We’ve been talking about the judgment, the end of times, the signs of the end, hell, outer darkness, and the open door of grace. In the four parables of Matthew 24 and 25 we saw illustrations of all of these concepts. But we were also introduced, through the criteria for judgment, to the concept of being known by God.
What does it mean to be known by God? In the parable of the 10 virgins, the five who went out looking for oil returned to the wedding party only to be told by the bridegroom: “Verily I say unto you, I know you not” (Matthew 25:12). I don’t know who you are. Or as it says in Matthew 7:23: “Depart from me, I never knew you, ye who practice lawlessness.”
The concept of being known by God is borne out in the parable of the sheep and the goats as well. Here we see mankind meeting God, coming to know God in the person of the weak, the disadvantaged, the poor, and the needy; because “When you’ve done it unto the least of these, my brethren,” Jesus said, “You have done it unto me.” When you encounter the least, you do in fact, at that moment, meet the most.
What is the difference between knowing God and being known by God? Paul contrasts the two concepts:
Let me show you the implications of this. As long as the heir is a minor, he has no advantage over the slave. Though legally he owns the entire inheritance, he is subject to tutors and administrators until whatever date the father has set for emancipation. That is the way it is with us: When we were minors, we were just like slaves ordered around by simple instructions (the tutors and administrators of this world), with no say in the conduct of our own lives.
But when the time arrived that was set by God the Father, God sent his Son, born among us of a woman, born under the conditions of the law so that he might redeem those of us who have been kidnapped by the law. Thus we have been set free to experience our rightful heritage. You can tell for sure that you are now fully adopted as his own children because God sent the Spirit of his Son into our lives crying out, “Papa! Father!” Doesn’t that privilege of intimate conversation with God make it plain that you are not a slave, but a child? And if you are a child, you’re also an heir, with complete access to the inheritance.
Earlier, before you knew God personally, you were enslaved to so-called gods that had nothing of the divine about them. But now that you know the real God—or rather since God knows you—how can you possibly subject yourselves again to those tin gods? For that is exactly what you do when you are intimidated into scrupulously observing all the traditions, taboos, and superstitions associated with special days and seasons and years. I am afraid that all my hard work among you has gone up in a puff of smoke! (Galations 4:1-11 –The Message Bible translation)
What can we really know about God? And why does the judgment depend upon God knowing us? Why doesn’t God say: “Depart from me, you who don’t know me enough”, or “Depart from me, you who don’t know enough about me.” The passage in Galatians implies that before we know God personally, we are enslaved to a kind of worship based on works, taboos, and traditions; but when our relationship with God allows him to know us, the relationship is one of freedom rather than enslavement. “We are,” he says, “no longer kidnapped by the law.”
Moreover, to be known by God is to be within the family of God, fully adopted, Paul says, with complete access to the inheritance, with the privilege of intimate conversation with God. These are all initiatives of God. Is it possible that to be known by God is something that comes from God himself, that being known by God is a manifestation of grace and not our effort? We don’t have to introduce ourselves to God, it seems, because he wants to introduce himself to us.
We so much want to know more and more about God, but we completely miss the point. We see in the story of Job the overwhelming desire of mankind to penetrate the knowledge of God. In the dialogue between Job and his friends, two things stand out. One is Job’s particular insistence about God engendered in the circumstances of Job’s life: We want to know, and we want to think we want to know, why things are happening to us.
The other thing that stands out is the boldness of his friends (who represent mankind) in seeking to explain God’s intentions and plans, to be his spokespersons, even when they don’t know what they are talking about. Like them, we would rather be wrong than to admit that we don’t know something about God.
What do we, what can we, what should we really know about God? And what does God need to really know about us?
The claim to know God is the foundation of all religion. It is remarkable how forthrightly and unambiguously we declare knowledge of God with certainty in our creeds, our fundamental beliefs, our foundational truths and doctrines. It is also remarkable that we have next to no capacity or method for modifying these certainties, these truths, once they have become established in our religions.
Despite ever-expanding scientific knowledge about the creation, about history, the nature of the universe and our place in it, we have precious little capacity to integrate this knowledge with our established truths about God. This is not really surprising, I guess, because as Solomon said in Proverbs 25:2: “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter.”
Throughout the ages people have expressed frustration that God keeps secrets. Job was one of them:
Oh that I knew how to find Him,
That I might come to His home!
I would present my case before Him
And fill my mouth with arguments.
I would learn the words which He would answer,
And perceive what He would tell me.
Would He contend with me by the greatness of His power?
No, surely He would pay attention to me.
There the upright would argue with Him;
And I would be free of my Judge forever.
“Behold, I go forward but He is not there,
And backward, but I cannot perceive Him;
When He acts on the left, I cannot see Him;
He turns to the right, but I cannot see Him.
But He knows the way I take;… (Job 23:3-10
Note the allusion to the refiners, which we talked about a couple of weeks ago. Solomon said:
When I devoted my mind to know wisdom and to see the business which has been done on the earth (even though one should never sleep day or night),and I saw every work of God, I concluded that one cannot discover the work which has been done under the sun. Even though a person laboriously seeks, he will not discover; and even if the wise person claims to know, he cannot discover. (Ecclesiastes 8:16-17)
The desire to penetrate God’s secrets, especially in order to use them to our advantage, is the definition of evil. Even so, it seems there’s much about God that apparently can be known. Under a concept called general revelation or natural revelation, theologians seek to discover knowledge about God through natural means, such as the observation of Nature. The notion that we can know about God by observing nature is apparent in Scripture in Psalm 19, which says: “The heavens are telling of the glory of God and their expanse is declared the work of his hands. Day unto day pours he pours forth speech and night unto night reveals knowledge.” And in Romans 1: “For since the creation of the world, His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen, being understood that what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”
So on the one hand, there are some things about God that are secret, but also some things about God that are revealed. Deuteronomy 4:29 says: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong unto us and to our sons forever that we may observe all the words of the law. And you will seek the Lord with all your heart and you will find Him if you search for Him with all your heart and with all your soul. When you are in distress, and all these things have come upon you, you in the latter days will return to the Lord your God and listen to His voice.”
Despite the secret side of God, Scripture seems to emphasize the need to seek him. Acts 17 says: “He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times in the boundaries of their habitation that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grow for him and find him though he is not far from each one of us.”
What exactly are we to seek? And why is God playing hide and seek with us anyway? Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians: “For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered into the heart of men, that God has prepared for them who love him. For to us God revealed them through the Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the depths of God.” Thus, the Spirit, the inner light, is the key to the revelation of God.
But this process of revelation apparently is incremental:
“To whom would He teach knowledge, And to whom would He interpret the message? Those just weaned from milk? Those just taken from the breast? For He says, ‘Order on order, order on order, Line on line, line on line, A little here, a little there.’” (Isaiah 28:9-10)
Revelation of God comes slowly, through thought and deliberation. It doesn’t come in the form of a tweet of less than 140 characters. To be sure, Jesus made a number of short declarative statements about himself, such as “I am the good shepherd” and “I am the bread of life”, but these represent deep and rich metaphors that require penetration, line by line contemplation, in order to be fully comprehended.
On the other hand, in the end of the book of Job, in chapter 42, Job comes to appreciate something about God even though his knowledge about God was no more than it had been to start with. Does the experience of Job help us to understand what we need to know about God? Why are we so willing to speak for God? Why do we seem to need certainty about God? Why do we wish to walk by sight rather than by faith? Why does God play hide and seek?
What can we really know about God? Well, apparently, we can know his plans. Jeremiah 29:11, says: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and to not harm you, plans to give you hope, and a new future.” And Romans 8:28: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” We also, apparently, can know God’s voice: In John 10, the sheep know the shepherd’s voice and respond and follow the shepherd. And we can know God’s goodness: In Exodus 33, Moses wants a full frontal view of God. He wants a full revelation of God, but God says, “No, only can you see my goodness.”
So we can know something about God’s plan. We can know something about God’s voice, we can know something about God’s goodness, but (Isaiah 55:8-9) we cannot know God’s ways, because his ways are not our ways, and we cannot know his thoughts, because his thoughts are not our thoughts. As a matter of fact, they’re not even close, as Isaiah says in effect: They’re light years away.
The passage from Galatians 4 suggests that for us to be known by God we must be adopted. Adoption is to make something mine that doesn’t actually belong to me. It is to come to know something or someone who was not known before. It is, in essence, a one-way transaction. Can adoption be refused? Something in this concept of adoption, of being in the family of God, has to do with God coming to know us. Adoption is another metaphor for grace. It comes with God’s initiative. It is, by grace, both a belonging and an inheritance. Nothing and no one can be adopted without being known. It raises the question, can we refuse adoption? Can we refuse the inheritance? Can we refuse the privilege of intimate conversation with God?
So I’d like your thoughts today on the concept of knowing God, as compared to what it means for God to know us. I’d like your thoughts about adoption as a metaphor of grace, and how that fits into the concept of God knowing us. What is it that we should expect and can know about God? And what is it that we cannot know? And why is it that we seek so earnestly to know God’s secrets?
David: Galatians 4 implies that before the Jews adopted Yahweh, nobody on earth knew goodness. I just don’t believe that. I think that is wrong. Goodness is a concept that God as Creator surely instilled in humanity from Adam and Eve onwards. Everyone must have had some goodness, some good, within them. I’ve always equated the word Good with God, I think they’re synonymous. We are all aware of Good so we are all aware of God—the Holy Spirit, the inner light, the conscience. It has been within everybody since Adam and Eve and long before Jesus.
We seem to be consulting The Message translation of the Bible more often lately. There are so many versions of the Bible with different interpretations, which again tells you something about the danger inherent in relying on passages from it to determine things. Scripture (especially Jesus) tells us often enough to look inside ourselves, to look to the inner light, where God/Good is.
Don: You would argue that you can see goodness—that the goodness of God is visible?
David: Absolutely. It is all around. You can see goodness in people most of all. I see it in everybody around me, even in my MAGA hat-wearing Trumpian neighbors. There’s a huge amount of good in them.
Donald: I think I would concur. I don’t know how realistic it is to really know God. You can see evidence of God. You can see where God leads, and God’s influence; but to know God I think is probably a stretch for humanity.
Why do we get together every Saturday morning? What’s our purpose in these discussions? Is it to know God better? Is it to share with each other what our perspective is on God? But to know God seems to be a different thing. There may be six churches on a street. Apparently, they all think they know God, but for some reason they don’t join up. Why not? Is it that each thinks it knows God and thinks the others don’t?
Anonymous: A number of seemingly contradictory passages have been quoted this morning. Some of them say we know God, and some of them say we don’t know God; some say that we can see God, others that we can’t; some that God has revealed himself, but others that we can’t see him. I think there’s a big difference between knowing God and knowing about God.
To know God is something that happens in the heart. It’s not intellectual. If I know God only intellectually, then I know everything about him—everything possible, through the Book, through Nature, through any other sources I might be able to draw upon. But I might still not know him because I’ve never seen him through the eye of faith. Faith makes all the difference. Job, for instance, was a different person before and after his encounter with God. He thought he knew God until he saw God with his heart. “Now I see you.”
So it takes more than knowledge. Knowing all the knowledge of the Bible is not enough for salvation if it’s not mixed with faith.
When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the Lord will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them.
I will open rivers in high places, and fountains in the midst of the valleys
I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water.
I will plant in the wilderness the cedar, the cedar tree, and the myrtle, and the oil tree;
I will set in the desert the fir tree, and the pine, and the box tree together
[and here comes the key verse:]
That they may see, and know, and consider, and understand together, that the hand of the Lord hath done this, and the Holy One of Israel hath created it. (Isaiah 41:18-20)
So God does more than save. If we don’t have the right eyes—enlightened eyes, as the parable says—open eyes, we can’t see the works of God, even though they’re very obvious, they’re front and center, they’re out there for all to see. But we brush them off as if there’s nothing there or as if God has nothing to do with it. The evidence of God is all around us, but if we don’t pay attention with our hearts to what he is doing then there’s no point in knowing God. You may know everything about him, but you truly don’t know him.
I liked the point that it could be the grace of God that connects the faithful heart. God’s grace is given to everyone, whether they know it or not, but the faithful heart receives it, understands it, feels it, and it becomes something special between the believer and God, something that they can see and understand. Then they will pause at the smallest, seemingly insignificant, verses to find a wealth of knowledge in them. So maybe it is grace that connects the heart to God and if we don’t have this experience with grace then God will declare: “I don’t know you.”
Reinhard: “Knowing” God implies relationship. That’s deep, not superficial, knowledge of what God’s desires from us. Of course, we know we have to love God with all our heart and all our mind. That’s what makes the relationship close. We have so much more to receive from him than he from us. It’s interesting that Jesus mentioned it’s a relationship between friends, not between master and slave. In friendship, there has to be some give and take, but obviously we get more from from God than he gets from us. God is the Creator, but in return he only wants our obedience.
So we have so much to gain as friends of God, as people of God. To maintain the relationship and to know God, I think we have to be in perfect relationship with God. God knows everybody, of course, from the Creation, but the relationship requires that we worship God, then we know him. We know what God did in the past. The Bible attests to the history and the character of God and what he wants from people—what we need to do. We need to learn from the Bible. I think that’s what God’s God wants from us by knowing him.
Don: Donald talked about six churches on one street, each believing it knows God best. What about the seven churches of Revelation? Is each one there because of its facts about God? Why are there six churches side by side on a street, each proclaiming they’ve got the truth about God?
Dewan: Before Christ’s crucifixion and Resurrection, access to God of the Heavenly Kingdom was completely closed. God offers salvation on his terms only. The injunction in Matthew 7 to enter through the narrow gate was neither a request nor a suggestion—it was a command. He said: “Don’t follow the crowd. The road leading to destruction is wide and easy, and many are on it. The gate is small, and the road is narrow, that leads to life, and only a few look for it and find it.” When Jesus talks about the gate, the road, the path, he’s referring to himself.
C-J: Regarding the churches: Human beings stop on that journey according to their maturity. So some people go with a very narrow narrative; others are open to seeing God as transcendental in his relationship with humanity. There are guardrails, to use Donald’s imagery, but personally, I believe that God is very transcendental. In fact, the intention of God is to know and consider. This relationship should be perpetually in motion.
I was thinking about how many times I heard the word “heart” meaning our humanity, our psyche, our emotional responses, but if you think about the heart literally as an organ, it has a very specific and important job. If it stops, we die, because it’s no longer able to transport oxygen. And also in the blood we get nutrients, our immunities, it gets rid of bad things—dead cells, bacteria, etc., and it throws off used oxygen as CO2. If we want to put God in a nice, neat package tied up with a bow, we can do that, and maybe that’s one of the churches among those and many, many more on that road.
But I believe that the hunger that God puts in us in terms of relationship is profound if we’re willing to risk giving up my identity for what God has intended for me. It’s not what I want to do, not how I want to view it. It requires risk, and risk requires a willingness to let go of what we once held as having great value. Our society values those who check off the boxes of what makes you successful—your bank account, where you live, the letters after your name, who you know, what car you drive…. But before God those things mean nothing.
As for the idea of adoption, I think it is mutual. I know people who have been adopted. I have adopted, through being a godmother, children that I did not birth, yet that adoption isn’t just me saying, “Welcome into my family.” That child has to welcome me, even an adult has to welcome me into their relationship that they need from me. Those people get something when they look at me that they can’t find maybe in a biological parent.
We see God across the spectrum of ways, and traditions, texts. God meets us where we are. But the adoption of me with God is a process and I have to be in agreement to it. I can say, “Lord, I love you. I will obey the 10 commandments, and play by this rulebook” but really God wants us to transcend and to be lifelong learners in that relationship.
Michael: Rather than struggle over the contradictory passages, it might be more fruitful to try to define what we do not know rather than what we do know. Because trying to define what we do know is where the problems start—it’s where we make mistakes. It might be a little less dangerous to ask: “What are the secrets of God? What are the things that we cannot know? It does seem that there are some things that God is not interested in our knowing, where something might be revealed but then be changed or be different from our perspective.
That brings process theology to mind, but it might be not God progressing, but our understanding of God progressing. Maybe it’s worth trying to figure out what we’re not supposed to know, what we cannot know.
Donald: It seems to me that some organizations that call themselves faith groups want to stop progressing, put everything in a box, and call it a day. I guess that’s their prerogative. It’s very comfortable, but to expand it and say that it’s a journey, a lifelong activity, is very intriguing. I think it’s probably much more challenging for the organization than it is for the individual.
I often say that words matter. Are some churches claiming that they have an “understanding” of God, and that’s what they organize themselves around? But if they say they have the “truth” about God, it suggests that all these other understandings are still not the truth.
Joyce: I don’t think we can know God, I think that what we can know about him comes through Jesus Christ, through studying the life of Christ. The one thing we can know about God is his love. Christ was his son, his child, whom he gave for our sins. This a gift I don’t think any one of us could ever give to another. I don’t think any one of you could accept it if I said I would give my child, nailed on a cross, to save them from their sins. I think you would tell me not to do that.
I think that’s why we find it difficult to accept this idea of grace. Because who can fathom the idea of a father giving such innocence and purity to cover the sins of the world? But we know he did—through faith, we know it. So when we doubt it, we doubt the greatness of the God we worship. If he sends the shepherd out to find one lost sheep, the shepherd doesn’t come back without it. And if he says, “I came for the sinner” and we are all sinners and fall short of the glory of God, then who did he not come for? So maybe we know God through the son and through the gift. He calls it a gift. We don’t earn it. We simply accept it. And that’s Jesus Christ. That’s grace.
C-J: I think we need to remember the tradition of the Jewish people before they were called. They would pass their firstborn through the fire as sacrifice on an altar. And that’s where that saying comes from: “What will it cost me?” It’s broken up in many traditions to mean the same thing—the great sacrifice, the ultimate sacrifice. This is why I say God’s intention is a transcendental relationship. In this dimension, nobody would sacrifice their child without believing it had great merit. Those children would be sacrificed for a harvest, to win a war… there are many reasons that people used to sacrifice their children through the fire.
But this is why I think it’s so important to see God in a transcendental relationship. Please do not hear me to say that the Christian faith should be diminished in any way because of a historical perspective. That relationship that each of us clings to, not because we are weak, but because we are willing to sacrifice me/I/mine to have that relationship with the divine. I would rather die in this dimension than to lose that relationship.
Each time God comes and says, “I want you to let go of this” it’s hard. “I want you to be in the crucible for a while.” It’s hard. But what this transcendental relationship gives us is unlimited access and opportunity to experience the fullness of what we’re talking about: Unmerited love, favor, dominion over how we can go out to a world that might be the first church on the street, in a box with a pretty bow and say, “God wants to set you free to be in divine relationship with something greater than ourself.” It is profound. It is the grace of God.
Don: There are 14 of us in class today. Are there 14 different views of God and if so, whose view is correct? And isn’t God himself ever responsible for not being more precise about who he actually is and what we ought to believe about him? Wouldn’t a responsible God give us a very clear and unambiguous picture of himself?
David: He would if he were a human being. The fundamental problem is that we talk all the time of God in anthropomorphic terms. “He” is omniscient and omnipotent—he’s everywhere and all-powerful. He knows everything and so on. These are human attributes that we want to have. We seek to understand God so we can learn how to become all-knowing, all powerful, and be everywhere at once. We all want to be like that.
But if you think of God not as an anthropomorphic being but as pure Goodness then you can see that Goodness is omniscient and omnipotent. It is everywhere. Look around. Goodness has to be all powerful (not in the sense of being able to snap a finger and make anything happen, but in the sense of being always more powerful than any evil force or entity, when push comes to shove) because otherwise it would be the end of the world, of creation. Evil is destructive.
A relationship with a God who has human attributes and thoughts (and even a gender and a place at the top of the Confucian pecking order!) is very, very different from a relationship with Goodness. The relationship takes on a totally different form. Instead of an external anthropomorphic Being, the relationship is with the internal inner light, the Holy Spirit, the still small voice, the eternity, the Goodness within. Yet, we speak of it as though it were a relationship with a human-like being. It is not.
Jay: A couple of key concepts we discussed today have really got me thinking. We definitely want definable constructs but as several of you have mentioned, knowing isn’t an intellectual process—it’s a relationship process, and that really change changes what knowing is all about. And then if you change knowing a person from having intimate knowledge of, or relationship with, that person, to a relationship with Goodness, then seven churches makes sense.
I have the positive intent of believing that all churches seek goodness. They want good things to happen. Whether for their congregation, or themselves, or the world, or whatever, there’s a seeking of Goodness. God, in my opinion, looks down on all of them and he doesn’t really care. “I don’t care if that church is Seventh Day Adventist or a Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall, or whatever.” He doesn’t care because what he does care about—the seeking of Goodness—is taking place in all of them (we assume).
I can really get behind and feel peace in the idea that if I want to know God, what I really need to know about is Goodness, and that to know about Goodness, then doing good things really helps. That’s pretty easy, and I can feel pretty good about it. But where I struggle still is that God needs to know me. There seem to be times, as people interpret their relationship with Goodness through Scripture or whatever, when God doesn’t know us. That seems much more important than my knowing Goodness.
Donald: Regarding the churches: Maybe it’s a personal thing rather than a corporate thing. But it seems the corporates want to say “Come over to us, because we are right.” I agree with Jason that it doesn’t really matter. That’s a pretty radical perspective. However, a church that had a broad understanding, with less detail about God, that it’s a lifetime journey, would be quite interesting. But by trying to nail everything down, churches become quite complex. I don’t know if it is to make them unique from each other. The idea of just knowing Goodness and working around that concept may not make for much of a congregation, but it makes for a wonderful relationship.
Chris: With regard to adoption: It depends on the individuals. One newly adopted child may bond almost instantly with its new family, whereas another might take years of trauma and drama, but as time goes on, the child may eventually start to understand what its adoptive parents are about and that they are what’s best for it. In adoption, in grace, in relationships, we all come from a different viewpoint, a different angle.
But it doesn’t start with us. It never did. It starts with God. We’re going through a process of knowing God using our different tools and our different means, our different Bible translations, our different Scriptures and religions, and this and that, but we’re all, I think, moving through the same process of growing and understanding and accepting the grace that God has always had there for us.
We may not know about it at the beginning. We may fight it at the beginning, even. But over time, the process—which is not intellectual—will lead us to grow and to get to know God.
Don: We have much more to cover about the voice of God, the plans of God, the adoption, and what all this means in terms of our relationship with God.
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