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What is it to Know God?


John 17:3   

Every three or four years a city somewhere in the world hosts an international conference on pain: pain-management, pain-control, pain-alleviation. Plainly there are many experts at these conferences who know ever so much about pain, about neural mechanisms, about analgesics.  Nevertheless, the experts who read the learned papers are plainly not in pain themselves; not in pain so severe that they can’t concentrate or eat or sleep. While they know ever so much about pain, then, in a profounder sense they don’t know pain. To know in this profounder sense is qualitatively different from gathering up all the information available; to know in this profounder sense is to be personally acquainted, intimately acquainted, with pain itself.When scripture speaks of knowing hunger it doesn’t mean that someone is an expert on malnutrition; it means that someone is herself intimately acquainted with hunger.  To know grief isn’t to take a course in the psychology of bereavement; it’s to be grief-stricken oneself.When prophet and apostle speak of knowing God, then, they are speaking of intimate acquaintance with the living God. Such engagement is what the bible means by “faith”.  Faith, in scripture, isn’t something we exercise in the absence of knowing; faith isn’t an alternative to knowing. Faith is knowledge; faith is that knowing which corresponds to faith’s author and object, God. Encounter with God, engagement with God, the interpenetration of God’s life and our life; all of this adds up to the knowledge of God.


Today we are going to look at four aspects of our knowledge of God: gratitude, love, trust and obedience.


I: — First, gratitude. Oblivious to anyone else, a woman stumbles up to Jesus, pours over his feet a bottle of perfume whose price amounted to a year’s wages, wipes his feet with her hair and kisses them repeatedly.  The disciples are bug-eyed: the cost of the perfume.  They remark that there has to be a better use for this much money. I think too that the disciples are startled for another reason: what the woman is doing is in appallingly bad taste. A friend of mine who is a psychiatrist (a Christian too), casually remarked to me one day that what the woman did was highly erotic. The disciples had to know it was.  They lived in a culture where a man didn’t so much as speak to a woman in public, not even to his wife.  And here is this tasteless woman pouring out what advertising industry always associates with eroticism at the same time as she does what is unquestionably erotic. And, as my psychiatrist-friend pointed out to me, Jesus let’s her do it.

The disciples object. Jesus replies, “You fellows can’t understand; your arid hearts have never swelled to bursting with the gratitude that has burst this woman’s heart.”

Through meeting the master the woman has found someone who has pardoned her, set her on her feet, sent her on her way with a new vision and a new hope and a new song. She has a new future (in fact she now has the only “future” worthy of the name — venture with Jesus Christ); and of course she has a new friend. However wasteful her poured-out perfume might appear; however erotic her foot-kissing/wiping might seem; what matters above all is that gratitude spills out of her and expresses itself in whatever ways it can find expression regardless of the incomprehension of the heart-shrivelled.

If you or I were convicted of a capital offence and sentenced to death; and if by the mercy of the judge we were pardoned, our first response would not be a diligent study of the penal system; our first response would not be a psychological analysis of the judge who has just pardoned us. Our uncontrived, spontaneous response would be gratitude.  And if we stumbled up to the judge’s desk and slobbered all over it as we couldn’t find words for what our hearts wanted to cry out, we wouldn’t care if spectators sitting at the back of the courtroom smirked at our loss of emotional control.

Isn’t this our situation before God?  The event that fills the horizon of all biblical thought is the event of the cross. The apostle Paul declares that he has but one sermon in his filing cabinet: Jesus Christ crucified. The cross embodies two unalterable truths: God’s judgement and God’s mercy. In the light of the cross we are brought up short to know we have to do with the just judge who has secured a conviction against us — even as we are brought up short to find ourselves pardoned. The woman with the perfume knew what nobody around her appeared to know.

We live in an age that is shallow in many respects.  Our age has no grasp of the holiness of God and the sinfulness of the human heart; no grasp of God’s righteous wrath and his uncompromisable condemnation; and therefore our age has little wonder at the provision God has made for us who deserve anything but mercy.  Our age is shallow in yet another respect: we have forgotten what it is to be grateful. We expect so much; we think we have a right to so much; we claim so much; we presume so much; we have such an enormous sense of entitlement.  Nothing surprises us as gift; and therefore nothing impels us to gratitude.

It wasn’t always thus. Some of our foreparents knew better, such as our foreparents in faith who cherished the Heidelberg Catechism.         You have often heard me say that the Heidelberg Catechism (written in 1563) is the crown jewel of the shorter Reformation writings. Part I of the HC is titled, “the Misery of Humankind”; Part II, “The Redemption of Humankind”; Part III (by far the largest part), “Thankfulness”. That’s all: “Thankfulness”. Part III of the HC discusses the whole of the Christian life; all of it.  Our discipleship in its entirety is rooted in gratitude and motivated by gratitude and directed by gratitude.

You and I have no claim on God’s mercy.  Yet so crucial is this mercy that the Apostles’ Creed gathers up the totality of our blessing at God’s hand in one brief expression, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.”  Gratitude will always remain a vital aspect of our knowledge of God.


II: — Another aspect is love. Enduring love for God. Gratitude will remain gratitude only if love fuels it; otherwise gratitude, however large-looming at the moment, will gradually evaporate until gratitude is little more than a word and a memory.  However grateful we might be to the person who gets our car going on the highway after it has stopped we don’t maintain any relationship at all with our benefactor; we thank him – genuinely — and wave him good-bye. Just because God isn’t to be thanked and then waved away, gratitude must always be supplemented by love.

This is not to say that we are supposed to “work up” love for God; we aren’t supposed to fish around inside ourselves until we have generated a peculiar affect. But it is to say that we shall love God as we are overtaken again, and overwhelmed yet again, at the love wherewith God loves us. The apostle John writes, “Herein is love, not that we loved him, but that he first loved us.” The emphasis is on “first”. Our love can only be second; it can only be a response; it can only be an answering love. But it must be this.

Few things are more pathetic than the sight of someone trying to generate love for someone else who doesn’t love her.         At first she feels she doesn’t have to generate love for someone else; she simply loves him spontaneously.  Sooner or later, however, it’s an effort, as secret doubts and unspoken misgivings and sheer fatigue all take their toll.  Eventually she admits she doesn’t have it in her to work up love for someone who is affectively inert.  At this point her marriage is dead, she knows it, and the rest is commentary.

Because God loves us ceaselessly his love quickens in us an answering love for him. Yes, the command to love God is a command, and people who say, “But that’s impossible, since love can’t be commanded”; people who speak like this speak too soon, for they haven’t understood that love can be commanded in the sense that we are to set our hearts only on him who has set his heart on us eternally.  And what’s more, God commands us to love him only as his love for us ignites our love for him.

As part of the Easter event the risen Jesus confronted Peter in front of the other disciples and asked, “Peter, do you love me?”         We had better not pretend that the question wasn’t “loaded”; it was. Earlier Peter had insisted that he would never deny his master; only the spiritually feeble would do such a thing. Besides, Peter had declared still earlier in the earthly ministry of Jesus that he had left everything to follow him.   And then all it took was a fifteen-year-old girl saying in front of street-wise loiterers, “Your accent is odd; you come from Galilee too; you must be one of his followers.”  Peter spews vulgarity after vulgarity as he lies through his teeth that he has never so much as seen the Nazarene before.  Then the question three times over, once for each courtyard denial, “Do you love me?” — and the answer three times over, barely croaked out in view of Peter’s distress, “You know that I love you”. Distress?  Yes. It’s always distressing to be loved still by the very person we have failed and betrayed. Yet the love that distresses us in such circumstances; this love alone can quicken and maintain the profoundest answering love in us.

We are Christ-deniers. Every day, in a dozen different ways, we deny the One who is life to us and to whom we have professed loyalty. And all our Lord does in the midst of our denying him is to laser his love into our treacherous hearts so that we can find ourselves saying honestly, however distressingly, “You know that I love you.”


III: — The third aspect of our knowledge of God is trust: trust in the midst of darkness, of pain, of confusion, of sheer incomprehension.  A few centuries ago Christians used to speak of “the dark night of the soul.” By this expression they were not referring to that spiritual “chill” which comes upon us when we sin and persist in sin and disguise our sin and excuse our sin. There is nothing incomprehensible about spiritual chill arising from spiritual self-destruction. “The dark night of the soul” refers rather to those periods in any Christian’s life when we feel so bereft of God, so God-forsaken, we couldn’t feel more orphaned. Medieval Christians distinguished such “desolation” from depression.  Depression is a psychological condition; desolation, a spiritual condition.

In addition to spiritual desolation where we unaccountably feel ourselves “orphaned”, as it were, for protracted periods, there are also those periods when God seems eclipsed by the crushing misfortune that falls on some people.

Paul was familiar with the latter.  At the beginning of his second Corinthian letter he writes, “Brothers, we don’t want you to be ignorant of the affliction we experienced in Asia . We were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself.         Why, we felt we had received the sentence of death.”

What are we going to do when either crushing misfortune or spiritual desolation overtakes us? We are going to trust; we are going to trust that the love we cannot feel is yet a love that has never been revoked; we are going to trust that the providence which is currently opaque will one day be made gloriously translucent. Paul tells us that as a result of the crushing affliction in Asia (we are never told what it was) he could only trust the God who raises the dead. Yes. The God we are to trust has already proven himself trustworthy by keeping his promise to us in the resurrection of his son. Since we know him to have borne his son through the son’s affliction, we can trust him to bear us through ours as well.

IV: — The final aspect of our knowledge of God is obedience.  John writes in his first epistle, “We may be sure that we know him if we keep his commandments.”

To speak of obedience is not to suggest that God is like a prison-camp commandant, whip in hand, with everything in his heart except benevolence for us, insisting that we conform “or else.”  On the contrary, since God wills only our good there can be genuine obedience to him only if our obedience is glad, eager, willing, joyful. Having told us that to know God, and to know that we know God, is to obey him (“keep his commandments”), John adds, “and his commandments are not burdensome.” (I John 5:3)

Jesus said it all when he told his hearers, “Take my yoke upon you.” Yoke, the collar by which oxen pulled a load, is the everyday Hebrew metaphor for obedience.  “Take obedience of me upon you”, Jesus means, and then adds, “My yoke is easy; my burden is light.”

Several things need to be said here.  Christ’s yoke is easy; his burden is light. Other burdens — the “baggage” we saddle ourselves with as a result of our folly and our sin — other burdens are heavy.  Other yokes — the false gods and foolish causes to which we harness ourselves — these yokes only chafe and irritate until we are rubbed raw and infected as well.

But Christ’s yoke is easy.  Since our Lord apprenticed in a carpenter shop he made ox-yokes every day. He knew that if the yoke fit well, the ox could pull the heaviest load with maximum efficiency and minimum discomfort; but if the yoke fit badly, at best the animal suffered, and at worst it strangled.

There are two truths we must preserve about Christ’s yoke.  One, his yoke is easy; two it is a yoke. Obedience ever remains an essential aspect of faith; keeping the commandments of God in the spirit of obeying the living person of God; this ever remains an ingredient in our knowledge of God.  To know God, then, is to honour the shape, the direction, the orientation that God ordains for human existence.  To know God is to relish the discipline of discipleship, certain that anything else issues ultimately in spiritual suffocation.

          As I moved through the requirements of my doctoral program I was sent to Professor Jakob Jocz ( University of Toronto ) for an oral examination. Jakob Jocz was a third-generation Hebrew Christian. He was a delightful man, wise, profound, spiritually alert.  Jocz had suffered much in his life.  Decades earlier he and his wife had gone from Poland to England where he had delivered a set of lectures in a British university while his wife had delivered a baby in a British hospital.  While the Joczs were in England Germany invaded Poland . Since Jocz was Jewish by birth, he never returned. He and his wife walked away from everything they owned.         As my oral examination with him drew to a close I knew that I had triumphed; I didn’t need to wait for his evaluation; I knew I had “nailed” the thing magnificently.  He dismissed me and sent me on my way.  Then he called me back. I think he had discerned a hint (more than a hint) of smugness and arrogance and triumphalism in me. He called me back and said very soberly, “Mr. Shepherd, you have done well in the examination. But remember: theology, important as it is, remains an abstraction. What really counts is the shape of a man’s life.”  I have remembered: what really counts is the shape of a person’s life.

          To be sure, our Lord’s yoke is easy; easy as it is, however, it is still a yoke we must put on. For not to obey God is simply not to know him at all.


The prophet Hosea lamented that his people were destroyed for lack of knowledge of God. There is no need for this. God invites us at all times and in all circumstances to that knowledge of him which is life. To know him is to thank him, love him, trust him, obey him.

John had it right when he wrote that eternal life is nothing more, nothing less, nothing else, than knowing “…thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” (John 17:3)


                                                                                 Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

January 2006