In which room of your house do you do the most philosophizing? Where do reality and abstraction connect; where do mind and heart unite? For me, the answer has been pretty simple for a long time: The Bathroom!
So I was in the shower this afternoon when a long and winding rabbit trail hopped into my thoughts. Oh, it is still hopping – as in, this article will help me begin the chase, but I think the answers are far beyond my ability.
So in my best imitation of the late Fred Rogers, from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood: Want to come along?
Merriam-Webster’s first three definitions of “knowledge” – “the fact or condition of knowing something with familiarity gained through experience or association”; “the fact or condition of being aware of something”; “the circumstance or condition of apprehending truth or fact through reasoning.”
If we have knowledge about something, we communicate about it with some level of authority, or some level of credentials. If a star baseball pitcher tells you about curve balls, you accept his comments intuitively, since he probably knows what he is talking about. If he tells you about the “Mona Lisa,” you may want to ask him how he learned about art. Maybe he has a degree in Renaissance painting – then your respect and attention persist. Perhaps he thinks Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece is a mountain in Qatar – then your feet take you away quickly and quietly!
This goes for knowing someone, too. If I tell you something about my precious two-year-old son, you might politely listen and believe what I am saying. If you did not, I might reasonably take offense. But if you, dear reader, and I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting, and if I am in no official or casual position to have any information about your family, and yet I try to inform you about them, I might offend you. I essentially would be babbling and it would not be worth your time to listen.
Humans are terribly good at gossip and / or discussing useless details. But when a communicator – whether through verbal, written, or artistic means – broadens the knowledge of at least one member of his audience, then that member can gain some real understanding of both me and my subject matter. Conversely, whoever or whatever I am discussing intelligently is something I know, or about which I have knowledge.
Street-level English usage weakens the power of the concept of knowledge or knowing. “Do you know so-and-so?” “Yes. I met him once a few years ago.” The correct answer should be, “No. But I met him once a few years ago.” The difference is subtle, but significant. You know the people and things you try to know. You do not know the people or things you do not try to know.
Recall the definitions above: knowledge comes “through experience or association” and by “apprehending truth or fact through reasoning.” In each case, mental and / or physical effort is required on the part of the person who is seeking knowledge. Of course, the person or thing to be known has to be at least partially accessible, too.
Fine. How about the “knowledge of God”? God, even in a non-Christian sense, is a higher power, correct? Thus to know Him must take some effort on our part, along with some kind of permission and / or enabling on His part. Romans 5 calls it “access.” The New King James Version of the Bible notes the “knowledge of God” three times in the Old Testament and five in the New Testament. Also, the phrase “know God” occurs twice in the O.T. and five times in the N.T. Each time, knowing God is portrayed as good, not knowing Him is shown as bad.
So how can we know God? Beyond the foundation of faithful prayer and Bible study, many passages and other writings address this topic. My main focus is on a different question: how much can we know God? This was where my mind got rolling in the shower this morning. This is where the word games really begin. This may be where an extra glimpse of God’s majesty can be pondered. As a good friend of mine once said, I will aim to “exhaust the subject, not the reader.”
Knowing God. Very possible, because of how available God has made Himself to humankind – such as via creation, salvation, and ultimately, glorification with Him forever. But whether here on earth, or in heaven, do you ever ponder how much, quantitatively, we can ever know God?
Take your spouse, your sibling, your child, your parent, your best friend. What percentage (for lack of a better abstract quantitative concept) of their beliefs, dreams, feelings, personalities, skills, and schedules do you think you know? Fifty percent sounds pretty good. Maybe more, maybe less?
Let’s try a quick test. Whether you last saw that person a minute ago or a month ago, where is he or she this instant, what are they doing, and how is their day going? How many times today, and at what intensity, have they prayed or reminisced about anything great or terrible in their past? Maybe you know their biggest fears, sins, talents, and hopes: but do you know the last five times each of those things permeated their minds? Are you aware of the minute they woke up today, the last time they coughed, where they were when they last ran out of breath, when they plan on their next physical activity and what tiny goals they may have about it, which book they want to read next, or the most recent time they felt 100% secure in a close relationship – possibly even yours?
Ok, I assume your imagined percentage has shrunk…perhaps to five or ten percent? Still, what you know of that person is likely far greater than what most other people know about them, right? So how well we know another person reflects how close we are with them. This goes for how much we know God as well.
Side note: Many of us think we know certain people well even if we are distant or estranged from them. We tend to think that because he or she is “that way” (a claim to knowledge), we want little to do with them. For the sake of argument, I will say we may know certain things about that person, but if the relationship has long been damaged or broken, our knowledge may be less than we think…and far less than the five or ten percent mentioned above.
Onward, then, to how much we can know God.
Counting to Infinity
The math may seem pretty simple in one of two ways. First, we might assume we know a certain percentage of the Bible, as well as a certain amount of any other history and philosophy we can learn about God. These numbers would be difficult to pinpoint. But since Earth physically holds a limited, albeit fluctuating, amount of information about God, a theoretical percentage of knowledge of all that material is possible. Thus, we might conclude that if we can know our best friend at ten percent, maybe we can know God at one percent.
The second formula is simpler: man is finite; God is infinite; therefore our knowledge of Him is infinitely small. This is much closer to what I think. Indeed, I may even have thought it prior to my bathroom inspiration. But now I believe a third, more glorious, option exists as well…
Man is finite, yes, and God is infinite. But I think this logically means we cannot know God at all! Allow me to explain.
Say I want to count to ∞ (infinity). I count as fast as I can for three days straight: no food, water, or sleep, and I keep counting in the bathroom. Maybe I get to 1 million, which would be about four cardinal numbers per second. Not bad (but a waste of time, and no, I’ve never tried it). But at 1 million, despite all my effort, I am not the tiniest fraction of the tiniest percentage closer to infinity than I was before all my hard work. If I were, then infinity would not be infinity. It simply would be a really big – but knowable – number!
Now, if I really want to achieve infinity, studying and counting as fast and often as I can (i.e., trying hard) is a great way to do it. I might even use an advanced calculator that does not give up at 9.99 to the 10th power. I will gain more knowledge about numbers, and my own counting will get larger and larger. But I cannot get there.
God Is Infinite
So, too, with God – and even more so. He is infinite not only in time and space, but also in holiness, power, glory, love, and even knowledge…to name a few. We can (and should) try our best to get to know Him, but mathematically, at least, we can never know Him one little bit. If we could, then eventually we would be able to get to know Him two little bits, then three, then fifty, then – if God did not destroy us first – we could get to know Him completely. In all these cases, He would be less than infinite.
Just like those in Genesis 11 who tried and failed to build a tower to heaven, somehow rivaling or surpassing God, nor can anybody else do better. (By the way, God did not confuse their language and stop the building of the Tower of Babel because He feared them. They never would have made it anyway! He simply forced them to recall their humanity and humility, and upheld the glory of His name and presence in their midst. “Do not be deceived,” Galatians 6 affirms, “God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life.”)
The Bible frequently reveals God’s awesome greatness (so inadequate a word!). Genesis 1 and 45, Exodus 33 and 34, Deuteronomy 4 and 10, 1 Kings 8, Job 38-41, Psalm 8, 99, 103, 104, 121, and 139, Isaiah 40, 55, and 64, Ezekiel 1, Joel 2, Luke 2, 7, 9, and 24, John 1, 8, 11, 17, and 20, Romans 1, Colossians 1, and Revelation 4, 19, and 22.
These and other chapters of God’s Word show us how vast and unapproachable God is – unmatchable and unassailable. He is called holy, loving, merciful, gracious, faithful, powerful, and so much more. But we toss these words around so easily and so casually. We have no idea what it is like to have any, let alone all, these traits perfectly. Absolutely without flaw or hiccup or gap. Ponder this example.
In English, what is a common way to describe another person whom we like or respect? “He’s a good guy.” Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 19: “No one is good but One, that is, God.” No one! Maybe Jesus was echoing Psalm 14 (also quoted in Romans 3), “There is none who does good, no, not one.” Perhaps He recalled Isaiah 64: “But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; we all fade as a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.”
So, following the numerical infinity logic: a) God is [perfectly / infinitely] good; b) we are not good and do not do good – because “good” by God’s standard is so high; therefore c) we can (and should) try our best to be good, but all we will achieve is a bigger and bigger pile of rags. In other words, we cannot really know what God’s goodness is like because its very nature is utterly unique, just as infinity’s nature precludes us from ever counting to it. And supreme goodness is just one of God’s unfathomable characteristics!
Ok, are you ready for the final surprise? I pray it will be a finale well worth the wait…
God’s Grace Truly Is Amazing
I have tried to show we cannot really know God because of His infinite nature. Mathematically, God would be less than infinite if we could really understand Him, not unlike the person who tries counting to infinity. If he makes “progress,” he is in fact not counting to infinity at all, and if we achieve knowledge about God, then it is not really God we are discovering.
But this is where the great surprise comes along – God writes and controls the laws of mathematics, just like He authors unconditional love, perfect holiness, and total sovereignty! And if the infinite God controls, and is in fact the source of, these infinite wonders, then He can transcend His own incomprehensible nature to allow us to see and hear and know and love Him. Indeed, only an infinite power who is beyond understanding can create a portal, so to speak, by which finite creatures even have a chance to recognize His infinite nature.
By the way, just to differentiate between the infinity of God and of the numerical continuum, numbers have no power to reveal their infinite nature to us – and have never done so. They and their nature exist just because God lets and wills them to exist. But God can and has bridged the gap of knowledge versus ignorance about Himself.
How can we know this? The Bible offers many answers. Passages on the “knowledge of God” include the following:
~ Proverbs 2: “Search for [wisdom] as for hidden treasures; then you will understand the fear of the LORD, and find the knowledge of God.” Now, I have long been trying to figure out what exactly “the fear of the the LORD” is, but suffice to say that gaining wisdom + fearing God = having knowledge of God.
~ Hosea 6: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” Though we can never know God without His help, He does desire to be known!
~ Romans 11: “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!” This passage practically summarizes this entire four-part series. He is so far beyond us, yet – or maybe therefore – knowing Him (through His grace, as other parts of Paul’s writing amply demonstrates) benefits us beyond measure.
~ 2 Corinthians 10: “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.” The world and the powers of darkness would not directly attack the knowledge of God unless it felt threatened by them, which happens anytime anyone pursues or acquires such knowledge.
~ And Colossians 1, which relates Paul’s prayer “that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” These verses show that it is both possible and advisable to grow in our understanding of God. They also go on to say that this happens through Jesus, “in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins.”
What does this look like? Consider how the Bible describes several of God’s saints, or His interactions with them. 2 Chronicles 20 and James 2 call Abraham God’s “friend.” In Exodus 33, God and Moses conversed “face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” David was “a man after [God’s] own heart,” explains 1 Samuel 13 and Acts 13. Jesus Himself calls His disciples “friends” in John 15. And Romans 8 explains that whoever is led by the Spirit of God “are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” These designations are reserved for those who know God. One cannot be a friend, a son, or an heir if he has no knowledge of the other party.
Back to the Future
That is it: God is too great to be known at all; yet He has made Himself known to whomever repents of their sins and follows Him. He has made the impossible possible through the improbable! It is much like salvation in general. While we were “still sinners” and “enemies,” Romans 5 says, “Christ died for us” and “reconciled” us to God. God bridged the infinite gap between His holiness and our sin, through the least likely path of all.
I do not know the entire answer to the title question. But looking into the future via Revelation 3 provides an amazing glimpse: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. (Note God’s initiative.) If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne.”
Now, that is knowledge!