What Does it Mean?
It's all about Jesus. The Old Testament prophets told the people God doesn't care about their sacrifices but about their pure heart devoted to God. The New Testament didn't try to abolish slavery or to bring women into equality with men, stressing rather, a relationship with Jesus. Ultimately, our acceptance of Jesus as redeemer (with repentance from sin) is all that matters; this determines our eternal destiny.
We are to have a relationship with Jesus but, what does this even mean? How can the fellowship of a spirit-being compare with the relationship of a real flesh and blood person such as a friend, spouse, or family member? Certainly we can't bring Jesus a cup of tea or a glass of warm milk (but we can interact with Jesus through service of others.)
In the real world even strangers are in some sort of relationship with us: we can say hello to them as we pass on the street, or open the door for them, or give them directions. But Christians should recoil in horror if we claimed to have such kinds of interactions with spirit beings in the spiritual realm: if we communicated to them, or asked them for help or guidance, or how to interpret a Bible passage.
Clearly, our relationship with Jesus is unique among relationships.
When someone we love dies, our relationship with them, in effect, ends (until the new heavens and new earth) — we have no spiritual contact with them whatsoever (at least not according to fundamentalist evangelical Protestants who would recoil in horror at the suggestion of communing with these disembodied spirits). Yet, in spite of the fact that Jesus is no longer present bodily in the world, we are to have a relationship with him anyway. This is okay because he is deity; we commune with his Spirit, with the Spirit of God.
So then, if our relationship with Jesus is not physical, it must be mental, in our thoughts, in our emotions, in our mind, in our spirit. This being the case, why must we express our relationship for God at all with our words and with our bodies as if God is physically present?
Many commonly think we express our love for Jesus verbally; by speaking to him as if he were physically present. I have nothing against the practice; certainly God honors our expressions of love for him in whatever form they take. But to think this is the main way of doing it is just plain wrong. I've heard whole sermons about how mental prayer is ineffective; that the words must be said out loud. This is nonsense.
Jesus refers to himself as the "Word of God". Certainly he doesn't mean to say that he consists in spoken words. Words are a vehicle for communicating ideas, for expressing truth, for transmitting love and relationship between two parties. When I say, "I love you", you don't think of the words but, rather, of the intent behind the words. There are other ways to express love, nonverbal ways, such as washing the dishes or bringing home flowers.
The apostles emphasized nonverbal forms of Christian practice and so must we. Examples...
One way we express our relationship for Jesus is in serving others, in giving them food and clothing, in loving them. Jesus seems to have had this very thing in mind when he exhorted us to help the poor and needy with material helps. Doing these actions for their benefit is the same as doing them for Jesus; in loving our neighbor as ourself we are loving God.
We express our love of God in many ways: by loving others, by praying in the fellowship of believers, by seeking God's will in our lives, by silent reflection on God's mighty deeds in the work of creation and of redemption. Jesus has no physical body present in the world for us to interact with so we must content ourselves to interacting with other people, with the created universe, using the mind, heart, and soul God gave each of us. In the depths of our soul we encounter Christ. Interacting with others and reading and studying God's word trigger these encounters.
Imagine a not-uncommon situation of a man and wife who live together, who claim to love one another, and who show physical affection and tenderness — at times. But at other times they scream at each other and the man beats her. Then they make up and repeat the cycle. Is this love? Or is the affection episode the love part, but the abusive episode something else? In other words, is it possible to seem to be in love with Jesus (when at church, for example) but, because of living in secret sin, the love moments are neutralized?
Imagine a Christian who prays out loud, who goes to church and sings loudly, who gives 10% of the before taxes wages in "tithes", who performs church service — but who is a porn addict, or who has outbursts of rage, or who slanders others. Is their love for Jesus genuine? Doesn't the bad neutralize and cancel the good?
It seems to me that the kind of life lived by the Christian sets the basic foundation for the other aspects of a life of genuine relationship with Jesus. Or, to state it in a more controversial way, our good deeds, our works, truly matter to whether or not our relationship with Jesus is real.
It seems to me, the key to having a relationship with Jesus is living a life pleasing to him. We can't commune with him in the physical world with our bodies, but we can live a life of virtue. The very act of seeking to do and say virtuous things and to avoid vice, this very act is an expression of our love for Jesus, of our relationship with him.
We express our love for God by obeying his commands; the New Testament strongly emphasizes this. We don't commune with God by feeling and emotion but, rather, by doing. We don't have a temple to go to in order to encounter God's presence, we hear his voice in the scripture and the gospel message. We act out our love by doing what we hear.
Sadly, the Protestant Reformation drove a wedge between faith and works. In emphasizing faith over works it wrongly de-emphasized the importance of works. Thus, they say we are free to enter in to a "relationship with Jesus" without the need for doing good works, of living a holy life of virtue.
Few Christians today think we can live a life of debauchery and at the same time have a personal relationship with Jesus. The problem is in de-emphasizing the importance of our words and deeds in living the Christian life. The New Testament is chock full of exhortations for us to have good works; it is hard to imagine how the Protestant Reformers could ignore all of it.
Christians who emphasize our personal relationship with Jesus often claim that those Christians who, rather, strive to live a life of virtue are being "religious" or practicing a "works-trip". While certainly works without faith are useless, faith without works is also useless. A key aspect to our relationship with God is our works.
I wonder whether the whole "personal relationship with Jesus" emphasis of some modern-day Christians is really a metaphor for living a good Christian life, for living a life pleasing to God, for living a holy life of virtue. The apostles never exhorted people to invite Jesus into their heart. Some might feel left out if they don't translate this metaphor properly and, instead, seek wild apparitions and voices from God to guide them. In fact, the Charismatic movement in general has this danger; people must seek God's leading moment by moment.
Charismatics supposedly seek the Lord moment by moment and let him guide their every step. This sounds good on the surface except that God doesn't guide us in this way. For example, during the short time I took up surfing I tried letting God tell me where the next good wave would be; I asked God to guide me to the exact spot. Invariably, I heard the answer and swam there expectantly. (Of course, I ignored his suggestions to swim to Hawaii.) But the wave never came.
I wonder how many Charismatics are being led from nothing to nowhere, moment by moment, listening to the nonsense in their heads, being directed by random thoughts and impressions, all the while thinking they are following God's call and living out a personal relationship with Jesus?
I don't propose to deny God ever directs us, or to insist we should never seek God's will in our lives. Certainly the writers of the Bible often sought God's will this way. But the point is that doing so is completely optional, not essential to a life of faith. If all we do is seek to live a life pleasing to God, that is enough.
I suppose it is harmless enough to emphasize the charismatic aspects of the Christian life just as, also, it is harmless enough to have a devotion to Mary and the Saints, or to have various other devotions such as the Rosary, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Divine Mercy Chaplet, the Stations of the Cross, the Miraculous Medal; or to visit Lourdes or Fatima on pilgrimage. God honors our devotion to him in whatever form we express. It is wrong for Christians to reject the faith expression of other Christians.