Knowing God is not an optional part of the Christian life; it is the Christian life! So it should not come as a surprise to anyone that the first step in spiritual formation is to learn how to know God “more clearly, love him more dearly, and follow him more nearly.” J. I. Packer states it well in a series of questions:
What were we made for? To know God. What aim should we set for ourselves in life? To know God. What is the eternal life that Jesus gives? Knowledge of God (John 17:3). What brings more joy, delight, and contentment, than anything else? Knowledge of God (Jer. 9:23).
Our knowledge of God begins with the opening of our heart and mind to Him. The Bible makes it clear that we live from the heart (Prov. 4:23) and it is in this metaphorical center of our lives that we are called to be made new when we come to God. But it is also true that we “first turned away from God in our thoughts, and so it is in our thoughts that the first movements toward the renovation of our heart occurs.” It is in our mind that the Holy Spirit begins to convince us of our sin and lost condition. It will also be in our mind that we first respond to God’s overtures of grace. It is in our mind that we begin to think our first thoughts of God and begin to formulate our personal knowledge of Him — a knowledge that desperately needs to be consistent with the God that Jesus revealed! Paul knew that real transformation required the “renewing of the mind” (Rom. 12:2). So growing in the knowledge of God involves making sure we think correctly about Him.
What does your God look like?
We all have a picture of God in our mind that has been formulated over the course of our lives. It is a narrative, a story that we use to understand and interpret God. It becomes the basis for how we feel about God and relate to Him. Sadly, far too many of us have a distorted picture of God in our minds. I have known saintly people, whose picture of God was so badly distorted and misinformed, that it placed a dark cloud over all their spiritual life. One could honestly say that these dear people loved God with all their heart but they didn’t like the God they had in their head.
All the great mystics and spiritual formation writers place a great emphasis on building the right narrative—a true biblical narrative of God in our minds. A. W. Tozer expressed the importance of it in his classic quote, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” William Temple said, “If your concept of God is wrong, the more religion you get, the more dangerous you become to yourself and to everyone else.” Dallas Willard adds his word of warning:
To serve God well we must think straight; and crooked thinking, unintentional or not, always favors evil. And when crooked thinking gets evaluated into group orthodoxy, whether religious or secular, there is always, quite literally “hell to pay.” That is, hell will take its portion, as it has repeatedly done in the horrors of world history.
Why is knowing God rightly so critical?
The picture of God we have in our heads profoundly affects the way we relate to God. If we have a vague, fuzzy and impersonal picture of God, then our relationship with God usually turns out to be vague, fuzzy and impersonal. Or if we picture God to be against us or always out to get us, it will be highly unlikely that we will want to get too intimate with God. Or if we feel that we have to earn God’s love, then we will spend our lives huffing and puffing trying to put ourselves into God’s good books. It is only by knowing God, correctly, that we can understand correctly how we are to live – what He actually expects from us.
It is also true that our picture of God rubs off on us! We become like the God we worship. If we believe God is violent, we will tend toward aggression. If we understand God to be against certain people, we will be opposed to them as well. If we see God as overly serious, we will most probably come across as heavy ourselves. It would seem that we shape our picture of God and then that picture of God shapes us.
Those who operate on bad information about God aren’t likely to know the reality of God’s presence and joy in the decisions that shape their lives. On the contrary, those who think rightly about Him, as He is presented in Scripture, will be moved to love Him passionately and think on Him steadily. They will experience real joy that comes from knowing intimately the most “joy-filled being in the universe” — the God of Scripture.
How is our understanding of God developed?
The first step in developing a knowledge of God is instructional. Before we are old enough to seek a knowledge of God on our own, we began to develop an understanding of God from our parents. This comes from not only what they teach us but from how they model God before us (particularly the father). As we mature, we begin to learn about God from the teachings of the church through Sunday school, VBS, and the pastor’s sermons. We also learn through observing the church interact as a corporate body.
At some point in our growing up years, we begin our own reading and study of the Bible. God has given us all the information we need to live as we ought in the Bible. However, the revelation of God is not presented in scripture as a set of well-organized theological tenets unrelated to the realities of everyday life. He has chosen to reveal Himself (His character and how He relates to us) not so much in statements of dogma as He has in the context of real life – in relationships with real people. This is why the OT is filled with history and stories. It is God’s way of putting flesh on the bare bone ideas of who He is. It is God’s picture book, to not only teach us, but to show us who He is.
However, simply knowing about God is not adequate enough for life with God. We must know Him personally; experientially; relationally! We must come alive to God by experiencing a New Birth (I John 5:12) and a full surrender of ourselves to Him (Rom. 12:1). He wants us to have personal interaction with Him, just as we would have with other acquaintances. He wants those experiences and moments of intimacy to form and shape our knowledge of Him. He wants me to know Him, love Him and trust Him so much that I want to commit myself to His company, His interest and His concerns. This is what we see in the Bible. He walks with Adam and Eve in the garden, eats with Abraham by his tent, and argues with Moses on the mountaintop. The gospels give us a front row seat as the eternal Son wraps the garments of human flesh about him, steps onto the stage of life and interacts in loving relationship with those he meets. God wants His people to truly know Him, love Him, and enjoy the blessings of His steadfast love, faithfulness and righteousness that are only found in intimate relationship.
Getting to Know God Takes Both “Grit” and “Grace”
David said in Psalm 63:8, “My soul followeth hard after thee.” The kind of spiritual formation that helps us to know God intimately and transforms us into the image of Christ does not occur instantaneously or automatically. Rather, it is a partnership of human effort and Divine grace. Paul described it like this:
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phil. 2:12-13)
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Cor. 15:10)
As Dallas Willard is so well known for saying, “Grace is not opposed to effort but to earning.” Clearly we must strive to know God, but our striving to know God is not merely a matter of unaided human willpower. Rather, it is rooted in the deep work of God in our hearts, arousing hunger and desire to know Him. The impulse to pursue God originates with Him, but the outworking of that impulse is our following hard after Him.
Paul challenged the Corinthian Christians to “be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). We too can walk in the time-proven ways of knowing God that have been drawn from Scripture and demonstrated over centuries of church history.
- Worship God faithfully in a church that is sound in its beliefs, spiritually alive, and preaches God’s word.
- Connect with a couple of like-minded believers and meet regularly to pray and encourage one another in your pursuit of God.
- Read and study the Scriptures daily, asking God to open the eyes of your heart and teach you (Ps. 119:18; 1 Cor. 2:12; Eph. 1:16–20). This includes memorizing key verses.
- Pray daily in a quiet, undistracted place. If you haven’t already done so, learn to pray the Scriptures.
- Stay filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18); seek to walk in the Spirit (Gal. 5:16) and manifest the fruit of His presence in your life (Gal. 5:22–24). It is impossible to know God or to live the Christian life without the Spirit’s help.
- Practice solitude and fasting when you sense the need. A one-day or weekend retreat devoted to seeking God more earnestly about specific concerns can be a source of great blessing. Those who have been closest to God and most fruitful over the centuries have practiced fasting often.
- Find a voice outside yourself for guidance in your spiritual life. An older, spiritually mature man or woman that is well-grounded in Scripture, is humble, manifests the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23), and is wise and prayerful.
- Read classic books on the Christian life.
I can’t stress enough the importance of knowing God and all the rich blessings that will accompany that knowledge. But in the end, what matters supremely, is the larger fact that He knows me! “Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his” (2 Tim. 2:19).