Do you ever feel a sense of guilt or embarrassment when someone mentions one of the great Christian classic works and you’ve never even looked at it?
Maybe it’s my tender conscience, or my lofty desire to be looked upon as a well-read Christian (I work for a Christian publishing house after all), but such a feeling is not uncommon to me.
So I confess that when I asked my friend Jodie if she wanted to read a Christian book with me, my motives weren’t entirely pure. I imagined it would be helpful to our Christian growth and friendship as we anchored our conversations in helpful theology. But a good part of me also wanted feel like a ‘legitimate’ ministry-minded person—surely all respectable Christians had read JI Packer’s Knowing God? Could I even voice an opinion in Bible study if I hadn’t?!
Little did I know that within the first chapter of Knowing God I would be firmly convicted in my naïve and people-fearing motivations. As his title suggests, Packer addresses the issue of what it really means to know God, and he highlights straight away that one can know a great deal about God without having much knowledge of him.
Interest in theology and knowledge about God, and the capacity to think clearly and talk well on Christian themes, are not at all the same as knowing God—especially when the motivation to pursue theology in the first place is to make myself look proficient! I was immediately struck by how backward my thinking had been. As Packer says: “To be preoccupied with getting theological knowledge as an end in itself, to approach Bible study with no higher a motive than a desire to know all the answers, is the direct route to a state of self-satisfied self-deception”.1
Packer has a way of telling it just as it is, of confronting latent sin, and then pointing to the truth. He shows how (in contrast to my thinking), the psalmist in Psalm 119 wanted to understand God’s truth so that he could know and enjoy God himself. He valued knowledge of God as a means to that end—so that his heart might respond to God’s word and his life be conformed: “Blessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with their whole heart [and] walk in his ways!” (vv. 2-3). We should be like the psalmist as we study the knowledge of God.
This was so necessary for me to hear, and it had a big impact on how Jodie and I continued in our reading. Packer notes that to turn knowledge about God into knowledge of God himself, “we are to turn each truth that we learn about God into a matter for meditation before God, leading to prayer and praise to God”.2 So as we discussed what we’d been reading, Jodie and I got into the wonderful practice of praying together each time we met. This was something we had never done together previously, but given Packer’s warning it was hard for us not to bring the knowledge we’d gained before God in prayer, asking that it would help us to know him better and that our lives would reflect that more and more.
For this and so many other reasons (the chapter on the incarnation, for one, is a mind-blower), I warmly commend Knowing God to you. It’s a big book, but the chapters are short. Jodie and I read a few chapters at a time and met to discuss them every couple of weeks. There’s a discussion guide at the back of the book to suit all frequencies of meet-ups (you can just do one summary discussion question per chapter if your meet-ups are infrequent). I found taking notes helpful not only for discussions but also in remembering key lessons longer.
As I shared what I was reading, so many people said “Oh, I started that book but never finished”. So if that’s you, or you think it might be you if you ever did start, I highly recommend reading with another person. It made all the difference in my motivation to keep reading to the end. And it was a real joy to share together how these truths had a bearing in our lives as we sought always to turn knowledge about our great God into knowledge of him. It was a humbling read in so many ways, but as a result of it I think we have been reminded what it means to know God and to make it the goal, not only of our friendship, but of our whole lives.
1. JI Packer, Knowing God, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, 1993, pp. 22.↩