The Difference Between Knowing And Understanding

I know a lot of things, but that doesn’t mean I understand them. I know my car does this piston thing, burning fuel to make it run, but I couldn’t explain much more about the workings of the engine. I know less about my computer and a tenth of that about the Internet.

Still, though I don’t understand them, I use those basic tools. I know how to drive, how to enter information into my computer, how to access any number of sites and services on the World Wide Web.

I know, but I don’t understand.

Quite frankly, I’m fine with things the way they are. There are mechanics, tech guys, and webmasters who understand these things and take care of fixing them when they break. I trust their expertise and don’t feel like I need to kibitz — they’re quite capable without my input.

Under the influence of postmodern thought, an idea has begun to creep into the church in the past decade or so, connected to knowing and understanding. Some in the emergent church announce it loudly, and now those in traditional, evangelical, Bible-believing churches are beginning to echo it.

The idea is that God is a mystery. He is, after all, so far beyond mankind that we shouldn’t expect to understand Him or to know what He’s like. Here’s an example of this kind of thinking from a comment to another blog:

For me, I find that looking for the answers is satisfying enough, even if I never find ultimate truth. Omniscience is a beautiful, holy ideal. I know I will never attain it, but why stop trying? My brain is wired, therefore, with a strange dilemma: there is no ultimate truth, yet I’m going to search for it.

Rather than critiquing or responding to that comment, I want, instead, to take what I hope is a Scriptural look at the mystery of God.

First, the Bible makes it clear that God is indeed far beyond Mankind, that He doesn’t do or think like us:

For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:9-9).

Such a situation seems to lend itself to belief that God is in fact a mystery. However, God has shown from the beginning of time that He had no desire to be a mystery.

First He made Man in His own image, after His own likeness. Just by looking at people, even in our fallen state, we can know something about God.

Second, God was engaged with Man, walking and talking with him rather than withdrawing and watching from afar. Even after man sinned and suffered the consequences, God interacted with Abel, Enoch, Noah, Job, Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Samuel, Solomon, Daniel, and many others.

He also gave His Law and for forty years gave a visible indication of His presence with the people He chose as His own. He stayed with them, fought for them, fed them, kept their cloths from wearing out, disciplined them, and fulfilled His promises to them.

Still, there was a mystery — something God kept in reserve that all those people only caught a hint of. That mystery was Jesus Christ:

Of this church I [Paul] was made a minister according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, so that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory (Col 1:25-27 – emphasis added).

All throughout the New Testament, then, the mystery is mentioned in light of its unveiling.

Mat 13:11: Jesus answered them, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven …

Rom 16:25 … according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past,

Eph 1:9 He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him

Eph 3:3 that by revelation there was made known to me the mystery …

[emphases added]

Furthermore, we learn from Scripture that Christ is the image of the invisible God, that it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him. Hebrews spells out succinctly God showing Himself to Man:

God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power (Heb 1:1-3a).

Is God a mystery?

How can we say that He is when He says He is not?

Does that mean we understand everything about Him? Not by a long shot.

But remember, understanding and knowing are not the same thing. We cannot let the thinking of our time push us off of the sure knowledge of God that we have — not because of our great intellect, which is nothing in comparison to God’s infinite knowledge, but because of God’s kindness and love which spurred Him to reveal Himself to us.

What He has told us, then, is sure knowledge, the testimony of omniscience. We can know what He has revealed, though we may never understand it.

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You can find additional posts on this topic here.

Published in: on August 10, 2011 at 7:28 pm  Comments (6)  
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  1. What a great post. Thanks!


  2. Thanks for the feedback, Sally. It dawned on me when reading another blogger discussing this subject that apparently some people are using the terms know and understand synonymously. The problem with that when it comes to spiritual matters is the way that line of thinking can undermine the authority of God’s Word. If we can’t understand/know, then the Bible is easy to dismiss. It’s also easy to “re-image” God since we can’t understand/know Him. To me He is this and to you He is that, and it’s all good.

    Well, no. Not if we realize God purposefully revealed Himself to us so that we can in fact KNOW Him — His mind (we have the mind of Christ), His spirit (we have the Spirit), His nature (we have His Word).

    OK, you’re getting a little picture of how much more I wanted to say on this subject, but the post was already running long.



  3. Becky, I love what you expressed here. I don’t have anything particular to add, but I wanted to say thanks for a thoughtful post. 🙂


  4. Thanks, Sarah. I always appreciate the feedback. Helps me know what kind of posts to write.



  5. Good work here, Becky. I think too it can boil down to semantics in some cases but not in the progressive thoughts that are building the apostate church. Most of those who deny or try to “re-image” (good term, BTW) God in His fullness cannot accept that the human brain is incapable of being “like God”. It’s the same old Garden variety lie mixed with truth. God cannot be God unless He is infinite in every way. We will never be equal or catch up. Don’t understand why that bothers some.


  6. The scary thing about saying God is a mystery that we can never know is it can allow false thoughts about Him to seep into our minds. God has revealed Himself through His Word and Jesus. No, we will never fully know God because He is God. But that doesn’t mean we don’t chase after Him to know Him as much as we can.


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