This is the one-hundred-sixty-second lesson in author and pastor Mel Lawrenz’ How to Live the Bible series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.
“Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” Romans 1:20
How can we mortals say we can know God? There is only one answer: revelation. Belief begins with unbelief (or spiritual ignorance), and then out of the darkness comes the light of God. Out of the silence, his Word. We can know God only because he wants to be known and makes himself known.
John Calvin’s The Institutes of the Christian Religion is a landmark work in the history of Christian thought, and it begins with these simple words: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern.” Calvin was saying that we have a drive to understand ourselves—our origins, our purpose, our physiology, our psychology, our spirituality—and this leads us to want to know God because we’re made in his image. Then, as we try to know God, we’re carried along to a deeper understanding of ourselves. This process leads to revelations such as “Oh, I am to be truthful like that, and faithful like that, merciful like that.” Understand God, and understand yourself. Understand yourself rightly, and better understand God. And so the cycle goes.
But how can we know God? Is it from earth up? Or from heaven down? Many honest truth seekers believe the evidence we have about God and his whole realm of truth is written on the earthy tablets of nature and human experience. If you want to know what it means to be human, then study a multitude of samples of the creature, make observations about their customs and physiology and relationships, and draw your conclusions about what it means to be human. What you believe about humanity is the cumulative analysis of what you experience with a great many human beings. Collect your data; draw the inferences.
Do the same thing for God: look for the traces of his being, the signs of his character written in the stars and the patterns of nature and in human consciousness, and draw your conclusions about what God must be like.
This “earth-up” approach is the way we know about most ordinary things in life we’re curious about. It’s how scientists diagnose and treat disease and how mothers figure out if their babies have ear infections and how boyfriends learn to read the non-verbal signals sent from their girlfriends (for which there is no known reliable textbook). It’s the way of knowing by generalizing from the particular. Theoretically, our knowing becomes clearer and more refined as we gather an ever-wider body of experience.
But there’s an alternative way of knowing. The “heaven-down” approach is very different. This is the way of revelation. It does not negate the earth-up way of knowing, at least when it comes to knowing about very earthy kinds of things. But when it comes to knowing God, a different knowing is required. A dog can sniff around a person’s footprints left in the soil, but that doesn’t amount to any real knowledge of the person. We may be able to pick up certain generalities about God from our experience, but it takes the voice of God, the uncovering of himself, to really know God.
Revelation is God himself speaking loudly and clearly about who he is and how he views the world; it’s our responsibility to listen clearly. He speaks because he wants to be known. Imagine that—he wants to be known. A god who is just an energy force in the universe has no such desire—in fact, has no desire at all; an impersonal deity is uninteresting in the extreme because it is uninterested. If there were many gods, maybe a million or more, there’s not much of a chance one god would have the desire to be known by the human race, and even if he or she or it did, would we really care?
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Mel Lawrenz (@MelLawrenz) trains an international network of Christian leaders, ministry pioneers, and thought-leaders. He served as senior pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, for ten years and now serves as Elmbrook’s teaching pastor. He has a PhD in the history of Christian thought and is on the adjunct faculty of Trinity International University. Mel’s many books include Spiritual Leadership Today: Having Deep Influence in Every Walk of Life (Zondervan, 2016). See more of Mel’s writing at WordWay.