I am writing up reflections on my devotions every day for six weeks. This is one of those posts.
One of my assignments for Christian Theology I at Southeastern is writing short devotional reflections on J. I. Packer’s Knowing God. On the days I read it, I am using this as my primary devotional material, so it will take the place of reflection on Scripture on those days.
Chapter 1: The Study of God
I find myself both challenged and encouraged here. I am encouraged, for it has long been my conviction that the knowledge of God is the most practical thing in the world. Seeking to know him more truly is both the most important task in my life and the most effective in bringing change in my life. I am challenged, though, because as Packer rightly points out, “If we pursue theological knowledge for its own sake, it is bound to go bad on us.”
Even as a seminary student only a few semesters in, I have seen the ease with which I could slip into approaching Scripture merely academically, and I know that for many, seminary degrees are a time of spiritual dryness. Packer’s exhortation helps me remember how to avoid that kind of spiritual deadness: we must “… turn each truth that we learn about God into matter for meditation before God, leading to prayer and praise to God.” In other words, I have come full circle: it is God who is the center of this enterprise, not me. That means that it is God, and not me, for whom I must conduct my studies—I must orient them on glorifying him, not on self-improvement or bettering others’ opinions of me. Turning my studies and reflections that way, not only apprehending intellectually but meditating so that these truths seep deep down into my affections and my ways of living, will keep me humble, and will lead me closer to God. As it should be.
Chapter 2: The People Who Know Their God
Packer writes, “If we really knew God, this”—that no worldly troubles matter, because of the joy of knowing God—”is what we would be saying, and if we are not saying it, that is a sign we need to face ourselves more sharply with the difference between knowing God and merely knowing about him.” This is a concern that presses deeply on me. I have seen friends grow in knowledge about while diminishing in knowledge of God, a fate I wish very much to avoid. More importantly, I have experienced the same in seasons of my own life, an experience I very much wish to avoid repeating. To grow in knowledge of theology without coming to know God more thoroughly is simply to end up arrogant, distant from God, a thorn in the side of other believers. Just as bad, it is to end up dry, dusty, and academic instead of full of the “gaiety, goodness, and unfetteredness of spirit” that Packer calls us to.
I have known many who knew less theology than me, but loved God more truly. I heartily believe that they would have loved God yet more truly had they known more of him, but I also believe that God desires their love more than their knowledge (even if he does desire both)—which is to say, he desires my loving him even more than he desires my knowing about him. It occurs to me that this is inherent in Jesus’ shocking comment that only those who come as little children will enter the kingdom: children do not come full of knowledge, but they do come full of love. I may grow in knowledge; indeed I must if I am to fully love God with the mind he has given me. Yet I must make sure that I am loving God with my mind, not loving myself.
Packer, quite rightly I think, points to prayer as both barometer and means of accomplishing this state of knowing God as well as knowing of him. If my knowledge is not leading me to prayer (and praise), I am missing the point somehow. I have seen this born out often in my devotions. When I am really grasping the passage, I want to pray and worship. When I am merely going through the motions, or only picking up the information academically, I am not so moved. Thus, my heart’s response toward prayer, or lack thereof, is a weather vane for how I am responding to the increased knowledge. At the same time, the discipline of prayer helps me turn away from mere academic apprehension of facts to the sovereign God those facts describe, and whom I ought to be worshiping, so it is also a way of avoiding that particular failure.