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Knowing God and Prayer (Part II)

There’s no way to get around it. Knowing God is the most exhilarating experience a man or woman can ever be graciously invited to enjoy! His very nature defies adequate description and yet, through his indwelling Spirit, he has flooded our hearts with his love and majestic beauty (Rom 5:5). The sheer force of his presence calms our fears and assures us draw near in holy, humble adoration. There are times in prayer, I believe, that he may actually let us stretch out a hand so as to almost touch his face:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silver wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor eagle flew—
And, while the silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

Prayer is that rare privilege in which we soar to the very throne of God himself, quite literally I mean, and fellowship with the one who is all powerful, all knowing, and lives everywhere at once with his whole being. We meet God himself!

We said in the last article that prayer has more to do with gaining access to his presence and knowing God personally than it does making endless requests of him. To grow in our prayer lives, then, we must grow in our personal knowledge of God, our relationship with him. He is not a machine, we said, though much of the way we treat him reveals that we secretly possess vestiges of this pagan conviction; such ignorance still lingers in our hearts.

But treating God as an automaton or mindless robot—as revealed by mindless petitions, rote prayers, and in some cases chanting—is as ridiculous as it is dangerous, especially when we’ll have to give account to a jealous God. On the contrary, in Scripture we are introduced to the super-personal Being who has made himself known to Moses and to us (in Christ) as the great “I AM.”

Thus God is indeed personal and possesses the qualities we normally think of when we think of “personality.” This is not to say, however, that God exists simply on a super-human level, however glorified that might be. The awesome truth is that quite unlike us he is self-existent, eternal, lacks for nothing, and is accountable to no one. Yet he is nonetheless the God who abides always with his covenant people and persists in utter faithfulness to his word. God is eternal, personal, and faithful.

God is shrouded in majestic greatness, the depths of his being have never been—nor will they ever be—plumbed by human understanding. Not now, not even in heaven (cf. 1 John 3:2-3).

Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), the famous Italian, medieval theologian, created one of the greatest intellectual achievements of Western civilization in his Summa Theologica. It’s a massive work: thirty-eight treatises, three thousand articles, ten thousand objections. Thomas attempted to gather into one coherent whole all of known truth. What an undertaking: anthropology, philosophy, science, ethics, psychology, political theory, and theology, all under God.

On December 16, 1273—so the story goes—Thomas abruptly stopped his work. While celebrating Mass in the Chapel of St. Thomas, he caught a glimpse of eternity, and suddenly he knew that all his efforts to describe God fell so far short that he decided never to write again.

When his secretary, Reginald, tried to encourage him to do more writing, he said, “Reginald, I can do no more. Such things have been revealed to me that all I have written seems as so much straw.”11

And so it is when we come face to face with God in prayer. It’s not that what he has revealed in his Word is wrong or that human language is completely inadequate. Certainly not. It’s just that we are finite, and so is language, and thus we will never be able to finally—once and for all—bend our minds around his infinite greatness. In contrast to the practical conviction of most theologians, there is no “BOX” big enough for God. We will never get past God, if you will, to see what’s on the other side. Indeed, there is no other side. He’s the all in all, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end—God for eternity!

God’s Awesome, Infinite Power

One of the attributes of his greatness is his infinite and awesome power, particularly displayed in creation.12 In a children’s book entitled Is A Blue Whale the Biggest Thing There Is? Robert Wells gives us a taste of God’s power in creation; he takes us from a size we can grasp to one we can’t.13

The largest animal on earth is the blue whale. Just the flippers on its tail are bigger than most animals on earth.

But a blue whale isn’t anywhere as big as a mountain. If you put hundreds of blue whales in a huge jar, you could put millions of “whale jars” in a hollowed out Mount Everest.

But Mount Everest isn’t nearly as big as the earth. If you stacked a hundred Mount Everests on top of each other they would only be a whisker on the face of the earth.

And the earth isn’t anywhere as big as the sun. You could fit over one million earths inside the sun.

But the sun, which scientists tell us is a medium size star, isn’t anywhere as big as the red supergiant star called Antares. Fifty million—that’s right, count them all—fifty million of our suns could fit inside Antares.

But Antares isn’t anywhere as big as the Milky Way galaxy. Billions of stars, including supergiants like Antares, as well as countless comets and asteroids, actually make up the Milky Way galaxy.

But the Milky Way galaxy isn’t near as big as the universe. There are literally, billions of other galaxies in the universe. And yet, filled with billions of galaxies, the universe is almost totally empty. The distances from one galaxy to another are beyond our imagination. It defies exhaustive comprehension. And so does the One who made it! To think that he did all that with just a spoken word. Incredible! “Righteous”…as some younger members of the race are wont to say these days. But if the truth be known, it was only an infinitely limited expression of his power.

So when we approach a God of this magnitude in prayer, let us come humbly, knowing that he is awesome in power, that there is good reason the Hebrews referred to him as El Shaddai, the Almighty!

God is omnipotent; there is no end to his power. Jeremiah the prophet said, “Ah sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched hand. Nothing is too hard for you!” Jesus understood this truth well. In Mark 14:36 he said: “Abba father, everything is possible for you….” Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy brought forth the praise that “nothing is impossible for God” (Luke 1:37).

The good news is that the same God who is all powerful, is also the same God who is holy, loving, and wise. When contemplating, with frightening awe, a God with such unending, limitless power, the opposite is unthinkable. If God were a capricious, totalitarian despot…. Think for a moment of what has generally happened in human history when certain individuals have acquired enormous political power. Has anything good ever come of it? Have they not left a mark on history we’d rather not remember, let alone think about. I don’t even have to mention names….What I am saying is that God’s will is tied to his nature and he, therefore, cannot do anything against his nature, i.e., anything unwise, anything unloving, anything that does not exude with his infinite perfections and holiness.

God’s infinite power means that his good and holy plan will be accomplished in history (Eph 1:11) and no one can thwart it. The thought of God being stifled in some way, is absolutely impossible and pagan. Even a child knows that! The category of God—the Biblical God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—precludes that he should “lose” at anything. Besides the book of Revelation tell us that he wins once and for all. The great news is that all those who are joined to Christ by faith win too—big time, if you will (Rev 21:3-4)!

It is intriguing that in western culture, where technology has produced machines of enormous and unthinkable power, that we have virtually lost the truth of God’s almighty power. In Who Needs God, Harold Kushner writes:

The next time you go to the zoo, notice where the lines are longest and people take the most time in front of the cage. We tend to walk briskly past the deer and the antelope, with only a passing glance at their graceful beauty. If we have children, we may pause to enjoy the antics of the seals and the monkeys. But we find ourselves irresistibly drawn to the lions, the tigers, the elephants, the gorillas.

Why? I suspect that without realizing or understanding it, we are strangely reassured at seeing creatures bigger or stronger than ourselves. It gives us the message, at once humbling and comforting, that we are not the ultimate power.

Our souls are so starved for that sense of awe, that encounter with grandeur which helps remind us of our real place in the universe, that if we can’t get it in church, we will search for it and find it somewhere else.14

When you pray to God realize that you are coming to an omnipotent sovereign who actually desires your presence and is able to receive your praise and answer your requests. His arm is not too short, as the prophets say. Do not let your guilt stand between you and God. Come to him in contrition and you will find a profoundly gracious heart.

God’s Infinite Knowledge

Tom Allen tells the story of a large bowl of Red Delicious apples, placed at the front end of the cafeteria line at Asbury College. The note attached read: “Take only one please, God is watching.” Well, some prankster attached a note to a tray of peanut butter cookies at the other end of the line that said, “Take all you want. God is watching the apples.”

We laugh. Why? Because we instinctively know that God sees both the apples and the cookies! Of course, the biblical God is of a different genus, another God altogether. Infinite knowledge is intrinsic to any understanding of the sheer greatness of God. He is all knowing. He knows the apples and the cookies, equally well. God is not simply all powerful—as we said above—he is also omniscient. This is good news if you’re an obedient Christian, it’s not so good if you’re a Christian who thinks they can get away with sin, and it is down right terrible news if you’re trying to avoid God altogether. So when you come to God in prayer, understand that he already knows everything about you—what you did today, where you went, what you thought, your dreams, aspirations, sins.

Peter declares in John 21:17 that Jesus knows “all things” and the writer of Hebrews says that “nothing in creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give an account” (4:13). Therefore, our prayers are not done in order to inform God of anything. This is a carnal, pagan approach to God. Jesus said in Matt 6:7 not to run on endlessly—I believe the word is “babble”—like the pagans because God already knows what you need before you ask him. In fact, God knows all things, whether actual or possible, equally and effortlessly well. Jesus said in Matt 11:21 that if Sodom and Gomorrah had had his miracles performed before them, they would have repented in sack cloth and ashes. Only God can know that. Indeed, God knows all the limitless options and human choices and what would happen in each case. Try that one on for size! As the psalmist says, “His knowledge has no limit” (Ps 147:5) and our response is to “sing to the Lord with thanksgiving and make music to our God with the harp” (v. 7).

It has been said that nothing, with the possible exception of a fire, or the whistle to end a work day, can break up a conversation quicker than a fellow who actually knows what he’s talking about. Well, God has stopped a lot of useless conversations in his day! He’s the only one who always knows what he’s talking about, 24 hours a day without end. God never has to study, he just knows everything. We, on the other hand, are quite different. The famous theologian/medical doctor Albert Schweitzer summed up our situation quite well: “As we acquire knowledge, things do not become more comprehensible, but more mysterious.” Fewer statements have proved more prophetic.

The fact is, however, that we live in an age characterized by information explosion, doubling, even tripling our knowledge at an alarming rate. The half-life of any college degree now makes the paper it’s written on almost useless. But, people appear to be more confused than ever about the important questions of life. What is happiness? What is meaning? Why am I so given to materialism? It’s like were building a world of automation of which we, by virtue of our very nature, will have little or no part.

Some argue that we are just at the beginning of the knowledge explosion. In many respects and in comparison to years past, the fields of astrophysics and mathematics—two fields which are inextricably bound up, one with the other—demonstrate the rapid advance in scientific knowledge.

Astrophysicists now generally agree that while the actual center of the universe cannot be known, it had an actual beginning and is finite. This is due in large measure to the ground-breaking work of the famous German physicist Albert Einstein and his theory of general and special relativity. Others such as Stephen Hawking later developed the solution of Einstein’s equations even further to include not just matter and energy, but also space and time. Thus Einstein opened the door and paved the way for studies in unified field theory.

Studies as recent as the late 1990s have shown that the four forces of physics (namely, electromagnetism, the weak and strong nuclear forces, and gravity) can be unified. At first, the theory of supersymmetry demonstrated that electromagnetism and the weak and strong nuclear forces can be unified. That left only gravity to be integrated into the model. This occurred as recently as 1994, when in the wake of certain breakthroughs in mathematics and science, gravity was added to the unified field theory in a consistent way. One of the most significant advances in thought which made these discoveries possible was the idea that perhaps there are more dimensions than just the four readily apparent to us. The unified theory with its understanding of “strings” and “massless blackholes” makes sense in a ten-dimensional realm.15

The point I wish to make from all this is that whether or not the science being done is completely accurate, it nonetheless calls to mind a very important theological point concerning God: by looking closely at his creation we may surmise that the infinitude of his power and knowledge are ultimately beyond description. No matter how much information we acquire, scientific or otherwise, we have obviously not begun to make a dent in God’s infinite knowledge, let alone his wisdom (something the world could use a heavy dose of). We need to bow before the God who simply spoke and created the universe, who created something from nothing, fit for ordered and purposeful existence. We need to bow in humility before a God who possesses such unimaginable depths to his knowledge that he would even be able to dream (pardon my anthropomorphism) of such a cosmos. It boggles the mind to say the least. Who knows how great he really is? This is the God who loves us and has called us into fellowship with him (1 Cor 1:9).

We must hasten to add that the inscrutable depth of God’s knowledge and understanding does not entail the idea that his knowledge is so qualitatively different from ours that his truth may be totally different from ours. Not at all. We know from the nature of Scripture, from the incarnation, and from the image of God in us, that this cannot be so. His knowledge operates at levels and dimensions well beyond ours to say the least (Isa 55:10-11), but what he has told us in his Word is as true for him, as it is for us.

But the most important fact about God’s knowledge, as far as we are concerned, is that he knows us. Paul straightened the Galatians out on this matter. He told them that it was more important that God knew them than that they knew God. His theological point was that God’s knowledge of us is prior to and the cause of our knowledge of him. Once again, the Bible doesn’t head down some purely theoretical road when discussing the wonderful attribute of God’s limitless knowledge, but rather relates it to our salvation, our participation in knowing him personally. The apostle says essentially the same thing to the Corinthians (1 Cor 13:12): “For now we see in a mirror indirectly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known” (NET Bible).

J. I. Packer, as insightful as he is clearheaded, has summed it up well:

What matters supremely, therefore, is not, in the last analysis the fact that I know God, but the larger fact that underlies—the fact the he knows me. I am graven on the palms of his hands. I am never out of his mind. All my knowledge of him depends on his sustained initiative in knowing me. I know him because he first knew me, and continues to know me. He knows me as a friend, one who loves me; and there is no moment when his eye is off me, or his attention distracted from me, and no moment, therefore, when his care falters.16

Too bad we couldn’t approach this subject with as much amazement as the youngster in the Sunday School class who had some problems reciting the Lord’s prayer: “Our father, who art in heaven, how’d you know my name?”

When God teaches us about his incomprehensible knowledge he does so by relating it to our well being under his watchful and competent eye. This is in keeping with his jealousy, that he has “eyes for us only” and that we have our hearts set on him alone. Jesus told the disciples in their time of need that not even a single sparrow falls to the ground apart from his knowledge and permission, and that all the hairs on their head are numbered (Matt 10:29-30). As my good friend repeatedly says: “How cool is that?”

God’s Infinite Presence

So God is all powerful and all knowing. But have you thought recently about his relationship to space. Not to outer space per se, but his relationship to everywhere in the universe. The God whom you worship is omnipresent. Jeremiah said it well: “Can anyone hide in secret places, so that I cannot see him?” declares the Lord. “Do not I fill heaven and earth?” declares the Lord (23:24 NIV).

This means that wherever we are, God is there. This means that right now God is with you. He is present with you with his whole being and in absolutely undivided attention. And yet, at the same time, and in the same way, he is with me. Thus there is an intimate relationship between his infinite knowledge and his infinite presence. The psalmist knew this and marveled at God’s wonderful nature:

In Psalm 139:1-4 the psalmist is quite aware of God’s knowledge of everything about him…

139:1 O LORD, you examine me and know. 139:2 You know when I sit down and when I get up; even from far away you understand my motives. 139:3 You carefully observe me when I travel or when I lie down to rest; you are aware of everything I do. 139:4 Certainly my tongue does not frame a word without you, O LORD, being thoroughly aware of it. 139:5 You squeeze me in from behind and in front; you place your hand on me. 139:6 Your knowledge is way beyond my comprehension; it is so far beyond me, I am unable to fathom it.

…the psalmist then relates God’s intimate knowledge of us to his presence with us:

139:7 Where can I go to escape your spirit? Where can I flee to escape your presence? 139:8 If I were to ascend to heaven, you would be there. If I were to sprawl out in Sheol, there you would be. 139:9 If I were to fly away on the wings of the dawn, and settle down on the other side of the sea, 139:10 even there your hand would guide me, your right hand would grab hold of me. 139:11 If I were to say, “Certainly the darkness will cover me, and the light will turn to night all around me,” 139:12 even the darkness is not too dark for you to see, and the night is as bright as day, darkness and light are the same to you.

…then the psalmist marries God’s knowledge and presence with his power in creation. God is the One who created us and determined the plan for our lives:

139:13 Certainly you made my kidneys, you wove me together in my mother’s womb. 139:14 I will give you thanks, because your deeds are awesome and amazing. You knew me thoroughly, 139:15 my bones were not hidden from you, when I was made in secret, and sewed together in the depths of the earth. 139:16 Your eyes saw me when I was a fetus. All the days ordained for me were recorded in your scroll before one of them came into existence (see Jer 1:5).

Is it any wonder that the psalmist ends up with a penetrating clear realization of his own limitations and creaturely-ness in contrast to God’s infinite knowledge, presence and power…

139:17 How difficult it is for me to fathom your thoughts about me, O God! How vast are their sum total! 139:18 If I tried to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. Even if I finished counting them, I would still have to contend with you.

…The net result is that we should desire the establishment of God’s kingdom both in the world and in our own lives as well!

139:19 If only you would kill the wicked, O God! Get away from me, you violent men! 139:20 They rebel against you and act deceitfully; your enemies lie. 139:21 O LORD, do I not hate those who hate you, and despise those who oppose you? 139:22 I absolutely hate them, they have become my enemies. 139:23 Examine me, and probe my thoughts! Test me, and know my concerns! 139:24 See if there is any idolatrous tendency in me, and lead me in the reliable ancient path!

God’s omnipresence means that Jesus will be with us as we set out on our mission to make disciples of all nations. He told the disciples that all authority had been given to him and that they were to go and share his message of faith and obedience to all peoples on the globe and then added, “And surely I am with you always, even to the very end of the age” (Matt 28:19-20). His omnipresence also means that when people do come to Christ, and there are problems in relationships, Christians can get together to work out those problems with the full knowledge that he is there present with them. In Matt 18:20 he said—in the context of church discipline I might add—that “whenever two or three come together in my name (i.e., to restore a sinning brother or sister), there am I with them.” Now the truth is that Jesus is with Christians whether there’s one person present or one hundred, but he wants us to know that he will not abandon us in the difficult things he has called us to do. We can count on his presence when we have to deal with a sinning brother, confront a spouse, question a wary teenager, fire an employee, meet the expectations of our children, face difficulties at work, deal with irate customers, etc. We know his “empowering presence” when we pray.

Therefore, the truth of God’s omnipresence is good news because it assures us that no matter what God calls us to do or what he permits to happen in our lives, he will be there with us. He will never leave or forsake us.

The hammer is a useful tool, writes A. W. Tozer, but the nail, if it had feelings and intelligence could present another side of the story. For the nail knows the hammer only as an opponent, a brutal, merciless enemy who lives to pound it into submission, to beat it down out of sight and clinch it into place. That is the nail’s view of the hammer, and it is accurate, except for one thing: The nail forgets that both it and the hammer are servants of the same workman. Let the nail but remember that the hammer is held by the workman and all resentment toward it will disappear. The carpenter decides whose head will be beaten next and what hammer shall be used in the beating. That is his sovereign right. When the nail has surrendered to the will of the workman and has gotten a little glimpse of his benign plans for its future it will yield to the hammer without complaint.

The file is more painful still, for its business is to bite into the soft metal, scraping and eating away the edges till it has shaped the metal to its will. Yet the file has, in truth, no real will in the matter, but serves another master, as the metal also does. It is the master and not the file that decides how much shall be eaten away, what shape the metal shall take, and how long the painful filing shall continue. Let the metal accept the will of the master and it will not try to dictate when or how it shall be filed.

As for the furnace it is the worst of all. Ruthless and savage, it leaps at every combustible thing that enters it and never relaxes its fury till it has reduced it all to shapeless ashes. All that refuses to burn is melted to a mass of helpless matter, without will or purpose of its own. When everything is melted that will melt and all is burned that will burn, then and not till then the furnace calms down and rests from its destructive fury.17

Suffering is no fun. Sometimes God uses a hammer—at least it seems that way—and at other times he uses a painful file. He even uses a furnace, though perhaps not as often, being ever mindful that we are made of dust. Suffering is gut wrenching and drawn out at times, but the one thing that you must know Christian, is that God is with you through the whole ordeal. He has focused all his energies on you and has never left your side, though for a moment it may seem as if he’s abandoned your heart and fled from your thoughts. You may come to the throne of grace to find mercy and grace to help in time of need for in truth God has never left your side. Where ever we are, as the psalmist has said, there is our Father.

In our first study on prayer we learned that it was essential to deepen our personal knowledge of God if prayer was not to sink into some form of paganism. In this way we would come to appreciate that prayer is more than petition. So we looked at God’s personality and his faithfulness. We meditated on the fact that God is not a robot or an impersonal cosmic machine, but instead was super-personal. We learned that he chooses people and enters into covenant relationships with them and will prove himself faithful through thick and through thin. In this study, we were essentially asking the question, what kind of God can make these promises of covenant faithfulness on such a grand and otherwise impossible level? Now we know. He is a God who is omnipotent, he can do anything; he is a God who is omniscient, he knows everything; he is a God who is omnipresent; he is everywhere with his whole being. Behold your God!

10 John Gillespie Magee Jr., as quoted in Charles Swindoll, The Tale of the Tardy Oxcart and 1,501 Other Stories (Nashville, TN: Word, 1998), 234-35.

11 See Edward K. Rowell, ed., Fresh Illustrations for Preaching and Teaching from Leadership Journal (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 91.

12 Normally we would also speak of redemption here as well. We will save that discussion for the following article.

13 Robert Wells, Is A Blue Whale the Biggest Thing There Is? (Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman, 1993).

14 Harold Kushner, Who Needs God (New York: Summit, 1989).

15 See Hugh Ross, Beyond the Cosmos, rev. ed. (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1999), 27-46.

16 J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1973), 41-42.

17 A. W. Tozer, The Root of the Righteous, as quoted in The Tardy Oxcart, 581.

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