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Topic: “knowing God”

Reflections on Knowing God, Chapters 3–4

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 3: Knowing and Being Known

A few things were particularly moving to me in this chapter, so I shall quote them and then comment and the ways in which they moved me.

What makes life worthwhile is having a big enough objective, something which catches our imagination and lays hold of our allegiance; and this the Christian has in a way that no other person has. For what higher, more exalted, and more compelling goal can there be than to know God?

It can be easy for me to lose sight of the profundity of the Christian calling. I am called to know and be known by the living God who made the universe and upholds it by his power every moment. He is infinite, but invites me to know him. This is, in a word, marvelous—it makes me marvel. God, so great he can never be known completely, nonetheless wants me to know him truly. He has communicated himself to me: he speaks through his Word, which he himself inspired. He took on flesh that he might perfectly communicate deity to humanity—so that I might know him, and not be forever kept from my ultimate purpose for existence. It moves me to prayer: “Oh God, that I might know you, and delight in knowing you! There is nothing more glorious, nothing better!”

But knowing Jesus Christ still remains as definite a relation of personal discipleship as it was for the Twelve when he was on earth. The Jesus who walks through the gospel story walks with Christians now, and knowing him involves going with him, now as then.

I had never thought of this before. I have considered how the Holy Spirit teaches us, of course, and I have even pondered what it meant when Jesus told his disciples that it was better for him to leave, so that the Spirit would come and indwell them and us (John 16:7). It never really crossed my mind, though perhaps it should have, that Jesus is making us his disciples. That is, it occurs to me, precisely what the Great Commission teaches us, of course! I am called to go and make disciples—not disciples of myself, but disciples of Jesus Christ. Something about Packer’s putting it just that way reminds me that as I read the gospels, I must see myself as Jesus’ student, seeking to follow his ways. Yes, by all means think about the theological focus of each author; yes, by all means consider the implications of this statement or that; yes, by all means integrate the books of the New Testament into a systematic and Biblical theology—but always with the singular point of following Jesus Christ. That is the only reason to do those other things: to know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he sent.

Chapter 4: The Only True God

I find it interesting that Packer takes as the subject of his fourth chapter the prohibition on images. The more I chew on it, though, the more sense it makes. Chapter 3 points us to the necessity of knowing the God who knows us, and Chapters 5 and following trace out the doctrine of God in much more detail. Packer is right to follow the commandments, though, and emphasize that in knowing God we must be careful not to know the mere imaginings of human beings. Substituting our own ideas of what God is like, rather than submitting to his self-revelation, is the heights of arrogance—but we are all guilty of doing just that at times. May it be ever more rare in me!

As someone who loves the arts, I found Packer’s thoughts on the use of the arts in worship insightful and accurate. He comments:

Whatever we may think of religious art from a cultural standpoint, we should not look to pictures of God to show us his glory and move us to worship; for his glory is precisely what such pictures can never show us.

I think this is a good corrective not only to our use of visual arts, but to our reliance on certain musical movements to “feel” worshipful. Our Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters may find themselves relying on images and incense, but I know it easy for me to rely instead on the bass coming in or the toms rumbling or the effect of all the instruments building up to a great crescendo and then cutting out to leave just the sound of congregational singing. To be sure, these are all fine things in their own right, but they can become a crutch and prevent me from making sure that I am in fact worshipping God, and not merely enjoying an emotional flow.

Finally, Packer’s relatively brief aside on Isaiah’s prompting (‘”To whom, then, will you compare God? What image will you compare him to?” The question does not expect an answer, only a chastened silence.’) provocative. Like God’s questions to Job, these questions remind me that I am but a man and he is God—infinitely above me, impossibly great and beyond comprehension, and worthy of all worship. Theological rigor is excellent and essential to real worship, but my knowledge of God will always ultimately end in humbled silence as it ultimately shows me the boundaries of that knowledge. There will always be more to know of God. Hallelujah!

Reflections on Knowing God, Chapters 1–2

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.

We increase the intensity, joy, and fidelity of our worship, not by including the verb “to worship” in every second line in our so-called “worship songs,” but by knowing more about God, and bringing our adoration to him, as he is. Insofar as our conceptions of him diverge from what he has disclosed of himself, so far are we worshiping a false god, which is normally called idolatry. To study hard what holy Scripture says about the Son of God, who has most comprehensively revealed his heavenly Father, is to know more about God, and thus to begin to ground our worship in reality rather than slogans.

—D. A. Carson, Jesus the Son of God: A Christological Title Often Overlooked, Sometimes Misunderstood, and Currently Disputed