Reflection by Pastor Shawn:
How do we know God?
It’s a great question. One of the best Christian thinkers of the last 2,000 years starts his most famous book on this topic. John Calvin starts Institutes of the Christian Religion by saying:
“Nearly all the wisdom which 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.”
This is the way of wisdom: knowing God and knowing self. Wisdom is not lifehacks or cultural savvy or the honed ability to read people or anything like that, as helpful as those might be. Real wisdom is a certain knowledge that has two inseparable parts. And since they can’t be separated, we can’t understand one without the other. That’s our human condition, our existential situation.
So although knowledge of God and knowledge of self are inseparable, one has to start somewhere. Calvin says considering our self should turn our thoughts towards God.
Now, this is not to say something like, “look inward, into yourself, and you’ll see that we all have the spark of the divine inside of us.” While that seems more New Age than Christian, it hints at an important truth: we are all made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). But that means that we reflect and display his nature rather than something like “we each have a little piece of God inside us.” This is not about introspection or some Freudian analysis. It’s not about getting in touch with our inner self to discover that God was really just the friends we made along the way, or something like that.
Of course, self-reflection can be helpful. But Calvin’s point is that certain things about ourselves point us to God. We see that we have many gifts that aren’t from ourselves—things like our intellect and our conscience. Even our existence depends on our creator. We also see the many blessings in our lives and trace them back to God, like how someone following a river upstream will eventually get to its source. But then we begin to become displeased with ourselves. We are not self-existing. We fail morally; we sin. We know we should be better, which means that there is someone who is ultimately The Best to whom we are comparing ourselves. We are frequently unhappy and miserable and by implication we know that it is possible to be fully blessed, so we have at least a slice of knowledge of the God who is Fully Blessed. Calvin says, “To this extend we are prompted by our own ills to contemplate the good things of God; and we cannot seriously aspire to him before we begin to become displeased with ourselves.”
On the flip side, we can’t really know ourselves unless we know God. “…man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinizing himself.” Real self-knowledge is knowing your condition *in contrast* with God. We don’t see how much we fall short until we look into the face of God, where our pride is melted and our infirmities are laid bare. This is why so often in the Bible, the presence of God causes overwhelming fear and wonder in people.
So experientially, our knowledge of ourselves points us to knowing God. But theologically we know that God is greater than us, and knowing him is the greatest knowledge of all. Knowing ourselves also means knowing God, and knowing God—being in the presence of God—makes us forget about ourselves and turn our gaze entirely on the Lord.
We must know God in order to understand our need for God. We must know ourselves enough to know that we need God. We must know God to know that we are not gods.
And when we really know God, we see that he is loving and gracious towards us, despite our shortcomings and our sin. In other words, God is no more fully known than in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.