To know something is, in our imagination, an intellectual endeavor. To know something is to study it, to ascertain its dimensions, to come to conclusions about it, to test those conclusions, always refining your conclusions based on that testing, and to be able to articulate what you’ve learned to another. This is a valuable and useful approach, and it’s consistent with the general standard of knowledge that Western culture has adopted in the modern era.
But I find it lacks. I find it unsatisfying. It, perhaps, can sate my intellect, but I find that that’s not enough. As much as I’d sometimes like to be, I’m not merely an intellect. And as I learn to have less fealty to my intellect and more loyalty to my full humanity, I increasingly find this approach to knowledge to be somewhat sterile. Helpful, useful, yes, of course. But after this meal of the intellect, I often walk away feeling undernourished.
It is reassuring to find, then, that this is an incomplete understanding of the idea of knowledge in Christianity. St. Ephrem, a fourth century Syrian deacon and hymn writer, put forth the idea that there were three ways to attempt to know something.1 The first, the crudest, the most rudimentary, is a pursuit of knowledge that seeks to dominate the subject that is to be known. This is knowledge merely as a means to an end. There is nothing inherently wrong with coming to know something purely in service of some other goal, but it is no full depiction of Christian knowledge
The second way of acquiring knowledge that Ephrem described is much at home in our modern context. He described a knowledge that approached the subject with respect, but also with distance. It studies, measures, sizes up, jots notes, and otherwise takes stock of the subject. It is a way of gaining knowledge that is, unlike the first method, born of a genuine interest in and respect for the subject, rather than seeing it as a means to an end. In this way, Ephrem describes it as “higher,” more sophisticated and admirable than the first. Yet still, there is a fuller way.
Ephrem’s third form of knowledge is best described as a posture of love, of relationship, of bounding into the subject. He does not merely describe embracing it from the outside; this is the knowledge that enters into its subject and will happily admit a lack of pure objectivity in the matter. There is great, enthusiastic study, but it is coupled with a knowledge that one is unable to assess the subject in its fullness, it its infinite reality and possibility and variety. There is a vast amount of space available for intellectual inquiry and curiosity, but there is more; there is relationship. There is love.
This is how God knows us. God knows us in this full, bounding, loving sense. “You have searched me and known me” the Psalmist proclaims.2 “I will know fully, even as I have been fully known,” writes Paul.3 This is how God already holds us in loving knowledge, and this full love and knowledge is something only God, in his omniscience, can achieve. And yet, God assures us we will know him, we will see his face. God calls us to love him. In our frailty, in our limits, how is this possible?
God calls us to be in him. God calls us to participate in him. That is, perhaps, the most radical, the most unique, the most fundamental facet of Christianity. As such, God desires us to be united to himself, in his full loving knowledge. We are unable to achieve it in our own right, so God yearns to bring us up into him, into his knowledge, into his love.
Today’s Gospel story shows us this call. A king forgives his debtor of an unimaginable debt, equivalent to 150,000 years of the average laborer’s wages.4 The debtor, given this unfathomable release, immediately demands repayment of a vastly smaller debt, about 100 days’ wages,5 from his own debtor. When this second debtor begs for more time, the first refuses. When the king finds out, he is justifiably furious, and rescinds his forgiveness of the original debt, chastising the debtor for refusing to show forth the mercy he had received.
We may be troubled by the idea of being fully known, the idea of someone seeing the fullness of our debt. It worries me to know that God sees even those “secret faults”6 the Psalmist writes of, those “presumptuous sins”7 I ask to be cleansed of. I look on the unimaginably high debt of my sin and cannot conceive of it, cannot conceive of repaying it.
Luckily, God isn’t interested in our repayment. He doesn’t want a debt slave. He wants a child. He wants to love us, to know us. And in doing so, he wants to call us into knowing him. God wants us to dwell in him as God dwells in us. And a part of that is showing forth God’s mercy. When we bound into God, knowing him in love, we see the fullness of mercy that he has shown us. We also see how extraordinarily petty it is to hold grudges, to demand the repayment of debts owed to us when we have so thoroughly been liberated from our own debt.
But I still do it. I do it all the time. I hold grudges. I expect repayment of debts to me. But when I do this, stepping back, I realize I’m refusing to offer mercy, the same mercy God has showed to me. I’m not bounding into God out of love. I’m not knowing God, as he knows me.
God loves you. And he wants you to know it.
- Sebastian Brock, The Luminous Eye, pp. 43-45
- Psalm 139:1
- 1 Corinthians 13:12
- Footnotes to NRSV, Matthew 18:21-35
- Footnotes to NRSV, Matthew 18:21-35
- Psalm 19:12
- Psalm 19:13
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