This week I’m stopping to think about an unusual question: what damns us? I find Jesus’s perspective extremely thought-provoking and liberating. I’d love your feedback and insights from your own experience.
I’m on a crazy road trip with my parents to Maine. I hope you’re off to a good week.
What disconnects us from God and damns our life? In less spiritual language, what is ultimate loss?
Jesus gives a thought-provoking answer to this question at the end of his first major teaching. As I look back on thousands of sermons in church, I can’t recall a preacher discussing Jesus’s strange statement.
Jesus says that not being known by God is damning and leads to ultimate loss. “I never knew you; away from me,” Jesus replies to those seeking his favor at the last judgment (Matthew 7:23).
Jesus’s words here are counter-intuitive. Jesus doesn’t say, “You didn’t know me.” Many religious people assume that us not knowing God is the obvious path to damnation. But Jesus reverses the direction of our assumption and says that us not being known by him leads to ultimate separation and loss.
Jesus introduces this strange statement with an equally strange declaration. He says that it’s possible to prophesy, perform miracles, and drive out demons and still be unknown by him (Matthew 7:21-22).
These three activities were – and still remain – the spiritual trifecta, the exceptional signature of the spiritual superstars. Prophecy typically means speaking God’s word with power. Miracles often mean performing extraordinary acts that exceed human power. Exorcism means driving out satan’s power.
What could be greater proof of being in the inner circle with God, of having the key to heaven, of being one of God’s favorites?
In many churches around the world today, prophecy, miracles, and exorcism are the defining marks of an authoritative spiritual leader and a church in revival. We respect and even fear ministers who can do – or claim to do – these supernatural things. Crowds flock to churches and stadiums where prophecy, miracles, and exorcism are promised. Christian TV spotlights it.
And yet Jesus says that we can do all of this and still be unknown to God and lose everything: “I never knew you. Away from me,” Jesus replies.
What God really wants is to know us and thus for us to be known by God.
What does it mean to be known?
To be known is to fully open one’s life to another person, to be exposed and available to their presence, attention, and communication without hiding. To be known is to surrender control, abandon barriers, and embrace total intimacy.
As such, to be known is to enter into vulnerability. Our weaknesses, wounds, fears, and failures are uncovered. Our deepest dreams and desires come into the light. Masks are taken off. Secrets are shared. Carefully curated self-images are complicated or undone. The suppressed rises to the surface.
In many ways, then, to be known is the greatest risk. At the heart of every human is the frightening question, “If I am known, will I still be loved?” We are terrified that if we are truly known, we will be found out, and others will decide that we are unworthy of their love. In the light of who we really are, people’s reasons for loving us will disappear like shadows in the sun.
So we protect the perception that we are busy, important, and can do things that no one else can do. Perhaps it’s prophecy, miracles, and exorcism. Perhaps our sphere of performance requires other demonstrations of power. We live a curated, partially known life. We hold it together, hope to impress others, and perhaps even play the part of the spiritual leader. Our weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and failures remain hidden or only partially revealed. Our deepest dreams and desires are submerged. We assume that this is the way to be loved and not lose – to be undamned.
But Jesus interrupts this narrative of power and insists that being known by him is essential to undying life. He devalues the impressive deeds that only a few claim to do. In their place, he elevates this incredibly vulnerable but courageous act of revealing the self to Another, which even the poorest and most powerless person can do. Here I am. No more hiding. Enter into every room of my life. I want to be known by you.
It’s interesting that Jesus also connects not being known by God and not doing God’s will (Matthew 7:21). Jesus seems to believe that being known by God and being energized to live God’s life are inseparable. When we are known by God – when we live an open and vulnerable life – we discover the grace we need to live into the countercultural passions of God’s heart like loving our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48), giving generously to the poor (6:1-4), praying simply to our Father (6:5-15), and rejecting a life of anxious consumerism (6:25-34). The invisible, often unknown barriers to radical love are slowly dismantled as we are intimately known by God.
There is profound encouragement and hope hidden in Jesus’s fierce words, “I never knew you.”
God actually wants to know us. Our primary task is not to know the infinite God but to allow the infinite God to know us. And thus authentic spiritual practice requires an ever-increasing openness, vulnerability, and hospitality of our selves to God’s searching, embracing, cleansing presence (see Galatians 4:9). This life of being-known is far more important to God than prophecy, miracles, and exorcisms. This is what Jesus himself explicitly says.
Jesus’s counter-intuitive words make me stop and think.
Do we have practices that enable us to slow down and allow God to explore and know every inch of who we are – body, emotions, thoughts, beliefs, desires, relationships? Or do we protect our control by knowing God, performing spiritual acts, and remaining unknown to God and ourselves?
What rooms and wounds of our lives do we keep locked and hidden from God, others, and ourselves?
How would our lives and relationships change if we believed that being known by God is more important than miracles and impressing others?
I’ve been practicing sitting silently and welcoming God to explore my life, bit by bit, room by room. This has involved opening my memories to God, presenting my entire body to God part-by-part (I’m learning not to ignore or be ashamed of my body), releasing my anxiety and fears to God, welcoming God into my losses and griefs, and surrendering my desires and dreams to God.
I don’t believe in magic formulas, but I’ve found this practice to be healing, liberating, and energizing. I’ve also found that it affects my relationships and vocation. Opening my self to be known by God makes me more aware of who I am, more empathetic toward the complexity of who others are, and more attuned to what is truly important.
I want to invite you to stop and think.
How might you create space in your life to be known by God?
What rooms of your inner life may require special unlocking and opening, perhaps because you have found them shameful or painful or unlovable?
Who might you invite to travel with you in your journey of being known by God?
According to Jesus, this actively passive work is more important and eternally significant than performing miracles.
Being known undamns us.