No. 3: Knowing God
J.I. Packer is a theological giant in Reformed circles. Because I’ve only just become aware of reformed theology over the last three years or so, through the preaching of Mark Driscoll and Matt Chandler, I hadn’t read any of his work. Last weekend I read Knowing God, and I wish I’d read it sooner.
Packer originally wrote this as a series in Evangelical Magazine, and it was published as a book in 1973. By the time the second edition was printed twenty years later, it had sold over 1 million copies. I’m not sure how many have sold in the last 16 years, but I imagine more than a few.
This is by far the most powerful devotional book I’ve ever read. It convicted me time after time, and brought out some latent beliefs and misconceptions that I was completely unaware of.
A constant refrain throughout is (some variation of) “those who know God”, followed by some characteristic of someone who is not “merely Christian”, but who has built a relationship with God that can truly be called “knowing”. One of the most profound characteristics is found in the first chapter, and has hovered over me for days:
The question is not whether we are good at theology, or “balanced” (horrible, self-conscious word!) in our approach to problems of Christian living. The question is, can we say, simply, honestly, not because we feel that as evangelicals we ought to, but because it is a plain matter of fact, that we have known God, and that because we have known God the unpleasantness that we have had, or the pleasantness we have not had, thorugh being Christians does not matter to us? If we really knew God, that is what we would be saying, and if we are not saying it, that is a sign that we need to face ourselves more sharply with the difference between knowing God and merely knowing about him.
In our society, where (as Louis C.K. said) “everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy,” I tend to focus almost solely on what I have, or what I don’t have, or what I will have, or what I should have. I don’t spend nearly enough time focusing on who I have – or, more accurately, who has me.
Packer shows his readers a God who is good, a God who is great, and a God who is perfect. Along the way he continuously demonstrates our imperfection, attempting to widen the gap between our perceptions of ourselves and our understanding of righteousness. We tend to admit that we are all fallen in a general and superficial way, though we rarely think of it in a convicting manner. He forces us to acknowledge personally and specifically that we have no business expecting God’s favor. When thinking of our own actions we are far too quick to consider a small good as compensation for a massive evil.
Goodness and Severity
Once we are acutely aware of our sinfulness, he asks, “Would a God who did not react adversely to evil in his world be morally perfect?” The answer, of course, is an emphatic no. This is all after deep discussions of God’s love and grace, and Packer ties it together in “Goodness and Severity”.
“22Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. 23Andeven they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. 24For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree.”
Romans 11:22-25 (ESV)
He paints a picture of people who “say they believe in God, but they have no idea who it is that they believe in, or what difference believing in him may make.” These believers often end up believing that God is all goodness and warmth without wrath, or severity, and in this they construct a deity that has no “direct relation or control” over the difficult and painful things we experience, thus, “deny[ing] his omnipotence and lordship over his world…he is left with a kind God who means well but cannot always insulate his children from trouble and grief.” No, we must maintain that God is both good and severe.
Now that he has laid the groundwork, he shows the miracle of God’s love for us. He walks us through the love God shows through Christ’s work, the height of the gift of adoption into His family, and the sufficiency of God to carry us through our trials.
There isn’t time to go through all of the incredibly valuable truths and encouragement shared in this book, though some have tried (Boston Bible Geeks, “Blogging through Knowing God by J.I. Packer”). I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who sees the importance of being among “those who know God.”