Welcome back, after our Thanksgiving layoff, to our ongoing study of J. I. Packer’s book Knowing God. You can find all of the previous lessons using the Knowing God category link. Study materials for the book are also available at william.meisheid.com. Two weeks ago we looked at the issue of theology, the subject of Chapter 1: The Study of God. We examined both its importance in coming to know God and its abuse in the service of obscuring him from view. This week our focus shifts to people, to those know, claim to know, and those who know nothing about their God.
Chapter 2: The People Who Know Their God
Packer begins this chapter with a personal anecdote, a vivid example of the difference of between knowing of God and knowing about God. It is the touchstone premise for the whole book, an appeal to a practical relationship with God that informs the place where we “live and move and have our being.” It is the essence of Jeremiah’s entreaty in Jeremiah 9:23-24a.
Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me
Jeremiah hits the two key issues: understanding, which harkens back to chapter one and the concern with proper theology, and knowing, the relational center of the interaction between God and the people he has called to himself, which is the concern of this chapter.
In my study materials for this chapter I include several quotes which address the concept of knowing. I include them here for simplicity of discussion.
“Knowing trees, I understand the meaning of patience. Knowing grass, I can appreciate persistence.” Hal Borland. Countryman: A Summary of Belief. Lippincott, 65.
“But, with care, knowing danger, I looked at him and saw marriage on his hand.” Patricia L Brueckner.
“Writers and travelers are mesmerized alike by knowing of their destinations.” Eudora Welty. One Writers Beginnings. Harvard, 84.
Borland’s quote is especially poignant considering our earlier argument that to know ourselves we must first come to know God, since we are created in his image. Like Patricia Brueckner, facing the truly dangerous prospect of surrendering to another, we see God and see everything in his hand, including the wrenching loss of our spiritual rebellion. The rending prospect of this surrender is wonderfully captured in C. S. Lewis’ allegory, The Great Divorce. A ghostly visitor, visiting the outskirts of heaven bears, affixed to his neck and back, a reptile of sin and deception. The ghostly visitor is confronted by an Angel of God who offers to kill the beast, but only with the Ghost’s permission. A momentous struggle ensues in the heart of the Ghost, who at last relents, accepting the fearful danger in the hand of the Angel. As the reptile is killed and wrested from its prey by the Angel of God, the Ghost lets out a scream of burning pain and agony beyond all screams yet heard by man. Yet in facing the pain, danger and death the Ghost is now free and alive. The reptile of sin is itself transformed into a bright and glorious steed, which the Ghost, now a redeemed man, mounts and as master of all that is transformed orders the stallion forward into the brightness of the eternal morning.
Yes, transformation of what we fear is at the heart of knowing God, but how can we be mesmerized by our destination, if we have no sense of what it truly is? Packer asks us over and over again how can we love the God we do not know.
At the root of the issue facing us is the difference between two schools of knowledge, which I discussed earlier in Knowing God: Watcher or Walker? A quick summary is that Greeks felt no intrinsic responsibility to or for what they learned or knew; Hebrews did. Our goal in this study is to be Hebrew in our approach to knowledge of God. For a Hebrew, to know something meant they had the moral and ethical necessity to act on that knowledge. This is the basic premise underlying God’s revelation of Himself in scripture and how we must use that revelation (what responsibilities that knowledge imparts to us) as we study to come to know our God.
Knowing Versus Knowing About
We have a goal for this chapter. In order to chart a course to our destination we must know where we are; we must know our starting point. We have to honestly come to terms with our current spiritual condition, with whether we know Him at all, and if we do, how well do we know Him? Not only that, but we also have to accept responsibility for what knowledge we currently have, as well as for what knowledge we will aquire. One person joining in this study sent me an email that spoke to this point. The person said.
I have to admit that I am almost afraid to make the commitment because ‘to whom much is given, much is required’. But I’m doing this anyway – with a prayer in my heart.
That’s the stumbling block, isn’t it? All illusions stripped aside, we are forced to see both God and ourselves as we really are and then, yes then, we are required to act on that knowledge. We instinctively know, like the Ghost in Lewis’ allegory, that it will be a painful and difficult effort, but like the one in whom we trust, Jesus Christ, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2) We too have a joy set before us, a “joy unspeakable and full of glory.” (1 Peter 1:8b). Let’s get on with it and embrace it.
Packer early on in this chapter goes to the heart of the difference between of and about. Most people can talk about what God says and demands. We all know the Ten Commandments. However, it all comes down to the fact that “the unpleasantness we have had, or the pleasantness we have not had” does not matter to those who know God. They are momentary cracks in the road. Packer argues that if every problem or disappointment is a major issue to you, then God is further from you than you may suppose.
Using the Prophet Daniel as an example Packer enumerates four characteristics easily seen in those who know God. They are:
1. Great energy for God. This is dramatically noted in Daniel 11:32b “…the people that do know their God shall be strong, and do exploits.” We also remember what Isaiah told us, “…those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” (Isaiah 40:31).
Packer argues that this energy begins, like it did for Daniel, with prayer. The prophet tells us, “So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.” (Daniel 9:3) Martin Luther, in his treatise A Simple Way to Pray For a Good Friend. How One Should Pray, For Peter, the Master Barber, written for friend exiled for killing his son-in-law in a fit of drunken rage says:
It is a good thing to let prayer be the first business of the morning and the last at night. Guard yourself carefully against those false, deluding ideas which tell you, ‘Wait a little while. I will pray in an hour; first I must attend to this or that.’ Such thoughts get you away from prayer into other affairs which so hold your attention and involve you that nothing comes of prayer for that day.
Tomorrow I plan to work, work, from early until late. In fact, I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.
Powerful words that we should all take to heart.
2. Great thoughts of God. We must allow nothing to diminish the glory and sovereignty of God. Daniel tells everyone, even getting Nebuchadnezzar to admit that God had gotten him to the point that “he acknowledged that the Most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and sets over them anyone he wishes.” (Daniel 5:21).
Daniel’s prayer says it all.
Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his. He changes times and seasons; he sets up kings and deposes them. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning. He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness, and light dwells with him.
3. Great boldness for God. When I was growing up, every child knew the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They were stalwart examples of stepping out in great boldness for God. They stirred the hearts of countless missionaries through the millennia with images of placing it all on the line for God. Their words to Nebuchadnezzar are instructive.
O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up. [Emphasis added] (Daniel 3:15-18)
Their own lives were not their primary concern. They knew their God and they would never worship anything or anyone but Him.
4. Great contentment in God. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he assures them that “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” reminding them that the assurance of their salvation cannot be taken from them, that as he told the Roman Christians, “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” so they can rest in that blessed assurance. Packer then quotes the first two verses of Richard Baxter’s 1681 hymn.
Lord, it belongs not to my care
whether I die or live;
to love and serve thee is my share,
and this thy grace must give.
If life be long, O make me glad
the longer to obey;
if short, no laborer is sad
to end his toilsome day.
If you are lacking this contentment, then draw nigh to your God for he desires to draw nigh to you.
In closing Packer argues that if we really desire a knowledge of God, then two things will naturally follow:
1. We will recognize our lack. We will never have enough knowledge of our God. The person taking their first step on this journey and the mature saint having spent a lifetime walking with their Lord are both beginners on an eternal journey coming to know an eternal God. Let us acknowledge our impoverishment and by opening our hearts and bending our knees in prayer draw closer to Him.
2. We will seek the Savior. When Jesus walked the earth, common people walked with him, ate with him, touched him and talked with him, and came to know him. The writer of Hebrews said it, “anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6b) Now risen and ascended, Jesus encouraged us with the promise that “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20).
So, seek the Lord while he may be found. Open your heart, bend your knees, and seek God, beginning in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This week try to keep those two necessary things foremost in your thoughts, and subsequently in your prayers. Next week we will look at Chapter Three: Knowing and Being Known. It is one thing to want to know God, and quite another thing to come to terms with the fact that he truly and completely knows us.
Grace and peace be to you all.