What is it to know God? The Bible invites us to seek after him but it also warns against fruitless knowledge. Let me offer a brief survey of options and then an application.
Knowing specialists. Common sense tells us to collect and organize information about God. Gaining and ordering knowledge is essential in any field so it’s reasonable to assume that more training in God’s ways and activities will be the key to probing God’s more complex features: his essential being, his attributes, his intentions, his communication and operations, to name just a few. Those who chase these matters usually become teachers or pastors. Yet, given size of the task, they never cease to be students.
Knowing organizers. Among knowing specialists we need to find the more gifted learners to give order to what we know. This calls for the best and brightest seekers among us to synthesize what can be known about God and then to express that knowledge with clarity and power. It involves complex filtering and sorting skills because what can be known of the infinite and eternal God is massive beyond measure; and theological missteps are all too common.
This processing task has been given to Systematic Theologians, and the fruit of their efforts are books thicker and far more complex than the Bible itself. And this is how pastors get their training: the main task at any theological college is to offer a systematic theology for the students to learn and then restate. The challenge for the pastor, then, is to offer as much knowledge to parishioners as possible, yet without overwhelming them.
Knowing responders. A crucial but sometimes overlooked feature in knowing God is to have a personal engagement with him—to begin to respond to him. Any person who is given to collecting information about God needs to keep asking the “so what?” question. Why is this information so important? What does it call for in shaping life? Engagement with God gives direction to the exercise.
This, however, is where the process of Christian knowing can go awry. If knowledge becomes an end in itself rather than a means to an end, the collectors and purveyors of that knowledge can be increasingly foolish. In other words we can overwhelm people with theological terms and tomes and, unwittingly, deflect them from the ultimate feature of God’s reality: that he loves us and invites us to love him in return. This relational bond is crucial and widely affirmed—we think of Deuteronomy 6:4-6, Matthew 22:37-40, and John 3:16 as starting points.
What’s notable in this is that the Bible offers a different pathway to knowing God than our common sense program supports. A proper knowledge of God works from the inside-out, in a Heart-to-heart relationship that provides the starting point for any additional learning. In other words the subjective bond of relationship is prior to an objective goal of knowing more and more.
Without a personal relationship the massive collection of information about God has no long-term meaning. It’s not the stuff of eternal life. The Matthew 7:23 warning by Jesus to religious leaders of his day—“depart from me, I never knew you”—has shocking weight. The key question in knowing God is to ask whether he knows us.
I recall President John Kennedy whose children knew him as their father and felt the freedom to wander around the White House, including the Oval Office, without any sense of awe or a need to prepare for their visits with study exercises. That’s not to say that daughter Caroline, now in her later adulthood, hasn’t gained lots of additional objective information about her father since 1963—she certainly has. But we can be sure she will never give more weight to that sort of knowing than to her knowing him as ‘Daddy’ as she sat on his lap, leaning against his chest. Her access to him came in his knowing her as his daughter.
The defining truth in knowing God properly is that his Spirit must first awaken our spirit—our heart—for us to become responders. God’s inaugurating love needs to stir a reciprocating love in us; and that only comes as the Spirit pours out God’s love in our hearts.
Think, in this respect, of Jesus when he spoke to the systematic theologians of his day by citing Isaiah’s warning from centuries before, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Mark 7:6; Isaiah 29:13). Paul reflected a similar concern with the Corinthians when he challenged the “foolish wisdom of the world” and promised, instead, access to “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined . . . for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9 citing Isaiah 64:4). How so? “Through the Spirit” in a Spirit-to-spirit communion.
A theme we discover, Bible-wide, is God’s invitation to know him more and more intimately. That sets up a proper starting point for gaining any additional objective knowledge of the relationally-rich Triune God. He appealed to Israel to come to him, “the fountain of living water” but they preferred, instead, to carve out “cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13). In effect, the efforts by those people to store up divine resources were actually blinding them to God’s self-giving presence.
So the key to knowing God is to let God take the lead. He’s happy to make it work.