Wednesday, June 21, 2017

On Knowing God: What is it to "Know" God?

Christianity makes the claim that there is a God who has created all things and who himself gives his creation meaning. Further, we can know him! This is an exciting and satisfying possibility. It is exciting because it involves the possibility of contact between the individual and God, however insignificant the individual may appear in his or her own eyes or in the eyes of others. It is satisfying because it is knowledge not of an idea or thing but of a supremely personal Being, and because it issues in a profound change of conduct. 

This is what the Bible means when it says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7). And, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Prov. 9:10). 

Here, however, we must be clear about what we mean when we speak of “knowing God,” for many common uses of the word know are inadequate to convey the biblical understanding. There is a use of the word know by which we mean “awareness.” In this sense we say that we know where somebody lives or that we know that certain events are transpiring somewhere in the world. It is a kind of knowledge, but it does not involve us personally. It has little bearing on our lives. This is not what the Bible means when it speaks of knowing God. 

Another use of the word know means “knowing about” something or someone. It is knowledge by description. For instance, we may say that we know New York City or London or Moscow. By that we mean that we are aware of the geographic layout of the city; we know the names of the streets, where the major stores are and other facts. We may have gained our knowledge of the city by actually living there. But it is also possible that we may have gained our knowledge by reading books. In the religious realm this type of knowledge would apply to theology which, although important, is not the whole or even the heart of religion. The Bible tells us much about God that we should know. But this is not enough. Even the greatest theologians can be confused and can find life meaningless. 

True knowledge of God is also more than knowledge by experience. To go back to the earlier example, it would be possible for someone who has lived in a particular city to say, “But my knowledge is not book knowledge. I have actually lived there. I have walked the streets, shopped in the stores, attended the theaters. I have experienced the city. I really know it.” To this we would have to reply that the knowledge involved is certainly a step beyond anything we have talked about thus far, but still it is not the full idea of knowledge in the Christian sense. 

Suppose, for instance, that a person should go out into a starlit field in the cool of a summer evening and gaze up into the twinkling heavens and come away with the claim that in that field he has come to know God. What do we say to such a person? The Christian does not have to deny the validity of that experience, up to a point. It is certainly a richer knowledge than mere awareness of God (“There is a God”) or mere knowledge about him (“God is powerful and is the Creator of all that we see and know”). Still, the Christian insists, this is less than what the Bible means by true knowledge. For when the Bible speaks of knowing God it means being made alive by God in a new sense (being “born again”), conversing with God (so that he becomes more than some great “Something” out there, so that he becomes a friend), and being profoundly changed in the process. 

All this is leading us, step by step, to a better understanding of the word knowledge. But still another qualification is needed. According to the Bible, even when the highest possible meaning is given to the word know, knowing God is still not merely knowing God. For it is never knowing God in isolation. It is always knowing God in his relationship to us. Consequently, according to the Bible, knowledge of God takes place only where there is also knowledge of ourselves in our deep spiritual need and where there is an accompanying acceptance of God’s gracious provision for our need through the work of Christ and the application of that work to us by God’s Spirit. Knowledge of God takes place in the context of Christian piety, worship and devotion. The Bible teaches that this knowledge of God takes place (where it does take place), not so much because we search after God—because we do not—but because God reveals himself to us in Christ and in the Scriptures. 

J. I. Packer writes of this knowledge, “Knowing God involves, first, listening to God’s word and receiving it as the Holy Spirit interprets it, in application to oneself; second, noting God’s nature and character, as His word and works reveal it; third, accepting His invitations, and doing what He commands; fourth, recognising, and rejoicing in, the love that He has shown in thus approaching one and drawing one into this divine fellowship.” [J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 32.]