[Partially adapted from Chapter 2 in Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live and Die for Bigger Things]
At a gut level, many of us want to know God. We want to know who He is, what His plan is, and what He wants of us. We weary ourselves with countless activities in pursuit of Him: Sunday school, worship services, Bible studies, prayer meetings, evangelism, personal purity . . . and the list goes on.
I remember reading J. I. Packer’s classic Knowing God back in college. This amazing work taught me much of what I know about God, but as good as it is, Packer would never want me to substitute his book for a life lived in relationship with God. Just as we would never claim to know someone personally after reading his or her biography, we must not mistakenly assume we know God because we learn about Him in church or from books. To truly know someone, we need to spend time with that person, participating in his or her world.
God is among the vulnerable, seeking their good. When we join Him in this, we begin to know Him better because we are in relationship with Him and His children. As Bonhoeffer pointed out, there’s a connection between justice and our ability to know God.
The distinction between static and dynamic art is a helpful way to see the difference between knowing about someone and knowledge that comes from being in relationship. A painting is static. It can tell us many things about the painter, but we can never claim to completely know the painter in a personal way simply from viewing the art. However, when we participate with an artist in the creation of the art, we come much closer to a personal relationship.
For example, imagine a choir, an orchestra, and a conductor—this type of art changes, develops, and grows in response to relationship. As individuals contribute to dynamic art, the art takes on collaborative life. Beethoven’s famous Fifth Symphony had really only begun when he finished inking the score, for then it was ready to be brought to life. Even now, more than two hundred years later, we are still enraptured by Beethoven’s musical magic as his artistic vision is brought into being by those who participate in it.
The musician who carefully follows the score and pays close attention to the direction of the conductor will be in closer communication with the original artist. Participation with the artist and knowledge of the artist are somehow connected—and this is true of God as well.
God’s creation involves both static art and dynamic art. Part of His static art is reflected in the skies and in nature. We are familiar with verses that speak of how we know God through such art.
The heavens proclaim his righteousness,
and all peoples see his glory. (Psalm 97:6)
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge. (Psalm 19:1–2)
The heavens—the sun, the moon, and the stars—literally communicate something about God. They display knowledge. The heavenly bodies are visible, tangible evidence of who God is. We know God through His created order that exists in the skies and shows in the sunrise, sunset, and colors of the rainbow.
However, God’s static art only tells us part of who God is. We tend to understand the role Scripture reading plays in learning about and knowing God, and many of us understand the connection between prayer and solitude in knowing God, or the connection between purity and an understanding of God’s holiness.
Fewer Christians, however, make the connection between our ethical action toward others—our justice or lack of it—and our knowledge of God. If we gain knowledge of God through His static creation, how much more do we gain through God’s dynamic creation of His people and the symphony of justice He desires to play in and through them?
Just as Psalm 19 shows how we know God through creation, Psalm 9:16 shows how we know God through justice: “The Lord is known by his acts of justice; the wicked are ensnared by the work of their hands.”
We know people through their actions, whether just or unjust. As philosopher Paul Moser has written, “[the apostle] John regards a filial attitude of loving obedience toward God as necessary and sufficient for properly knowing God.” Static art helps us know by seeing; dynamic art helps us know by seeing and participating.
When God asks us to know Him in this dynamic sense, He is, in effect, saying, Know Me by knowing how I bring justice and shalom together in a beautiful, just society. Understand your unique, individual, and active part in restoring what I intended.
God’s dynamic art is the part of creation that includes people, God’s purposes, and the future—in other words, things not yet fully realized. Dynamic art is the part that involves us in collaboration and relationship. The grand plan, the great orchestration God wants to achieve through his dynamic art, is peace, unity, goodness, and relationship—all to His glory.
Justice, goodness, unity, and grace are all words that describe the harmony God desires—shalom . They are His musical notes, melody, rests, and crescendos—the music He has written for His creation. We are meant to participate in concert, dynamically, with God’s plan. Jesus is giving us the same work to do that He did. We can count on it.