What does it mean to “know” God? How does one really get to know Him? Don’t all Christians know Him? Isn’t that special knowledge something that just goes along with declaring “I am a Christian”?
I wish it worked that way, but sadly, it doesn’t.
The reason J.I. Packer wrote his book Knowing God is that he thinks that too many Christians profess to know God, but that is not the reality. Many really don’t know God at all. Ignorance of God “lies at the root of much of the church’s weakness today” [Packer, 12]. Packer feels that too many Christians don’t know God’s ways nor do they know how to commune with God so they can change their relationship with their Lord and Savior.
In the very last section of his book Knowing God, Packer discusses the climax of his book and he titles the climactic section “Learning to Know God in Christ.” He summarizes the various places that he has taken us on our quest through his book. The God we seek is of course found in the Bible; that is a major starting point for knowing God. Christians need to study it. Packer even makes it easier; he recommends we spend most of our quality time studying the book of Romans. There we will encounter and hopefully understand God revealed in Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the Three in One in historic Christian teaching.
He states that “knowing Him starts with knowing about Him” so he wrote chapters about God’s character [goodness, severity, wrath and grace etc.]. The more Packer discusses God’s character, the more we could see that we as human beings are fallen creatures. We are not good, not strong, and definitely not self-sufficient. Indeed we are all going to hell unless our Lord intervenes through His grace and saves us. We just don’t have what it takes to live a righteous life. Not only do we lack knowledge, but we also lack the resolve we need in order to lead a righteous life.
Packer has written that to know God is to develop a personal relationship with Him. The relationship is mutual; God wants to share Himself with us and we need to share ourselves with Him. In our sharing, we must be honest because we can’t hide from Him. He sees all we do and He knows why we do it. It is absurd to think we can play silly games with our Father. This reciprocal process is akin to human relationships. Humans choose to share their thoughts with other humans and trust develops as private information is treasured and not shared with others. Closeness develops as sharing continues over time. In my life, I try to be completely honest with God. He knows my failings, my weaknesses [after all, He made me], so holding back and trying to be something I am not is a fruitless exercise. It may work in the world, but it does not work before God. For Christians to learn God’s ways, we have to approach God with no pretense.
Furthermore, we must be prepared to know God at a pace that is slower than we like. We may think we can rush the process, but that is also a silly game we try to play with God. He will reveal as much of Himself as He wants on His timeframe. The process of knowing Him never ends and we have to admit that we are stymied by our own limitations. The longer we dedicate our lives to trying to know God, we eventually discover we are incapable of fully knowing God because of our sinfulness. God and His Son Jesus Christ are perfect and we are not. We always fall short of the standard of holiness needed to truly commune with God. That does not mean that God does not expect us to try to grow in righteous living. Packer is correct in recommending a solid knowledge of the Book of Romans. In that book in particular, we encounter the words that we will perish eternally unless we accept and receive the promise of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Jesus is our Savior. Without Him we don’t stand a chance of really knowing God. He removes the barrier of sin in our lives; He gives us our opportunity to pray, to ask forgiveness, to experience God’s grace.
When we decide to ask Jesus into our lives, we can begin to know Him by reading His word. When we read, over time we hopefully will begin to understand His word better and as we begin to understand, we see that God wants us to obey His word. Packer writes that knowing God expresses itself in faith and faith expresses itself in prayer and obedience. In this climactic section of his book, Packer quotes Oswald Chambers: “The best measure of the spiritual life is not in it ecstasies, but in its obedience.”
Toward the end of his book, Packer spends many pages explaining how adequate God is. Indeed, many of my posts discuss God as “adequate.” Why is adequate good enough? Packer writes that knowing God is adequate “is as high in the knowledge of God as we can go this side of glory” . When we realize this, we have more than we need to be conquerors. We have more than we need to live a victorious life. “When we speak of the adequacy of God it is this link that we highlight and this link is of the essence of Christianity. Those who know God in Christ have found the secret of true freedom and true humanity.” Life is not perfect for humanity; it cannot be. But let’s not be defeatist; we can experience some victory in our lives. What we must do is claim it. We must be realistic; victory does not mean the end of the war. Humans are humans. The war rages on. Life is a constant struggle between sin and righteousness with periods of happiness and periods of despondency.
Again in Romans [Packer says this is the most important book in the Bible] the Apostle Paul discusses the conflict of his two natures. These are key Scriptures for understanding who we are in our relationship with God. Think about it; if Paul is feeling this way, don’t you feel this way too? “For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin” [Romans 14-25].
Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free?
What is Paul doing here? He is being honest before God. There is no other way for him to be before God. In Second Corinthians we again find Paul bemoaning his condition. He has a “painful physical ailment.” We are not sure what that ailment is but it keeps him from being proud before God. He has asked God to take it away three times but God has said the same thing three times. “My grace is all you need, for My power is strongest when you are weak.” God is telling Paul he is human. You are not superhuman. Ailments are just part of your life on earth. Is it sin Paul is moaning about? Is it actual physical limitation? Whatever it is, God is willing to work through Paul and he knows that (even in his wretched state). He resigns himself to be “happy” and “proud” of his weaknesses because he suffers for “Christ’s sake.” Here is the most important Scripture for me: “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Paul knows where his strength comes from. It comes from God. God will eventually set Paul totally free; He has already done that through His son Jesus Christ. Knowledge that God can use us on this earth with all our warts is true freedom. It is the best knowledge about God that we will have here on this earth.
How will we begin to experience this freedom? The answer is unbelievably simple: accept Him into your life and hold on. The Christian life is a roller coaster, like life is for all humans. It has wonderful highs and horrible lows. When we go up for the highs, it is exhilarating. When we plunge downward to the lows, it can be so scary. But we have a handlebar. We need to clutch that handlebar for that is our God. If we grab that handlebar and never let go, He will keep us safe.
That is the Christian’s advantage.
Many who profess to be Christians also profess to know God. They may know facts about Him. They can possibly quote Bible verses. Every time the church is open, they are there. They can explain the sacrifice of His Son Jesus who came to earth to save us from our sin. They may understand the significance of the resurrection, but they really don’t know God. Many know God intellectually but knowledge of God is so much more than that. It is an emotional as well as intellectual connection between humans and our Father. To know God is to have Him in your heart as well as your head.
Packer quotes Psalms 27: 8 to explain this heart connection: “Thou hast said, ‘seek ye my face.’ My heart says o thee, ‘Thy face Lord, do I seek’”.
That psalmist gets it, the reciprocal nature of a heart and head connection between God and man. God loves us and He wants to draw close to us. Man loves God and man wants to draw close to God.
If Knowing God motivates any reader to understand what the psalmist is saying, Packer comments: “it will not have been written in vain.”
I can only speak for myself. I have written about the book since April 22, 2019. I have been challenged by it. I have enjoyed writing about it. I have learned from the pages I have read. I will miss my study of the book.
Here is my thought: Packer need not worry about the purpose of his book…
Knowing God was not written in vain.
*This is my last commentary of J.I. Packer’s book Knowing God.