Do you know God, or only facts about God?

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I was sitting in a coffee shop on Thursday afternoon with a friend of mine and as we talked I realized something vital that I often overlook: there is a huge danger in “doing theology” such that I know facts about God without knowing God himself in a personal, intimate way.

What particularly struck me yesterday is the way that God changes. Wait. No – God doesn’t change (James 1:17). His character and attributes don’t change…but…in a (non-heretical) sense…He changes. He is a real person. The way He relates to us changes and develops. He answers our prayers – prayer that change events (James 4:2). He puts people in power and sometimes regrets it (1 Samuel 15:11). He made different covenants at different times. And His Son took on flesh.

God is no philosophical construct. He is a person, three on one, who reveals himself and relates to us in a dynamic, developing  way. Our relationship with God is a vibrant, changing, and growing relationship where we know God personally and talk with Him, “communing” with him, and spending time with Him in His presence.

One of the huge problems for Christians today is that we don’t commune with God. Part of this problem is what Kendra Creasy Dean has called “moralistic therapeutic deism.” Our Christian experience is moralistic – we are principally concerned with living righteously. And that is good – “hungering and thirsting for righteousness” is perhaps the essence of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). But as Ravi Zacharias has often said “Jesus does not offer to make bad people good but to make dead people alive.” We ought never to belittle morality. Justice and righteousness are a big deal to God. But we should recognize that being moralistic, practically speaking, can sometimes reduce our experience with God to a list of things to do or not to do.

But on top of that, our Christian experience, and our church experience, is often “therapeutic” – it revolves around self. Practically speaking, the Christianity that counts is the Christianity that makes me feel good…it’s only worthwhile if it has a cathartic effect. Therapeutic selfism dominates our spirituality.

And, perhaps worst of all, it is often deistic – God is not actually involved. Really? Yeah – we have become deists. Desists believe that God created the world, wound up the clock, and then stood back to let it run its course. And if this is what we subconsciously believe (in our unbelief) then this means, of course, that we are prone not to pray – prone not to meditate and dwell in God’s presence. What a tragedy and a famine to the soul if our walk with God is actually characterized by “moralistic therapeutic deism.”

And yet if this is where we find ourselves, then there is good news. If we are in this spot then we have the exciting opportunity to enter into a real, vibrant walk with God. We have the tantalizing prospect of knowing God himself, not merely facts about God.

Wayne Grudem says this in his classic book Systematic Theology (a meaty theological tome that every Christian home should have):

…it is God himself whom we know, not simply facts about him or actions he does. We make a distinction between knowing facts and knowing persons in our ordinary use of English. It would be true to say that I know many facts about the president of the United States, but it would not be true for me to say that I know him. To say that I know him would imply that I had met him and talked with him, and that I had developed at least to some degree a personal relationship with him.

Now some people say that we cannot know God himself, but that we can only know facts about him or know what he does. Others have said that we cannot know God as he is in himself, but we can only know him as he relates to us (and there is an implication that these two are somehow different). But Scripture does not speak that way. Several passages speak of our knowing God himself. We read God’s words in Jeremiah:

Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord. (Jer. 9:23-24)

…The fact that we do know God himself is further demonstrated by the realization that the richness of the Christian life includes a personal relationship with God. As these passages imply, we have a far greater privilege that mere knowledge of the facts about God. We speak to God in prayer, and he speaks to us through his Word. We commune with him in his presence, we sing his praise, and we are aware that he personally dwells among us and within us to bless us (John 14:23). Indeed, this personal relationship with God the Father, with God the Son, and with God the Holy Spirit may be said to be the greatest of all the blessings of the Christian life.     (Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994, p. 152)

What a tantalizing prospect! What an encouragement to pray and to enjoy Scripture and prayer as we commune with God and enjoy time with Him!

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By Constant Practice

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Serious musicians are amazing. They are amazing to watch. Their hands have been trained. Their muscles have been taught. Their fingers move with grace and speed along the strings, the keys, the valves. It is amazing! Their minds grasp an idea, a melody, and then with style and freedom the melody emerges from their fingertips and into our ears. How can they do it with such ease?

Serious musicians practice for hours every day. They devote themselves to learning their instruments and pushing through the distractions, the mental exhaustion, and even the pain!  It is hard work to learn an instrument. It takes dedication, time, and even cramped muscles.

And it is only after many hours of practice that the melodies begin to emerge, freely flowing from their fingers.

Hebrews 5:14 says that mature Christians are those who have “their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (ESV). If we are going to please God by growing in maturity then we need to be able to sniff out good and evil in the nitty-gritty of life. And if we are going to get good at this “sniffing” then we need to get practicing.

We need to get into the habit of practicing discernment.  F.F. Bruce explains that these words in Hebrews 5:14 “by practice” (dia tēn hexin) could equally be translated “by habit.”

So if we are going to grow in maturity as Christians we need to develop good habits of discernment as we seek out what pleases the Lord in the day to day situations we find ourselves in. Learning discernment is all about figuring out where righteous influences are and then pursuing them – like spending time in God’s word, spending time with godly friends, spending time learning from solid teachers, writers, and poets. Learning discernment takes time, energy, and dedication. Spiritual maturity doesn’t come in one big burst. Not really. It comes by constant practice. It comes by work. Yes, it is the work of God too – He works in us and helps us. But it is also a work we must devote ourselves to.

And the result is that we, like any serious musician expressing their craft, experience deep freedom and joy in Christian living.

Overcoming the Ghouls

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I always thought J.R.R. Tolkien invented wraiths – you know, those creepy dead kings who ride creepy winged dragons as they hunt for the ring.

Nope. There are wraiths in the Bible. Perhaps you didn’t know that, but there are.

The Old Testament prophet Isaiah spoke of creepy wraiths and ghouls long before Tolkien. Isaiah 13 contains an oracle of judgement on Babylon and it concludes with these lines:

“And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms,
the splendor and pomp of the Chaldeans,
will be like Sodom and Gomorrah
when God overthrew them.
It will never be inhabited
or lived in for all generations;
no Arab will pitch his tent there;
no shepherds will make their flocks lie down there.
But wild animals will lie down there,
    and their houses will be full of howling creatures;
there ostriches will dwell,
    and there wild goats will dance.
Hyenas will cry in its towers,
    and jackals in the pleasant palaces;
its time is close at hand
and its days will not be prolonged” (Isa 13:19-22 ESV)

J. Alec Motyer, a top Isaianic scholar, writes that these howling desert creatures are “more likely ‘desert wraiths,'” and, says Motyer, “wild goats would be better translated ‘goat-demons’ (cf. Lv. 17:7).” (Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary, 141).

After God judges Babylon all that remains is ghouls in the wilderness – hyenas, ostriches, owls, and other spooky animals dancing with the wraiths and goat-demons.

Yet even in the spooky desert the Lord reigns – and He is at work. Listen to what Isaiah says later about this ghoulish land:

“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad;
the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus;
it shall blossom abundantly
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who have an anxious heart,
“Be strong; fear not!
Behold, your God
will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.
For waters break forth in the wilderness,
    and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
    and the thirsty ground springs of water;
in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down,
    the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

And a highway shall be there,
    and it shall be called the Way of Holiness;
the unclean shall not pass over it.
    It shall belong to those who walk on the way;
    even if they are fools, they shall not go astray.
No lion shall be there,
    nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
    but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return
    and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
    they shall obtain gladness and joy,
    and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (Isa 35 ESV).

This same forsaken land that was haunted by ghouls is transformed into a  highway. On that highway march those whom God has redeemed. And they march into Zion – into God’s presence – with joy and singing.

This is simply wonderful. It’s wonderful because the world we live in is a strange place. There are weird things and creepy forces at work. Yet the Lord is still the sovereign King, making a highway of salvation for a people willing to live under the cross of Christ. In the midst of the ghoulish, demonic chaos, He reigns and He has conquered by the death and resurrection of His Servant Jesus.

In our world where death reigns, where demons dance, and where sin was celebrated, God reigns all the more and He is in the process of redeeming a people unto Himself. That is all our hope and joy. Come to Him and receive Him.