to hear what he had to say. So it will be with us. As someone else has written:

There is need of coming close to the people by personal effort.
If less time were given to sermonizing,
and more time were spent in personal ministry,
greater results would be seen.

~Ministry of Healing, 143

This is as true within the church, and within our own families, as it is in outreach. We must build relationships, build trust with those around us, if we hope to have a positive spiritual impact on their lives.

Next time: what’s involved in a “saving relationship.”

Read other posts from this series on Adventist Identity.


These can be found in my book, Grounds for Belief, and in Jon Paulien’s Everlasting Gospel, Ever Changing World.