Cultivating a Deeper Relationship with God

In his sermon, “Going Deeper with God,” on Exodus 33:18–34:9, former pastor Steven J. Cole encourages us not to be satisfied with where we currently are in our Christian life, but to “go deeper with God.”

Just as it takes work to keep the romantic fires alive in a marriage, so to continue growing as a Christian takes “forethought, effort, and constant attention,” says Cole. It’s never automatic. “It is easy to be lulled into complacency in your Christian life.”

Knowing God more deeply is an essential part of growth and Christian maturity. In a way, knowing God is both our path and our destination as Christians. John 17:3 affirms that eternal life is knowing the one true God through Jesus Christ. This “knowing” is not just an accumulation of facts, but a deep understanding of and intimacy with the person of Jesus, which leads us into greater faith, hope, and love. It is a knowing that leads us to take up our cross and follow Jesus, even in the seasons of darkness and difficulty. It is a knowing that ultimately leads to life of joy and peace. And “Since God is infinite,” Cole argues, “we can always know Him more deeply.”

We should note that this knowing is not something that we achieve on our own, but something that God must draw us into. Even so, we are called to draw near to him with the promise that he will draw near to us (James 4:8). We must, says Cole, actively “fight against spiritual complacency.” With this in mind, Cole suggests five ideas for getting to know God deeper.

First, Cole urges us to have a holy dissatisfaction. In Exodus 33:18, Moses asks God to reveal his glory. Cole notes that this request is somewhat surprising coming from the Moses who was used by God to perform miracles, spoke with God on the mountain, and talked face-to-face with him in the tabernacle. But Moses was not complacent, he wanted to know God even more deeply and he is rewarded for this desire.

In the New Testament, God came in the person of Jesus to display his glory. In John 1:1, we see that Jesus became flesh so that he could reveal the Father to us (John 17:25-26). So, if we want to know God more deeply, we need to get to know Jesus. This means that we need to get past the “nice person, good teacher, helpful guide” sort of language that is often used in reference to Jesus, and take a fresh look at what the Scriptures actually have to say about him.

When we carefully examine the Scriptures, we will see that God is good. This is Cole’s second point—that we must understand God’s abundant goodness. “God’s goodness,” he says “is an attribute that underlies all that He is in His person and all that He does toward His creation.” This is a God who is for us, who desires the flourishing of his whole creation.

Cole notes that the serpent in Genesis 3 was the first to throw shade on God’s goodness when he tempted Eve in the garden. The serpent caused her to question whether God’s commands really were good. Instead of trusting in the goodness of God, the first human pair decided that they would try to be gods themselves. It didn’t work out. Rather than going deeper into the knowledge of God, and hence, toward greater joy and fulfillment, humans went away from the knowledge of God resulting in their banishment from the garden and the fracturing of relationships between God and their fellow creatures.

Doubting God’s goodness leads us away from God. Cole says it succinctly: If you “doubt God’s goodness, you won’t trust God. You’ll keep your distance.” And keeping our distance is what many of us have been doing ever since the Fall.

Reflecting on the goodness of God in his book, Seriously Dangerous Religion, Dr. Iain Provan corrects a view about God that many hold: “Biblical religion is not about fearing a distant, dominating boss, whose real desires can never be fathomed, and trying to work out, somehow, how to extract blessing from him.”¹ Rather, the Bible reveals a God who is compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in loving kindness (Exodus 34:6-7)— a God who invites us into a deep relationship with Him.

Cole’s third point is that we need to understand God’s sovereign grace. In Cole’s sermon, this point could use a bit more fleshing out, and he doesn’t seem to make space for theological differences in understanding God’s sovereignty. However, Cole is right in pointing out that, essential to knowing God more deeply is remembering that we are totally dependent on God’s grace.

Furthermore, God’s grace helps us to get a right view of ourselves. It’s not that we are useless trash and we’re just lucky that God would even think about us. On the contrary, the Scriptures affirm that all people are God’s image bearers, endowed with intrinsic value. The truth to be emphasized here is that though we are incredibly valuable, we are warped beyond our own repair by sin. Fortunately, God doesn’t drop a rulebook in our lap and ask us to climb back to him; instead, he takes steps to actively reach down to us.

Fourth in Cole’s list of suggestions, is paying attention to God’s holiness, forgiveness, and justice. If we want to know God, we need to get to know what he loves and also what he hates. God has done, is doing, and will do something about the evil in our world, and that involves justice. Because of his holiness, God must punish sin. Thankfully, he is slow to anger and ready to forgive, so that in the Bible (and in our own lives) there is ample opportunity for repentance.

Cole also looks at a controversial verse, Exodus 34:7, which talks about God visiting children with their parents’ iniquity. Cole rightly points out that this does not mean that children will be punished for their parents’ sin. “Every person will be punished for his or her own sins (Ezek. 18:20).”

However, in our fallen world, children often must deal with the effects of their parents’ sin. A life of drugs, abuse, or selfishness lived by a parent will inevitably hurt their children. Although it will be harder for some—because of the sins of their ancestors—every person is offered a choice to turn to the living God and follow his way.

Finally, Cole argues that to go deeper with God, we need to be concerned about others. Cultivating a deeper relationship with God does not mean entering into a self-contained, spiritually-infused quest for personal enlightenment. Rather, it involves reaching out to others and serving them. This service flows from a deep relationship with God that understands his heart for the world. The command to love others is so important to God that the Bible teaches that if we don’t love others, we don’t really know God. (1 John 4:8).

Growing deeper in our relationship with God is neither a “let go and let God” scenario, nor is it a self-propelled plan for moral transformation. We must actively pursue God as he actively pursues us, knowing that it is he, not us, who will complete the work he started in us (Philippians 1:6).

Knowing God more deeply involves digging into the Scriptures to find out who he really is and not settling for pat answers; it means using our brains and our hearts to wrestle through hard questions; it means paying attention to God’s work in the world; it means allowing our hearts and minds to be transformed by the Gospel.