Indeed, one of the great blessings of the gospel is the opportunity to be reconciled with a holy, righteous, all knowing, personal God of grace and mercy. The way into the Most Holy Place has been opened to us through the atoning work of Christ (see Hebrews 10.19-22).
But, and this is an important but, our ability to know God is not as complete as God’s ability to know us. Remember what Paul wrote,
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13.12)
While God knows us fully, we can only see dimly, as if through a veil or clouded mirror. We know that in the future, when the Lord returns and all things are made new, we will know fully just as God fully knows us now. We shall see Him face to face, but until then, we only know in part.
Richard Winter, a professor at Covenant Theological Seminary, wrote an article several years ago entitled “Knowing the Invisible, Inaudible, Untouchable God.” In that article, he wrote about the challenges, joys, and pathways to knowing a God whom we can only know in part on this side of the second coming.
“You are promised that when you become a Christian, your problems will be over and you will be filled with joy, love, and peace because you have a wonderful, personal relationship with Jesus Christ. But the reality of the Christian life in a fallen world is usually different and many struggle not to become cynical and disillusioned.”
The problem, Winter writes, is that we struggle to have a relationship with someone who does not talk when we talk to Him, someone whom we cannot see, and someone who never writes any new mail. To say that God seems a bit distant is a vast understatement.
“We are promised the presence of God, but we cannot see, hear or touch Him. Honesty demands that we admit our frustration.”
But as Winter writes, the problem is not that we cannot know God but that we can only know Him in part. He describes how we encounter God through the Scriptures, through prayer, through the Spirit’s work within us, through creation, through history, through worship, and even through other people.
“We cannot and should not expect our relationship with God to be identical to our human relationship, although there is much common ground.”
Up to this point, Winter has not really covered any ground that you or I might not trod on our own. But consider this transitional paragraph about mid-way through the article.
“Now we have listed the ways we know God and there seems to be little more to say than to, perhaps rather lamely, encourage believers to accept a certain distance and lack of intimacy compared with human relationships, to lower their expectation and to be careful about the language they use around young believers lest they promote disappointment and cynicism in reaction to what appears to be false advertising. But we cannot leave it there, for something in us cries out for more. Is this a created longing which is ultimately not able to be satisfied, a cruel joke of a divine sadist? Sometimes it feels like that, but there are enough hints in Scripture that my longing is, one day, to be satisfied more fully than I could ever imagine.”
And with that transition, Winter lays before us a metaphor of our relationship with God that is both challenging and filled with hope. We are familiar with the marriage metaphor of our relationship with Christ (see Ephesians 5.31-32), but Winter draws on a slightly different image: betrothal.
“Could it be that our relationship with God now, this side of Christ’s return, is like the engagement period of a marriage, a time of growing knowledge and intimacy, and a time of anticipation of more? Now, engagement for the Jews was different from our own understanding of engagement. In contrast to our rather shallow view of engagement, an agreement which can fairly easily be broken if the relationship proves to have problems, engagement for the Jews was a very serious business. It was as serious a commitment as marriage, the only difference being that the couple did not live or sleep together. The price was paid by the man in the presence of witnesses, and there was a legal and binding contract. Unfaithfulness while they were engaged was punishable as adultery. This as a deep level of commitment and the firm foundation for a growing relationship. So, in the year of engagement or betrothal, the couple would get to know each other by spending time with each other alone and with each other’s family and friends….The time spent together allows a growing understanding and appreciation of each other’s personality and temperament. The early days of the courtship are usually enjoyable and satisfying, but as time passes in a engagement there is a growing awareness of and longing for the closeness of the consummation of the relationship.”
We all know the frustration of only being able to know God in part. Who among us has not wished for God to burn a bush or speak out loud? But could it be that we are longing for something, the face to face intimacy of marriage, that must be reserved for the marriage that will end this betrothal? Could our frustration of only knowing in part be designed by God to create within us a longing for the consummation yet to come?
To be sure, many believers have fallen out with God over the frustration of the engagement period. They didn’t want to wait for the full intimacy that only marriage could provide. Like a boy friend who wants his girlfriend to prove her love by having sex with him, the impatient break off the engagement when God won’t put out, to use a crass phrase.
Thank you Richard Winter for enlightening our minds with a greater appreciation of our betrothal to the Christ. When we have been there ten thousand years, our decades of engagement will be but a blip on the screen. The intimacy we long for will come, but in God’s time. Right now, we rest in the fact that we are fully known, and rejoice in the fact that at least we can know in part.
 Presbyterion 25 (1999), 67-79.