By James Nestingen and Gerhard Forde, in Free to Be, page 79-83, Augsburg Publishing House, 1975.
How do we get to know God?
If we try on our own to get a picture of who God is and what he’s like, we run into a solid wall. “No one has ever seen God,” as it says in John 1:18. Not even Moses, who spoke with God on Mt. Sinai, could see his face (Exodus 33:17-23). If we can’t see him, how can we get to know God? We can’t sit down with him and ask questions, and we can’t go places or do things with him, as with another person.
There might be a door in the wall, though. If we can’t see God, maybe we can ‘find’ him by looking at the world around us, observing what happens, and reasoning back from there.
Think of the order and balance in nature, for instance. Spring, summer, autumn, and winter come year after year like clockwork; birds, flowers, animals, plants, and people live in an intricate web of life; all in a whole universe full of stars, moons, suns, and planets, everything working together. Surely there must be a God behind it all.
But what kind of God? That’s really the question. If we ask nature for an answer, we may get one, but it may be far different from what we expect or want.
Nature can certainly be beautiful, but it can also be cruel and ruthless, with tornadoes, cyclones, blizzards, and earthquakes that kill and maim. And that wonderfully intricate web of life, is also a web of death– animals killing and being killed in the fight to survive.
What kind of God do we ‘find’ if we try to peek at him through nature? We find God who can be as warm as the summer sunshine and as beautiful as the first flower in the spring, but also as cold as winter ice and as relentless as the death of the leaves in the autumn. No wonder people who try to ‘find’ God in this way give him such cold and lifeless names: Supreme Being, Unmoved Mover, First Cause.
We can’t see God. Though we might catch a few glimpses of him in nature or in what happens to us, we can’t get a picture of who he is or what he really does in this way. As the catechism says, we cannot get to know God “by our own reason or strength, effort or understanding.” But if God makes himself known, helping us to know him, then we can know him better than we know our own selves.
God does just that. He doesn’t wait for us to find him. He doesn’t play hard to get, but makes himself known by telling us who he is, what he does, and what we can expect from him. God has made himself known through his word and in events, as he did with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the prophets. But above all, God makes himself known in Christ.
In Christ, God didn’t stand far off in the distance, shouting at us about all we’re supposed to do. He became one of us, taking on our own flesh and blood. In Jesus, God didn’t sit in a heavenly hammock arranging events and pulling nature’s strings like some coldly competent computer. Rather, he took upon himself the most wretched and terrifying things we know, suffering, dying, and going all the way to the grave for us. In Christ, God shattered death’s chains and broke the grave wide open, raising him from the dead.
That’s how God makes himself known to us. He didn’t just talk about himself. He himself came to be with us to show us what kind of God he is, what he does, and what we can expect him to do.
What kind of God is he then? In Christ, we learn that God is the one who gives sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, voices to the mute, strength to the lame, health to the sick, and life to the dead. He is the one who loves his enemies– the unrighteous and the impious and the super righteous and the super pious alike. He is the one who forgives and raises the dead; the one who by word and deed makes all things new. Christ is God.
Once we begin to know what God is like in Christ, we can begin to see his hand more clearly in the creation, too. Apart from Christ, the creation– this earth and everything with it– is a big mystery. It is a huge system of rules and laws, of accidents and coincidences, that all seems to run by luck. Christ doesn’t wipe away the mystery, telling us why things happen the way they do, and why there is suffering, death, anguish, and pain. But he does tell us who it is that made our world and daily cares for it– his Father, and ours. That makes all the difference.
When we see how God makes himself known to us in Christ, we learn something else about him, too; that he really wants us to know him. He wasn’t content to be the unknown God hidden in some far-off heaven. He wasn’t content to make himself known to a few people living in a tiny corner of the world 2,000 years ago, either. He wants to make himself known to you, to each of us, to all of us, right now.
So he sends the Holy Spirit, to make himself known through his word, telling us about Jesus, telling us who he is and what he is going to make of us.
God does not wait for you to ‘find him.’ Instead of waiting for you to find him, waiting for you to prove yourself worthy of him, God makes himself known to you.
If you look for God only in nature, you will find a harsh and unforgiving God; as illustrated in this story by former Duke University chaplain William Willimon (Peculiar Speech, page 38):
Recently I presided at a memorial service for a Duke student who drowned in Costa Rica while volunteering in a project designed to help save the rain forest. The first student to speak at her service said, “I can’t figure it out. She spent her whole life loving nature, living in nature, and in the end nature killed her.”
Exodus 34:10 — Then the Lord said: “I am making a covenant with you. Before all your people I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the Lord, will do for you.”
John 1:18 — No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.
I John 1:1-4 — That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.
Lord, we thank you that you have taught us what you would have us believe and do. Help us by your Holy Spirit, for the sake of Jesus Christ, to keep your Word in pure hearts, that thereby we may be strengthened in faith, perfected in holiness, and comforted in life and in death. Amen.
—Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978, Augsburg Publishing House, (#252).