Being known by God

January 27, 2020
Last November, several of us gathered at the administrative hub of the B. H. Carroll Theological Institute for the Frank and Pauline Patterson Fall Colloquy. We gathered around the teaching of veteran Baptist educator and New Testament scholar Bruce Corley on Paul’s “Ways.” In his lectures, Dr. Corley asserted that Paul’s thought can be organized around the tri-fold agenda of Greco-Roman philosophy.  That is, the great pluriformity of Paul’s thought can be brought into a coherent whole when we see him as addressing three questions: 1) How do we know? 2) What should we do? 3) Who should we be?

This triad of knowing, doing, and being (i.e., epistemology, ethics, and ontology) certainly stands at the heart of all Western thought from the pre-Socratics to postmodernity, and, even if N. T. Wright is correct (as I believe that he is) that Paul is asking Jewish questions and getting fundamentally Jewish answers, it is still a helpful rubric for organizing and understanding Paul’s thought. Reading Paul in this way can be a rather heady endeavor, but I am convinced that Paul is nothing if not a pastor who was deeply rooted in and desperately concerned with the practical challenges of living as a Christian. Moreover, if Paul would have known that his letters were to be read still centuries after his death, I am convinced that he would have wanted them to be a resource for those who serve God’s people as shepherds, leaders, and healers.

So, as I sat there listening to the fruit of Dr. Corley’s decades of labor, one question kept coming to mind. What are the implications of reading Paul through the lens of Western philosophy for those who minister in Christ’s name? More specifically, what are the implications of Paul’s “way of knowing” for how Christian mental health professionals, spiritual directors, and pastors work to bring psychological and spiritual healing to those they serve? (Those of you who attended the Colloquy will recall that the ethno-doxologist Elsen Portland asked a similar question at the end of the first session.)

A Little Background

Perhaps the question that I am asking will make a little more sense if I explain two aspects of its background. In his lectures, Dr. Corley asserted that, as important as it may be to know God, it is more important to be known by God. This is due in part to the fact that our knowledge of God is unavoidably provisional and partial as long as we exist in the present age, but it is also due to the fact that God’s knowledge of us is a signpost of our belonging to Him. And it is this belonging that is a key aspect (or, perhaps, even the key aspect) of what it means to be saved (cf. Galatians 4:1-11).

This way of understanding Paul’s approach to epistemology coheres quite nicely with the therapeutic approach of Christian psychiatrist Curt Thompson. In his book, Anatomy of the Soul, Thompson uses the question of knowing and being known as his starting-point for addressing the question of how we obtain the kind of healing transformation of the mind that Paul recommends in Romans 12:1-2. He claims, among other things, that we cannot find emotional and spiritual wholeness until we allow ourselves to be fully known, first by God and then by others. It is only once we have allowed ourselves to be known that we gain the skills and perspectives necessary to accurately and sympathetically know others.

The problem, as Thompson points out, is that we as humans spend most of our lives repeating the mistakes of Adam and Eve. (For a fuller exploration of this topic, see Thompson’s The Soul of Shame.) Like that first couple, we cope with the shame of our own brokenness and the pain inflicted by the brokenness of others by hiding who we really are. We hide from God, we hide from others, and we hide even from ourselves. We parrot a lot of holy things in our prayers, hoping desperately to assuage the wrath that we are sure God must feel towards us but never stopping to actually be honest with ourselves about who we really are or to allow God to speak in His own voice. And this is how we treat others, too, for something deep down in our souls tells us that if they really knew who we are they would abandon us.

Finding Direction

These are not academic issues for me. I have lived the cycle of shame and avoidance that Thompson speaks about so powerfully, and it is only through the indestructible love of God—sometimes poured directly into my heart by His Spirit but more often mediated to me through the tender compassions of a loving and faithful wife—that I have found relief for the agony of my soul. So, as I listened to Dr. Corley speak, I just kept wondering how we might be able to appropriate his insights to produce a foundation that therapists and others can use to help people experience the healing power of God’s knowledge.

As I reflected upon this question and discussed it with Dr. Corley, it occured to me that the answer I sought was right there in his lectures. It begins with a careful delineation of what we often mean by knowledge and what Paul (and, I believe, Jesus) means when he uses such terminology. When we think of how God knows us, we tend to think of all the cognitive operations that enumerate for God all the things that we have ever done, said, or thought. That kind of knowing does not hold out much hope for us. After all, one does not have to be a hyper-Calvinist to be convinced that we “all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory” (to quote Paul’s own words in Romans 3:23).

But for those whose being is defined by its embeddedness within Christ, this is not exclusively—or perhaps even primarily—how we are known. Rather, the language that Paul uses is the language of relational and experiential knowledge. It is the knowledge of a friend or family member who has spent significant time with us and knows us as His own. And, as any faithful reader of Paul will tell you, that is precisely what we are. We, through the powerful working of the Spirit, have been adopted into God’s family. We now know God as our Father—in all the best ways—and we are known by the Father as His children.

Corley asserts that this way of being known is experienced by us in three modes or ways. First, we experience God’s calling. Though our experience of calling may not be as dramatic as Paul’s, it is no less significant. That is because the experience of calling is the experience of being chosen—and all people both want and need that experience. Second, there is the experience of receiving the generous gift (or favor) of God. Grace has its origins in God’s own compassionate character (cf. Exodus 34:6-7), and it works itself out not only in the once-for-all gift of Jesus but also in the ongoing care the Father has for his children (signified through the gift of the Holy Spirit). Third, the follower of Jesus experiences God’s love. Indeed, it could be argued that this is what it means to be known by God; that is how important love is to not only the doing of the Christian life but also to its being. We exist as recipients of God’s love, and this love continues to be felt by God and expressed towards us as we move ever closer to the day of our final redemption.

Though it is not made clear in Paul’s own argument, this way of understanding how God knows us sheds light on what it means that “there is no condemnation” for those whose being has been captured by Christ (cf. Romans 8:1-2). The great game of psychiatric hide and seek is over; we no longer have to build walls that shield God, others, and ourselves from our shame. Rather, we are known in a way that is deeply and profoundly good. And since that knowing does not result in contempt (which economist Arthur Brooks defines as the mixture of anger and disgust) but rather by love, it is no longer something to be feared. Rather, it is to be embraced.

Implications for Life and Ministry

But what does all of this mean for those of us who are involved in the healing and restoration of those we serve? How does it help us help them in Christ’s name? I am not, of course, a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or spiritual director, and, at the present time, I am not formally involved in pastoral ministry (although I seek to approach my teaching, writing, and relations with others from a pastoral perspective). This means that the advice I share below is not, perhaps, as insightful as I wish that it was. Nevertheless, I think that there are a number of implications that the foregoing discussion has for our practice of ministry, and I think that those implications can be grouped into four broad categories.

  1. Healing for the Healer – As we seek both to know God and be known by God, we ourselves will become more spiritually and psychologically whole. As we experience that healing, we a) become better able to really see those with whom we work and b) become better models for them of how a believer can and should relate to God, to others, and to themselves.
  2. Psycho-Spiritual Healing – As we help our clients/parishioners understand what it is to know God and how it is that God knows them, they will find more peace, joy, and order in their own minds. They will be better able to cope with negative experiences because a) they will stop ignoring the emotional, relational, and behavioral consequences of those experiences and b) they will have a relational outlet to help them cope with their shame, fear, regret, and disappointment.
  3. Relational Healing – As our clients/parishioners experience psycho-spiritual healing, they will learn by example (as well as by our teaching) what it means to know in the way God knows. They will begin to know others in this way as well. As such, whole social systems (families, churches, etc.) can be positively impacted by one person’s psycho-spiritual healing, and, as that healing spreads throughout the system, it deepens and amplifies. This is the vision, I am convinced, that Christ has for his church.
  4. Ethical Healing – As I have already noted, God’s way of knowing is a model for how we should know. This has direct and profound implications for how we live “in the Spirit” (to use Paul’s habit of speaking). Obviously, it excludes from the outset ways of knowing that create social disruption and that treat others as objects for obtaining power, wealth, etc.

I hope that these reflections help you as you pursue your own transformation and as you work for the transformation of those that Christ has placed in your care. If, because of your experience and/or expertise, you have other insights that might make us all better conduits for God’s knowing, please share them in the “Comments” section below. Thank you for reading the Carroll blog. We wish you a wonderful year of abiding in the love of the Savior. 

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