Some years ago, Rachael and I were flying across the Atlantic en route to Holland, where I was to speak for the Dutch Reformed Church. As I more carefully read the promotional materials, I saw that the other plenary speaker was J. I. Packer. I had never met him to that point and was thrilled and a little intimidated to be sharing the platform with such a renowned theologian.
A week later, we had occasion to sit together over breakfast for three hours in a quaint hotel, for no purpose other than good conversation. At one point, he spoke with concern over a mutual friend who was making bad choices. As I listened, it became clear to me that had our mutual friend been eavesdropping, he would not have felt demeaned, slighted, or unkindly criticized, but wonderfully respected and lovingly challenged.
I remember thinking, How did that happen? I left that conversation yearning to cooperate more fully with the Spirit who could empower a man to say hard things with overwhelming grace. That, I understood, was an example of authentic transformation.
Dr. Packer is well known for his observation when he first left England and visited the United States, “American Christianity is a thousand miles wide and an inch deep.” His life and ministry are fueled by a fervent passion to deepen our understanding and experience of the Christian life. J. I. Packer is profoundly burdened to know God himself and to see others know God more genuinely: as he said, not just knowing about God, but knowing God.
In the essay that follows, J. I. Packer provides a glimpse into his devotional life and how prayer has become a part of his path to knowing God. May the few words in this article draw us to follow Packer’s pattern in prayer as he entered transforming communion with the Trinity.
A generation ago, in my role as a teacher, I wrote a set of articles that became a nurture book titled Knowing God.1 Now I am asked how prayer contributed to what I know of God myself. Not an easy question! For, first, I do not think we can accurately measure anyone’s ongoing relationship with God, our own or anyone else’s, and second, I find it simply beyond me to record my own day-to-day life with God objectively, as do such great journal keepers and autobiographers as Augustine (fourth century) and Richard Rogers (sixteenth) and John Bunyan (seventeenth) and David Brainerd (eighteenth) and George Muller (nineteenth) and Malcolm Muggeridge (twentieth).
Everything I have ever tried to write about myself has subsequently appeared to me as proud and dishonest posturing, with a self-serving twist, so I don’t do it anymore. Whether I progress in knowing God only God knows, and since he is faithful to every sinner whom he saves by his grace, I am content to leave the question with him.
I pray, after my fashion, conversationally, addressing mostly my heavenly Father, sometimes Jesus my adorable Savior, and occasionally the Holy Spirit, my tireless trainer in Christlikeness. I supplement my own words with gems from the Anglican Prayer Book, the hymn book, and the Psalms. Often, I get what a friend calls a “large charge” of renewed vision, warmth, energy, and encouragement from praying with others, both in public worship and more informally. It is through analyzing problems before God and trying to see what to ask for that my priorities and obligations (that is, God’s will for me) become clearest.
I keep reminding myself that prayer is essentially making friends with the holy Three, for I don’t want to fall back into “saying my prayers” as a ritual routine for avoiding trouble, which is what prayer was for me in my childhood, before I was converted. Meditating belongs here: following the McCheyne scheme of reading four chapters of Scripture a day, I ask myself in God’s presence what each passage shows me about God, about living, and about the divine will for me right now, and that takes me into praise and petition. Adoring God, acknowledging his gifts, and asking for more, both for myself and for others, is the resultant pattern—a very ordinary pattern, surely. I wish I were better at it.
How does this help in the quest to know God more fully and to love and trust and please him more, which is the deepest longing of every regenerate heart, as it is of mine? Well, knowing God must start with knowing about him, and this comes from being in the company of those who value and study the Bible as the prime means of grace, and who are already gazing at God’s self-presentation in the divine words and deeds recorded there, and who seek to share what they see. (I’m talking about the fellowship of the mainstream within the historic Christian church. It’s in this fellowship, and not apart from it, that God leads us into knowledge of his truth.)
Getting to know God through his written word is a bit like living with a great painting (say, the Mona Lisa). Every time you look at it, you see more in it to admire, and knowledgeable friends are constantly able to point out details that you hadn’t noticed before. Again, it’s like circumnavigating a massive stand-alone mountain, like Mount Rainier south of Seattle: you can never see it all at once; all you ever see is part of one side of it, but from every viewing-point you do in fact see something extra to what you saw before when viewing it from a different place. The changing scenes of life constantly put us in new places for looking Godward through the lens of Holy Scripture, and new discernments constantly result. Do we ever get to the end of thus discovering God in the Bible? I don’t think so.
Knowing about God develops into knowing God as we talk to the Three-in-One, responding in submission to what we have learned about them, letting them turn our story into part of their own story, repenting, trusting, and obeying daily, saying “yes” to the Father, the Son, and the Spirit and “no” to oneself and one’s built-in craving for autonomy over and over again. The relationship grows as a friendship does, bringing more and more joy and contentment as it blossoms. This, we are told, will continue throughout eternity. I believe that, and I am glad.
To be able to pray like this is a sign that we are on the right track. Bad theology blocks prayer, making it seem pointless either because God is not a personal being or because our praying is irrelevant to him. A wise man said in my hearing with regard to the theology of Paul Tillich, which was all the rage half a century ago, “There must be something wrong with it; you can’t pray it.”
Tillich himself was once publicly thrown by the blunt question, “Sir, do you pray?” The best he could say was, “I meditate”—which meant no. Oh, dear. Those who do not pray do not know God.
How does such praying as I have described help us to know God?
First, by keeping mind and heart focused on the Triune Lord, on the divine way of acting and reacting manward, and on the certainty that Jesus Christ, with the Father and the Spirit, remains the same yesterday, today, and forever.
Second, by keeping mind and heart focused on our shortcomings, follies, weaknesses, and constant need of God’s sovereign, patient, pardoning, generous grace.
Third, by channeling to us God’s prodding of us to keep walking with him in humble, thankful efforts at obedience.
Fourth, by moving us to accept him, and offer back to him such pain and grief as, for purposes of his own, he sends our way.
Looking back over sixty years of faith, I think I can see that that is how it has worked for me. I hope it works like that for you too.