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What does it Mean to have a Personal Relationship with Jesus?

May 17, 2010 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Relationship with Christ, Salvation

Dear Father John, What does it mean to have a “personal relationship with Christ?” I pray regularly (rosary, Liturgy of the Hours, etc.) and go to mass regularly, however, I don't know that “personal relationship” would describe my understanding and experience personal relationship with Christof God. Am I missing something?

Maybe, but maybe not. Let’s start answering your question with a question: When you “pray and go to Mass regularly,” why do you do it? Take a moment to answer that question for yourself before you continue reading… Why do you carve time out of your busy schedule to pray and worship God the Father through Jesus Christ in union with the Holy Spirit? Most likely, your personal answer fits into one of the following three generic answers.

Falling into Routine

First, we can pray and worship out of routine. It’s like punching our spiritual time-clock. We have always gone to Mass and always prayed, ever since we were kids, and we feel a kind of comfortable inertia in continuing to do so. We have a vague sense that one ought to do such things, and we have a vague sense that if I fail to do them we will feel guilty for some reason, and we don’t want to add an uncomfortable guilty feeling to our already over-stressed emotional world. So we keep going through the motions of being a Catholic. Just as it would strike an American citizen as somehow incongruent not to celebrate the Fourth of July, it strikes a cultural Catholic as somehow incongruent not to engage in some basic spiritual practices. If you “say your prayers” just because doing so has become part of your internal comfort zone, you may have fallen into what theologians call spiritual routine.

When I was in eighth grade I remember sleeping over at a friend’s house. As we went down to the basement to go to bed, his parents were sitting on the couch watching television, the wife cuddling against the husband, who had his arm around her. They looked like a happy couple. Two months later they were divorced. I asked me friend how they could be so happy together, and then get divorced. My friend told me that they just kept up appearances for the kids’ sake, but there was no love in it. That’s falling into routine.

Fright School

Second, we can pray and worship out of fear. This can be akin to superstition. We have the idea in our heads that if we stop going to Mass, praying the Rosary, or making our morning offering, God will become angry, punish us, make our lives miserable, and maybe even send us to Hell. In this case, our spiritual commitments (prayer and worship) are like paying taxes to a tyrant, or being extorted by a strong-man: if we pay our dues, the Boss won’t bother us.

In ancient pagan religions, proper worship depended on following formula perfectly. A priest had to offer an elaborate ceremony with perfect execution, or the god would not be pleased and it would go to waste. If during the ceremony the priest sneezed, for example, he would have to start all over again. In this religious vision, people are not children of a loving Father, but slaves of angry, fickle, and aloof deities.

Connected by Conviction

Third, we can pray and worship out of conviction. The word “conviction” comes from the same word that gives us “convinced.” Religious conviction is an internal state of assurance with regard to religious truth. The primary reason a convinced Christian prays and worships is because they sincerely believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, our Lord and Savior, Creator and Redeemer, and that he deserves our praise and we need his grace. If our spiritual life flows from conviction, then the actual activity we engage in during our times of prayer is conscious: we pay attention to the meaning of the words, we search the Scriptures for wisdom and guidance, we lift our hearts to God in thanksgiving and adoration, and we strive to conform how we live to what we discover in prayer – to what God wants for us (God’s will). In this case, our faith actually connects our mind and heart to God during our prayer. We are not just going through motions, and we are just paying our dues; we are actually encountering the God who speaks to his beloved children through the revelation of Jesus Christ.

The Bible Reminds Us

Praying and worshiping mainly out of conviction (as opposed to routine or fear), is what it means to have a “personal relationship with Christ.” On the one hand, we know that he knows us and is interested in our life (“I no longer call you slaves… I have called you friends… It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go out and bear fruit…” (John 15: 15-16). Or, as St Paul put it, “I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20). And on the other hand, we put forth our own effort to follow his example and teaching, as a way to stay close to him, accept his invitation to become a disciple, and participate in his great project of building up the Church for the glory of God and the salvation of souls: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments…” (John 14:15). Christianity is about knowing, loving, and following a person, Jesus Christ. The essence of our religion is a personal relationship of faith, hope, and love.

The Pope Hits the Nail on the Head

As Pope Benedict XVI put it in his inaugural homily: “The Church as a whole and all her Pastors, like Christ, must set out to lead people out of the desert, towards the place of life, towards friendship with the Son of God, towards the One who gives us life, and life in abundance… There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him… If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation” (Pope Benedict XVI, 24 April 2005).

Of course, we are all on our way to spiritual perfection, and so sometimes we fall into routine – at least, on the surface of our minds we can fall into routine; our conviction still exists, but it’s submerged under distraction or anxiety. That prayer is still valuable, and still pleasing to God – the remote motivation is right on target. But the more we can keep our convictions fresh, strong, and vibrant, the better. Likewise, I may find myself crawling out of bed on Sunday to get ready for Mass just because I know that missing Mass is a mortal sin, and I really don’t want to go to Hell. Some Christian faith and conviction is still present even in that slavish motivation. God can work with that. Yet, the more we understand what Mass really is, the more we will see obeying the precept to attend Mass as a joy, a relief, a mysterious encounter with eternity, and an opportunity to please God and build up his Kingdom. When we pray and worship out of conviction, we connect better with Christ, and his grace has more room to work in our souls.

Having a “personal relationship with Christ” doesn’t mean regularly having visions of him sitting on the easy chair in the living room or hearing him give us directions while we’re looking for the right exit off the Interstate. Rather, it simply means gradually learning to live our Christianity more and more from heart to Heart.


Art for this post on a personal relationship with Jesus: Modified detail of Jésus marchant sur les eaux (Jesus walking on water), Alsace, Bas-Rhin, Église Saint-Pierre de Bourg-Bruche, artist not identified, XIXe-XXe, photographed and copyright 28 September 2015 by Ralph Hamman – Wikimedia Commons, CCA-SA 4.0 International, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college, he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". His most recent books are "Spring Meditations", "Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength", and "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions". Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at

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  • Guest

    Wow!!! Father, this is the very best Article and teaching you have given to us – No – to me especially. Oh may God bless you always.

  • larrybets


    Very well put indeed, especially our Holy Fathers words during his inaugural homily. I would add that when you love someone or enter into a friendship with someone don’t you want to know about them? Don’t you enjoy speaking with that individual? Are we not excited when we want to spend time with that person and all we can think about all day is sharing the good and bad things with that person? The same hold true with our relationship with Jesus, he loves us and wants to dwell in us. That type of relationship is personal is it not? So let’s enlarge our hearts enough to make room for him and love him and befriend him as we should.

  • Victoria

    Thank you, father, for such encouraging words. The evil one is at work when he tries to frustrate our efforts in what we do accomplish toward Christ. We need to continue to encourage one another and resist the deception of satan. Peace of Christ be upon you…

  • Wendy Petzall

    Saint Josemaría Escrivá wrote a little book called The Way, where he teaches:
    n. 90: You say that you don’t know how to pray? Put yourself in the presence of God, and once you have said, ‘Lord, I don’t know how to pray!’ rest assured that you have begun to do so.
    n. 91: You write: ‘To pray is to talk with God. But about what?’ About what? About Him, about yourself: joys, sorrows, successes and failures, noble ambitions, daily worries, weaknesses! And acts of thanksgiving and petitions: and Love and reparation.
    In a word: to get to know him and to get to know yourself: ‘to get acquainted!’
    n. 97: You don’t know what to say to our Lord in your prayer. You can’t think of anything, and yet you would like to consult him on many things. Look: make some notes during the day of whatever you want to consider in the presence of God. And then take these notes with you to pray.
    n. 103: Engrave in your memory those words which struck you while praying, and repeat them slowly many times throughout the day.
    n. 114: The prayer of a Christian is never a monologue.
    n. 115: ‘Minutes of silence’. Leave silence for those whose hearts are dry.We Catholics, children of God, speak with our Father who is in heaven.
    These numbers are included in the chapter on Prayer.
    All the best!
    Wendy, from Caracas – Venezuela
    PS: Thanks for your wonderful posts, Fr Bartunek. My mother -81- finds them very useful for her own mental prayer. Do remember her in your prayers, as she is losing her memory very fast.

    • Very good information. Thank you Wendy!

    • Victoria

      n. 115: ‘Minutes of silence’. “leave silence for those whose hearts are dry”. Perhaps I misunderstand the reference, why is silence for those with dry hearts?

  • Guest

    Maybe i’m missing something, but i always thought i had a personal relationship with Jesus–and His Mother for that matter. I talk to them like they are right with me. Honestly i don’t always do what they say, but i talk with them all the time i’m not doing what i’m supposed to do. when i’m done, i try to learn what made me disobey, and often find that my personality is just annoying in that i question every person who thinks they are in authority. it’s part of my root sin, as i read on this site. i’m working harder on it than i have in the past

  • 4ltn

    i like this … i’ve actually been through all three … okay well i’m not so sure bout the conviction bit … but …”fright school” … been there ALOT, when i was little … “routine” … been there and maybe still there … back in high school, i used to go to Mass as often as possible because i didn’t have much to do in arvo’s … so it became a routine thing, to go to Mass … now it’s a little different or not …. I actually LOVE going to Mass … you know how some people love chocolate so much, that when offered they won’t say no …. well i’m like that with regards to attending Mass, … i being offered the chance to Receive the Body of Christ, i ain’t turning it down … only lately i stopped going twice in a day, i just go to one …

    … i’m not going to lie, but i sometimes get really, really lazy to say the Rosary … but when i do pray, be it the Rosary or a short prayer, if i’m in church or anywhere … i feel different, really different i dunno how to explain it, but it’s such a beautiful feeling … and during adoration, it’s even more magical … and when I’m at Mass, it’s just a super-natural magical feeling … it’s like being in a totally absolutely different world, i know this may sound really silly .. but sometimes, church may not be as filled with people, and even though i can see the empty spaces, they don’t feel like that …. it feels like it’s always filled with people …

  • Mike


    Thank you for helping us on our journey of faith.


  • J Smidowicz

    A convincing answer to a good question.

  • bluewren

    Well I can agree with all of that but I find I want to Go to Mass and when I go there it is a good experience sometimes GREAT I wonder how I could ever stay away from the Blessed Sacrament Tho time goes by and I don’t go tho I pray and talk to Him everyday Something too often gets in the way of me going to Mass as the demands of my life are taking over.My last visit to the Blessed Sacrament was good indescribable as all my physical fatigue just left me and I realized how much I had Missed Him in the Blessed Sacrament.I t was a real reunion so great to be with my best friend. Tho He has not spoken to me since 1993 (when I wasn’t expecting it ) many prayers have been answered as was said. Praise and than You Lord .My children and I pray together once a week with one connected by phone.The last prayer for my son in law was so great it made my day.such a blessing and he is an agnostic.Even our relationship has improved. All the others on the page of my “Puter Chapel” have been answered as well.(all except mine). I love my “Puter Chapel” with all the technology I can play the Best of Catholic Church music via beautiful video sometimes a whole film like the life of Padre Pio downloaded from Youtube.( yes really).With fun animations whenever a prayer is answered I have a tiny nun who dances for joy spinning around.or a cupid baby angel jumps up and down,Lovely Church songs especially and old video song by a singer called Jim Reeves I had never heard of he sings “It is no secret what God can do.’! I suppose I should go in for more self examination but I find it too tiresome and somehow deadening leading to a sort of holier than though aspiration and yes judgemental towards other people that I don’t like so I am afraid I just ask the Lord ot heal me.But I will make an effort to go to Mass more often and yes be a bit more introspective.It might help. ( then maybe my personal prayer will be answered:-).It sometimes seems to me that the Lord likes to see me do it tough.maybe you might pray for me sometimes Father ?
    May the Lord also bless you and give your the desire of your heart,Father.

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