s I walked past the huge display window of a department store, something caught my eye. In the lower left-hand corner of the glass was a small decal—round, white, and with a pale red cross in its center. Printed on its periphery were the words “LOVE THE GOD YOU KNOW, KNOW THE GOD YOU LOVE.”
Then I awoke from the dream. It was a curious dream and one that, with reflection, I saw as an invitation to come closer to God—to get to know Him and love Him as I never had before.
I was raised in a Christian tradition that revered a critical God. As I heard it, God kept an angel very busy recording each and every one of my many transgressions in the book of my life. I perceived that God wasn’t just judgmental and punitive, but that He eagerly waited for me to mess up. As I heard it, there was no way to be good enough for God. If He allowed me into heaven at all, it would be done grudgingly.
I felt He loved me the way a severely strict parent would, and I heard that one day I would understand and appreciate His stern love. When one visualizes that kind of God, one loves tentatively at best.
Then a few years ago on a spiritual retreat I heard about a God who gently loves us, forgives us, and wants our happiness even more than we do. That was the God I never knew. It was shortly after that retreat that I had the decal dream.
Reflecting on how I’ve come to know God and to love the God I’ve come to know, I see it as akin to being shown the truly loving actions of someone who always seemed unfeeling, uncaring, and aloof. Given insight into the true person, you’re delighted with the discovery, and you want to see more. You start looking beyond the persona and into the true person. To see it, however, you first had to get to know him/her.
Hasn’t that been the case for many of us in our relationship with God?
A lot of us grew up with what Tom Allender calls “silent praise”—things we did right generally weren’t acknowledged by parents, teachers, and other authority figures. Our mistakes, however, were immediately brought to our attention. Even in things done very well, what often was commented on was the part not done so well.
Rachel Remen, M.D., in her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, describes this well. “As a child, when I brought home a ninety-eight on an exam, he [her father] invariably responded, ‘What happened to the other two points?’” It didn’t take long for Remen to see that only when something is “perfect” was it worthwhile. Undoubtedly, many of us learned that God also was always asking: “What happened to the other two points?”
In the book Your God Is Too Small author J. B. Phillips, commenting on the notion of a critical, perfectionistic God, writes: “The concept of God which is based upon a fear-relationship in childhood is not a satisfactory foundation for an adult Christianity.” It is difficult to deeply love the God you know when the God you know is seen as always angry and constantly threatening punishment because we failed to be perfect. But God isn’t looking for perfection from us. As Phillips notes somewhere: “God is truly Perfection, but he is no Perfectionist. . . .”
Ignorance breeds fear. So long as we remain ignorant of God as He really is, we will fear Him. Typically we see God as big, imposing, and powerful. But as I’ve read more about God and talked with others about their experiences with Him, the caring, understanding, loving God emerged. The more I learned about Him, the more I wanted to learn about Him.
The God I’ve come to love loves me no matter what. At the same time He says: “Come deeper into knowledge of Me. Embrace Me, and let Me embrace you. Let Me fill you with trust, faith, and truth.”
By knowing the God you love, you become intimate with Him, and you learn where God hangs out, so to speak.
I used to look for Him in church each week. Sure, He is there, but I now recognize He is many other places too, including within me. I wanted God to talk to me, but thought He never did. I was wrong—I just wasn’t listening.
The Bible tells us God doesn’t always talk to us when, where, and how we expect Him to. For example, 1 Kings 19:9 describes how Elijah goes to a mountain because he knows the Lord is about to pass by. And as he waits for God, there is a powerful wind. But God isn’t in the wind. After the wind there is a devastating earthquake, but God isn’t in the earthquake. Then there is a fire; God isn’t in the flames. “And after the fire came a gentle whisper [NIV],” and that was when God passed by.
As we come to “love the God we know,” and “know the God we love” we learn when and how He speaks uniquely to us—and equally important, how to hear Him.
When we want to get to know someone better, how do we do it? By talking to them, listening to them, and spending time together. It’s the same with God. Christopher Knippers writes in his book, Common Sense, Intuition, and God’s Guidance: “Spending time with God will bring security, confidence, patience, insight, joy, peacefulness, and love to your life. The more time you spend with God, the more you will experience Him, and your own unique relationship with Him will develop.”
Prayer and meditation are superior ways to connect with our loving and kind God. As Knippers notes, “We don’t pray to get God’s attention, for we have it all the time. We pray to turn our attention toward Him.”
We get to know God, too, by revealing ourselves to Him. I thought praying was the only way to get God to listen to me, but I was wrong. I’ve learned there are many ways to communicate with Him. I have learned that writing in my journal brings me closer to God. Writing letters to Him that reveal my angers, frustrations, joys, fears, disillusions, and doubts works for me. As I write, God answers those letters, occasionally in dramatic fashion, with specific direction. More often it is through insights as to His will for me.
When I pray, my mind often wanders. I used to berate myself for not concentrating on God. But have my thoughts really strayed from God? I see now that my mind often drifts to the things I need to talk to God about. Or perhaps it “wanders” to the things He wants me to ponder and discuss with Him.
We get to know the God we love and love the God we know most easily by being honest with Him and ourselves. In The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning writes, “Getting honest with ourselves does not make us unacceptable to God . . . but draws us to Him—as nothing else can—and opens us anew to the flow of grace.” Later he notes: “Nothing can ever separate you from the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord. . . . The love of Jesus Christ . . . in the end is the one thing you can hang onto.”*
Knowing the God I love, and coming to love Him more deeply, has been a gradual process. Started tentatively, sometimes moving freely and easily, other times hesitantly and reluctantly, and still other times detouring and backtracking. It is far from perfect movement. Nonetheless, it has been a forward movement overall. And as someone has written of spiritual growth: “We get to measure our progress in inches, and then one day look back and see the miles we’ve come.”
From what I’ve read, and from discussions I’ve had with others—including clergy, spiritual growth comes as we embrace God where we find Him, loving the God we know, as we know Him, then really coming to know the God we love.
*Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Publishers, Inc., 2000), pp. 85, 86.
Richard Bauman is a freelance writer and consultant in West Covina, California.