Here’s a new extract from my new book, ‘The Sandwich’, originally written for a magazine in Singapore that is aimed at young adults taking early steps of faith.
Two passages in the New Testament record people’s shock when they are shut out of the Kingdom of God at the last day. They can’t believe it. In one passage, people complain, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets!’ (Luke 13:22-30). In the other, they go even further: ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?‘ (Matthew 7:15-23).
‘I don’t know where you are from,’ Jesus says to those who lived in his neighbourhood. ‘I never knew you’, he says to those who worked spectacular miracles in his name. What does he mean?
In both these examples, things look fine on the surface, but underneath, there’s nothing.
More of the same
Plenty of other places in the Bible talk about situations where people looked good for a time, or even worked miracles in Christ’s name, but shared the same deep lack. They were running on fumes, not on steady supplies of fuel.
- The parable of the Sower talks about seeds that sprout and quickly grow, but never come to harvest.
- Judas Iscariot went with the other disciples on preaching tours, healing and driving out demons. He looked just like a proper apostle but was always a thief and was found out in the end.
- In Ephesus, some Jewish exorcists tried casting out demons in the name of Jesus. It worked until one day they were mauled by a demonized person and barely managed to escape alive.
- In the Old Testament a prophet for hire named Balaam prophesied accurately about the people of God, but money rather than God owned his heart. The New Testament warns us several times of Christian-era Balaams (see 2 Peter 2:15 and Jude 11).
Frequently, the Bible warns us against people who look good but are in fact, bad. ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.’ (Matthew 7:15). Beware ‘false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 11:13). ‘They are blots and blemishes, revelling in their deceptions, while they feast with you’ (2 Peter 2:13).
Knowing and being known
Jesus says to all these surprised people, who looked so good, ‘I never knew you.’ What does he mean? And does he mean us?
- It can’t mean that there is anything God doesn’t know about us. He is God. He’s measured our shoe size, counted the hairs on our head, heard every word of our self-talk. He knows when we meant well. He knows when we say we meant well but really didn’t. He knows everything about us and judges it with an utter fairness. Every good point we might want him to consider – he will already have listed it. Everything we’d rather he hadn’t seen – he will have seen that too. We are entirely exposed to him, even if we would wish to cover some bits up.
- Yet there is another sort of knowing. If you fell in love with someone from afar, you might over time learn a lot about him or her. Stalkers, who turn this kind of behaviour into criminal obsession, may learn a lot more, all the facts – creepily so. But all that is nothing compared with the knowledge of actually knowing that person as your boyfriend or girlfriend. It’s that heart-to-heart knowledge, that relational knowledge, that openness to each other, that Jesus seems to mean when he says, ‘I never knew you.’ I never knew you like that.
This personal, heart-to-heart knowing is a two-way thing. Paul puts it like this to the Galatians, ‘Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again? (Galatians 4:8-9). Jesus says simply, ‘I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me’ (John 10:14).
Pride makes us stupid, but humility lets us see and know.
This opening of the heart to the Other, to God, is what some of us so strenuously avoid. I can go along with the Christian crowd. I can even get involved in all kinds of spiritual fireworks, impressing everyone with the show, just don’t let me face him heart to heart, naked and unarmed. Let me keep busy in his name instead. Or let me just gingerly tread around him and his call, keeping a respectful distance: ‘Oh yes, I know him well, I’m quite familiar with the teaching.’
This is such a huge theme of the Bible. Adam hides behind a tree, not a brilliant strategy when the one looking for you is All-Seeing. ‘These people worship me with their mouths but their hearts are far from me’ says Isaiah, quoted later by Jesus, and identifying a later group of Adams sheltering behind a tree of religiosity (Mark 7:6).
‘Here I am!’ Jesus says to the smug and all-knowing Christians of Laodicea. ‘I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me’ (Revelation 3:20 NIVUK). Don’t hold me at a distance, cool and sardonic and flip. Face me. Meet me.
Knowing is trusting is following
This heart-to-heart knowing, this relational knowledge, is bound up with trusting. If you are emerging from your hiding place, laying down your weapons, taking off your headphones, and facing God defenceless, argument-less and alone, then necessarily you are trusting him to deal with you kindly and well.
Necessarily you are also committing yourself to do what he says. So another way of looking at ‘knowing’ is ‘trusting and obeying’. This is God’s ‘firm foundation’: ‘But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his”, and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity”’ (2 Timothy 2:19).
It is a surrender. That is why it is so simple and so terrible. It is why (I think) the biggest barrier between anyone knowing God and being known by him is not ignorance but pride. God can take a humble person a long way even if they have just a few sandwiches in their mental lunchbox; a proud genius with all the world’s information on a smartphone will still be blundering in the dark. Pride makes us stupid, but humility lets us see and know. But when you surrender, when you trust and follow, knowing him and being known, there is healing for your wounds, rest for your tired bones, comfort for your sorrows, forgiveness for your rebellions and stubbornness, energy for your serving, and quietness and happiness and glory.