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Knowing God More Deeply

Klaus Issler

“Come near to God and he will come near to you.” JAMES 4 : 8

Given the opportunity—to live now or to live during the time when Jesus Christ walked this very earth—which would we choose? Some of us would jump at the offer to be with Jesus. To be comforted by his smile and reassured by his embrace. To see his miracles firsthand—the lame walking, the blind with sight. To chat with him as did Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Does your heart yearn for such intimacy and immediacy? Yet why might Christians dream of seeing Jesus, touching him, hearing him? Is it because we detect some distance in our relationship with God? Do we want something more? Were first-century Christians better off because they actually saw Jesus and fellowshiped with him, while we have to limp along with our meager faith? In the final hours before his arrest, Jesus revealed to his disciples—and to all believers—the promise of a close and deepening relationship with God. “He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him” (Jn 14:21, emphasis added).

The Bible claims that a personal relationship with God is possible, yet a certain distance remains. Like Moses of old who asked to see God’s glory (Ex 33:18), do we wish we could enjoy more of God’s presence?

The Adventure of Knowing God

Although I am a seminary graduate who has served in full-time ministry for more than twenty years, I am mapping new terrain in my journey with God. My ideas about God have been stretched beyond comparison with former ways of thinking, and I feel much closer to God. A few years ago I sensed some turbulence in my soul, yet the practices I engaged in and the perspectives I had about knowing God were not helping me go deeper. Looking back I see how God brought people, books, ideas and events into my life to prod me forward into fascinating realms of new-to-me thoughts and experiences in knowing him. The year 1997 stands out in a special way. In January I was temporarily blinded in one eye for three weeks, and I learned to lean more on God. Seven months later I experienced a three-week spiritual retreat of solitude in which I sensed the presence of God as never before.

There is so much more God has in mind for us than I previously thought possible. I now live more in his grace and peace and love—a sense of duty motivates me less. I find myself in conversation with God more. As I rely more on God and pray more earnestly, I can discern specific answers to prayer. In a word, I feel more connected with God. Struggles and frustrations still dog my day, yet I sense less distance than before. With greater intensity, I appreciate how personal God is. I enjoy expending more effort to know God, the God who wants to know me. This book is written to help believers respond to God’s invitation to know him better and sense his presence more deeply. Furthermore, the majestic God of the universe will go to great lengths to enjoy a deep friendship with us. It is the greatest love story ever. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (Jn 17:3). In the future, God will bring to completion his long term dream—to live with us fully:“The home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; . . . they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them” (Rev 21:3 NRSV, emphasis added).

Our great God wishes to lavish on us his limitless love and to invite us into experiencing life to its fullest. The prophet Isaiah casts a vision of this wonder. On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. (Is 25:6-9 NRSV) Such joy awaits all believers, beloved of God, yet there is much to enjoy now as well. What is it like to be friends with God? Bring to mind all of the good times you have had in the company of your friends—sipping coffee at an outdoor cafe, shopping till you drop at the mall, playing pickup basketball, sharing intimate secrets and on and on. Take all these moments, feelings and memories, wrap them up together, multiply them a thousand times, and then we might begin to get an idea of what friendship with God is like.1 It is the best of the best, the cream of the crop. It is worth more than anything we could ever own or accomplish on our own.

The Beginning of Any Personal Relationship

The popular line in Christian circles—“God loves you; he can never love you any more than he does now”—conveys something right and something wrong. Of course, God’s parental love for every believer is constant, but how well we know each other varies over time to the extent that God and believer each pursue an interactive relationship. For example, when a child is born into a family, a blood relation is established, but child and parent do not yet know each other. At the beginning, there is a built-in hiddenness. This is true with any new relationship, whether with parent and child or with a new neighbor, a new coworker on the first day at the job, or a new teacher and fellow students on the first day of class. A person’s physical features are transparent, but the inner person is initially hidden. Time and common experiences together will provide the opportunity, but each party must decide whether or not it is worth the effort to bring down the barriers of self-hiddenness. Some parents and children actually work at this opportunity and begin the process of friendship. Yet others are clueless about the need to be intentional and so settle for a shallow association of civility, missing out on the joys of genuine companionship. A growing relationship is based on continual and mutual self-revelation, and so it is with God. We can pursue a closer relationship with God, or we can settle for a superficial tie—and God’s hiddenness remains. God gives us the freedom either way.

To change the metaphor, imagine a situation in which three consultants working for one client have all been invited for the first face-to-face lunch meeting with the client.2Consultant A corresponded with the client through letters and e-mail. Consultant B connected with the client many times by a cell phone. Consultant C used several video conferences to contact the client. At the lunch meeting, how comfortable will each consultant be at the table with the client? Of course each consultant knows the client; yet there is a different quality of relational knowledge. Consultant A has only read the words of the client. Consultant B is familiar with the client’s voice and tone. Consultant C was technologically present with the client and became accustomed to various nonverbal mannerisms. Likewise in our relationship with God, the relational quality will vary, depending on how each believer regularly chooses to connect with God.

Seeking God is not just a one-time affair; it must become a continuing lifestyle if believers want to deepen a friendship with him. Do we only associate the phrase seeking God with those who have not yet responded to God’s gracious call to join his family? The need to seek God does not end when we are transferred into God’s kingdom and family. Believers must continue to be seekers of God; it is our life purpose and brings to fulfill mentour full potential for living.3The Bible teaches that a continuing relationship with God requires the participation of both parties: “Come near to God and he will come near to you” (Jas 4:8).

Our love relationship with God can always grow deeper and deeper. Furthermore, since God is mysterious, incomprehensible, transcendent,an infinite being of such independence and otherness, the Bible informsus that finite believers can never plumb all of the depths of whoGod is (e.g., Ps 145:3; Rom 11:33). As theologian Wayne Grudem explains,“For all of eternity we will be able to go on increasing in ourknowledge of God and delighting more and more with him.”4

Believers can grow deeper in their relationship with God now and continue the process in eternity, yet never reach an end to knowing God.5

Growing in intimacy with God is possible. Redeemed humanity hasbeen designed expressly by God—originally created in his image (Gen1:26; Jas 3:9) and now being conformed to the image of his Son (Rom8:29)—to be in continual communion with God (Jn 17:3). Furthermore,within the context of a deep and dependent relationship with God, therichness of life and all its potential is open to us. For example, the joy offriendship becomes enriched. Work flows more deeply from innerstrength. Life and ministry in the body of Christ are uplifting. The Onewho created life knows best how to really live it. Without being consistentlyconnected with God, we fall short of what we were designed to be.

Our Expectations of God

How well do we know God? What do we expect him to do? Our realconceptions of God are often revealed at those times when life turnsupside down. For example, as Van walks down the hospital corridortoward his wife’s room, he wrestles with the implications of her diagnosis.She may die in six months. They knew something was up—”Davy”became tired easily. In order to reduce the stress in her life, she quit herpart-time job. They have always been deeply in love with each other.Only within the past two years had Davy and then Van come to a joyfulknowledge of Jesus Christ as Savior. And these two, inseparable throughoutfifteen years together, may be torn apart. As Van approaches herroom, a depressing loneliness and fear claim his soul. God seems a million miles away.6

When jolted by the speed bumps of life, do we wonder why God doesnot clear the road? Do we expect God to be our celestial Superman, flying in at the right moment to save the day? How many no-shows does it take before we begin to doubt that God loves us or wonder whether he is really there at all? Forgiveness of sins and a future life in heaven without suffering are great gifts indeed, but we want a touch from eternity now as disappointment descends on our soul.

The quality of our life experience is linked to our view of God andwhat we expect God to do. For example, if God is viewed as an exacting,legalistic judge, he would keep track of every jot and tittle in our lives, includingeach lie, each angry moment, each lustful thought. Would notthis “god” plague us with guilty reminders of our sins or punish us at eachopportunity? Or maybe we conceive of God as a jovial grandfather typewith a twinge of Alzheimer’s disease and an elastic sense of grace. He would largely ignore whatever we do and excuse any wrong actions. Or maybe God always enjoys a good bargain: “Let’s make a deal.” If we do something good for him, then he will come through for us. But what happens when it appears that he does not hold up his end of the bargain?

Turning Genesis 1:26 upside down, do we tend to create a god in our own image? A. W. Tozer (d. 1963) notes this peculiar penchant: “Alwaysthis God will conform to the image of the one who created it and will bebase or pure, cruel or kind according to the moral state of the mind from which it emerges.”7

Our ideas about God influence how we conduct our lives. Indeed, it may well be that the most important thing about us is what comes tomind when we hear the word God, as Tozer clarifies:

That our idea of God correspond as nearly as possible to the true being ofGod is of immense importance to us. Compared with our actual thoughtsabout Him, our [doctrinal] statements are of little consequence. Our realidea of God may lie buried under the rubbish of conventional religiousnotions and may require an intelligent and vigorous search before it isfinally unearthed and exposed for what it is. Only after an ordeal of painfulself-probing are we likely to discover what we actually believe about God.A right conception of God is basic not only to systematic theology but topractical Christian living as well. It is to worship what the foundation is tothe temple; where it is inadequate or out of plumb the whole structure mustsooner or later collapse. I believe there is scarcely an error in doctrine or afailure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfectand ignoble thoughts about God.8

Similarly, Dallas Willard warns that we position ourselves in a spiritual cul-de-sac if we neglect to correct and grow in our knowledge of God.Misunderstandings, mental confusions, and mistaken beliefs . . . about God. . . make a strong walk with him impossible, even if we’ve chosen, in effect,not to think about it. I have seen repeatedly confirmed, in often tragic cases,the dire consequences of refusing to give deep, thoughtful consideration tothe ways in which God chooses to deal with us and of relying on whateverwhimsical ideas and preconceptions about his ways happen to be flyingaround us. This is very dangerous to our health and well-being.9False God-in-the-box ideas damage our spiritual life.In December 1998, NASA launched a $125-million Mars Climate Orbiterto explore the planet of Mars. Yet after a journey of nine-plus monthsthrough outer space, the Orbiter disappeared September 23 upon entryinto the Martian atmosphere. The embarrassed rocket scientists confessedto a profoundly simple mathematical error—failing to convert accelerationdata from English units of force into metric units called newtons.“The bad numbers had been used ever since the launch in December, butthe effect was so small that it went unnoticed. The difference added upover the months.”10After traveling 416 million miles, the Orbiter arrived56 miles too close to Mars and was destroyed. It was a minor error thatresulted in devastating consequences. Might slightly off-course ideasabout God yield analogous disaster for believers?

Confronting False Assumptions

Through his life example and teachings, Jesus consistently confrontedwrong-headed notions about God and his plan. The Gospel writers highlightsuch encounters by recording how the crowds or the disciples were“amazed,” “astonished” or “marveled” at his teaching (e.g., Mt 7:28;12:23, 22:22, 33; Mk 6:2; 11:18; Lk 4:32; Jn 4