The Mystery of Knowing God

By Darrell Yoder on April 11, 2016

I find the idea of having a "relationship with God" mysterious and fascinating. The biblical story depicts humanity as created to know and walk with God, and it uses a host of metaphors to describe this relationship. God is our Father, and we are His children. He is our Husband, and we are His bride. He is our Shepherd, and we are His sheep. He is the "Living Water" we thirst for, the "Bread from heaven" we're hungry for, and the Vine we are nourished in. The imagery is endless.

As a pastor and Christian educator, I find these images and the overall goal of nurturing this God-relationship very compelling. We have little (if any) control over what God is doing in us, but we're called to lean in and engage him through Christ and his Spirit. We're called to walk with Him, and the mystery compounds when you consider the calling of ministry leaders to help other people do this.

A few years ago, a former professor of mine invited me to write about an aspect of this mystery for the "Encyclopedia of Christian Education" (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015). The question I was asked to address was "What is the role of revelation in Christian education?" which for me immediately lead to thinking about our God-relationship. After all, at its core "revelation" is God's self-disclosure, his revealing of himself and His will. So, revelation is inherently relational.

I wanted to share this piece here because, well, it's buried on page 1058 of a three-volume tome (maybe someone will read it here!), but even more so because material like this has helped me stay focused on what really matters in ministry. Getting clear about our God-relationship shapes how we counsel people and the kinds of ministries we develop. I hope it helps you too.

"Revelation and its Application to Christian Education"

Taken from Encyclopedia of Christian Education, G. T. Kurian and M. A. Lamport (Editors), Volume 2, Rowman & Littlefield, 2015: pp. 1058-1061. Used by permission.

Revelation is central to Christian Education because, on the one hand, it provides the content. Christian educators study and teach what God's revelation contains. However, Revelation also provides the purpose, and in some ways the means, of Christian Education.

In much of Christian history, theologians have seen Revelation as a body of propositional truth—information we need to understand. To be sure, Revelation does provide propositional truth. However, the goal of Christian educators, teachers, pastors, and ministry leaders has never been to merely transfer information. Very little in Scripture suggests that knowing information is ultimately critical or valuable on its own. The information we acquire must also take root in our hearts and shape our behavior (1 Corinthians 8:1-2; James 1:22-25). So those engaged in Christian Education desire most to see God's revealed knowledge manifest itself in transformed affections and behaviors. We seek to become more like Jesus Christ. How does this happen? Put simply, transformation (the goal of Christian Education) happens because of Revelation. God revealed and continues to reveal himself (John 14:21), and that Revelation provides the context for Christian Education.

Jesus hints at this in his high priestly prayer. He turned his eyes heavenward and said, "Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent" (John 17:3). Interestingly, Jesus points to knowledge (i.e. knowing God) as the very definition of "eternal life," suggesting that the goal of life—the life we long for, are created for, and need most—is bound up in knowledge, not of a body of information, but of a Person. So eternal life is knowing God, and knowing God can only happen because God revealed/reveals himself.

Theologians throughout history have helped us sort into categories the ways God revealed himself: general, special, and episodic revelation. But according to the writer of Hebrews, God revealed himself most decisively and most clearly in his Son Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1-4), so Christian Education is centered on helping people discover, understand, and surrender to that Revelation. Put more directly, since eternal life is knowing God, Christian Education is about facilitating that relationship. The early church understood this well. Robert Louis Wilken writes, "The Christian life was oriented toward a goal, toward life in fellowship with God. Its end was to know and love God as we have been known and loved by God, for only in knowing and loving God and sharing in God’s life would a human being find happiness."[i]

How do we assess our progress in this knowing though and be sure our Christian Education efforts are having the intended effect? The Old Testament concept of "knowing" (yada), its New Testament parallels (e.g., ginosko), and the way the biblical writers use these terms can help us. We cannot develop a full word study here, but we only need to notice a few elements of this biblical concept to see its relevance and impact on Christian Education. Thomas Groome provides a helpful summary of this material as well.[ii]

First, knowing God involves a real, relational encounter with God. We would never say we "know" someone in any meaningful sense without actually meeting them and being in their presence. Spiritually speaking, then, knowing God means we've entered into a relationship with him. Christian Education ought therefore to facilitate this encounter through whatever biblically faithful pedagogy or ministry strategy at our disposal.

Secondly, knowing God involves intimacy with him. The biblical writers often refer to sex as a man and woman "knowing" each other (Genesis 4:1), and although our view of sex is often tainted by its misuse and abuse, sex in its purest form is the most physically and emotionally intimate experience we can have with another human. The sexual act involves complete openness, vulnerability, and unity. Knowing God is analogous. It involves being true and honest before him, seeking to know him for who he is, and seeking to be known for who we really are—no hiding or pretending. Christian Education ought therefore to facilitate and encourage this growing intimacy with God.

Thirdly, knowing God involves obedience to Jesus' teachings. Both Old and New Testament writers essentially equate obeying God's commands with knowing him (Jeremiah 22:15-16; 1 John 2:3-6). This is where Christian Education, and the "knowledge" it provides, becomes humbling and formative. We don't "know" something in the truest sense until that "knowledge" has changed us, and we don't know God if this "knowing" doesn't increasingly (albeit gradually, and in fits and starts) lead to greater obedience. Christian Education, therefore, ought to facilitate and expect greater obedience to Jesus' commands.

Lastly, knowing God is an ongoing journey of walking with him. The imagery in Galatians 5:16-26 speaks not of "arrival" but of ongoing relational engagement and responding to God's lead. Knowing God is about entering into relationship with him, but it is also about continuing in that relationship. Christian education, therefore, ought to remind us (and our students) to receive God's grace daily and "press on" to know Christ more fully (Philippians 3:10-14). We do this by the three activities mentioned above: spending time with him (relational encounter), opening our hearts to him (intimacy), and obeying his teachings (obedience).

In conclusion, the purpose of Christian Education is to invite and enable people to encounter God through his revelation and help them respond positively to God's call. As they embrace faith in Christ, Christian Education coaches them to develop greater intimacy with the Father, seeking to know and be known in greater ways. Christian Education confronts disobedience and calls us to greater faithfulness, reminding us that knowing God is not about acquiring a body of knowledge but entering into a journey of friendship and love with the Creator. In this way, Revelation provides the content, the purpose, and the means of Christian Education, all of which are centered on a living, breathing, daily relationship with Jesus Christ, which Jesus himself called "eternal life."

Further Reading

[i] Robert Louis Wilken, "Christian Formation in the Early Church," in Educating People of Faith, ed. John Van Engen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2004), 62.

[ii] Thomas H. Groome, Christian Religious Education: Sharing Our Story and Vision (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1999), 141-145.

Category: Theology