What does it mean to grow as a Christian? We talk about spiritual maturity or having “more” of God in our life. Are these just pious clichés? How do they affect our daily attempts to “work out” our salvation?
By His Grace
It would certainly be presumptuous for us to assume any initiative. Whatever growing as Christians means, it is not ultimately a result of our efforts or ideas or methodologies. Fallen finite creatures can only know the infinite holy Creator at His initiative. In our very creation, in the grace He offers, in His quickening work in our heart, He is the Author and Perfecter of everything that enables us to know Him. We are responders to His gracious initiative.
If I don’t know a person well, I don’t know how to respond, or I may respond inappropriately. Growing, moving toward spiritual maturity, seeing more of God in our life, means knowing Him better. Since He is an infinite Creator, we finite creatures (even apart from the Fall) have an eternal, unlimited opportunity to continue learning about Him and knowing Him ever better. “Union with God by sharing the joy God has in Himself will increase forever … rising higher and higher through that infinite duration…. It will take an eternity of increasing joy to experience all the fullness of God.” (Jonathan Edwards, The End for Which God Created the World, ¶ 279, 285; in God’s Passion for His Glory, John Piper, p.249, 251). He has given us a good start in His Word. (A “start” because our growing relationship will continue in heaven, face-to-Face, taking us infinitely beyond the glimpse He has provided in Scripture.) Our Christian life, now and in eternity, is a response to the continuous call of “further up and further in.”
Through His Word
But here and now, Scripture is our primary source for knowing Him better and continuing in that growing process. Our finiteness and fallenness and especially our western propositional mindset often view the Bible as an encyclopedia of information about God designed to help us fill in our theological outlines. But any serious study of the Bible quickly leads to frustration along that line. Tantalizing theological glimpses are enough to make us want more, but not enough to satisfy our curiosity. Before I ever read C.S. Lewis I experienced the desire for the “unrefracted” clarity that he describes:
We might have expected, we may think we should have preferred, an unrefracted light giving us the ultimate truth in systematic form – something we could have tabulated and memorized and relied on like the multiplication table… It may be that what we should have liked would have been fatal to us if granted. It may be indispensable that our Lord’s teaching, by means of that elusiveness (to our systematizing intellect), should demand a response from the whole man, should make it so clear that there is no question of learning a subject but of steeping ourselves in a Personality… (C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, p. 94-95; XI: ¶6, 9)
In His Attributes
The way we continue growing in our knowledge of and relationship with that Personality is by persistently deepening our understanding of His character and His Being as expressed in Scripture. The Puritans had a good understanding of this process:
“The shine and luster of all the attributes together is God’s glory… The more I have of these, the more I shall enjoy God.” (Jeremiah Burroughs, Gospel Worship, p. 132)
Burroughs describes several of these Divine attributes: God is Spirit. He is eternal, incomprehensible, unchangeable. He is the Living God, almighty, omniscient, holy, merciful, just (chapter 6, ‘Suiting Our Duties to the God We Are Worshipping’). These attributes and the other character qualities of God revealed to us in Scripture are more than theological concepts. They are the primary means we have of seeing God’s glory.
Head and Heart
Our problem is that we tend to fall to one extreme or the other. We can continue adding to our list and expanding our definitions of these attributes without ever engaging or responding to God. We perceive (and too often take pride in) that we are learning more and deepening our knowledge of God. Or we can take a cursory, superficial look at the list, nod our assent or dismiss the “head knowledge,” and seek an experience or emotional peak that is deeper than just mere words or doctrines. Both of these approaches start with a correct but incomplete perspective. One overvalues, the other undervalues God’s propositional revelation as a key part of His personal revelation. We need both His written Word and the incarnate Word. Unfortunately, the two extreme views often appear to be reactions to each other. Superficial disregard of doctrinal truth drives us to more emphasis on theological clarity. Cold, impersonal theological outlines seem unimportant and anemic compared to the prospect of an encounter with the Subject and Object of the doctrines.
Burroughs understood that the primary way we begin to see God’s glory this side of heaven is through His revealed attributes described in Scripture. God may choose to grace His servants with more direct manifestations of His glory through a vision or extraordinary gift. But those expressions of His Character and His Being and His Nature are more direct demonstrations of those attributes that Burroughs sees as the source of our enjoyment of God. God is obviously free to sovereignly, graciously grant whatever experience of Himself He chooses to give to a believer. But it seems presumptuous to seek those more dramatic expressions of His glory if we have neglected (if we have not ardently, fervently pursued) His revelation in Scripture. Only arrogance or audacity would lead a beggar to expect a banquet and ignore the nutritious but simple fare he has been provided.
The attributes of God need to be studied in our personal Quiet Time and proclaimed from pulpits until they become a part of our thinking about who God is.
These attributes need to become vehicles for our worship of God. A disheartening number of contemporary “praise choruses” describe worship or exhort us to worship or elicit our emotions without ever seriously addressing God in worship. Songs (old hymns or the latest verses) that specifically focus on one or more of God’s attributes move us beyond vague emotion about God into the affirmation and exalting of His character. Introspection (or even narcissism) focuses our attention back on ourselves and our worship experience (“Look what a great worship experience I am having.”). Attention to God’s attributes as the revelation of His character and nature and Being focus the attention on Him and exalting (and exulting in) His Glory. “The more I have of these, the more I shall enjoy God.”
We are eager to know God better, to enjoy Him forever as the Westminster Catechism describes our purpose in life. That eagerness may cause us to settle too easily, content with emotion or sentimentality as substitutes for the Numinous or a real encounter with the Transcendent God. We don’t get past songs that make us feel good about God. We call that worship and we are too easily satisfied. That kind of experience is more about our emotions than about the Living God. Worship that focuses and extols and adores what we can know of Him through His attributes will take us further up and further in. As we grow in our understanding of His holiness or mercy or justice it is likely that our emotions will be affected deeply as we are continually awed and overwhelmed as creatures before the Creator (Lewis’ “response from the whole man”). We begin to see His Otherness (or perhaps, to realize how much we cannot see). Knowing God by delving into His attributes in study and contemplation and adoration before Him will enable us to respond to Him with all of our being, including our emotions. But worship that starts with our emotions, often in a pep-rally atmosphere, will usually limit us to only those emotions. Our good feelings about God become self-sustaining and may even prevent us from moving beyond our sentimentalism. We mistake growing emotional intensity for knowing Him better.
Knowing God through His attributes is also more likely to elicit a response of service to Him, as “living sacrifices” expressing our spiritual service or worship (Romans 12:1, λατρειαν). Knowing Him makes us like Him. “We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.” (1 John 3:2) This conformity will be perfected when we see Him perfectly in heaven. But the process which began at our new birth continues now as we see Him better. And the most common way we see Him now is through His attributes. As we go “further up and further in” to understand and appreciate and be awed by His mercy or compassion or righteousness or justice, we see how inadequate we are in those characteristics. We begin to understand how we need to ask Him to change our heart to make us more merciful or more passionate about justice. And we see how our behavior must change to express those characteristics as salt and light to those around us. It is our growing godliness, our increasing conformity to His character that will cause those around us to see our good works and glorify God (Matthew 5:16).
The same principles in our private worship make worship more of a real encounter with the Living God instead of going through the motions. Reflecting on a whole list of God’s attributes, or focusing on just one, and persistently asking the question, “What does this quality teach me about God? How does He express this in my life with Him? What would it look like for me to know Him better in this aspect? How does this facet of His character help me to exalt Him more fully?” As always, Scripture is our primary source, but we can “stand on the shoulders of giants” and glean from their life of walking with Him. A.W. Pink (The Attributes of God) or A.W. Tozer (The Knowledge of the Holy) offer great depths and insights about the attributes of the God they knew deeply. Their writings (as well as many others) can give us models of what it looks like to draw on God’s attributes for more than theological knowledge and employ them as vehicles for “steeping ourselves” in Him.
Worship or praise of God in general terms may give us an emotional high, but responding to His specific attributes will make us know Him better, and help us see more of Him, and deepen our relationship with Him. Vague, fuzzy worship doesn’t move much beyond my own emotions, but the brilliant clarity of God’s attributes and His character will illuminate my understanding to know him better. Vague worship dulls us to God’s nature. Exploring and responding to His revealed attributes sharpens our intimacy with Him as we know Him better.
Maybe it is like the difference between giving my wife an anniversary card pre-printed with “To my wonderful wife,” or writing her a note expressing my appreciation and value of her generosity and service to others or her hospitality or her sacrificial support of me. As I express my meager understanding of God’s mercy or holiness or eternal existence, it is more likely that He will show me more of Himself, both through the primary source of Scripture and in my immediate experience of Him and His movement of my thoughts to gain new insight of His attributes. As I think about my wife’s hospitality, I realize new depths of her servant’s heart and love for people. As I respond to God specifically for His omniscience or power, He will frequently allow me new insights into His righteousness or compassion. This may happen during times of study and academic pursuits, but more often (at least in my experience) He grants these insights when I am responding in worship. As I confess and affirm and exalt Him for His infinity beyond the heavens and ask Him to show me more of what that means and to help me more perfectly to adore Him, that is the time when I am most likely to know more of Him.
Copyright 2006 by Michael Wiebe