J. I. Packer’s Knowing God is a good read, but in this entry I’ll just draw on his title. Knowing God is a key feature in life. Whatever our view of him happens to be is evident in how we live.
Yet the range of views about God is vast and often vague. For many people “God” represents an impersonal Life Force: a label for unexplained mysteries. Such folks may link God to their sense of personal destiny. As such he, she, or it offers some comfort, invites some blame, and usually provides broad freedom.
For others God is more sharply defined. Allah of Islam, for instance, is mainly defined by his will as the sole divine being—a Monad—who rules all and requires full obedience. He remains relationally aloof since he exists by and for himself.
Many people today prefer to dismiss concepts of God. Yet the denials of such naturalists miss a key point. Humans are innately religious—always living with a sense of value and destiny. This sense relies on ultimate values—values that get people out of bed each morning; and help shape every conversation and decision. They may be the goals of an altruist; the appetites of an academic; an interest in cooking; the addictions of computer gaming; or a simple longing to be part of a community. There is for them a divine profile of “what’s right” that emerges in persistent motives that shape daily choices.
The question of “which God” also applies to Christians. If we ask believers, “Who is God to you?” we’re sure to be surprised. But we shouldn’t be. A person with deep compassion for others will see God’s compassion as a key divine virtue. Or vice versa for those who celebrate a stern God. A creative person is more likely to celebrate God’s creativity; and a moralist will elevate God’s justice, and so on. In their sum the many Christian portrayals of God are complex and often very conflicted.
So that forces us to ask, what is God really like? He’s certain to be more than a malleable figure who fits our personal whims and ambitions.
To answer this question Christians look to Jesus Christ in the Bible. One text that emerges there, given our topic of “knowing,” is John 17:3—“And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Jesus was speaking of himself in the third person; and of God as his Father—to whom he is praying—about “knowing” God.
We notice that Jesus presented this knowledge as the basis for eternal life. He also spoke of the divine dyad—of knowing both him and his Father. Jesus also added the title “Christ”—“anointed ruler”—to his identity. And he also referred to himself as the one whom God had “sent.” “Knowing God” included all these features.
Jesus also spoke of the Father sending him to collect the “eternal life” people. So the eternal relationship of the Father and the Son is extended to this group. And elsewhere, in Matthew 7:23, Jesus warned listeners that some people who think they belong to this group, and who were robustly religious, were not included. “‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” Once again, the term “know” is crucial. To “know” him suggests a deep mutual devotion—something more than knowing “about” him.
Later in John 17 we discover another key feature in what it means to know God. Jesus spoke of his one primary competitor, “the evil one” (v.15). In John 8 Jesus called him the “devil” and “the liar.”
The picture Jesus offers, then, is that we aren’t actually faced with a vast set of God options. Instead there are just two: the one true God. We meet him as the triune Father, Son, and Spirit, with Jesus offering us the face of God. And one spiritual competitor, Satan. The latter is an evil pretender who wants to be God. So he deceives many by flashing and offering to share various glimpses of his divine pretensions. Yet they all revolve around a two-part goal: of first dismissing Jesus; and then in claiming that personal freedom is only found in his own enslaving ambitions.
That, in turn, simplifies life for all his followers. There is, ultimately, a single captivating lie: “You can be like God.” In other words, all who follow him will get to reshape the world on their own terms. This is a call to personal enhancement through self-defined goals. But the fact is, the Liar rules over all who adopt his values—as we read in Ephesian 2:1-3 and in 1 John 5:19.
So what ultimately characterizes “knowing God” is a real love for Jesus. And a bond with the Father. Both emerge as the Spirit pours out God’s love in the hearts of those who know him. And what’s the alternative? A love for being independent from the Son and the Father. And a chance to explore Satan’s offer of self-love.
What this portrayal in John 17—and elsewhere—rules out is a popular notion that most people are spiritually neutral—“good people”—who are searching among the many religious and non-religious options in life to find what to believe. The biblical imagery is actually one of self-deception—shaped by a false promise of freedom.
If this portrayal is different than your own, here’s a challenge. As soon as you have two or three hours to spare, sit down and read John’s gospel through in one sitting. See what he portrays there about knowing God. It’s a great read!