“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all they that do thereafter; his praise endureth forever.” — Psalm 111:10 (BCP)
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” — Proverbs 1:7 (AV)
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” — Proverbs 9:10 (NASB)
“The fear of the LORD is the instruction of wisdom; and before honour is humility.” — Proverbs 15:33 (AV)
Christian people today devote a tremendous amount of time to studying God. In private individual Bible studies, in church and para-church Bible studies, on TV and radio, in books and audio tapes and video tapes and CDs, in Sunday school, and even in the great service of worship on the Queen of Days, it seems most of our efforts heavenward are directed to studying God. Nor is that all bad or wrong. Surely true piety needs the facts about God, as long as we understand that knowledge by itself never brings enough.
MEN vs. WOMEN
To risk stating the obvious, my wife and I are different. My morning devotions (when some crisis does not intervene) consists of reading Scripture, praying fast and short, and running. Susan, on the other hand, prays longer, ponders more, and reads less. I suspect she regularly enters that mysterious place of God’s peace that I am always reaching for, but only seldom grasp.
I read the same way a starving man eats breakfast: in great gobbling mouthfuls. If some is good, more must be better. It’s more important to cram in the facts than to take time to understand them. Don’t bother me with details, I’m going for the Big Picture.
I do private devotions the same way. Read one chapter out of the Law, one out of the other Old Testament books, one from the Gospels, and one from the Epistles. Oh, and don’t forget the Psalm for the day.
Yes, this could be a recipe for failure.
I think too many Christian people approach the Christian life the same way their doctor approaches health & disease: find the facts, assemble and relate them in the right order, locate the disorder, correct the chemicals, and health must result. The universe is merely one gigantic chemistry problem (or drug addict).
How else could they approach life? They have been taught to believe in “science,” which literally means “knowledge.” They are only applying the model they have been taught can never fail, the “modern” “scientific” mind that believes the whole always equals the sum of the parts, and vice versa.
Life ain’t chemical.
You can assemble the right amount of water, minerals, organic molecules, RC Cola, DNA, jelly donuts, and Wildroot Hair Oil, mix them all in a 55 gallon drum, heat them forever, and you will never end up with Elvis Presley.
Merely knowing the ingredients of things does not reveal their essence, and least of all does studying God supply everything true piety needs. We may substitute that for loving God, but we will still be hungry.
REINFORCING THE PREJUDICE
Reducing Christianity to studying God reveals the gnosticism that has crept into Christianity under the mask of superior wisdom. It resists true emotion; it sunders body and soul, rejecting the physical, and mis-identifying “spirit” as “intellect.” It reduces the love of God to the knowledge of God. But when you think about it, knowledge isn’t even necessary to love God, and it’s certainly not sufficient.
John the Baptist couldn’t “know” much of anything in his mother’s womb, but he leapt for joy at the mere sound of Mary’s voice, pregnant with Jesus. He leapt for joy at the approach of his Lord, whom he recognised from the dark ignorance of the womb. (Luke 1:40-45) John the Baptist didn’t need any other knowledge.
On the other hand, there was almost no fact of God’s Law or the Prophets that the Pharisees and Sadducees didn’t know backwards and forwards, but where those facts pointed to Jesus the Messiah, they suppressed them. On purpose. If necessary—and at the last it was necessary—they would kill him to put away the uncomfortable implications of those facts. Their knowledge did them no good at all. In fact, it only brought on their heads a more severe condemnation.
Knowledge by itself just isn’t enough.
The problem is, the true knowledge of God doesn’t begin with facts. You can recite all the kings from Saul to Zedekiah, memorise the twelve patriarchs and their children, learn the books of the Old and New Testament by heart, but that is not where the true knowledge of God begins. It begins with fear and faith:
“[H]e that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6)
“Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?” (James 1:19-20)
The knowledge that God is, is not enough. Coupled to that must be the faith that he will reward those who seek him. Implied in that “rewarding” also is that he punishes those who do not seek him. That’s why we pray that God would make us “both afraid and ashamed to offend” him.
NO BOX IS BIG ENOUGH
Our emphasis on studying God becomes a handy excuse to create a box to contain God. Face it: God is terrifying. If you don’t understand that, you haven’t been paying attention. Read the Scriptures. Since Adam, every man that meets God, even the back side of God, even the glimpse of God, falls down on his face for dead. Rather than suffer that constant, unsettling terror, why not reduce God down to a set of propositions that will fit into our box? Then the Christian life becomes nothing more strenuous than defending the box against all comers.
But God is also bewildering. He doesn’t play by our rules. He leaves some things in mystery, forbidding our entrance. He doesn’t always make himself perfectly plain, at least, according to our liking. Our “scientific” minds are uncomfortable dealing outside the boundaries of abstractions. Drawing general truths out of a multitude of particulars makes us nervous. We want to begin with some universal axiom and reason down to the particulars. That, after all, is the scientific way.
Here, too, God-in-a-box offers great comfort. He doesn’t require us to change or grow. God-in-a-box is explicit. He always speaks plainly. He never implies anything. He is well- mannered; he never hints or whispers. He performs as expected, predictably meting out presents to the good and switches and ashes to the naughty. He never leaves it up to us to infer anything about him, he answers every question, satisfies all curiosity. God-in-a-box has a crisp, well-defined set of Rules, and that is easy to live with. No dark surprises lurking around corners.
But alas! also no insights that suddenly steal your breath.
Modern Christians, it seems, must have everything made explicit. They want “truth in labelling.” After all, it can’t be a “Christian” novel inside if the word “Christian” doesn’t appear on the outside. It can’t be a “Christian” anything unless somebody says the word “Jesus” over it. Leery people might call this the scared Christian ghetto, but what do they know? Leery people might also say, res ipse loquitur—the thing speaks for itself.
Unfortunately for these expectations, God doesn’t speak to us that way. All creation speaks of him, unmistakably, yet without a word. (Psalm 19; Romans 1:18-20). It all implies him with a force that nearly smothers us, but it never spells out “G-O-D.”
The heavens declare the glory of God;
and the firmament showeth his handiwork.
Day unto day uttereth speech,
and night unto night showeth knowledge.
There is neither speech nor language,
but their voices are heard among them.
Their sound is gone out into all lands
and their words into the ends of the world.
It does no good to protest that the connection between the Creation and the Creator is too slack, too tenuous, or too remote to discern. The Scriptures insist that the understanding and perception of God comes immediately and unstoppably from the contact and sensation. It requires no other means of transmission or explanation. In Romans 10:18 Paul quotes Psalm 19 as sufficient proof that the Jews of his own day had heard the Gospel.
For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse. (Romans 1:20)
The very fact that God, who could have sent everybody a postcard or telegram if he had wanted, set things up this way argues that he delights in our discovering him, both from the way he generally reveals himself in Creation, and the way he specially reveals himself in his Word. Is the Bible a theological textbook or collection of abstract syllogisms? No, rather, it tells stories about God’s gracious dealings with men. When Christ sits down to teach, he doesn’t use a Venn diagram and a chalkboard, but a parable. God treats us like children at an Easter egg hunt. He hides himself in the details, but only to intensify our delight in finding him.
That is too vague, too unsettling for those who want God-in-a-box. Stern guardians of what they call orthodoxy (that is, the box full of their theological hobby horses) they want everything to be said every time anything is said.
But that is unnecessary. Once you confess that truth is true, then that truth contains and implies every other truth. If one plus one equals two, then that contains every other truth, because truth is one whole fabric. Every part inescapably implies the whole. Like those Russian nested dolls, the more we unpack the truth of God, the more truth we find there. Tugging at a very little thread unravels a never-ending sweater.
Likewise, we ought to be careful hearers so that we hear what is said, all of it, but no more. It doesn’t hurt to bring the “presumption of innocence” to every conversation. (See the Ninth Commandment.)
BACK TO KNOWING
Long have I strayed, and mercilessly described the inadequacies of bare knowledge. But it would be just as false to maintain knowledge is not at all necessary, and feckless to offer no remedies or accessories to knowledge.
Susan once told me that the best cure for being downcast or depressed or alienated from God was to praise him. By the time you have gone through even a short list of God’s mercies, the world’s colour begins to change. No coincidence, then, that in psalm after psalm the psalmist applies precisely this cure.
Certainly, we have to know something about God before we can praise him for any list of his glories. But remembering them and praising them transcends merely listing them, and brings us to know God more intimately. Look at Psalm 103, or 97, or 98, or 145 or 148. When we focus our minds to praise his limitless excellencies, how can we fail to love him more? Could it be that gratitude must be learned and practised?
“Be still, and know that I am God.”
Now that’s easy to do, right? Maybe for you, but not for me, and I live out in the country, far away from the frantic crowd. Regardless, we must set aside and jealously guard some time when we can ponder and reflect on God. You may have to almost steal the time. It may be at the end of the day when you drive home slowly by the more scenic route. You may have to get up earlier or stay up later. When you’re trying to nourish your body, you can chew and bolt all the food you want, but at some point your body needs time to digest it, too. To nourish your soul, you can gobble down all the Scripture you want, but until you digest it, the words only describe a stranger.
Have you ever noticed that you might read some verse a hundred times without ever slowing down over it, then suddenly it nails you as if it were the only thing you had ever read? God hasn’t left us alone in our confusion. He sends us a Comforter. That Holy Spirit illumines our minds so that we can understand the Word. Not to argue that any man can frustrate the purpose of God, but if you never stop to listen, when will your mind be enlightened?
If you wanted to make friends with a man, wouldn’t you make a point to spend time with him? I wonder why we think we can become God’s friend without spending time with him? I wonder how much time we (read “I”) waste in useless worry because we refuse to “cast our cares on him?” How do we know that we believe the things we know about God if we don’t act on them by unburdening our hearts to him?
The knowledge of God ought to lead us to public weekly worship with the people of God. How could we know him (having diligently studied him), love him, and yet not desire to join with his people in worshipping him before all the world? If our soul moves toward him, shouldn’t our body follow?
Here’s the real sticker, where Christianity leaves the clean celestial realms of abstraction and takes on sweating flesh. Do we know God well enough, love him warmly enough, and trust him strongly enough to obey him? Will we obey him even when we don’t understand—even when obeying him contradicts all the world’s cleverness? Here we stop studying God and begin to study ourselves. It is not always an uplifting study, because we fail. We disobey. We sin. We offend. We have to keep on repenting, and apologising, and picking up all the broken pieces to start all over again. And we keep on doing it, all the time praying hotly over our shoulder that God really did mean what he said in Psalm 103,
Look how wide also the east is from the west;
so far hath he set our sins from us.
Yea, like as a father pitieth his own children;
even so is the LORD merciful unto them that fear him.
Twenty years ago when I was freshly converted I came across J.I. Packer’s book Knowing God. What a curious and thrilling idea, I thought, that anybody could know God! Know about God, yes, but know God in the way a man knows his wife, or a child his parent, or even a friend a friend?
Opening his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells us that the gospel destroys the wisdom of the wise and the understanding of the prudent. It is a different sort of knowledge than bare facts or scientific method can confer. The wisdom of God, the things of God, he tells us, come wrapped in a mystery, hidden from the world but revealed to us by his Spirit.
And that knowledge lies forever beyond the reach of mere study.
Originally published June 2001