What Does It Mean to Know God? Is Knowing About God the Same Thing as Knowing God?

Does God Want Us to Know Him?

What does it mean to know God?

It’s complex. Because God is complex.

All we can really know about God is what he chooses to reveal. It’s not as if we can sneak up on God and say, “Caught you!” He sees us peeking around the corner first.

But we don’t have to sneak.

God reveals himself to us because he created us to know him. He won’t leave us empty-headed about him.

And from what I’ve seen him reveal so far? He’s all good. He wants to be seen.

He wants to be known. 


Knowing God Is Having Life

Still, what does it mean to “know God”?

Knowing God is eternal life, per J. I. Packer in Chapter 3 of his classic book, Knowing God.

Jesus said this to God:

“And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

But what exactly does that mean?


1. Knowing God is personal.

Just like knowing a person is, well, personal, knowing God is personal. It is you relating to God, and God relating to you.

It’s not just knowing about God. That is theology. That’s like me knowing the President. I can study him and know about him. But I don’t have a relationship with the President.

Knowing God goes beyond the study of theology. It’s knowing the being, and being known by him.

It’s a two-way connection, not just one-way. 

“You can have all the right notions in your head without ever tasting in your heart the realities to which they refer; and a simple Bible-reader and sermon-hearer who is full of the Holy Ghost will develop a far deeper acquaintance with his God and Savior than more learned men who are content with being theologically correct.”
– J. I. Packer

2. Knowing God requires involvement.

Knowing God is more than holding facts in our head. Yes, knowing him requires our mind, but it goes beyond that, and also includes our will and our emotions.

Packer says, “To get to know another person, you have to commit yourself to his company and interests, and be ready to identify yourself with his concerns.”

A meal may look good, but until we sit down and eat it, we’ll never really know.

The same with God. Until we actually do life with God, it’s all theory. 

Also, contrary to what some teach, knowing God is emotional. To know God is to be emotionally involved with the things he’s emotionally involved with. If we attempt to think his thoughts and to act in his ways, we should also feel what he feels. (Even though we’re terribly limited in each of these.)

“. . . we must not lose sight of the fact that knowing God is an emotional relationship, as well as an intellectual and volitional one, and could not indeed be a deep relation between persons were it not so.”
– J. I. Packer

3. Knowing God is a matter of grace.

It’s only a gift of grace that we can know God at all. Grace starts first with God, not us. He initiates everything, including knowledge.

Because God knows us first, better than we know ourselves and long before we know him, he knows what we need. And he knows what we need to know. And gives it to us.

What we need to know—and see—is that God loves us. We are seen. We are understood. We are treasured.

We do not make friends with God; God makes friends with us, bringing us to know Him by making His love known to us.”
– J. I. Packer

While it’s important for us to know God, of first importance is that God knows us.

Being known by God makes it possible for us to know God.

Knowing God is grace.

Knowing God is life.

[These thoughts are an updated post from Chapter 3 of Knowing God, “Knowing and Being Known.” I benefited from it. But I disagree with Packer in Chapter 4, “The Only True God,” for his refusal of any imagery to remind us of God.]

How do you know when you really know someone? What does it mean to you to know God versus knowing about God? Please share in the comments.


31 thoughts on “What Does It Mean to Know God? Is Knowing About God the Same Thing as Knowing God?

  1. Bill (cycleguy)

    I’ll be preaching on Phil.3 soon and will make sure I have this as a reference. Thanks Lisa. I had totally forgotten this was in the book. Have no comment on Ch. 4 since I have not read it in a long, long time.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Glad that jogged your memory, Bill. It’s been a long while since I’ve read this book too. I had no recollection of the chapter 4 from my first reading. I do see Packer’s point there, but I think he just carried it a bit far for me.

  2. Barbara H.

    I love the points you brought out – so much more concisely than I did. 🙂 I think Chapter 3 is my favorite so far. It was hard not to quote the whole chapter.

    I didn’t agree entirely with chapter 4 either, though I understood his cautions that any physical representation of Christ will be limited in some way. I was instructed by the thought that wrong mental images of God can be just as idolatrous as the physical, when we emphasize one aspect of His character and emphasize or neglect others.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Yes, chapter 3 is my favorite so far too. Such good stuff. It is hard to narrow down what to share. I appreciated the thoughtful consideration you gave chapter 4 on your blog.

  3. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

    This is a really lovely post, Lisa.

    Also serendipitous for me…the past few days have been, and are, at the limit of my physical endurance. As I type this I’m swaying, and trying to hit the right keys on each pass. It would be funny if it didn’t hurt so much.

    Knowing God is emotion…yes, absolutely. It was focused for me by Paul Byerly’s today in “The Generous Husband”; he talked about how what we see stays with us, and can never be ‘unseen’.

    That’s so true. I’ve seen the worst of things, and they broke my heart in a way that can never be repaired. The images remain, and they keep the shattered edges sharp as steel.

    And this is what I needed to do God’s work. Life, for me, has never involved the search for the perfect latte. It’s been life and death, all the way through. Nothing close to my heart isn’t in that category. And I will drive myself to death in its service.

    It’s the emotion that does it – the rage and the love and the sorrow, which is simply too deep to bear, and too bright to forget, or even briefly set aside. Looking into the flames – and there have been literal flames – in the moving shadows I have seen God’s face, and in the screams, His voice.

    Never turn back, sound the deguello, and charge. For God, and for the innocents He loves the best.

    Well, there’s the emotion. So much for an academic relationship with God.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      I grew up hearing that we were not to mix God and emotion. But the older I got, the less I agreed with that philosophy. If I can feel emotions for the real people in my life, shouldn’t I feel things with God, too? All the emotions–joy, sorrow, gratefulness, and even disappointment at times.

      I appreciate you sharing that you’ve been able to keep a faith despite of all the things you’ve seen and experienced. Or you might say “because of”–I don’t want to put words in your mouth. I don’t know how I would feel if I’d gone through what you’ve gone through. And are currently going through. (I would probably use “in spite of”, O me of little faith.) Your testimony speaks strongly of how God can cut through the clutter and the suffering and still be heard. Thanks, Andrew.

  4. Ceil

    Hi Lisa! I think I really know someone when I spend time with them on a regular basis. It’s pretty hard to keep up a front over a lot of time. Maybe in the short run you can, but your true self is going to pop through eventually.
    It’s the same with God I think. He is always with me, just like you wrote about in the meme. His eye is always on me. So I can know Him as deeply or as shallowly as I want. If I want to really know Him? I have to be open to that presence in me.
    I agree that trying to capture God in an image is difficult. But we are human, visual people. Seeing images of Jesus, the Spirit and the Father help me to know who He is. It’s a good thing! I don’t tell myself that I know everything about God from an image.

    Sounds like a really good book.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Good point, Ceil. To build a relationship takes time. It’s not something we can fake our way through in a short period of time. Growing in friendship with the Lord is definitely worth our time!

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      It’s been a long while since I’ve read this book, too. About the only thing I remember about it is that I liked it. 🙂 It was definitely time for a re-read for me. Hope you benefit from it too if you are able to read it again yourself.

  5. Horace Williams Jr

    Sounds like a very interesting book Lisa! Knowing God has become very important to me since my stroke. I always knew about God since I was a young child but it was not until I began spending time in His word and prayer that I am beginning to truly know god. To understand what He wants me to be as I go through the sanctifying process. II want God to be glorified in everything I do. I now know that He wants to be involved in every aspect of my life. For that I am beyond grateful and humbled. Thank you for sharing this wonderful post on Thought-provoking Thursday. So glad I found your site. May God bless you and yours in all that you do!

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Isn’t it something that often through the hardest times is when we see God the clearest? I’m like you–I knew about God since a child, but only in my adult years did I really begin to find him at a deeper level in my soul. It’s been a crazy journey but a wonderful one. Thanks for stopping in, Horace.

  6. Betty Draper

    It easier to get to know someone when they do not draw away every time I fail or get ugly. I love it that I can call God my best friend because He does know all about me and still wants to be with me. His spirit assures me of His constant abiding in me. Now I wish I could say I am His best friend all the time but I do with draw for several reasons, all of them is me in the flesh. Good post Lisa.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Good point, Betty. When we (or someone else) pulls away, it’s hard to establish a relationship. But if we’ll embrace our friend and let them embrace us, we can grow together. “His constant abiding in me” – love that truth!

  7. Jean Wise

    Good points and loved reading the comments too. Interesting question. I guess to know someone well enough to know his voice and to feel comfortable in his presence without saying anything. To miss him when not spending time together and feel instantly comfortable and loved with together. Thanks Lisa for sharing this intriguing question. This is one that will stay with me for awhile

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      “to feel comfortable in his presence without saying anything” – that’s part of Centering Prayer, yes? It’s taken me awhile to really feel the value in it, but I’m getting there. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jean. Always valued.

  8. Beverley

    That is actually a slightly scary thought! I wonder what he thinks about me right now? But, yes, God is a personal God. After teaching Sunday school for many years i came to realise that everyone is at a different level when it comes to knowing God, and although i would want them to jump for joy at the same things i did, they didn’t always.

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      That’s a wise point, Beverley. We all are at different places in our walk with the Lord, so we find joy in different areas of life with him. Therefore we all need to have grace with each other, at whatever stage we each are.

  9. David

    Dear Lisa

    Meaty stuff! Looks like a good read.

    I don’t think you can ever really know whether you really know someone. But knowing someone requires faith and trust, both important perhaps when trying to know God. Knowing a person is also practical: do you really know somebody if you never “live out” that knowledge (that’s my Hegel reading coming to the fore there;).

    Re emotion: I agree an emotional response is important — or, it’s there, and blocking it out almost hurts. I am finding that, when I’m reading, or (lately) in a church, or when I’m in a kind of “Christian groove”, I don’t respond just in one dimension — intellectual, emotional, aesthetic, even sensual, are all in there together. With me that kind of thing would only happen rarely with a particular book or work of art or piece of music. It’s very beautiful because it means I feel I don’t have to divide myself up.

    I can understand Packer’s point that imagery is limiting — but you can say the same about language (language more limiting than imagery perhaps). It’s also easy for “learned men” to come out with such things, but “the simple Bible-reader and sermon-hearer who is full of the Holy Ghost” may well have a rather unsophisticated conception of the Father. As long as we keep in mind that our images and our words are a means to an end — perhaps the end can justify the means.

    (btw did you know for a few years I went to a Bible study class? The professor would have taken issue with your “appeared” and “represent” — docetism!!)

    Thank you for sharing this book.


    1. LisaNotes Post author

      “I don’t respond just in one dimension” – yes! We are multi-faceted creatures, by design, and thus we can’t be all one thing. For too long I was in an intellectual-only movement. That can be stifling in the larger group settings where the brain is the only part of us that is addressed. But God wants all of us, and when we’re able to respond accordingly, it brings us joy and him glory.

      I didn’t know you went to a Bible study class, but it doesn’t surprise me because I’ve noticed you definitely have a working knowledge of the Bible. 🙂

  10. David Reimer

    Jeremiah 22:16 He defended the cause of the poor and needy,
    and so all went well.
    Is that not what it means to know me?”
    declares the Lord.

    Jesus, in the gospels, and book of James echoed the above Jeremiah sentiment.

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  12. Alice Walters

    Dear Lisa, you never fail to make the spiritual real! It grabbed my heartstrings when you spoke of knowing we are loved by God. That is the ultimate game-changer in my book. My greatest prayer for this generation of adults is that they will come to know that to their deepest cores. I’ve seen the damage not having that intimate knowledge can have. Thanks and blessings for sharing this powerful word!

  13. Laurie

    I loved how you compared knowing God to knowing the president. So good! We know about the president, but we (probably) will not develop a personal relationship with him. Knowing God is different He wants a personal relationship with each one of us. We do need to be involved and willing to devote time to the relationship, just like any other relationship we cultivate. Thank you for sharing this book with us.

  14. Bev Rihtarchik

    Beautiful an profound post. This line really jumped out as truth: “Until we actually do life with God, it’s all theory.” I’m living proof of that. Until the “rubber met the road” in my life, I didn’t really KNOW God — mine was all head knowledge. So thankful He kept pursuing and it developed into a beautiful relationship.
    Bev xx

  15. Lynn D. Morrissey

    Lisa, this is a wonderful post, and you encourage me to dig that book out of the basement and FINALLY read it! My father used to say, “Call on Somebody you know,” and I think that is what he meant, in the way that Packer does. Of course, there is a time, too, as God draws us to Himself when we cry out to the One we don’t know in order to be able to know Him. So glad you shared. I love all you write!

  16. Jean Wise

    Very thought provoking. Reminded me of all the layers in an onion. God slowly reveals more and more about him as we spend time with him. One piece at a time at just the right time. Isn’t that amazing?

    1. LisaNotes Post author

      Yes, “one piece at a time at just the right time” is a beautiful way to look at it. I can sometimes get impatient with God when he reveals things slowly, but I should be grateful for the protection of his pace.

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