Book Review: None Like Him

The subtitle of None Like Him by Jen Wilkin is 10 Ways God is Different From Us (and Why That’s a Good Thing).

God has some attributes that we’re supposed to emulate: kindness, love, compassion, etc. He possesses those characteristics in perfection. We never will this side of heaven, but we should be growing in them as we read God’s Word.

Some of God’s attributes, however, are unique to Him: omnipotence (all-powerful), omniscience (all-knowing), omnipresence (everywhere at the same time), immutability (unchangeableness), eternality, etc. Jen devotes one chapter each to these and five more characteristics of God. A subject like this could easily be filled with ivory-tower theologicalese, but Jen doesn’t let it. Her treatment of God’s attributes is both understandable and practical while still invoking awe.

At first it might seem more practical to study the attributes of God that we’re supposed to grow in (and Jen’s next book, In His Image, does just that). But there’s good reason to ponder these unattainable attributes. Studying these characteristics helps us get to know our God better, contributes to our worship of Him, and reminds us of our limitations.

Wait—do we want to be reminded of our limitations? Well, we need to be. Sometimes our overreaching is due to pride. And it’s immensely restful to leave to God the things only He can do.

Our limits teach us the fear of the Lord. They are reminders that keep us from falsely believing that we can be like God. When I reach the limit of my strength, I worship the One whose strength never flags. When I reach the limit of my reason, I worship the One whose reason is beyond searching out (p. 25).

For instance, it never occurred to me before reading this book that our constant efforts to be in more than one place (with one person, on the phone with another, with one eye on the news) might be grasping for omnipresence. Subject ourselves to information overload might be reaching towards omniscience. We don’t want to stagnate: we want to keep learning and growing. But we do have limits.

No, we cannot be in more than one place at one time. When we reach for omnipresence ourselves, we guarantee that we will be fully present nowhere, spread thin, people of divided attentions, affections, efforts, and loyalties. Better to trust that these bodies which tether us to one location are good limits given by a good God. Better to marvel that, wherever we are tethered, his spirit surrounds us and fills us. Aware that he is witness to all we think, speak, and do, we learn to live circumspectly. Aware that he views his children through the lens of grace, we learn to choose frank confession over futile concealment. Aware that we cannot outrun his presence, we cease running, and abide. We learn to savor his nearness. No more virtual Twister. When we trust him as fully present everywhere, we are finally free to be fully present wherever he has placed us (pp. 104-105).

Here are just a few of the quotes I marked:

The thought that there might be a way to cast off at least some of these perpetual needs for perpetual needlessness is an enticing one, indeed. Take, for example, our current cultural obsession with caffeinated drinks as evidence of our desire to be sleep-optional creatures (p. 58).

Sanctification is the process of learning increasing dependency, not autonomy (p. 63).

Like Samson, when we view a particular strength as the product of our obedience to God, we will use that strength to serve ourselves rather than to serve God and others. All strength, whether physical, emotional, or intellectual, can be used either to serve or to self-elevate (p. 127).

The truth of God’s limitless power would be absolutely terrifying were it not paired with the truth of his limitless goodness (p. 135).

Our primary problem as Christian women is not that we lack self-worth, not that we lack a sense of significance. It’s that we lack awe (p. 154).

We too often approach the Bible in a self-serving way: we want to be comforted, affirmed, or assured in some way. The Bible does minister to us, but we need to approach it to learn about God.

God is incomprehensible. This does not mean he is unknowable, but that he is unable to be fully known. It is the joyful duty, the delightful task of his children to spend their lives, both this one and the next, discovering who he is. According to Jesus, knowing God is the fundamental aim of life: “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). We take pleasure in working to grow in our knowledge of him (p. 33).

Meditating on His attributes leads us to worship and increases our faith. The more we know Him, the more we love Him, the more we trust Him.

My meditation of him shall be sweet: I will be glad in the LORD (Psalm 104:34).

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Do We Know God for Who He Really Is?

Someone recently told me of a gift sent by a friend of her family’s. Though she appreciated that this person thought of her, the gift revealed how much the giver didn’t really know the receiver.

Of course, we don’t always the hit the nail on the head even with those closest to us. I try to always get gift receipts just in case something isn’t right, even if I bought the gift from a link the recipient sent to me. Sometimes we thought we saw the person admiring that item, only to find they considered it and decided against it. Sometimes faulty memory or understanding leads to poor choices. Sometimes we make an educated guess that falls flat.

But usually the better we know a person, the better we are at choosing just the right gift for them.

There are other ways we reveal how much we know another person. I’ve heard myself and my motives described in ways that make me wonder what led the speaker to those conclusions.

Some years ago I read a greeting card for a husband to a wife that was meant to be humorous. The card had several cartoonish drawings of things the husband got wrong with short captions. At the end, the card declared, “I may get all these things wrong, but I sure do love you, honey!”

But blissfully saying, “I love you!” is undermined when one’s actions display a lack of thought or consideration. Yes, we all fail each other sometimes, and need to be forgiving and forbearing. Yet there’s a difference between occasionally letting each other down and a whole lifestyle that shows either blatant ignorance of what pleases the other person or a lack of care.

Truly getting to know someone as they really are takes lots of time together: time talking, doing things together, observing one another.

It’s the same with God. “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Yet so often people describe God in ways the Bible does not portray Him. Or they live out their lives the way they think He wants them to, without finding out for sure what He said.

If we don’t know God for who He really is, the results are more serious than a well-meant but inappropriate gift. We’re in danger of creating a god in our own image, according to our likes and dislikes rather than His. And if eternal life is a matter of knowing Him, then not knowing Him is a matter of eternal death.

We’ll never know God as completely here as we will in heaven, but we should be continually growing in our knowledge of Him and in our own transformation into His likeness. He’s given us His Word. Though it’s relatively short, compared to all the things He could have told us, it contains just what He wants us to know.

The ESV Study Bible notes in one of its appendices:

The Bible is God’s written revelation of who he is and what he has done in redemptive history. Humans need this divine, transcendent perspective in order to break out of their subjective, culturally bound, fallen limitations. Through God’s written Word, his people may overcome error, grow in sanctification, minister effectively to others, and live abundant lives as God intends (p. 2507).

Throughout the Bible, God says that people worship Him with their lips, but their hearts are far from Him. Let’s not just blissfully express our love to Him without regard for who He truly is and what He truly wants. Let’s make it a priority to spend time with Him in His Word and prayer and get to know Him more and more for who He truly is.

 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. John 10:14-15

Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD. Hosea 6:3a

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 2 Peter 3:18

For further reading: How to Know God.

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Knowing God, Chapters 19 and 20: Adoption and Guidance

Knowing GodWe’re nearing the end of reading Knowing God by J. I. Packer along with Tim Challies’ Reading Classics Together Series. This week we are in chapters 19 and 20, and there is only one more week to go in this particular reading group.

The chapters in this last section have been very long, so in a sense there is proportionally less that I can say about them. One thing that has helped me this week is to remember to tie the individual chapters back to the main point of the book: knowing God. It’s easy to get occupied with the individual topics or chapters and forget that they are there in connection with how we know God. Thus studying the attributes that we’ve discussed (God’s love, grace, wrath, goodness, jealousy, unchangeableness and majesty) are a part of getting to know Him better, His Word is the main means by which we learn about Him, His propitiation of our sins is what makes it possible for us to know Him, and once we do know Him by faith, we become His children, the topic of chapter 19, and then we can trust Him to guide us, the topic of chapter 20.

Chapter 19 is “Sons of God,” and Packers says the most basic definition of a Christian is that he or she is a person who has God as Father. We are not all God’s children: we become His when we believe on Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
 John 14:6

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. John 1:12.

This chapter traces through Scripture what it means when it says we are “adopted” by God. Adoption in Rome in Biblical times wasn’t so much the modern conception of taking in of a child not born into a family and making them, by legality and love, a child of that family. It was more the idea of taking in a male heir, usually at adulthood (interestingly, this same concept was being taught on the BBN radio station by Dr. Donald R. Hubbard as I was cleaning up the kitchen after dinner last night. I am not usually still in the kitchen when this program comes on.) “God has so loved those whom he redeemed on the cross that he has adopted them all as his heirs, to see and share the glory into which his only begotten Son has already come” (p. 201). What an inheritance!

Our sonship changes everything. The emphasis in the Old Testament is on God’s holiness and our unfitness to be in His presence because we are so far from holy. Now we can run into His arms as trusting children. God’s fatherhood implies authority, affection, fellowship, and honor (p. 205). It affects our conduct, prayer, and how we live our lives: by faith, trusting in His care and provision. It shows us His love, provides a basis for hope, helps us understand the Holy Spirit’s ministry to us (making “Christians realize with increasing clarity the meaning of their filial relationship with God in Christ, and to lead them into an ever deeper response to God in this relationship,” Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6 (p. 220), provides a different motivation for holiness (pleasing our Father), and is the basis for our assurance.

Chapter 20 is “Thou Our Guide.” Packer starts out by showing many instances in both Old and New Testaments that God had a specific plan for specific people at specific times. This is one of the main reasons I can’t subscribe to the idea that it doesn’t matter what we do (whom we marry, where we go to school, what our life’s work should be, even what our plans for the day should be). And the Bible in many places promises God’s guidance. But the main question then is how does God communicate that plan to us?

The first avenue is His Word. No, we won’t find the names of a future spouse or college or employer there. But we will get to know our Father and His character and preferences there and learn the many principles by which He wants us to live. Any seeming “leading” which contradicts a clear principle in His Word is not from Him.

When it comes to what Packer calls “vocational” decisions – the specifics about what God wants us to do, like marriage, etc. – he says, “The work of God in these cases is to incline first our judgment and then our whole being to the course which, of all the competing alternatives, he has marked our as best suited for us, and for His glory and the good of others through us” (p. 237).

As a personal illustration, I had a hard time coming to a decision about whether my husband was the man God wanted me to marry. My own parents had divorced, so I knew that just getting married didn’t insure a “happily ever after,” and I had been engaged before, in a relationship that had numerous red flags that I didn’t see until after it was broken off, so I knew it was possible to be deceived in matters of the heart. How to know if I was really on the right track? It was something I agonized over. Finally I reminded myself that I had asked God to guide me in this area, and when I told Him I didn’t want to play “dating games” any more and only wanted to date the guys He wanted me to date, Jim was the very next person to ask me out. There was no reason to doubt that he was God’s will for me. In making decisions about job changes and moves over the years, two verses that I especially relied on were Psalm 37:23 (The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord: and he delighted in his way – prayed this esocially for my husband as the main family decision-maker), and Jeremiah 10:23 (I know, O LORD, that a man’s way is not in himself, Nor is it in a man who walks to direct his steps.)

Packer does point out, however, that we can be deceived. It’s sadly possible to quench or grieve God’s Holy Spirit. If we are out of fellowship with God, we can’t trust our sense of His leading: we need to confess any known sin, be willing to submit to His leadership, and renew spending time in His Word. Packer then gives six pitfalls that hinder our discernment of God’s will, but I am going to try to recast them into positives:

  1. Be willing to think. “God made us thinking beings, and he guides our minds as in his presence we think things out–not otherwise” (p. 237).
  2. Be willing to think ahead and weigh the long-term consequences of alternative courses of actions. “O that they were wise, that they understood this, that they would consider their latter end!” (Deuteronomy 32:9).
  3. Be willing to take advice. “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” (Proverbs 12:15).
  4. Be willing to suspect oneself. Sometimes we don’t realize we are being unrealistic or rationalizing. We have a tendency to be self-serving. We need to ask God to “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24).
  5. Be willing to discount personal magnetism. Sometimes someone else’s personality or attraction (whether a personal friend or a teacher or leader) can pull us in certain directions. Some people use this magnetism on purpose to mislead: some do not but people idolize them. “Test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
  6. Be willing to wait. God does not often give guidance ahead of the time it is needed.

Even when we’ve prayerfully and carefully sought God’s guidance, “it does not follow that right guidance will be vindicated by a trouble-free course thereafter” (p. 239). Numerous examples in the Bible show people falling into trouble who were directly where God led them: the Israelites between Pharaoh and the Red Sea; the disciples in a boat in a storm, a boat that Jesus sent them off in; Paul in prison, Jesus Himself on the cross, just to name a few. An easy path doesn’t always mean we’re on the right road: a troubled path doesn’t necessarily mean we are on the wrong one.

Finally, Packer acknowledges that it is possible to miss the path sometimes, but we can trust our Father to let us know and to set us right again. “The Jesus who restored Peter after his denial and corrected his course more than once after that (see Acts 10; Gal. 2:11-14), is our Savior today and he has not changed” (p. 241).

 

Knowing God, Chapters 7 and 8

Knowing GodWe’re continuing to read Knowing God by J. I. Packer along with Tim Challies’ Reading Classics Together Series. This week we are in chapters 7 and 8.

Chapter 7, “God Unchanging,” opens with the scenario of reading the Bible but not getting much out of it because it seems so far removed from one’s own life. “We don’t live in the same world. How can the record of God’s words and deeds in Bible times, the record of His dealings with Abraham and Moses and David and the rest, help us, who have to live in the space age?” (p. 76).

Packers answers that it is true that we might experience a different “space, time, and culture,” but “the link is God Himself. For the God with whom they had to do is the same God with whom we have to do,” (p. 76), and He hasn’t changed in the meantime. He quotes A. W. Tozer as saying, “He cannot change for the better, for He is already perfect; and being perfect, He cannot change for the worse.”

Packer then elaborates on the points that God’s life, character, truth, ways, purposes, and Son do not change. He lists a few texts where God is said to have repented, but those refer to “a reversal of God’s previous treatment of particular people, consequent upon their reaction to that treatment. But there is no suggestion that this reaction was not foreseen, or that it took God by surprise and was not provided for in His eternal plan. No change in His eternal purpose is implied when He begins to deal with a person in a new way” (p. 80).

While it is a comfort that “fellowship with Him, trust in His Word, living by faith, standing on the promises of God, are essentially the same realities for us today as they were for Old and New Testament believers,” it is a challenge as well. “How can we justify ourselves in resting content with an experience of communion with Him, and a level of Christian conduct, that falls so far below theirs?” (p. 81).

Chapter 8 explores “The Majesty of God,”and Packer asserts that “Christians today largely lack” the knowledge of God’s greatness and majesty, “and that is one reason why our faith is so feeble and our worship so flabby…Modern people…cherish great thoughts of themselves” but “small thoughts of God” (p. 83). The emphasis today is on the personal interest and care God extends towards His loved ones, and while that is a blessed truth, it can’t offset His majesty and greatness. The rest of the chapter is a wonderful walk through the Scriptures that give us glimpses of His majesty and a reminder that we need to “‘wait upon the Lord’ in meditations on His majesty, till we find our strength renewed through the writing of these things upon our hearts” (p. 89).

Knowing God, Chapters 3 and 4

Knowing God

We’re continuing to read Knowing God by J. I. Packer along with Tim Challies’ Reading Classics Together Series. This week we are in chapters 3 and 4.

Chapter 3, “Knowing and Being Known,” is one of those chapters that I wish I could produce in it’s totality, one in which I have numerous places marked.

Since Jesus said in John 17:3, “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent,” and since knowledge of God is commended throughout the Bible, what does it mean to know God?

It is clear, to start with, that ‘knowing’ God is of necessity a more complex business than ‘knowing’ a fellow-man, just as ‘knowing’ my neighbour is a more complex business than ‘knowing’ a house, or a book, or a language.  The more complex the object, the more complex is the knowing of it. Knowledge of something abstract, like a language, is acquired by learning; knowledge of something inanimate…comes by inspection and exploration…But when one gets to living things, knowing them becomes a good deal more complicated. One does not know a living thing till one knows not merely its past history but how it is likely to react and behave and specific circumstances…

In the case of human beings, the position is further complicated by the fact that…people keep secrets. They do not show everybody all that is in their hearts…you may spend months and years doing things in company with another person and still have to say at the end of that time, “I don’t really know him at all.” We recognize degrees in our knowledge of our fellow men…according to how much, or how little, they have opened up to us (pp. 34-35).

Taking it one step further, Packer points out that if we’re meeting someone “above us” in some way, like a queen or president, that person takes the initiative into whatever relationship we might or might not have.

And God, who is so much more “above us” than anyone else, has taken that initiative, spoken to us, invited us into His confidence.

Knowing God is a relationship calculated to thrill a man’s heart.  What happens is that the almighty Creator, the Lord of hosts, the Great God before whom the nations are as a drop in a bucket, comes to you and begins to talk to you through the words and truths of Holy Scripture.  Perhaps you have been acquainted with the Bible and Christian truth for many years, and it has meant little to you; but one day you wake up to the fact that God is actually speaking to you – you! – through the biblical message.  As you listen to what God is saying, you find yourself brought very low; for God talks to you about your sin, and guilt, and weakness, and blindness, and folly, and compels you to judge yourself hopeless and helpless, and to cry out for forgiveness.  But this is not all.  You come to realize as you listen that God is actually opening His heart to you, making friends with you and enlisting you a colleague…(p. 36)

What, then, does the activity of knowing God involve? Holding together the various elements involved in this relationship, as we have sketched it out, we must say that knowing God involves, first, listening to God’s Word and receiving it as the Holy Spirit interprets it, in application to oneself; second, noting God’s nature and character, as his Word and works reveal it; third, accepting his invitations and doing what he commands; fourth, recognizing and rejoicing in the love that he has shown in thus approaching you and drawing you into this divine fellowship (p. 37).

Packer talks about four analogies the Bible uses to help us understand how we know God: “in the manner of a son knowing his father, a wife knowing her husband, a subject knowing his king, and a sheep knowing its shepherd” (p. 37).

Then the Bible adds the further point that we know God in this way only through knowing Jesus Christ, who is himself God manifest in the flesh. ‘Don’t you know me…? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’; ‘No-one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14: 9,6 NIV). It is important, therefore, that we should be clear in our minds as to what ‘knowing’ Jesus Christ means (p. 37).

Packer discusses how the disciples knew and interacted with Jesus, and, since His death and resurrection, we can know Him in the same way except in a spiritual rather than physical (bodily) way, and we have more revealed truth than they did, and “Jesus’ way of speaking to us now is not by uttering fresh words, but rather by applying to our consciences those words of his that are recorded in the gospels, together with the rest of the biblical testimony to himself. But knowing Jesus Christ still remains as definite a relation of personal discipleship as it was for the twelve when he was on earth. The Jesus who walks through the gospel story walks with Christians now, and knowing him involves going with him, now as then” (p. 38).

After sharing several passages that talk about hearing Him (John 10: 27; 6:35; 10:7, 14; 11:25; 5:23-24; Matthew 11:28-29), Packer explains:

Jesus’ voice is ‘heard’ when Jesus’ claim is acknowledged, his promise trusted, and his call answered. From then on, Jesus is known as shepherd, and those who trust him he knows as his own sheep. ‘I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no-one can snatch them out of my hand’ (John 10: 27-28 NIV). To know Jesus is to be saved by Jesus, here and hereafter, from sin, and guilt, and death.

He closes the chapter by noting that “knowing God is a matter of personal dealing,…personal involvement,…and grace” (pp. 39-40).

Knowing God is more than knowing about him; it is a matter of dealing with him as he opens up to you, and being dealt with by him as he takes knowledge of you. Knowing about him is a necessary precondition of trusting in him (‘how could they have faith in one they had never heard of?’ [Romans 10:4 NEB]), but the width of our knowledge about him is no gauge of the depth of our knowledge of him.

Chapter 4, “The Only True God,” mainly discusses the second commandment about not making idols or bowing down and worshiping them. He spends a great deal of time explaining why he believes that commandment precludes pictures of Jesus, and I understand his points that any picture, sculpture, etc., in any kind of media will be limiting and may portray Him falsely. Christians through the ages have had various opinions about that (there have been some lively discussions on the Facebook group for this series.) I wrestled with it myself when my husband gave me a print of Jesus as the Good Shepherd having just found the lost sheep. I came to terms with it because I felt it wasn’t meant to be a representation of Him, but an expression of that truth of the Shepherd’s love and care for His sheep and the sheep’s rest in the Shepherd. But I have wondered if I should take it down so it is not a stumblingblock to anyone else.

Packer also cautions us to watch for wrong mental images about God, as they can be just as idolatrous and false as wooden or sculpted ones.

How often do we hear this sort of thing: “I like to think of God as the great Architect (or Mathematician or Artist).” “I don’t think of God as a Judge; I like to think of him simply as a Father.” We know from experience how often remarks of this kind serve as the prelude to a denial of something that the Bible tells us about God. It needs to be said with the greatest possible emphasis that those who hold themselves free to think of God as they like are breaking the second commandment (p. 47).

I hadn’t thought of it in exactly that way before, but I think this is the basis of the problem I had with a book that portrayed God as an artist and not a technician. It wasn’t a full and true representation of Him: though we can and do appreciate His artistry and creativity and eye for beauty in His creation, that is only one aspect of His character.

All speculative theology, which rests on philosophical reasoning rather than biblical revelation, is at fault here [emphasis mine here]. Paul tells us where this sort of theology ends: “The world by wisdom knew not God” (1 Cor 1:21 KJV). To follow the imagination of one’s heart in the realm of theology is the way to remain ignorant of God, and to become an idol-worshipper, the idol in this case being a false mental image of God, made by one’s own speculation and imagination.

In this light, the positive purpose of the second commandment becomes plain. Negatively, it is a warning against ways of worship and religious practice that lead us to dishonor God and to falsify his truth. Positively, it is a summons to us to recognize that God the Creator is transcendent, mysterious and inscrutable, beyond the range of any imagining or philosophical guesswork of which we are capable and hence a summons to us to humble ourselves, to listen and learn of him, and to let him teach us what he is like and how we should think of him (p. 48).

This book has been immensely helpful so far, and we’re only four chapters in. We’re taking them two at a time, and they’re not overly long or difficult. It’s not too late to join in!