A Complex Business
It is clear, to start with, that “knowing” God is of necessity a more complex business than “knowing” another person, just as “knowing” my neighbor is a more complex business than “knowing” a house or a book or a language. The more complex the object, the more complex is the knowing of it. Knowledge of something abstract, like a language, is acquired by learning; knowledge of something inanimate, like Ben Nevis or the British Museum, comes by inspection and exploration. These activities, though demanding in terms of concentrated effort, are relatively simple to describe. But when one gets to living things, knowing them becomes a good deal more complicated. One does not know a living thing till one knows not merely its past history but how it is likely to react and behave under specific circumstances. A person who says, “I know this horse,” normally means not just “I have seen it before” (though the way we use words, he might mean only that); more probably, however, he means “I know how it behaves, and can tell you how it ought to be handled.” Such knowledge comes only through some prior acquaintance with the horse, seeing it in action and trying to handle it oneself.
In the case of human beings, the position is further complicated by the fact that, unlike horses, people keep secrets. They do not show everybody all that is in their hearts. A few days are enough to get to know a horse as well as you will ever know it, but you may spend months and years doing things in company with another person and still have to say at the end of that time, “I don’t really know him at all.” We recognize degrees in our knowledge of our fellow men. We know them, we say, well, not very well, just to shake hands with, intimately, or perhaps inside out, according to how much, or how little, they have opened up to us.
Thus, the quality and extent of our knowledge of other people depends more on them than on us. Our knowing them is more directly the result of their allowing us to know them than of our attempting to get to know them. When we meet, our part is to give them our attention and interest, to show them good will, and to open up in a friendly way from our side. From that point, however, it is they, not we, who decide whether we are going to know them or not.
Imagine, now, that we are going to be introduced to someone whom we feel to be “above” us—whether in rank or intellectual distinction or professional skill or personal sanctity or in some other respect. The more conscious we are of our own inferiority, the more we shall feel that our part is simply to attend to this person respectfully and let him take the initiative in the conversation. (Think of meeting the queen of England or the president of the United States.) We would like to get to know this exalted person, but we fully realize that this is a matter for him to decide, not us. If he confines himself to courteous formalities with us, we may be disappointed, but we do not feel able to complain; after all, we had no claim on his friendship.
But if instead he starts at once to take us into his confidence and to tell us frankly what is in his mind on matters of common concern, and if he goes on to invite us to join him in particular undertakings he has planned and asks us to make ourselves permanently available for this kind of collaboration whenever he needs us, then we shall feel enormously privileged, and it will make a world of difference to our general outlook. If life seemed unimportant and dreary hitherto, it will not seem so anymore, now that the great man has enrolled us among his personal assistants. Here is something to write home about—and something to live up to!
Now this, so far as it goes, is an illustration of what it means to know God. Well might God say through Jeremiah, “Let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me” (Jer. 9:24)—for knowing God is a relationship calculated to thrill a person’s heart.
What happens is that the almighty Creator, the Lord of hosts, the great God before whom the nations are as a drop in a bucket, comes to you and begins to talk to you through the words and truths of Holy Scripture. Perhaps you have been acquainted with the Bible and Christian truth for many years, and it has meant little to you; but one day you wake up to the fact that God is actually speaking to you—you!—through the biblical message. As you listen to what God is saying, you find yourself brought very low; for God talks to you about your sin and guilt and weakness and blindness and folly, and compels you to judge yourself hopeless and helpless, and to cry out for forgiveness.
You come to realize as you listen that God is actually opening his heart to you, making friends with you and enlisting you as a colleague.
But this is not all. You come to realize as you listen that God is actually opening his heart to you, making friends with you and enlisting you as a colleague—in Karl Barth’s phrase, a “covenant partner.”1 It is a staggering thing, but it is true—the relationship in which sinful human beings know God is one in which God, so to speak, takes them onto his staff, to be henceforth his fellow workers (see 1 Cor. 3:9) and personal friends. The action of God in taking Joseph from prison to become Pharaoh’s prime minister is a picture of what he does to every Christian: from being Satan’s prisoner, you find yourself transferred to a position of trust in the service of God. At once life is transformed.
Whether being a servant is a matter for shame or for pride depends on whose servant one is. Many have said what pride they felt in rendering personal service to Sir Winston Churchill during World War II. How much more should it be a matter of pride and glorying to know and serve the Lord of heaven and earth!
What, then, does the activity of knowing God involve? Holding together the various elements involved in this relationship as we have sketched it out, we must say that knowing God involves, first, listening to God’s word and receiving it as the Holy Spirit interprets it, in application to oneself; second, noting God’s nature and character, as his word and works reveal it; third, accepting his invitations and doing what he commands; and fourth, recognizing and rejoicing in the love that he has shown in thus approaching you and drawing you into this divine fellowship.
- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, trans. G. W. Bromiley, G. T. Thomson, and Harold Knight (London: T. & T. Clark, 1958), III/2. §10.43.
This article is adapted from Knowing God by J. I. Packer.
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