|I Want to Know Christ
February 14, 1999 / Philippians 3:8-10
The most important relationship in any believerís life is the one he or she maintains with Jesus. It defines, purifies, and sweetens every other relationship. To "know Christ" is the goal of everything about the new life God has given us. Listen to Paul state the personal goal of his life as a believer: ". . . I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him . . . I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection . . . (Phil. 3:8-10).
Is there any Christian who would not let these verses stand as a summary of her life goal as a believer? Is there a Christian who would deny the value of these verses as a statement of his commitment to Jesus? These are good and powerful words. We embrace and affirm them, but are we living what we say we believe?
Intimate With God?
For all our talk about being "in" Christ, "knowing" Christ, and "remaining in" Christ, I sense there is a shallowness and unreality to it for some of us. The very notion of being intimate with God is as foreign to some modern Christians as it was to some first-century heretics who held that God could neither take a material body nor enter into a personal relationship with his creatures.1
Oh, we speak of having a personal relationship with Christ. We affirm the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We even use the word "intimate" frequently when trying to emphasize the nature of this relationship. But my dictionary defines intimate to mean: "1. Marked by close acquaintance, association, or familiarity. 2. Pertaining to or indicative of oneís deepest nature. 3. Essential; innermost."2
By any of these definitions, I think many of us talk a better game than we live. Close acquaintance and familiarity? Indicative of our deepest nature? The essential and innermost dimension of our lives? On some days and in certain situations, perhaps. Always and in every situation? I wonder. I seem to hear many more Christians telling me they want such a relationship with Jesus than telling me they experience such closeness with him in their innermost being.
It is utterly and absolutely false that Jesus is intimately knowable only to a spiritual elite among us. Full and complete intimacy with him must wait for the life to come in heaven, but we are meant to know him ó up close and personally ó now.
Do you recall the opening pages of the biblical narrative? God created males and females of the human race with the capacity to know him in open fellowship. There was daily walking in his presence and companionship. There was no covering up from him ó either figuratively or literally! Everything was open. Everything was exposed. Everything was unveiled and vulnerable in his presence. And there was no fear, shame, or perceived need to hide. "The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame" (Gen. 2:25).
Then Adam and Eve violated their fellowship with God. Do you recall what came next? "Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden" (Gen. 3:8). End of story? By no means! God went looking for the now-sinful, now-ashamed, now-hiding pair.
And God still seeks us out when we feel compelled to run and hide from him. He wants to resume the daily walk and close association with each of us. He wants us to be unveiled and vulnerable in his presence. He wants a no-fear, no-shame, no-hide-and-seek relationship with us. Thatís why he came looking for us in Jesus. So there he was: Immanuel, God with us. And what did we do? We ran and hid again!
Our tendency to run and hide from God shows our resistance to intimacy. Yes, we say we want to know Christ, have a personal relationship with Jesus, and experience him in an intimate way. Then we live a life of flight, hiding, and pretense. Why?
Maybe we are conditioned by our experiences of one another. We find it impossible to believe that anyone would want close association and intimate nearness to us ó if they knew everything we know about ourselves. So we have learned to fill out admission forms and employment applications "discretely." We meet and date people by offering them only our pseudo-selves, our dress-up-for-church selves. We deal with our personal anger or addiction or failure by denial ó a denial that is sometimes so pervasive that it means not only lying to others but to ourselves as well.
How can someone expect intimacy with God when she wonít even be real and honest with her husband, best friend, or own self? How can someone "know Christ" or "abide in Christ" who wonít let his own wife know him, wonít face up to his alcoholism, or wonít bring the debilitating things out of his past into the light? How can anyone find intimacy with God who is only offering him a pseudo-self rather than his or her real self?
Do you want to be saved? Then get honest! So thereís failure in your past, confusion in your heart now, and fear about what the future holds. Big deal. Join the club. Admit youíre just like the rest of us ó and God can do something about it. Why do you think the following words are so prominent in the Bible: "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble"? Those words appear at Proverbs 3:34. They are quoted not once but twice in the New Testament, at James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5. And their sentiment is stated countless times in the Bible. The only person God canít save is the one who canít admit how desperately he or she needs saving.
Intimacy with God is predicated on your willingness to come clean with him. To stand in Edenic nakedness before him. To trust him with your darkest secrets about your deepest nature and innermost desires. Anyone with whom you cannot be real can never be your friend. At best, he will be a curious stranger youíll often wish you knew better. But you canít know someone to whom your back is turned in flight or to whom you will only show your face if it is masked.
The Intimacy Myths
There are several "intimacy myths" that seem to saturate and take over religious people. There are essentially four or five of them ó that come to us in a variety of forms. Do you recognize any of these?
1. The church myth. I find God and salvation by finding the right church. First, I have to find the right denomination or non-denomination. Then, of course, I have to find the right congregation of the right tradition. And once I find the right local body of the right larger body, Iíll get juiced with all the religious stuff I need by showing up on Sundays.
Donít get me wrong. I certainly believe a faithful Bible-believing, Jesus-preaching church is where God wants people to be. But folks went to heaven from a sorry church like the one at Corinth (1 Cor. 6:9-11). And others were destined to be "dressed in white" with a reigning Christ from the church at Sardis ó a "dead" church in Jesusí eyes (Rev. 3:1-6). You can be in the best church on Planet Earth and still be lost, if you donít have enough candor with God to be honest about your true self.
2. The knowledge myth. If Iím a good Bible student, Iíll be close to God. So I will buy a study Bible, build a good library, and teach Sunday School. I will memorize key passages from Scripture. And people will come to me to ask their hard questions because theyíll know no one with more Bible knowledge than me.
Again, donít get me wrong. Faith is built on the facts revealed in the Word of God (Rom. 10:14). But some of the meanest people Iíve ever known could quote more Scripture than any apostle ever wrote. They used what they knew from the Bible to bully, intimidate, and bash people. And in winning arguments they lost the chance to know Jesus themselves or to lead others to him.
3. The good behavior myth. If I live a good life and do good deeds, Iíll be close to God. Or, at least, Iíll be closer to God if I can stop doing some of the things Iíd be most embarrassed for anyone to know from my past.
Hold on. Donít get me wrong here either. God certainly wants his people to look more and more like his one perfect son over time. He wants less sin and more holiness to be evident in our behaviors. But good deeds can be nothing more than one of the masks behind which someone hides who is corrupt to the core. Do you remember Jesusí reference to some people who were like "whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead menís bones and everything unclean"? (Matt. 23:28). Knowing what impresses people doesnít mean you know God.
4. The "warm fuzzy" myth. If I can just feel good about my life ó or my worship, my family, my security, my self-esteem, my whatever ó then Iíll surely know Iím close to God. So itís important for me to hear only positive things that affirm me and tell me Iím all right. I canít feel close to God unless I feel good about me.
Puhleease! Although, again, I suppose Iíll have to clarify my meaning. Authentic faith does give one a sense of "blessed assurance" before God. After all, John wrote: "Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God" (1 John 3:21) and "Love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment . . ." (1 John 4:17). But much of modern religion is little more than navel-gazing self-affirmation that has nothing to do with closeness to God. It is a thinly varnished exercise is selfishness and self-seeking cloaked as church.
5. The less-than-perfect myth. I suppose Iíll never be close to God, for I just canít be perfect. So thereís no use in me even trying anymore. Iíll just be honest enough to admit I canít do it.
This myth has more truth to it than most of the others Iíve cited, but it is wrong too. Nobody is perfect, but being close to God or knowing Christ is not grounded in our perfection. It is rooted entirely in his perfection ó conferred on us by grace. And our nearness to him depends on our humility in receiving, deepening our appreciation of, and learning to live out the meaning of that grace.
Godís Wants Intimacy With You
Anne Ortlund tells of a schoolteacher whose wife died suddenly, and he had to assume the total responsibility of caring for their 12-year-old daughter. As any single parent could tell you, the struggle was very real. With his teaching duties, he was always worried that he did not have enough time to spend with her. So he could hardly wait for their first Christmas break together. He was looking forward to spending every day of the two weeks with his precious child.
On the very first day of the vacation period, she secluded herself in her bedroom ó with the door locked. She only came out for meals. It was the same thing every day until Christmas. Her frustrated father knew it was another sign of his failure in trying to cover all the bases for her. Was she angry at him? Was she simply hurting still over the loss of her mother? Maybe she was being damaged psychologically by his inadequate parenting skills. He began sinking into a distress that bordered on despondency.
Finally, it was Christmas morning. Under the tree was a present his daughter had been working hard to make him. It was a pair of hand-knitted socks.
"Daddy," she said with her eyes shining. "I was so afraid I couldnít get them done in time! Thatís what Iíve been doing in my room ó knitting you socks. Do you like them?"
"Darling," he replied, gathering her up in a big hug so she couldnít see his tears. "Of course, I do. Theyíre beautiful. Thank you very much." But in his heart he was saying, "Oh, little girl, I could buy socks anywhere. I really didnít want the socks. I just wanted you! I wanted your time and your attention and your love. I wanted to talk to you about things and do things together with you!"
When we all get to heaven, do you think God will say, "Thank you for all the ways you served Me" ó but that with tears He will add, "But I really didnít want you to do it at the expense of not having time just with Me. Most of all I just wanted you! I wanted to talk to you about things and do things together with you"?3
There are ultimately two kinds of religion. The first is "faith" in name only. It is what the Bible refers to as dead faith. It affirms but doesnít act. It confesses but doesnít conform. It may even go to church, but it never goes out into real life to make a Christ-honoring difference. The second, on the other hand, is what the Bible calls living faith. It is heart-rending but life-transforming. It is rooted in painful honesty and candor before the Lord. Only then does Jesus speak the word of cleansing, graft us into the vine of his own spiritual being, and begin to perfuse the life of his Holy Spirit through our personalities.
Someone recently called my attention to something so obvious that I had missed it for all these years. On the day when Zacchaeus finally met Jesus, Jesus didnít give him answers. He gave him a relationship when he said, "I must stay at your house today" (Luke 19:5).
If you want more answers than appear to be forthcoming today, it might help to recall that Jesus is giving you the same thing he gave Zacchaeus. You have a relationship with him, Christian. Cherish it. Live it. Let it mature and bear fruit ó to the glory of God the Father.
1Gnostics were heretical Christians of the first few centuries of the churchís existence who were so influenced by Greek philosophy that they could not receive a core truth of the Christian gospel. They had inherited a strain of Greek thought that posited God to be "pure spirit" whose nature could not allow him participation in materiality. Thus they would not confess that Jesus was God enfleshed and could not conceive how God could either indwell or relate personally (i.e., directly) with human beings. Cf. 1 John 4:1-3; 2 John 7; John 1:14.
2William Morris, ed., The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1978), s.v. "intimate."
3Anne Ortlund, Love Me With Tough Love (Waco, TX: Word Publishers, 1979), p. 181.
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