The first question theologians have asked over the ages is this: Can we really know God? And theologians would title this as searching out God’s incomprehensibility. How can we really know God? Can we really comprehend who God is and what He does? If we can, how do we do it? What does the Bible say about knowing God? These are all important questions in our study of the nature of God. These are the questions we are answering today. Listen to the answers on the podcast here.
Those questions about knowing God can really stump us sometimes. For me personally, answers to questions like, “Can we really know God?” have come as a given. I grew up in church with daily Bible reading and talking about God all the time. So, of course I thought, “Yes! I can know God… duh!” But in the last couple of years as I have been studying, those questions have become more relevant.
When you think of how vast God is, how holy He is, how powerful He is, how majestic He is… it does make me wonder, can we actually know Him or is He totally incomprehensible?
First let’s define some terms to help us out.
God is Incomprehensible
When we use the word incomprehensible in theology it is a little different than it’s every-day use. If I described the instruction manual for my daughter’s doll house as incomprehensible, I would mean that there was no way I could understand it. But when we use the word incomprehensible in theology, it does not mean that we cannot know anything about God, it means that our knowledge of God will always be limited.
R. C. Sproul said that “we can have an apprehensive, meaningful knowledge of God, but we can never, not even in heaven, have an exhaustive knowledge of Him; we cannot totally comprehend all that He is.”
I think God’s incomprehensibility comes out the most in the way we speak about God. Our human language doesn’t fully describe Him, so how can we fully know Him? Here are a few examples from the Bible.
The Bible often talks about God in anthropomorphic language. Now, I know, that’s a big word, so let me explain what that means. The prefix “anthropo” comes from the Greek word anthropos, which means “man,” “mankind,” or “human.” And the second part of the word, “morphic,” comes from the term for the study of forms and shapes, morphology. So, the word anthropomorphic means: “in human form.” There are many examples of anthropomorphic language throughout Scripture.
Psalm 50, verse 10 is a helpful one. It says, “For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.” When we read that verse, do we immediately think of God as some divine rancher in the sky, slinging pistols on His hips, ready to take ten paces and turn and shoot at the bad guy? No, we know that this verse is speaking to God’s reign over creation. “He owns the cattle on a thousand hills” refers to his divine reign over all of the animals in the world. He is powerful and self-sufficient just like a human rancher who owns vast herds of cattle.
Another way that we talk about God is by describing Him with human attributes. The Bible clearly states that God is a spirit in John 4:24, which says, “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” This means that God is not physical, but spiritual. However, when we read the Bible we find more anthropomorphic language that describes God with physical attributes.
Isaiah 41:13 says, “For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand,
Who says to you, ‘Do not fear, I will help you.’” We understand that verse to mean that God will help us as if He is holding our right hand, not that He literally takes our hand to hold it. Psalm 34:15 says, “The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous, And His ears are toward their cry for help.” But that does not mean that God actually has literal, physical eyes and ears. Rather He sees and hears us just like we see and hear things with our physical eyes and ears. We are speaking about God in human terms.
The reason we use language like this is because of God’s incomprehensibility, we cannot fully know God and, therefore, we cannot fully describe Him with our own language and terms. So even the language that is used in the Bible tells us that we cannot fully know God.
However, even though we cannot fully describe Him as these verses and uses of human terms show, we DO have meaningful ways of talking about Him. Those same verses that I just read are very meaningful! How encouraging that God rules creation as a rancher rules over his cattle. How comforting that God helps us as if He is taking our right hand and holding tight. How uplifting that God is always looking and listening for the needs of His children.
So, even our language and the terms we use to describe God shows that we cannot fully understand Him.
Can we really know God?
Okay, we defined those terms. Now, let’s get to the big question. Can we really know God?
We can really know God by being humble. I don’t know about you, but those verses and the language they use are pretty humbling in and of themselves. I mean, we can’t even totally explain God with our own language! But if we want to really know God, we have to be even more humble, because it’s truly nothing of ourselves that brings us to knowledge of God. Rather, we can only know about God by what He has revealed to us.
Joel Beeke said, “Certainly, if theology were man’s quest to discover God, it could never break free from agnosticism (the belief that we can never know about the existence of God). However, Christian theology arises from God’s pursuit of man.”
It is not our own work of studying theology that brings us to know God. There are many theologians who know theology really well and do not know God at all. It is God showing us who He is in Jesus Christ’s work and in the Bible that we get to know Him. That is why James says in James 1:21, that we must receive the Word “meekly.” It’s only because of God’s love and desire to love us that we know Him, not anything that we do.
We see this played out in the book of Job. Job loses all he has and is sat down, covered in sores crying to God for answers. Job says in Job 9:10 that “It is [God] who does great things, the unfathomable, and wondrous works without number.” And this phrase is repeated by several of his friends, God is unfathomable or incomprehensible.
It’s not until the final chapters of Job that God reveals Himself to Job in a couple of long chapters all about the works of God and how Job knows nothing of them. Then, after the long array of God’s wondrous works, Job responds to God by saying that God’s ways are too wondrous for him. He only knows about God’s ways because God told him. Job’s humility is what brought him to this magnificent confession.
Jesus summed this up for us well in Matthew 11:27, which says, “All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son determines to reveal Him.” God reveals Himself to us so that we can know him.
So, can we really know God? According to these verses: Yes, we can know God only because He has revealed Himself to us. Even though we cannot exactly explain everything about God perfectly and even our language will remain “human,” we can still know God. And though we will not comprehend all of God exhaustively, we can still know God.
It’s actually from this knowledge of God, of knowing theology and doctrine, that we derive our faith, hope, and love. That’s why Spurgeon said, “Nothing will so enlarge the intellect, nothing will so magnify the whole soul of man, as a devout, earnest, continued investigation of the great subject of the Deity.”
How can we really know God?
So, yes, we can really know God. But how? How can we really know God? Well, thankfully, God reveals himself to us in 2 ways that David covers in Psalm 19.
The first section of the Psalm, verses 1-6, tells us that God has revealed himself through the world He has created. I’ll read them for you:
“The heavens tell the glory of God, and their expanse declares the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard. Their line has gone out into all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them He has placed a tent for the sun, which is like a groom coming out of his chamber; it rejoices like a strong man to run his course. Its rising is from one end of the heavens and its circuit to the other end of them; and nothing is hidden from its heat.”
We learn about God from the testimony of His creation. The verse says His glory is in the heavens, nothing is hidden from the sunshine that He provides. The earth is full of God’s wonders that show us His character. His faithfulness, patience, orderliness, and justice can all be seen in creation, among other things.
This is what we call general revelation. The knowledge that God has revealed to us in the world is available for every person, with or without a Bible.
Secondly, God has revealed himself to us in His Word. The next section of the Psalm, verses 7-10, read like this:
“The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether. They are more desirable than gold, than much fine gold, sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb.”
God has given us His holy word, the Bible in order to reveal Himself to us. The words on the pages of Scripture pour out knowledge of the Lord that He wants us to know, that He wants us to love.
That is what we call special revelation. The knowledge that God has revealed to us in the Bible is available only in His Word.
Why does God want us to know Him?
And Psalm 19 answers one final question for us: Why does God want us to know Him?
God reveals himself to us in general and special revelation so that He can save us and sanctify us. That is what the final verses of Psalm 19 tell us.
“Moreover by them (by the words of the Lord) your servant is warned. In keeping them there is great reward. Who can discern his errors? Acquit me of hidden faults. Also keep Your servant back from presumptuous sins; let them not rule over me; then I will be innocent, and I will be blameless of great wrongdoing. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.”
God uses both the general revelation, the knowledge in creation and the world, and special revelation, the knowledge of him in the Bible, to bring us to salvation in Him and to sanctify us or mold us into Christ-likeness which ultimately brings Him glory.
What does this mean for us today?
To sum up, we cannot fully know God, He is incomprehensible. Our language and finite thinking prove this to us. But as we humble ourselves, we see that He has graciously revealed Himself to us in both creation and the Bible so that we can know Him and bring Him glory.
But what does all this mean for us today? What does God’s incomprehensibility mean for us today? Well, get that answer from the Psalms as well. Psalm 145, verse 3 says this, “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and His greatness is unsearchable.”
We should have no limit to our praise of God because He himself is limitless. Spurgeon said it well and I will quote him, “Not all the minds of all the centuries shall suffice to search out the unsearchable riches of God; he is past finding out; and, therefore, his deserved praise is still above and beyond all that we can render to him.”
Let this theology of God’s incomprehensibility, the vastness of God that we will never discover, fuel your praise of Him, your doxology. As you go about your day today, find moments to praise God for His greatness that you will never know, for his compassion that will never run out, for his almighty power that we cannot even fathom.
Maybe you’re washing dishes and have a second to think, think about God’s vast ocean of love and mercy toward you. Or you’re brushing your child’s teeth, think of God’s tender grace that reaches to you all the time. Or you’re mopping the floor, think of God’s forgiveness that will never run out no matter how much we fail. Turn what you know about God into praise of him today.
God is incomprehensible, but not totally incomprehensible. And I am so thankful!