Do We Want to Know God?


It was remarked briefly in a recent comment that “we cannot know God completely,” and that we should be satisfied with the mysteries of the faith and trust the teaching of the Church (I apologize for using the writer’s honest statement as the point of departure for this post). However, this short quote from St. Silouan:

It is given to our Orthodox Church through the Holy Spirit to fathom the mysteries of God, and she is strong in the holiness of her thought and her patience.

The mysteries of the Faith give to us, not some other grace (Baptismal grace, etc.) but grace that is the very Life of God. What we know in Baptism is God. The same is true of all the mysteries. The same is true of everything we see in the life of the Church – and if we have ears to hear – it is true of every action in every moment of our lives.

If we can only love a God who is perceived through some third-party mediation as an idea, then this is not love of God. I must not love God as an idea or even seek to know Him in such a manner. An idea of God is truly and dangerously an idol. By comparison, the Holy Icons we venerate make known to us the true God. But an idea – those vague and even idiosyncratic notions – are not glimpses of God at all.

We must hunger for God Himself, never anything less. This is why we must know our ignorance. We must not be satisfied with knowledge that is not knowledge. Only true knowledge of God should and can satisfy the true longings of our heart. We who once walked in the cool of the evening with God should not settle for something less (I know the imagery is just that- imagery – but it points to the nature of true knowledge).

Thus we may have unlettered peasants such as St. Silouan who know God – but thank goodness they did not settle for something less. It may eat us and consume us (this hunger for God) but we dare not settle for less or the entire purpose of our life will have been wasted.

Nothing less than God.

As Fr. Hopko says, “You cannot know God, but you have to know Him to know that.” This is the mystery of God in his essence and His energies. We cannot know Him and yet we can know Him. Of course, most of us do not know God – or if we do know Him we only barely know Him. But why settle for anything other than more of this? God became man and united Himself to our flesh that we might know Him. St. Paul cried out for nothing less and would have given everything up for the excellency of knowing Christ.

Indeed, we are told in prophecy: “And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, `Know the LORD,‘ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34).

Know God.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


18 responses to “Do We Want to Know God?”

  1. Jordan Avatar


    I had never heard of St. Silouan until you mentioned him. That’s a really neat picture. I was curious, knowing God is not different than loving God? Surely the former can’t be without the latter. Lately I have been reading “Mountain of Silence” by Kyriacos C. Markides. In it he talks about knowledge for and from God but not without “eros maniakos,” love radiated by God. Maybe that’s what is being referred to in Jer. 31? Are there different “levels” of knowledge?

    Thanks for the knowledge about knowing 🙂

  2. fatherstephen Avatar

    Jordan, you’re very right. We only know God to the extent we love our enemies. I John 4:7-8

    Beloved let us love one another. For love is of God and everyone that loveth knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God for God is love.

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  4. The Scylding Avatar

    Is this not analogous to knowing a person (here, Person), and knowing an Euclidian proof in geometry? I think the 2 are most often confused.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar


    Somehow I don’t follow your sentence. Could you rephrase it?

  6. C Grace Avatar

    ” I must not love God as an idea or even seek to know Him in such a manner. An idea of God is truly and dangerously an idol. By comparison, the Holy Icons we venerate make known to us the true God. But an idea – those vague and even idiosyncratic notions – are not glimpses of God at all.”

    Father, I don’t mean to sound contentious. I am very new to Orthodoxy and particularly icons. I understand what you say about ideas becoming an idol. Even in the Baptist church I used to attend before moving to my current OC parish we differentiated between approaching scripture in order to know about God vs using the Bible as a means to know God. In this difference of approach the ideas themselves in some way become an icon -through them we reach out to the God who is behind them. But how does one come to know God through an icon apart from the ideas of God that exist already in our mind when we approach that icon? I guess what I am asking is what does the icon add that is not already in scripture?

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    C Grace

    An excellent question. I do not think icons add to Scripture, but share scripture with us in another form. “Icons do with color what the scriptures do with words” the Fathers of the 7th Council said. The question then becomes, how do they work.

    I am contending here that they do not precisely work by my encountering them and then having an idea about them and then encountering the idea. I would instead say that we may indeed encounter God in Scripture, but not by abstracting Him from Scripture. I behold God through the means of the Scriptures. I hear Him, I see Him portrayed, and by obeying Him I have a true encounter with Him. But I do not think that what I have is an encounter with an idea.

    This is a very difficult point, and I hope what I am saying makes sense. But the disciples on the road to Emmaus found their hearts “burning within them” as Christ opened the Scriptures to them. This is very different than saying that they had great ideas about Scripture while He opened them to them.

    We have a true Personal encounter, i.e., an encounter with the Person of Christ, in the Scriptures, likewise the icons of Christ. St. Theodore the Studite called this “Hypostatic (Personal) Representation”.

    Please ask more questions about this, especially what does not seem clear. I’ll do my best to clarify.

  8. D.S. McLaughlin Avatar
    D.S. McLaughlin

    “We must hunger for God Himself, never anything less. This is why we must know our ignorance. We must not be satisfied with knowledge that is not knowledge.”

    Thank you, this is so true. I had been reading 1 John, and in light of your blog entry I was struck how many times the Apostle writes about what “we know,” or another common refrain is “by this we know.” I believe close to two dozen times he writes about what we do know. For John, true knowledge is neither rationalistic nor theoretical. Rather we know in personal, concrete, experiential ways. Thus, we know love not as an idea but as a person, and a crucified one at that (3:16).

  9. C Grace Avatar

    I understand what you are saying about Scripture – again this is something I am familiar with -except that I think you said much better and in more detail what I was trying to convey above. We are to become like Christ and in interacting with and obeying scripture there is an integration of knowledge and experience.

    “It is altogether wrong for us to think that we can experience anything of the spiritual life in ourselves merely, and apart from Him. God does not intend that we should acquire something exclusively personal in our experience, and he is not willing to effect anything like that for you and me. All the spiritual experience of the Christian is already true in Christ. It has already been experienced by Christ. What we call our experience is only our entering into his history and his experience.” Watchman Nee

    “I do not think icons add to Scripture, but share scripture with us in another form.”

    Here I am still wrestling with the interaction between scripture and the icon. It would seem to me that unless one is familiar with the life and essence of Christ, and/or the Saint being depicted the icon is meaningless and of no use for bringing us to God. ( I will admit to being highly sceptical of the efficacy of warm religious ‘feelings’ apart from knowledge and lived experience) but how does the icon relate to the knowledge and experience we already have? Maybe I am making this too difficult. It is simply that the icon serves as a focus for a wholistic recollection of the life and essence of the person depicted? Sort of like the fact that when I think of my husband I don’t have a bunch of words in my mind — He is kind, loving, a good listener, etc. — but rather simply a wholistic impression of his personality and person?

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    No. Rather, I would think of it as something that is outside of my mind. Just as if you encountered your husband face to face, or in a manner through which you knew him.

    So, too, our encounter with Christ is Scripture (not gushy feelings, etc.) is a true encounter. Different in nature from how we encounter Him in the sacraments, and yet an encounter with His person.

    It effects us and changes us by grace, which is frequently a grace-filled event that is beyond description.

    In Scripture, as we obey His words, the encounter is deepened. In icons, when we venerate them in truth, that is an act of true honor, our hearts are also changed. Sometimes perceptibly, sometimes imperceptibly.

    I’ve had at least one parishioner who was converted by speaking to an icon of Christ. One phrase. But without words the whole answer came and she went from atheism to belief.

    We are indeed surrounded by mysteries.

  11. fatherstephen Avatar


    Yes. Indeed.

  12. harmonie22 Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    You said “Only true knowledge of God should and can satisfy the true longings of our heart.”

    I believe that if one truly wants to know God, He will reveal himself (metaphorically speaking) to one who truly seeks Him, through life itself. I’ve been reading your blog for some time but have never commented before, I just wanted to say that your posts have often uplifted me when I needed to be uplifted. Thank you and God bless.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar

    Why metaphorically? He reveals Himself. Seek and ye shall find, knock and the door shall be opened, ask and ye shall receive. It’s pretty clear. Thank you for you kind words

  14. C Grace Avatar

    “So, too, our encounter with Christ in Scripture (not gushy feelings, etc.) is a true encounter.”

    Thanks, I read your articles on the two story universe but it is hard to keep this mindset.

    I think it will take awhile to have any faith in regards to icons but what you said is helpful.

  15. harmonie22 Avatar

    Oh, I meant metaphorically in the sense that He doesn’t appear in the flesh. Thanks again.

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  17. David Smedberg Avatar
    David Smedberg


    Where did you hear about Father Hopko saying that (about knowing God)? I can’t seem to find any other references to it online.

  18. fatherstephen Avatar

    It’s on a taped series he did called, “knowing God.”

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