From J. I. Packer’s classic Knowing God, I dropped this excerpt into my sermon for our Saturday night service last weekend. As I lacked the space and time to comment on it in detail, I wanted to do that here. Packer’s fat nugget:
Knowing about God is crucially important for the living of our lives. As it would be cruel to an Amazonian tribesman to fly him to London, put him down without explanation in Trafalgar Square and leave him, as one who knew nothing of English or England, to fend for himself, so we are cruel to ourselves if we try to live in this world without knowing about the God whose world it is and who runs it. The world becomes a strange, mad, painful place, and life in it a disappointing and unpleasant business, for those who do not know about God. Disregard the study of God, and you sentence yourself to stumble and blunder through life blindfolded, as it were, with no sense of direction and no understanding of what surrounds you. This way you can waste your life and lose your soul.
To me, the most striking thing about this statement is the intentional recurrence of the word about:
- “Knowing about God is crucially important for the living of our lives.”
- “… we are cruel to ourselves if we try to live in this world without knowing about the God whose world it is and who runs it.”
- “The world becomes a strange, mad, painful place, and life in it a disappointing and unpleasant business, for those who do not know about God.”
Packer isn’t writing to stress that it is important for us to know God in a relational way, the way that I know my neighbors or the way a bear cub knows its mother. (It is important for us to know God in this way, certainly, but that’s not the point here.) The point here is that information – strong, accurate, factual information – about God is important. To put it another way, theology is important.
I don’t know many professing Christians who would disagree with that statement, at least in theory. But I also know a lot of professing Christians who think that theology is only for seminary professors who wear tweed blazers and quote Puritans on a regular basis. [I recently quoted a Puritan here on the blog, and took some grief for it.] In our modern church culture, it is far more important in the eyes of most to do right things than it is to know right things. So we leave theology – knowing right things about God, for others, instead focusing on the basics and hoping for simple obedience and humble righteousness.
But there is a fundamental problem with this “theology is for other people” approach, and Packer illuminates it well: right theology is essential for right living. And, just as true, messy (or uninformed) theology leads to messy living.
Whether we realize it or not, we all – from the youngest child to the seasoned seminary professor – do theology. We think things about God, sometimes correctly and sometimes not, and the things we think about God shape, guide, and inform the things we do for God. If we fundamentally misunderstand God’s character, purposes, or will (let’s call this bad theology), our obedience will reflect it. Furthermore, we’ll find ourselves perplexed, lost, and even despondent when things don’t develop the way we hope or expect them to. If our theology is lacking, we’ll also lack the perspective to rightly respond to the trial, discouragement, and opposition we will inevitably face in a fallen world.
But if our minds and hearts are full of a right understanding regarding God, his gospel, and his purpose and plan for the fallen world that he has already – and will more fully in the future – redeemed, we’ll be able to respond rightly to the challenges we face in life. Furthermore, our obedience will be fueled and empowered by a right understanding of why, how, and in what ways we should obey.