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!