In my last article, posted on January 18, 2014 on The Power of Prayer, I wrote of the evident conviction of the apostle Paul in the greatness of God and of his confidence that He hears and answers the prayers of His people. A review of Paul’s many prayers shows that he talked to God often and about many different subjects. His concluding remarks in that prayer in Ephesians 3 give us some insight into his view of God.
“Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Eph 3:20-21).
In this passage the apostle focuses on God’s power and what He is able to do in the lives of men and women. The power of God is but one aspect of this awesome being – and aspect that we need to know and appreciate if we are ever to have a proper understanding of Him and of how we are supposed to relate to Him.
But knowing God does not begin by looking at just His particular attributes. That would be like the blind men trying to describe an elephant. In poetic verse based on the Indian fable, John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887) parodied the theological debates of men.
The Blind Men and the Elephant
It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind
The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”
The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, “Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”
The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”
The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
” ‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”
The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”
The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”
And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!
Knowing God is much like that. We tend to focus on whatever quality happens to fall somewhat in our grasp, thinking we know at least enough about Him to satisfy some minimum requirement of the subject of theology (“study of God”) to earn us a passing grade in the course of life so we can get on with the business of living as we think that perception of God demands. As it happens in academic pursuits, we “major” in some particular field of learning and are consequently sometimes abysmally ignorant of other vast disciplines of knowledge. Just because a person may hold a Ph.D in some academic discipline doesn’t mean he knows everything about everything! Just because a person knows something about God doesn’t mean he has by any means plumbed the depth of the vast ocean of the knowledge of God.
The subject of God is so vast, so unfathomably deep and wide, how can mere man ever hope to understand Him? And yet, this is exactly what God expects of us! It is not as though He expects us to have a perfect understanding, but to have an ever increasing knowledge of His greatness and His nature. The prophet Jeremiah, in foretelling of the new covenant God would make with His people, quotes God as saying,
“…no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:34).
For what reason? Certainly not for the academic achievement. Not merely for the satisfaction of knowing. While there is delight and satisfaction in knowing God, it is not merely for the knowing itself that we are encouraged to know Him. God has a purpose in our knowing of Him.
Thus says the Lord: “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.” (Jeremiah 9:23-24).
Remember that human beings were made “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:26, 27). Even though sin has beclouded our vision of what that means and severerly limited our ability to know the One we were created to be like, yet God has gone to extraordinary means to reveal Himself to us in order that He might bring us back to that original state and design. How can we know what that means unless we know Him? How can we ever hope, in some manner, to manifest that likeness except through knowing Him?
God has “…predestined [us] to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29). In order for us to know what we are intended (predestined) to be, God has revealed to us a perfect picture (icon) of himself in the person of Jesus. This is what the writer of the Hebrew letter means when he says at the very beginning of that book that God “…has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature…” He did this in order that we might know what He is like – in order that we might know His love for us – in order that He might draw us unto Himself – in order that we might know what we are supposed to be in this world and for eternity.
One of the great dangers of not knowing God is that we will in our ignorance make Him (in our imagination) like ourselves. This is the very essence of idolatry. Idolatry exists because men refuse to know God as He has revealed Himself. They make gods – not just one god, but many – because no one man can conceive of a god worthy of worship by all of creation. The gods men create produce worshipers made in their own image – an image corrupted by sin because the gods of men cannot forgive sin. They are gods that demand more and more of man and give him less and less, leaving their worshipers empty and dissatisfied. The end result of this kind of failure to know God is that man enters into a downward spiral, spiritually, mentally, emotionally and even physically. Disintegration, dissipation and degradation – personally, relationally, domestically and societally – all follow.
The remedy for this is not to impose some arbitrary standard such as a historical landmark of Christianity (e.g., what this nation used to be), but for us as individuals, families, communities and as a nation to come to a knowledge of God. This cannot be legislated by state or local governments nor can it be imposed by federal governmental imperative (as if that will ever happen). It cannot be instilled in schools. It will not be achieved by group or organizational actions. Each of these entities may in various ways contribute to the desired end of disseminating the knowledge of God, but ultimately the kind of knowledge of which we speak will only be reached when individuals realize that the deepest longings of the human soul is to know the ultimate truth – the truth that God is and that He loves each and every one of us with an eternal love.
“Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations” (Deuteronomy 7:9).
Next: The Greatness of God