Editor’s Note: Today’s blog entry is the first of four posts that will dig into the concept of “knowing God.” Each post explores an aspect of the biblical theme and how it impacts the journey of following Jesus today. We hope you find it encouraging and edifying. (Here is part 2. Here is part 3. Here is part 4.)

If you ran the Fifth Third Riverbank Run in 2009 in Grand Rapids, MI, you received a t-shirt with a simple logo on the front: a name tag with the phrase “I Run For….” In the blank space, some people wrote the names of loved ones; others listed things like health, youth, love, etc. Each person had a different purpose that kept them going when training was hard.

This question—what are you running for?—is helpful to ask in the journey of faith. The Apostle Paul described his own journey as a race. “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).

What prize is Paul running for? We don’t have room here for a full answer to that question, but at the core of Paul’s desire is his statement in verse 10, “I want to know Christ.” For Paul, knowing Christ is the very best thing in the whole world. Everything else revolves around and pales in comparison to this relationship.

Whenever I write or speak on this topic—the centrality of knowing God—I inevitably get some responses that are less than enthusiastic. No one ever disagrees that knowing God is central to the life of a Christian, but it’s also not always motivating to them. I think the disconnect is that “knowing God” can feel abstract. It’s a lofty goal but not something many people feel they experience in their daily lives. Many Christians struggle to even grasp what it means to know God in the first place. How do you “know” someone you can’t physically see and hear and relate to?

I’ve written in the past about the high points of what it means to know God, but over the next few weeks, I’d like to explore them in more depth. The Bible is filled with metaphors for how we relate to our Creator, but this one—the basic idea of “knowing God”—is critical for relating well to God and growing in maturity. How we view God matters greatly. We may see Him as a Drill Sergeant, barking orders at His subjects, or a Distant Father, watching to see if His kids disobey, or an Intimate Lover, embracing us even when we’re at our worst.

How do you relate to God? Does some other image come to mind?

I believe that if we don’t grasp what it means to know God, we will struggle to relate well to Him, and therefore, we will struggle to grow. We may be busy doing work for God, but we won’t experience the life and growth He intends for us.

Over the next four posts, I want to explore four themes that help us grasp the biblical material on knowing God. If you look at the Hebrew and Greek terms for “knowing” (Hebrew: yada; Greek: ginosko), and how they’re used in relation to knowing God, these themes emerge with special emphasis: encounter, obedience, intimacy and journey. These posts will only scratch the surface of the biblical material, but maybe they’ll whet your appetite to go deeper on your own.

This first theme may seem obvious to some, but it’s worth naming and exploring. Knowing God is not just about information; it’s about experiencing God’s presence in real life, in real time and in a way that changes us. The biblical concept of “knowing” implies not just understanding or grasping a concept but having an experience.

  • Abraham encountered God, and it made him relocate (Genesis 12).
  • Moses encountered God, and it brought him out of hiding (Exodus 3).
  • David encountered God in the wilderness, and he couldn’t get enough (Psalm 42).
  • Isaiah encountered God in a vision, and he could only see his sin (Isaiah 6).
  • Paul encountered God, and he lost his vision (Acts 9).
  • Bartimaeus encountered Jesus, and he received his vision back (Mark 10:46-52)!

We could list countless other examples of how people encountered God and were changed forever. They illustrate the simple truth that knowing God means experiencing Him in real time in our lives—just like every other relationship. It doesn’t matter how many books you’ve read about Abraham Lincoln. You can’t say you know him if you’ve never met him. The same is true for God. It’s not about information alone (reading about God); it’s also about interacting with God Himself. Knowing God, at the very least, means you’ve met Him.

We might say, “Yes, of course knowing God is more than just information, but not everyone has dramatic experiences like Moses, David and Isaiah.” True. We don’t all see burning bushes and visions that leaves us blind. But, what if we experience God’s presence every day in the normal, daily life of following Jesus? What if the normal things of life are more “encounter” than we realize? What if we’re constantly encountering the Divine in our lives, and we just don’t notice?

We believe that Jesus died for us, that He rose from the grave to give us new life and that His Spirit lives in us. We believe His Spirit is shaping, guiding, convicting and even praying for each of us right now. What if God wants us to notice all of that, even the small things?

When God blesses you in small ways—a good parking space when you’re in a hurry, a friend who encourages you, basic provisions like food and sleep—have you not encountered the love and presence of your Creator? Why doesn’t it feel like an encounter with the Divine?

Sometimes I think we’ve lost the wonder of knowing God. We’ve grown cold to something that ought to leave us speechless.

How does this happen? We lose the wonder of knowing God when we assume that “encountering God” only happens in extreme miraculous or emotional experiences. We may strive for those experiences and overlook the moment-by-moment encounters we have with God’s Spirit every day (i.e., they’re not dramatic enough to count). Or, we minimize the need for an “experience” of God because we don’t want to focus on extremes. If we’re not careful, then, we turn our faith into an intellectual exercise with little to no awareness of our daily encounters with God.

Either way, we have lost the wonder of knowing God. We are no longer in awe of God’s tangible, hands-on care in our lives and His transforming love for us. This is a pitiful place to be.

When was the last time you were in awe of God’s love for you? The gift of knowing you’re forgiven, that He has met you in your sin and in your brokenness, that He has loved you with a perfect love. When was the last time you looked at a simple thing in your life—a blessing or a trial—recognized God’s hand in it, and thanked Him for His direct intervention in your life?

In seminary, we study the details of the faith—the theology to explain our beliefs, the grammar behind our translations, the science behind mental illness and counseling practices. May we never let those details, that science, or those explanations take away our childlike wonder of the deep mystery of knowing God and encountering His presence with us.