True life, eternal life, involves knowing God and having a real relationship with Jesus, whom the Father sent (John 17:3). Unfortunately, we often settle for so much less than God yearns for us to experience of Him. Sometimes, this is because we refuse to let go of our familiar ways of doing things. Sometimes because we are unaware of deeply God longs to have an intimate relationship with us.

The stench of stale cigarette smoke, an uncleaned toilet, mold, and speed sweating out of my friend's body permeated the air. In that jarring moment, the Holy Spirit reawakened me to my need to truly experience God, to genuinely know Him.

"You know," I began, "some folks talk about addicts as folks aching for God, but who took what they thought were shortcuts to get there without having to do the religious thing. Next thing they know, they are in bondage to Satan and can't get out of their addiction."

"I know I have had a hunger for God all these years," the guy said, "but I have to decide to surrender to Him for Him to be real to me, and I don't know how to do that. It's just so much easier and quicker to get a fix, and that's what I know how to do."

As I left that rat hole halfway house, my friend and his long journey out of darkness reminded me that there are no shortcuts to intimacy with God. He made a point to tell me that living was devoid of life without a genuine experience of God.

Those who crave a fix are not the only people who hunger for God. There is a "God-shaped hole" in each of us. Nothing can satisfy the soul-ache, the spiritual-hunger, the relentlessness in our hearts, but God Himself. Nothing else, no matter how socially acceptable, can satiate this God-hunger. Our Creator made us crave a relationship with Him. We need His presence in our lives to be complete. He also gave us the freedom to pursue, ignore, and reject Him.

God also gave us the freedom to choose substitutes, even so-called spiritual ones, over Him. I am convinced that the evil foe we face is perfectly happy for us to substitute some form of pious-sounding religious hooey for truly knowing God. However, life, real life, eternal life that begins right here and now and never ends, is only found in knowing God.

This biblical language for knowing God is bold, daring, and dangerous. Think of it: the Creator, the Almighty that no one can adequately describe, the Ruler of the universe, the only true God wants us to know Him, and be known, by Him. And the language used to declare this truth is risky, frank, and personal.

Our modern translations have taken the metaphor out of some of the passages that help us understand this. The word in Scripture for sexual intimacy was to "know" someone — see * below. The Holy Spirit is daringly saying that we were made to know God — to experience His personal presence in a very close and intimate way in our daily lives. In other words, "to know God" is so much more than just "knowing facts about God" — after all, Jesus promised that he and the Father and the Comforter would come to us, live in us, make His home with us, and reveal Himself to us (John 14:19-23). That's intimate knowing!

Think about this for a minute! The concept is mind-blowing. God wants us to experience His presence in our lives. He wants us to have a real relationship with Him. And at a soul level, we know it's true — something deep inside us yearns for this. That's why so many of the Psalms speak so powerfully to our hearts. They are personal, honest, open, and yearning. That's why some worship songs grab our hearts: they speak the truth about our yearning souls.

  • And He walks with me, and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own; ...
  • As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you.
  • My spirit pants for Thee, O Living word!
  • What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear...
  • What a friend I've found, closer than a brother ... Jesus, friend forever.
  • Rather than settling for less, let's call each other to know God.

So rather than settling for tired, stale, religious rituals and forms, let's call each other to truly "know" God. But as my friend at the halfway house reminded me, we have to choose to surrender our preconceptions, biases, and traditions to Him, and let Him "draw us ever nearer"!

But where do we begin on this quest?

For centuries, Matthew was the gospel most cherished in the church. Over the last couple of hundred years, that has not been the case, and we have lost many treasures found in this gospel. The Holy Spirit blessed us with what I call the "Immanuel sayings" in the gospel of Matthew. These sayings point us to four ways we can experience God in Jesus:

  • Through the story of Scripture with Jesus as a focus — having Jesus come alive through his story — (Matthew 1:22-23).
  • Through radical forgiveness, accountability, fellowship, and worship — genuine Christian family — (Matthew 18:20).
  • Through loving service to those in need — caring for others as Jesus did — (Matthew 25:40).
  • Through reaching past barriers and helping others know and live for Jesus — walking beside people until Christ is formed in them — (Matthew 28:18-20).

I can't think of a better place to begin our search for knowing God than these four Immanuel sayings.

I can't think of a better way to evaluate the balance of a church than by looking at how they give their people the opportunity to experience Jesus' presence in these four ways.

I can't think of a better way to evaluate my own spiritual health than to honestly evaluate how I'm participating in each of these four opportunities to know and experience Immanuel:

  • Through the story of Jesus.
  • By living as a genuine family in Jesus.
  • As we compassionately serve others like Jesus.
  • When leaving our comfort zone and crossing cultural barriers to see people formed into genuine disciples of Jesus.

Let's not settle for religion, simply going to church, or existing on fast-food spirituality. God longs to fill that hole in our soul and become real to us as Immanuel. We want the Holy Spirit to draw us near to our Father as we become JesuShaped children who genuinely know their Father and His love!

* See Genesis 4:1; Genesis 4:17; Genesis 4:25; and Luke 1:34 — all use the term "knew" or "known" for the act of sexual intimacy.