With Lent just around the corner I am once again pondering the difference between knowing God and knowing about God. In the circles in which I grew up and was educated, this was a distinction that was not carefully made. I think especially of the books that were particularly celebrated on this subject such as the classic The Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer, the newer and destined to become classic Knowing God by J.I. Packer, and the even more recent (and better imho), but lesser known The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges. I read Packer in high school, Tozer in college and Bridges after I was married. (I also knew Bridges, so that relationship may have shaped my opinions about the books.)
All of these books left me with far more questions than answers. All three put a lot of emphasis on the attributes of God (or what might better be called the philosophical attributes), such as holiness, omnipotence, aseity, etc. I call them “philosophical attributes” because these are the things that make God God by definition. These descriptions say less about how God revealed himself and more about what we believe a proper god should look like. Many years ago I had this very conversation with Jerry Bridges, and his argument was that you can’t put much about knowing God in a book because that requires personal relationship (which is very true—point to Jerry, if you’re keeping score) and furthermore, knowing God requires that we first know about God. This is where, over the years, as I have begun to sort this out for myself, he and I begin to diverge…but not that far, as you will see when we circle back to the topic of holiness.
There is a gulf—we might even call it an ugly ditch in honor of Herr Lessing—between “knowledge of” and “knowing.” Knowing about Jerry Bridges, for instance, might lead one to think he’s great man. When you actually get to know him, he’s more like the guy the next door. These two things (Mr. Bridges as a great man and Jerry the guy next door) are not mutually exclusive, but they are very different. What I discovered is that much of what I thought I knew about Jerry Bridges was actually false (although the facts were accurate). It turns out that I need to know him before I could authentically know much about him. And this is the nub of my disagreement with him about knowing God. Knowledge of God does not precede knowing God, it follows it.
To complicate the matter further, the possibility of knowing God includes a moral component that is not always taken seriously enough, at least in the circles in which I grew up and was trained. Tozer puts some emphasis on the idea of fear and trembling; that is, knowledge of God will lead to fear and trembling because God is high and lifted up. As Peter says, “Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Pet. 2:17). But to frame it in the manner of Tozer is to make it a volitional requirement. In other words, I have to have a certain attitude about God, based on the knowledge of who God is, before I can hope to begin to know him.
But this volitional component is very different than the moral component required to know God. “Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see th Lord” (Heb. 12:14). From my vantage point Tozer, Packer, and Bridges are all weak on this point for the same reason that they are so strong on the subject in general. All three are traditionally Reformed in their theology. That sort of Reformed theology that springs primarily from the English Reformation puts a strong emphasis on God’s holiness. But it also puts a strong emphasis on human inability to pursue holiness. Given that humans are totally depraved (a foundational doctrine of English Reformed theology), holiness is a gift rather than something we pursue ourselves.
This sensibility can tend toward a passivity about holiness (what Bonhoeffer railed against as “cheap grace”), and certainly tends toward a lack of attention to the topic of human holiness and how it is achieved. It is no accident that the traditional Reformed communions have never put any emphasis on Lent and most reject it outright as a form of works righteousness.
And indeed in the popular imagination that may be what it is. “What are you giving up for Lent?” and “Oh, I’m not allowed to eat meat on Fridays,” are a statements that belie the underlying punitive sense of the contemporary Lenten experience. In contrast to the punitive sense, the heart of Lent in the classical tradition is cleansing. I recently read a blog post railing against Lent and what the author called the doctrine of purgation and punitive sensibility he mistaken thought it implied. But purgation does not mean punishment; it means cleansing. “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow,” says the Psalmist (51:7).
The punishment model (which is not biblical, except in a narrow, proof-texting manner) is that God is mad at us and we must either take our punishment (judgment), or pass it off to Jesus (grace), before we can know God. The broader biblical model is that God is holy and that holiness can destroy the unsuspecting and unprepared (thus the appearance of punishment). One must be clean before approaching God in order to know him or the destructive burning of the impurities will also catch you up in the conflagration. The blogger (and I suspect quite a number of people) don’t understand the meaning of that word purgation and confuse it with punishment because they sort of look alike.
But back to cleansing. I need to be clean before I can know God. God saves us (or more technically, gives us new life and the Holy Spirit) and then I can begin that process of setting aside sin (even as the Holy Spirit transforms us—it’s both) and then getting to know God a bit as God is now free to reveal more of himself, which allows me to set aside more sin, which allows me to know God a bit more, and the spiral upward continues. But setting aside sin is hard. Furthermore, it is no fun in the sense that sin is a whole lot more fun than the work of setting it aside. This is first the temptation of settling for knowing about God; it’s a lot easier than the process required to actually know God. The second temptation to settle for knowing about God is that philosophy and the philosophical speculation that accompanies it are just plain fun for a lot of us. If we are not truly in love with God, the temptation toward intellectual speculation is strong.
And this brings full circle to the upcoming Lenten season and its surpassing value in the Christian life. It’s a season that reminds me that intellectual pursuit—knowing about God—is not salvific. It’s a season that pushes me in the direction of cleansing rather than knowledge and toward the humility of facing up to my own sin rather than the hubris of reveling in my intellectual prowess. As the Jesus Prayer describes it, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on my a sinner.”