For the last post in Nick’s series on the “Syntax of Salvation,” click here.
“…to be known by God signifieth to be approved and loved by him, and consequently that all our concerns are perfectly known to him and regarded by him. This is the full and final comfort of a believer.” (Richard Baxter, Practical Works, Vol. 15, p. 285)
In this penultimate post on the biblical theme of being “known by God,” consider one more practical function this reality plays in the Christian life: fostering a deep sense of comfort and security before God (cf. Psalm 139:1-6, 23-24; 142:1-4). I have in mind three men—two biblical, the other modern—who served as living illustrations of the kind of comfort and reassurance that being known by God can create. In the midst of traumatic uncertainty and significant doubt regarding their own character or calling or worthiness, each of these believers asked the same question: who am I? Each resolved the dilemma with remarkably similar responses of faith: I am one who is known by God. For them it was a miracle of grace that we are known by God even (especially?) in those seasons and situations of existence when our agnosticism is primarily self-directed—that is, when we do not know or understand ourselves. For God is greater than our hearts, and knows all things. And that includes me, when I don’t know me. Got it?
In Exodus 3, Moses responds to God’s appointment of him to be the Lord’s own ambassador in Egypt with this: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?’ He said, ‘But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.’” (3:11-12). Moses’ own hesitation and lack of self-knowledge is met with the remedy of God’s covenant presence. God will be with Him, always. And as we learn later, above all else this is the God who knows Moses by name (Exodus 33:12-23, Deuteronomy 34:9-12). Moses was known, even when he did not know himself.
David poses the rhetorical “who am I?” three times in his life. For him this was no fleeting, momentary experience, but rather a recurring sentiment. In I Samuel 18:18, after being offered Saul’s daughter in marriage, David responds: “Who am I, and who are my relatives, my father’s clan in Israel, that I should be son-in-law to the king?” Here, of course, the question’s source is not self-directed agnosticism, but the realization of unworthiness. In II Samuel 7:18-21 (cf. I Chronicles 17:16-18), after requesting to build a house for the Lord (and being turned down), David expresses his astonishment at God’s counter offer—to build a house for David and all his descendants in Israel—with this: “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And yet this was a small thing in your eyes, O Lord God. You have spoken also of your servant’s house for a great while to come, and this is instruction for mankind, O Lord God! And what more can David say to you? For you know your servant, O Lord God! Because of your promise, and according to your own heart, you have brought about all this greatness, to make your servant know it.” Finally, in I Chronicles 29:14: “For who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to thus offer willingly? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you.” For David, being known by God provided comfort by reminding him of how utterly gracious and free all of God’s goodness to him was. “Who am I?” reveals the stark contrast between God’s glory and greatness and David’s spiritual poverty. All is grace for those who are known by God.
Lastly, Dietrich Bonhoeffer—the renowned Lutheran pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis in a concentration camp at the close of World War II—found his ultimate security in God’s knowledge of him, in spite of his own confusion and the doubts that so ruthlessly plagued him. Ponder this momentous statement:
“One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself…instead we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God…In short, I know less than ever about myself, and I’m no longer attaching any importance to it.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, quoted in Brian Rosner, “Known By God”, p. 349)
Why would any sane human being no longer attach (ultimate) importance to self-knowledge? Only, I dare to imagine, for Bonhoeffer’s own explicit rationale: in light of the epistemological priority that being known by God possesses in the very existence of the people of God, it is enough that God knows me. It is simply enough. That Jesus knows his own is why the sheep are safe forever (John 10:14ff).
Reproduced below is one of the most moving poems I have ever encountered. It was penned by Bonhoeffer on March 4th, 1945 from prison. He was hanged on April 9th. A few days later the Allies broke through to liberate the camp he was in. Bonhoeffer knew he was doomed, and in the face of tortuous self-directed agnosticism he made the good confession as he finished the race set before him:
“WHO AM I?”
Who am I? They often tell me
I would step from my cell’s confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a squire from his country-house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I would talk to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I would bear the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I know of myself?
restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were
compressing my throat,
yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
trembling in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine.
(Letters & Papers From Prison (New York: Touchstone, 1997), pp. 347-8.)