Or is it God getting to know you?
How do Christians have a personal relationship with God? How does God speak to us and what about the Holy Spirit?
I don’t much love the language of the cliché, ‘Christians are those who have a personal relationship with God’. For a start, the order is quite backward to the New Testament: Christians are those who have a God who has personally related to us. We may ‘know God’, but by order of priority, God has ‘known us.’ (1 Corinthians 8:3; Galatians 4:9).
It may seem like semantics, but actually order is very important in the Bible because it communicates vital truths. For example, it’s become popular to refer to God as our ‘friend’. But interestingly this order is never used in the Bible; God’s people are only describes as friends of God (James 2:23).
This order communicates a lot about the type of relationship we have with God. He is our God, our Father, our Lord. We are his friends, his children, his servants.
I do absolutely believe that people can know God personally. But here as always order is very important. Throughout the Bible, people can know God through the Word of God. The order is that God speaks to us. And his people listen to his Word.
The Spirit and hearing God
The Bible teaches that the Spirit of God inspired the Scriptures, so God’s Spirit speaks to us through the Bible. The role of the Spirit when the Scripture is being read or heard is to enable us to believe and obey it; not just understand it intellectually. Our brains are just as necessary in thinking about what is being said, but to merely ‘understand’ what the Scriptures are actually saying is not to ‘understand’ it truly, because to truly understand the Bible also involves recognising that it is God who is speaking, and he is addressing me.
We cannot hear God speaking in the Bible unless the Spirit enables us to; we just hear words, the words of human authors and our hard hearts don't believe it and certainly don't obey it.
Part of the work of salvation is that the Spirit has opened our eyes to see the truth - opened our deaf ears so that we can now hear God speaking to us when we read His Word.
How God speaks to us
Compare Hebrews 1:1, 3:7, 4:7 and 4:12. Notice that in Hebrews 3:7 it is the Holy Spirit is speaking to people in the present tense through a verse in the Old Testament. However in Hebrews 4:7 the same Old Testament verse is quoted, but here the writer of Hebrews comments that David spoke that very verse in the past. In other words, David spoke what the Holy Spirit is speaking.
This reference highlights both the human and divine origin of Scripture. But also notice it points out that the Holy Spirit was speaking directly to people through Old Testament Scripture that was previously addressed as God's Word to people of the past. And now these same Scriptures speak to us as we read it.
This is how God speaks. He speaks to us through what He has spoken in the past. But also notice Hebrews 1:1. All of the 'new' speech of God finished with Jesus; the new messages, the new words, the new revelations were all finalised in Jesus Christ. He is the Word itself. He is the last word; he is the End.
God now speaks to us through His Son. There are no new revelations, no more prophets saying new things. We have God's Word complete to us: Jesus the Word of God revealed (John 1:1-15). John 1:18 says that Jesus has (past tense) made God known. We come to know God (present tense) through the revelation that Jesus has given us in the past (which his Spirit makes known to us in the present).
There are of course many other references to consider throughout the New Testament about how God speaks to us through His Word. If this is a topic you need to explore check out 1 Thessalonians 1:13, 2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:20-21, John 20:31.
This then is how I believe God speaks to us, and to me - and it is personal. It is His Word to me about His Son - which applies to every area of my life. And he is speaking it to me today, every day.
Knowing God through prayer?
But what about us to Him: after all, every relationship that is personal it two-way. We speak to God through prayer. But in the New Testament God’s people pray to him in response to his revelation to them; his word.
In 1 John 5:14-15 this is how we know that he hears us when we pray. And if we know he hears us we know that we have what we have asked of him, because we pray according to his will, not ours.
So I don't think it’s quite right to think of prayer as ‘how we get to know God’ (In the sense of finding out about God). This is because prayer is us talking to God, and the order is wrong if we want to know God. First we need to be known by God.
We’ve said that God talks to us through His Word. In earthly terms, you can't find out about someone purely by talking to them; you need to listen to what they say, what they reveal of themself to you. Only then can you learn about them and response according to what you find them to be towards you (that is, of course without assuming to relate to them based on perceptions originating in your own head).
The analogy is poor in application to God because we can pick up things about others just by watching them; but not with God. We are completely dependent on his self-revelation of himself to us.
1 Corinthians says: "The world in its wisdom did not know God” (1 Cor 1:20-21). To the Biblical authors, you cannot know God through your own wisdom. You need God to reveal himself to you. The reason for this is that we are blind to see the truth without a miracle of his grace (2 Cor 4:3-6). We need the “Spirit of wisdom and revelation to open the eyes of our hearts so that we can know God better” (Eph 1:17, Col 1:9-10).
Prayer has a limited role in the knowledge of God. It’s a good response to God, in fact the chief response of faith. But it’s a reaction to God’s primary action towards us, where the order is everything.
So this means you can’t just go off into the bush to pray for a week hoping that by that means you’ll come to know God better. You could come back with a heresy; it certainly wouldn’t be the first time.
But if you read God’s Word and as you do so, respond with prayer arising from a sincere trust in the God who is speaking to you through those Scriptures; then you are having a personal relationship with God. He is speaking to you and you are responding with faith-produced speech to him.
Hearing God elsewhere?
We need to be really careful in relying on our churches, or experiences, or our logical reason, or our conscience when seeking God. If even in reading the Bible we are susceptible to error (2 Peter 3:15-17) which is the infallibly inspired word of God, then anything else is by deduction liable to certain error.
And remembering what we have said about Hebrew 1:1, these things can only provide truth in so far as they remain true to what the Bible teaches.
We’ve said that we can’t know God just by praying. God has spoken to us through the Gospel, and if we fail to listen to that Word, our prayers only amount to acts of false-worship and rebellion.
The Bible does suggest that God will answer the prayers of his people, albeit with many qualifiers. For example, we need to forgive others their sins (Matt 6:15).
In knowing God, we pray for understanding not only of the Bible, but of the events of our lives as well. But how can you be sure you have interpreted the events of your life correctly? We can trust the Bible, but can we trust our understanding of the events of our lives as we read the Bible?
We can see God’s answers to our prayers unfolding in our lives by the events that God’ is sovereign over. But the question is: How do we interpret those unfolding events that are God’s answers.
If you pray for safety and your house burns down, but you live, how should you interpret God’s answer, since God is sovereign over your life? Is God angry at you because he caused the disaster, or does he love you because he saved you from dying in the fire? Is he disciplining you to teach you patience through this trial? The example is not perfect, because we also know that all three options could be true.
But the principle behind these specifics is that we must interpret our world through the eyes of what we know from the Scriptures about who God is. We do know that God is speaking to us through his Word that never changes throughout our trials, but he is primarily speaking to us about himself so that we will know him.
We will be able to hear God’s word, which is his ‘answer’, through the unfolding events of our lives only as we look at them through the truth revealed about God in Bible.
For example, he says in James 1:2: “Consider it pure joy when you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance…” Here we see that God does test our faith; God is behind all things and he is always working for our good (Rom 8:28); he does discipline us in love (Hebrews 12:1-11) – our response of joy arises from revelation from God’s word as we come to know that God continues to love us and do good to us throughout our trials and suffering. That is, by the activity of the Word in our lives the events of day do enable us to know God more because the Bible sheds fresh light into our understanding.
Knowing God proper
We can only have this great and living and personal knowledge of God as God knows us through his spoken Word in our lives. He speaks to us about who he is and how we should respond to him in order to please him throughout the various circumstances of life which the Bible addresses. As we listen in faith and hear through God’s Spirit, we respond with prayer arising from our faith in the God thus revealed. And God answers us with more faith producing obedience, love and joy by the Holy Spirit.
So this, I believe, is what it means to know God, or rather be known by God.
Is this how God is getting to know you?