Knowing God

Dick Keyes


The following first appeared in the September 2007 issue of the Southbourogh L'Abri Newsletter. Dick Keyes has kindly granted us permission to publish it on our website.

We end up thinking and talking quite a lot around here about what it means to know God. Clichés and quick answers abound, along with “how to” advice books. God clearly describes himself in the Bible as a Person with whom we can and ought to have a “personal relationship”. But “personal relationship” can be misleading in that our other personal relationships are with people from whom we can get “real time” responses with our senses. God is invisible. So how can we not only know things about God, but how can we actually know God? This presents a problem to many if not most Christians. Mother Teresa’s recently published letters show that she struggled with this question much more than most had imagined.

The problem is not new. Ezekiel, even in his great vision (1:27-8) did not see the essence of God or the glory of God or even the likeness of that glory. He wrote that he had seen the appearance of the likeness of the glory of God, three steps of qualification back from “seeing God”. The Psalms often raise the question in anguish, “God, where are you?” The apostle Paul contrasted seeing God now “only through a mirror dimly” to our future encounter with him, face to face (I Cor. 13:12). But we are told that “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1) So maybe the problem should not be such a grievous problem for us. Many people who saw the high-visibility miracles in the Biblical account were not changed much by what they saw. Think of the mixed responses to God’s very visible work through Moses, Elijah or Jesus. At least sometimes, the demand for a visual demonstration of God’s power or presence comes from the human desire to have God on our own terms and under our control. So, what does it mean to know an invisible God by faith? A good start might be to relate faith to two words -- intuition and imagination.

Your intuition is a direct awareness of some truth, though it is not coming to you as an immediate result of a logical deduction or a statistical analysis. You just “know it”. Of course this intuition, if it is true, is not likely to be irrational or a piece of wild guesswork. It usually rests on critical thinking and the evaluation of many previous experiences, observations, trials and errors. Nonetheless, it comes to you as a direct awareness, “standing on the shoulders” of your whole experience of life.

Imagination is closely related. You use your imagination to form mental images, ideas, sights, sounds and the connections between them all – which are not present to your senses at the time. You can use your imagination to construct imaginary, make-believe worlds of fantasy, let’s say of elves, hobbits or superman. But you also use your imagination to construct all sorts of things that are not imaginary or make-believe at all but are very real, yet invisible to you at the time. I am thinking of your awareness of where you were last night, what is on the other side of the wall next to you, your whole world of memory … and God. Faith is the conviction of things not seen with your eyes, but seen with your intuition and imagination – without being imaginary. Faith does not ask us to make believe or pretend anything. But it does ask us, on good grounds, to trust things that are beyond our senses. This is one reason why Jesus so often used children as examples for adults to emulate. Jesus was not trying to be cute or sentimental, but knew that children are much better at taking the invisible more seriously than we are. It wasn’t easy even for people who knew Jesus on earth. He didn’t wear a halo. But he did inspire the ability and willingness in many people to trust in what they could not see.

If we want to know God, we will pray with the Psalmist for God to not hide his face from us, not expecting a visual image but an amazing friendship with One infinitely greater than we are. I want to resist all “how to” approaches, yet cannot resist throwing out some scattered thoughts. Be careful of expecting to duplicate others’ experiences of God, even those whose teaching has been helpful. What happened to them may not be how God deals with you. If you expect their experience, you may focus more on watching yourself for signs of that experience than on looking to God directly. Expect to be surprised. Knowledge of God is not promised to the vaguely curious, but to those who hold onto God’s word and seek him as for hidden treasure. Many are met by God in their suffering and loss, not in their times of success. Honesty about suffering is vital. We could go on to talk of prayer, the necessity of understanding grace, the experience of love, beauty and the life of the church with its teaching, community and sacraments.
C.S. Lewis would not give advice for pursuing God, having always felt like the one being pursued. But he did make some suggestions for promoting God’s absence which should give us some hints about independence from the flow of our culture. “Avoid silence, avoid solitude, avoid any train of thought that leads off the beaten track. Concentrate on money, sex, status and (above all) on your grievances. Keep the radio on`. Live in a crowd. Use plenty of sedation. If you must read books, select them very carefully. But you’d be safer to stick to the papers. You’ll find the advertisements helpful; especially those with a sexy or a snobbish appeal.”

Photo Credit: karlrpet. Photo taken from The photographer may not endorse the views expressed in this article.
Dick Keyes, Photo: karlrpet, 17/09/2007