I heard my entire life that the Grand Canyon was magnificent and awe-inspiring, and in my head I believed that to be true. Then, one day, I went to the Grand Canyon and saw it with my own eyes. Standing at Hopi Point overlooking the South Rim Trail, my jaw literally dropped. I was speechless. I had known facts about the Grand Canyon, but then I came to have experiential knowledge of the Grand Canyon. Of course, it’s not enough simply to cast our eyes across the Grand Canyon. If we are in a bad mood, distracted, tired, or the like, we might take a look and say, “I’m hungry” or “What are we doing next?” Perhaps all too frequently, we miss the experience.
Knowledge of things, places, and persons can ebb and flow in various ways. On a first date, two people come to know a few things about each other (“I know where you were born”) and then after decades of marriage they know many additional things (“I know how you were raised”). But, more significantly, as they move through life together, seeing one another at their best, worst, and everything in between, they come to experience up close and personal the individual who embodies those facts. Of course, like missing the full experience of the Grand Canyon or a sunset, we can miss fully experiencing people too. Out of fear, distraction, a false sense of independence, or a bad mood, we can keep our loved ones at arm’s length, knowing and experiencing them to some degree but not fully.
Factual Knowledge and Experiential Knowledge
In hearing about a place we haven’t been or a person we haven’t met, we only have knowledge of the facts or propositions about that place or person. We know by description and, therefore, our knowledge is impersonal. We might say, “I know who you are talking about, but I don’t really know them.” When we begin to interact directly with that person or place, we feel what it is like to be in that spot or with that person, and we come to possess what is often called experiential knowledge or knowledge by acquaintance. We are personally “in touch” with the thing itself and not merely someone else’s description of that thing.
A common saying is that “experience is the best teacher” because there is something about going from factual knowledge to experiential knowledge that impacts us more deeply. This is why we travel to see the sights firsthand rather than just reading travel brochures or looking at pictures online. It is why we value internships and hands-on work experience in addition to classroom training. It is why passing the aftermath of a serious car accident tightens our grip on the steering wheel as we redouble our efforts to drive safely. In experiencing something firsthand, we are impacted more deeply than having secondhand, factual knowledge alone.
Experiential Knowledge of God
The biblical figure Job illustrates this difference between secondhand, factual knowledge and first-person, experiential knowledge when it comes to knowing God. In the beginning of Job’s story, we learn that Job knows about God and lives in obedience to him. But then, towards the end of his story, Job experiences God in a manner he hadn’t before. Job puts it this way, “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5–6). Although Job had heard God was powerful and faithful, Job’s view of himself and his painful situation were dramatically altered when he experienced up close and personal God’s power and faithfulness.
In his classic book, Knowing God, theologian J. I. Packer makes this distinction between factual knowledge about God and experiential knowledge of God. Packer writes, “Our aim in studying the Godhead must be to know God himself better. Our concern must be to enlarge our acquaintance, not simply with the doctrine of God’s attributes, but with the living God whose attributes they are.”1 Packer makes it clear that it is one thing to be able to list and biblically defend that God is all-knowing, perfectly good, all-powerful, loving, faithful, and so on, and it is another thing to experientially entrust ourselves to such a God on a moment-by-moment basis. As Paul says, “For in him we live, move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). That is experiential knowledge of being with God.
In a previous article (see “The Transformational Love of God”), we discussed how God the Father’s loving presence is fully available and psychologically transformational as persons entrust themselves to him in Christ by the Holy Spirit. In this article, we are emphasizing that these transformational effects are most profound when we personally experience God’s loving presence and care. While factual knowledge about God is essential and makes a difference in our lives, those facts are meant to direct us to a daily, experiential life with God himself as he actually is (Jn 5:39–40). While it would be much more simple to read biblical truths about God and instantly be transformed, God has designed people to enter into and develop a personal, loving, firsthand relationship with himself. We are made to walk with God and not just agree with facts about God. Like any relationship, this involves growing in trust, openness, and dependence. And, like other relationships, our fears, distraction, pride, and so on can keep God at arm’s length. Sadly, we often show up at the Grand Canyon that is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and say, “I’m hungry” or “What are we doing next” or perhaps “I don’t like this style of worship.” All too frequently, we can miss experiencing God for who he actually is and thereby miss the transformation available through life with him.
Experiencing God’s Love More Fully
The significance of moving from factual knowledge to experiential knowledge helps us understand that transformation by God’s love is gradual as we learn to trust God and experience the reality of his love more fully. One place where we see this in Scripture is Paul’s prayer for the Ephesian Christians. Notice what Paul prays for:
This amazing prayer is all about the Ephesian Christians coming to experience the reality of God’s agape love so that they are filled with the fullness of God himself. We know the Ephesians knew the fact of God’s love prior to Paul’s prayer because Paul writes in Ephesians 1:4-5 that “In love (agape), God predestined us for adoption” and then again in Ephesians 2:4, Paul writes of “the great love (agape) with which he loved us” (cf. Eph 5:25). The Ephesians knew about God’s love, but Paul prays that they would come to experience God’s agape love more fully.2
We can see this in the language of Paul’s prayer. First, Paul prays that the Christians in Ephesus would be rooted in God’s agape love like a plant is rooted in soil. He also prays that they would be grounded in God’s agape love like a house established on a foundation. To be rooted and grounded in love is to come to feel in our bones that God is nourishing and dependable. Paul then prays that the Ephesians would get in touch with the width, length, height, and depth of Christ’s love. Again, Paul is not just appealing to the idea or concept that Christ’s love is vast. He is praying that the Ephesians would swim around in the width, length, height, and depth of Christ’s love, as you might swim around in the vastness of the ocean. Finally, Paul prays that the Ephesians would come to know that the agape love of Christ surpasses their knowledge so that they would be filled with as much of God as they can handle. In short, Paul’s prayer is that the Ephesians would be experientially rooted, grounded, and filled with the unlimited love of God himself. In his commentary on this passage, Peter O’Brien writes that grasping God’s love “cannot be simply a mental exercise. Clearly, it is personal knowledge . . . it cannot be reduced simply to intellectual reflection. Paul wants them to be empowered so as to grasp the dimensions of that love in their own experience.”3
The Difference Experience Makes
We could know all of the facts about the Grand Canyon—from reading a book or website—and our jaws would still drop when we are open to experiencing it as it is. Similarly, we could know all the facts about God’s loving nature—from reading the Bible or studying theology—and our jaws will still drop as we come to personally experience the breadth, length, height, and depth of his love. This means that we can hear lots of sermons, read the Bible regularly, memorize it, and yet not be deeply transformed if these biblical facts do not become experientially real. We can have a Christianity from the neck up with lots of good biblical information but not a lot of inner transformation. While Bible reading, Bible study, and Bible memorization are extremely important, we need practices that help us receive biblical truth in our personal experience. For instance, Paul writes in Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” This means there is a way for the word of Christ to linger poorly on the surface of our lives. We need means to allow Christ’s word to penetrate to the core of our hearts.
The distinction between the secondhand fact and the first-person experience of God’s loving presence helps us understand that experiencing God’s love comes in degrees as we gradually receive more and more of him in our lives. Spiritual growth in Christ is slow because receiving God’s love is slow. Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians ends with the outcome that they would be “filled to all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:19). There are two other New Testament passages that speak of the “fullness of God” and both refer to Jesus being filled with God’s fullness. “For in [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col 1:19) and “For in [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col 2:9). All Christians are meant to receive God’s loving, empowering presence fully, as Christ did. And yet, we don’t. We, like the Ephesians, are not completely filled because we are not fully rooted and grounded in God’s unlimited love. We might wonder, then, what are we rooted and grounded in instead of God?
We are coming to understand that we are not transformed into Christ’s likeness by magic, earning, or willpower (see “The Transformational Love of God”). Rather, we are transformed into Christ’s likeness by, first and foremost, entering into the same sort of loving relationship with the Father that Christ himself had (see Jn 15:9–10 and Jn 17:20–23). But Christ’s relationship with the Father did not consist in merely believing facts about him. Christ lived in an experiential relationship with his Father, and we are transformed as we come to experience more and more of the reality of God’s loving presence in our daily lives.
But how do we do that? How do we come to experience more of the loving presence of God in our lives? Since we are talking about a personal relationship with a God of love, we cannot just demand that he fill us and he certainly won’t force himself upon us. Jesus demonstrates and Scripture teaches that there is a way to receive and allow more and more of God’s loving care into the fabric—the spiritual tissue—of our lives. We have to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly. Which also means there are ways we can resist God’s loving guidance. As we seek to experience more fully the transformational love of God, it is important to discuss receiving and resisting his love, which I will cover in part 3 of this Transformational Love series.