Knowing God

BookRemarks are not book reviews, but topical posts inspired by books. This post was inspired primarily by J. I. Packer’s Knowing God.

In much of her writing – ranging from Philosophy: Who Needs It to The Art of Fiction – the author and philosopher Ayn Rand criticizes the so-called mystic formula: “For those who understand, no explanation is necessary; for those who don’t, none is possible” (Art of Fiction, page 2).

Rand defines mysticism as “the acceptance of allegations without evidence or proof, either apart from or against the evidence of one’s senses and one’s reason” (Philosophy, page 62).

Too often, she’s talking about religion.

Critics of Christianity often focus on the differences between faith and science. Science, they say, offers evidence and proof. It focuses on what we can know.

But one of the key tenets of Christianity is faith, which the Bible defines as “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). That sounds a lot like accepting something as true without having any real evidence for it.

Although many people dismiss Christianity, often in the name of science, as something that is not provable – and perhaps even something that can be disproven – we all owe it to ourselves to explore the possibilities.

After all, if Christianity is true, then it is the most important thing we will ever encounter. It has eternal consequences, good or bad. If we are not Christian, we should want to know if there is a God; if we are Christian, we should want to know God better.

And this is where we might encounter a book called Knowing God, by J. I. Packer.

Packer suggests that there are several considerations for getting to know God (pages 39-41):

  1. Knowing God is a matter of personal dealing. There is a difference between knowing about God, and knowing God. We need to experience God on a personal level.
  2. Knowing God is a matter of personal involvement. You can get to know someone as an acquaintance, but to become true friends with them you have to invest time and effort; it’s a matter of choice, an enactment of the will.
  3. Knowing God is a matter of grace. Packer says, “We do not make friends with God; God makes friends with us. Although we must respond to God, He is the one who sends out the invitation (freely, to all)” (page 41).

Regarding that third point, it is worth noting that God created humanity so that he could fellowship with us, and He has consistently tried to do so – and ultimately, He will do so (see, for example, Genesis 3:8-9, Leviticus 26:12, John 14:1-3, Revelation 21).

We should always remember, then, that God made the first move in our relationship with Him. As John wrote, “We love [God] because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19; emphasis added).

Regarding the first two points, however, it’s worth nothing that there is a common thread between them: knowing God is experiential in nature. It is possible to know a lot about God, but still not really know Him.

As Christians, we often differentiate these two concepts by talking about “head knowledge” versus “heart knowledge.” Head knowledge is the intellectual understanding of Christianity, while heart knowledge is the acceptance of – and faith in – Christian beliefs, based on personal experience.

These two categories actually explain a lot of the criticisms of Christianity, whether it’s due to the lack of scientifically verifiable evidence or the reliance on unverifiable evidence (see the mystic formula, above).

Let’s discuss head knowledge and heart knowledge, each in turn, starting with the problems of simply knowing about God.

Head knowledge

We can read the Bible and know what it says about God. And, to an extent, our intellectual acceptance of God is a prerequisite for getting to know Him better. Unfortunately, head knowledge can also lead to several barriers to knowing God.

Head knowledge can make us think: Christianity doesn’t make sense

Actually, it probably won’t make sense at first. The Bible even says that God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8); they are, in fact, “unsearchable” (Romans 11:33).

The apostle Paul even stated, “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14).

So, we can expect to be confused when we first start to learn about God. But notice that last phrase: understanding can come through spiritual discernment. As we will see later, we can get to know God by having a mind willing to understand His ways (1 Chronicles 28:9).

Head knowledge can make us think: Christianity can’t be proven

One of the most common critiques of Christianity is that you just can’t prove that God exists. Science, however, can prove a lot of things – or, at least provide strong evidence for something.

The Scientific Method is built upon the idea of repeatability: if X, then Y. The same things happen over and over in the same circumstances. Hold up a book a million times and let it go, and it will fall to the floor a million times; not once will it hover or fly to the ceiling.

Thus, the Law of Gravity.

That’s the type of demonstrable results, critics say, that Christianity simply can’t offer.

Take prayer for example. For every prayer that appears to get answered, there are many more that bring no visible results. A Christian might respond, “God always answers prayers: sometimes with ‘yes,’ sometimes with ‘no,’ and sometimes with ‘wait.’”

To the skeptic, however, that just sounds like a convenient catch-all saying to prevent criticism.

But the Bible does offer some repeatable experiments. For example, the Bible often tells us that if we seek God, we will find him (e.g., Deuteronomy 4:29, 1 Chronicles 28:9, 2 Chronicles 15:2, Jeremiah 29:13, Matthew 7:7-8, James 4:8).

In the past, intellectuals like C. S. Lewis and investigative journalists like Lee Strobel have taken it upon themselves to investigate the claims of the Bible – only to convert to Christianity and remain devoted Christians the rest of their lives.

The problem is that the repeatability of this experiment relies on a couple prerequisites: a willing mind and an open heart. If we are not sincere in our efforts to find God, we can’t expect to get the same results they did.

And that’s true in any scientific experiment: if the same preconditions are not met, the results will not be consistent with previous findings.

Head knowledge can make us think: Christianity can be disproven

Most Christian denominations are adamant about one thing: the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God. That is, it contains no errors whatsoever.

Thus, if even one error can be found – even just one inconsistency – wouldn’t the whole thing fall apart? Of course, if presented with a possible error in the Bible, most Christians would simply respond, “You’re wrong. The Bible contains no errors.”

That answer doesn’t intellectually satisfy a Doubting Thomas, however. The person who thinks they see an inconsistency in the Bible will likely dismiss the entire thing – if their intellectual doubts are not properly addressed.

And we should not ignore the intellectual challenges to our faith. But they should be set aside, temporarily, in a good-faith effort at – well, at faith. As Packer says, “It is sad that so many make faith harder than it need be, by finding difficulties in the wrong places” (page 52).

As we learn more about God, things that might once have seemed inconsistent or contradictory might actually start to make sense. Remember Paul’s statement above about spiritual discernment.

And, it’s worth considering that many historical details that were once considered errors in the Bible have since been found to be accurate. As with scientific knowledge, we simply don’t have all the necessary information available at the moment to answer all our biblical questions.

But that doesn't mean the answers aren't out there.

Head knowledge can make us think: I’m a Christian (even if I’m not)

Sometimes, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. There are a lot of people who have been raised in church and know all the “right” answers to spiritual questions. They can tell you how to be saved, what baptism means, and even debate things like the timing of the Rapture (pre-, mid-, post-Tribulation?).

The problem is, head knowledge does you no good, spiritually speaking. Jesus addressed this issue in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 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 perform many miracles? Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matthew 7:21-23; emphasis added).

Attending church or name-dropping Jesus into our conversations does not mean we are truly saved. Doing good things, even if we say we’re doing them in the name of Jesus, does not mean we are saved.

Please note in the passage above that “many” people will be told, “I never knew you” – not just a few would-be Christians, but many would-be Christians will find out that they never actually knew Jesus; they only knew about him.

The problem with these church-goers is that they never truly gave their lives to Christ. They might have said some words, prayed a prayer, and even been baptized – after all, they knew what they were supposed to say and do to please their parents, fit in with the youth group, or maybe get fire insurance.

But intellectual assent is not what God wants from us. As James said, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder” (2:19). Acknowledging God’s existence doesn’t save someone from the consequences of sin.

Instead of just saying words of acknowledgement (“I believe in God”), we need to make a commitment to serving Him. As the apostle John said, “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands” (1 John 2:3).

If our lifestyle does not change after we “get saved,” then we probably weren’t really saved. The security of our salvation does not come through mere head knowledge; our heart has to be in it.

Head knowledge can make us think: I’m not a Christian (even if I am)

Sometimes our intellectual understanding of Christianity does not match our personal experiences with it.

Packer recognizes that many Christians don’t actually feel the Holy Spirit at work in their lives. They don’t feel inward joy or peace; they continue to struggle with sin, losing the battle more often than not; they don’t feel the assurance of their salvation.

Maybe they were never saved at all? Maybe they should get baptized again?

“Such Christians,” Packer adds, “feel they are missing something vital, and they anxiously ask how they may close the gap between the New Testament picture of life in the Spirit and their own felt barrenness in daily experience” (page 219).

If these feelings don’t get resolved, these people might simply drift away from God. Since their experiences don’t match their expectations, why spend all that time on Sundays going to church? Maybe God isn’t real after all…

It’s possible such people were never saved, but Packer is specifically talking about discontented Christians. And our discontentment might actually be the key to improving our relationship with God. It’s very possible the Holy Spirit is trying to convict us of lingering sin in our lives.

Packer says, “[When] Christians grow careless toward God and slip back into ways of deliberate sin, their inward joy and rest of heart grow less, and discontentment of spirit comes to mark them more and more… backsliding Christians are always miserable” (page 247).

As it is when we are first investigating the claims of Christianity, so it is when we are committed Christians: we have to be willing to let God work in our life.

Heart Knowledge

Often, our faith problems have more to do with our hearts than with our heads. In fact, when God invites us to get to know Him, he focuses much more on the heart:

But if you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deuteronomy 4:29)

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:13)

Packer suggests that to worship God, “Your heart should be receptive and responsive to his revelation” (120-21). The best thing we can do to get to know God is to decide that we want to know Him – and then make a commitment to try. We have to start doing the things we know we should do: read the Bible, go to church, pray, etc.

God will lead the dance, if we’re willing to step out onto the floor. As the apostle James said, “Come near to God, and he will come near to you” (4:8).

Pastor and bestselling author Chip Ingram has said the one thing that has most impacted his life was his decision to read the Bible for a few minutes every morning. He wasn’t very good at it, at first. He struggled to wake up early enough to read it; he struggled to understand it.

But he persisted. When necessary, he asked a friend to get him out of bed in the morning. He had someone else teach him how to study the Bible.

Over time, his life started to change for the better. Old thought patterns became less common; his bad language started to clean up; he grew more joyful. Reading the Bible in the morning shifted from being a duty, and became a pleasure.

If we start spending time with God, He will also change our lives as he did Ingram’s. If we are saved, but backslidden, the joy and assurance of salvation will return.

If we only had head knowledge before, and were not genuinely saved, God will lead us to salvation – and we will share the repeatable experience so many other Christians have had before us.

Hand Knowledge

The current Gospel Project® series of discipleship guides, published by Lifeway Christian Resources, end every week’s lesson with a “My Response” section. This section includes questions under three labels: Head, Heart, Hands. Christians have long discussed head and heart knowledge – it’s time to introduce the concept of “hand knowledge.”

Hand knowledge is putting the precepts of Christianity into practice. The apostle James warned, “Faith, by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead… Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do” (2:17-18).

Earlier, he stated, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (1:22).

Why are deeds important? First, the church is the body of Christ. Second, Jesus calls us to be “the light of the world” – but other people cannot see our faith. Thus, James’s challenge: “Show me your faith without deeds…”

In order to be that light to the world, we must let others see our faith in action. Faith without deeds is like a light under a bowl: it does no good. As Jesus said, “Let your light shine before men, that they might see your good deeds and praise your Father in Heaven” (see Matthew 5:14-16; emphasis added).

We aren't saved by our works – but our works are one way to show that we have been changed, and they are one way we can spread the Gospel.


So how can we come to know God – or to know Him better?

Let’s consider the advice King David gave to his son Solomon: “Acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind… if you seek him, he will be found by you” (1 Chronicles 28:9; emphases added).

Notice that David mentions all three types of knowledge: head (“a willing mind”), heart (“wholehearted devotion”), and hand (“serve him”).

If we make it a priority to know God – if we read the Bible consistently, attend church, listen to Christian podcasts and music, and perhaps even journal about our thoughts as we do these things – then we are told that God will let us find Him.

But we have to be open to hearing what God says to us. There are some sins over which we have more control than others, and if He convicts us of such sin, then we have to be willing to stop what we’re doing. If we do this, if we control the things we can control, God will start to help us with the things that we can’t control.

Are you willing to let God make Himself known to you?

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