4) Communion with God involves the religious imagination.
For God to explain himself to humans presents a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. God is like nothing we know. Part of the ‘godness’ of God is his uniqueness. How can the invisible, transcendent, holy God explain himself to us? He cannot only use reason or logic. Reason helps us arrive at correct conclusions. But reason is helpless to describe what we don’t know. He cannot use memory of experiences, if nothing in our past or present experience relates to the unique God.
To bridge this gap of understanding, God compares himself to things we do know. He gives us analogies. We know fire. God says in some places that he is like fire. From this, we understand that God means he is powerful, and even dangerous, but purifying, comforting, and beautiful.
For God to reveal himself to us, God must use that faculty of knowledge we call the imagination. Generally, when people hear the word imagination, they tend to think of that part of the mind which dreams and thinks of unreal things, or which allows escape into fantasy. In fact, the imagination is a part of your mind which you must use if you are to understand things which you have not seen, cannot see, or cannot understand any other way.
When you think about it, this is almost entirely how God explains himself to us. Consider some of the images God gives us to understand him: Rock, Shepherd, Door, Water, Shield, Bridegroom, King, Master, Judge, Dwelling Place, Commander of an Army, Father, Eagle, Lion, Lamb. We could list many, many more. Stephen Charnock understood this:
“Though God hath manifested himself in a bodily shape (Gen. Xviii. 1), and elsewhere Jehovah appeared to Abraham, yet the substance of God was not seen, no more than the substance of angels was seen in their apparitions to men…Sometimes a representation is made to the inward sense and imagination, as to Micaiah (I Kings xxii. 19) and to Isaiah (vi.1); but they saw not the essence of God, but some images and figures of him proportioned to their sense or imagination. The essence of God no man ever saw, nor can see. John i. 18.”1
God gives us these images to grant us understanding. If we will ponder the meaning of the images, we come to an understanding of what God is like. More than that, the images, rightly understood, evoke the right kind of love for God. Contained within those images is the kind of love we have for him. When we hear that God is a King, contained in that image is a set of responses. We love him the way loyal subjects love a good King. When we hear that God is a Father, there is a kind of love contained in that. We love him the way obedient children love a dignified and good Father.
If our understanding of ideas such as King, Shepherd, Master, kingdom, redeem, love is being shaped by trite, shallow, banal, or sentimental TV shows, books, or songs, we will not be awed by those images. The wrong image creates the wrong response. God didn’t make a mistake in selecting the image. If the wrong response is present, probably the wrong image is in our minds.
Since we must know God analogically, we must protect our imaginations and expose them to what is true, and noble, and honourable and upright, and lovely and pure (Phil 4:8). Much of our faith depends on it. What we read, the hymns we sing, the music we listen to, the art we look at, the poetry we read, and the things we watch are not matters of little concern. They form the imaginative backdrop of our worldview. They will take the very images of Scripture and give them colour, meaning, depth, power – or warp, distort, trivialise and weaken them.
5) Communion with God is a progressive cycle.
Knowing God does not come to us in one massive flash of revelation. Indeed, when men encountered God and received a flood of revelation, the sight usually overwhelmed them, and left them weak and near-disabled. Instead, God has set it up so that knowing him is a process of incrementally growing in knowledge as we live our lives in relationship with him. Our relationship is supposed to be one of an ever-deepening knowledge of God.
But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 3:18)
God has chosen to make a progressive relationship the means by which he keeps growing our knowledge of him. As we live in an obedient relationship with him, we come to see how beautiful he is, and our love for him grows. In the process of obeying him, we come to learn by experience how reliable, desirable and delightful he is. Through experiencing his Word in our lives, we come to depend on him ultimately and delight in him ultimately.
We do not know God in private experience apart from his Word. Rather, as we obey his Word, and respond to the revelation of him in the Word, our understanding grows. In the process of obedience, we discover explanation through experience. This explains why several Scriptures teach that obedience to the knowledge of God that you already possess leads to more knowledge.
For this reason we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him, being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; (Colossians 1:9-10)
Therefore take heed how you hear. For whoever has, to him more will be given; and whoever does not have, even what he seems to have will be taken from him. (Luke 8:18)
The life of faith should be thought of as a cycle.2 The start and end point is the experience of communing with God: seeing his beauty, and loving him with ultimate need-love and gift-love. Along the way, the very contrast between ourselves and his beauty disturbs our communion. God initiates conviction, to change us, shape us, and enable us to love what he loves. From communion and conviction, the cycle moves to confession and consecration.
In confession and consecration, we own those parts of us that have loved what God hates or hated what God loves. We call them what God calls them. We find those lawful areas of life that have become ends and not means to the ultimate end of love for God, and we consecrate them. With this confession and consecration comes cleansing and conformity to Christ.
Cleansing takes place, and with it, an incrementally more Christlike character, and a conscience ready to commune. This increased conformity to Christ is essentially a change of loves: we more deeply love what God loves and hate what he hates. With transformed loves, we are more ready to experience a deeper communication of Christ’s beauty by the Holy Spirit. And then we are back at the beginning, loving God ultimately. Communion, conviction, confession, consecration, cleansing, and conformity to Christ must become the habit of our lives, with our knowledge of God increasing, and our love for him deepening. This is the life of faith, and it is the path to knowing and loving God.