A basic tenant of the Christian faith is that God knows everything. God is omnipresent, omnipotent, and all-knowing (the fancy word is omniscient.) We are taught that from childhood.
And, God not only knows everything about big stuff like the universe, but also knows all about us — not only collectively, but as individuals. "Indeed, the very hairs on your head are all numbered." (Luke 12:7; also Mt. 10:30) Among the millions on earth, God knows me through and through. Knows that today the number of hairs on my head is less than in my youth.
This belief of an all-knowing God isn't just a Christian belief, it is of the full Judeo-Christian tradition. From antiquity. The psalmist says it well — whether it feels comforting or discomforting — in the words of Psalm 139: (selected verses)
Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you
discern my thoughts from afar. You trace my journeys and my resting-places and are acquainted with all my ways. Indeed, there
is not a word on my lips, but you, O Lord, know it altogether.
Where can I go then from your Spirit? where can I flee from your presence? If I climb up to heaven, you are there; if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
If I say, "Surely the darkness will cover me, and the light around me turn to night," Darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day; darkness and light to you are both alike.
My body was not hidden from you, while I was being made in secret and woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb; all of them were written in your book;From The Psalter in the 1979 The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 794-795.
If one believes this, there is no escape from God's eyes and ears. No need to think that I can hide my deeds by staying in the shadow of night, by hiding in my bed under the covers. God even knew me — knew all about me — even when I was being created in the womb. ... And God even knows the number of hairs on my head now and all through the stages of this life.
God's knowledge and awareness is not limited to we humans. The birds of the air, beasts of the fields, and fish of the sea do not act and die without God knowing all about it. In the Matthew quote above where Jesus says that the hairs of my head are numbered, he also says that not even a sparrow falls to the earth without God's awareness. (Mt. 10:29)
And it's not just that that God knows what I'm always doing; God even knows what I am thinking about — and even before I might put thoughts into words! (From the above psalm:) ...you discern my thoughts from afar. ... Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, but you, O Lord, know it altogether. No escape!
Frankly, this can be quite disconcerting, even scary. As a child around Christmas time, it was bad enough that Santa was always watching ... and saw everything. When you're naughty, when you're nice. When you're sleeping, when you're awake. Oh, my! Not much comfort here. Oh, you better watch out! And this pressure was on top of already knowing that God was keeping an eye on you, most likely looking to see if you made a mistake.
Eventually, we do rid ourselves of the threat of that all-knowing Santa Claus. (Unfortunately, we also must rid ourselves of knowing that he's coming to town.) But, for believers, the all-knowing, always-watching God is still out there, watching, listening. How do I deal with this? I assume I'm not alone in being one who values some personal privacy. I may share a lot about myself and even many of my thoughts. But, there is stuff I don't want anyone else to know. Even by those closest to me. And, I know there is much that I'd rather God knew nothing about ... or could hear it first from me. This belief in an all-knowing God — once you wrap your head around the whole idea and implications — can be more than just a bit disconcerting.
Well, I guess I could be tempted to think that this is all a bit of an exaggeration. Come on. There are billions of us (not counting the sparrows). God's eyes and ears on this one little me? Maybe it's really more like God will come, watch, and listen when I invite him. Maybe God waits for me to ask for his eyes and ears. ... But, if I try to convince myself of all this, deep down I think I'll realize that my construction was just a ruse. Just my way of shaping reality to fit my desires. I do realize that when push comes to shove I'll still know that God really does know. And, maybe I'd hear God say, "Deal with it!"
But, along with this disturbing and perhaps even threatening side of the All-Knowing God belief, I've learned that there is a comforting side — even a nice realistic side. In my prayers, I don't have to play games with God. I don't have to figure out how to find a saving-face way to talk to God about how I screwed up ... or about the thoughts of revenge I'm having. I can cut right to the chase. "God, you already know about how I hurt my friend ... let's talk about that." No need to set the stage, find the right words. I'm talking with one who already knows.
In a humorous light, if you've ever heard preacher, biblical scholar, and writer Tony Campolo speak more than once, you know you'll probably hear a few repeat stories. ("It's Friday ... But, Sunday's coming!") One of my favorites is about God and prayer. Tony says that he's praying and says something like, "God, and please be with Mary in the hospital with ..." Then God interrupts and booms, "Oh no! That's terrible. I didn't know. ... What hospital is she in?" After the laughter subsides, you are left with the point that while we do want and need to talk with God, we are talking in a context that God already knows.
With this all-knowing God understanding, it's easy to focus on God always aware of our downfalls: ... what we have done, and what we have left undone. But, it is comforting to realize that God is also aware of the good we do or even want to do. When I was a school principal, I remember being in prayer the evening after a consultation with a teacher that ended up as a confrontation I had not intended. My prayer was something like, "God, I really wanted to have a constructive and helpful conversation. I think I was saying the 'right' words." Before continuing to explain myself further, I sensed hearing God say, "I know. I was there. You did try. I probably couldn't have given you better words than you used." I felt such a comfort. God knew ... and God understood. There was no need to explain or try to justify myself. God knew.
And, God knows our joys. In praying about our celebrations, we might even realize that God has already started dancing with us! Knowing that God joins in our celebration make the joy even greater.
In similar manner, God already knows our sorrows. We still need to talk with God about it, but we can do so knowing that God is also experiencing our grief. The psalmists have such beautiful ways of putting things. In Psalm 56 the psalmist talks with God: "You have noted my lamentation; put my tears into your bottle; are they not recorded in your book" (v. 8) God has a bottle of my tears.
Angry with God? Go ahead and share it with God. Vent! God already knows the anger ... best to express it heart to heart. The same with our doubts and questions. God knows they are there; no need to pretend we believe and accept everything. Who better to bring our questions to?
However, as I write this, a question haunts me. Haunts me because I think I'm actually afraid to ask it. Where might probing the question lead me? And, will the question have a satisfying answer. Not so much satisfying to you as a reader, but even satifying to myself. It's a simple question: "So what?" Does it matter that God knows?
I do believe this all-knowing, all-understanding view of God. My own prayers are based on knowing, believing, and trusting this omniscient God. But, beyond helping me pray openly, does it really make any difference?
Jesus says that even when the sparrow falls to the ground and dies, God is aware; God knows. Jesus doesn't say that God reaches out and saves the sparrow from death, perhaps even a very harrowing, free-fall death. He doesn't say that maybe God intervenes and causes a breeze to carry the bird to a warm nest for at least a peaceful death. No, regardless God watching and knowing, the sparrow falls and dies. What difference does it make that God's eye was always on the sparrow? ... I don't have an answer — at least a nice, pat, satisfying one.
But, even in this cloud of not really understanding or having a satisfying answer, I think it really does make a difference. I think that believing God's eye was on that sparrow — and God knowing the number of hairs on my head — really does matter and makes a difference.
I do believe that it does matter. And that it makes a difference. For some reason it makes all the difference in the world.