Socrates was famous for arguing that in order to be wise, one must know oneself. When the ancient philosopher Thales of Miletus was asked what was the most difficult thing to know, he answered, “Thyself.” Likewise, Jean-Jacques Rousseau acknowledged that it was not nearly as easy as he had assumed to know himself. Near the end of his life, he conceded that it was “arrogant and rash” to profess virtues that you cannot live up to, and retreated into seclusion. John Calvin underscored the absolute necessity of accurate self-knowledge to knowing God in the opening pages of his monumental work, Institutes of the Christian Religion. He wrote:
Nearly all wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists in two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves (Institutes, 1.1.1).
Calvin argued that one could not truly know God without knowing oneself and that one couldn’t truly know oneself without knowing God. Calvin acknowledged the obvious dilemma in saying, “which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern” (Institutes, 1.1.1).
For me, the pursuit of accurate self-knowledge is an essential starting point in modern Christian discipleship. I believe this is made more so in our day due to the overwhelming disposition of our culture toward always making people feel good about themselves. Additionally, the increasingly secular milieu of the nation obscures any meaningful comparison to the one to whom there is no comparison: Jesus Christ. In the words of Calvin, “As long as we do not look beyond the earth, being quite content with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue, we flatter ourselves most sweetly, and fancy ourselves all but demigods” (Institutes 1.1.1).
Another modern feature that contributes to this lack of true self-awareness occurs in the very gospel that we often preach and teach. Consider the modern approach of sharing the gospel that relies on the diagnostic question, “If you were to die tonight, do you know with certainty that you would go to heaven?” There is a subtle self-serving emphasis here that appeals primarily to the sinner’s personal benefit (eternal justification) rather than promoting a penitent condition that leads one to obedience and the pursuit of sanctification. It is a consumer-driven bent that unwittingly follows the principles of marketing-package the message in the most attractive terms. In the end, the gospel may end up being received and understood as nothing more than an addendum to already well-lived life. In other words, “I’m really okay, but I know I need Jesus to get into heaven.”
In contrast, the New Testament shows Jesus and the apostles emphasizing the theme of repentance (Matt. 3:2, 4:17, Mark 1:15, 2:17, 6:12, Luke 5:32, 13:3, 13:5). Unlike the promise of personal gain, the demand for repentance stops the hearers dead in their tracks and draws their attention to the central truth of their condition and the beginning of self-awareness-we are not righteous and we have offended God. We are¬¬ sinners at war with God (see Rom. 5:10). There is a fearful element here (also essential to wisdom; see Prov. 9:10) that beckons sinners to turn from self and sin and receive the undeserved mercy of God! When John the Baptist saw the self-righteous Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he cursed them, saying, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:7–8, emphasis mine). The religious Jews were deceived, relying on their own goodness or righteous to reconcile them to God. Thus the command to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” was issued, meaning turn from your unworthy and spiritually dead selves (see Eph. 2:1, Col. 2:13) because true spiritual fruit can only grow out of a new life in Christ.
We are able to think of ourselves as being better than we are for several reasons. One, our conceptions of good and bad are often rooted in moral degrees rather than moral purity or holiness that conforms to the moral law of God in act, attitude, and nature. As such we can quickly survey our world and find others who are worse than we are and comfortably say “I’m not that bad.” I am certainly better by moral degree than Adolf Hitler-I haven’t committed genocide. However, does that mean I was born morally pure or righteous before God while Hitler wasn’t? Don’t we all posses the exact same sinful nature as Adolf Hitler? The only difference lies in the fact that he willingly acted in accordance with his nature to extremes. An accurate understanding of myself would recognize that I am just as capable of such wickedness and it is only by God’s grace that I haven’t given full expression to my capacity for evil. As Paul said, “I know nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh” (Rom. 7:18).
The whole theme of the Scriptures confirm, “None is righteous, no, not even one” (Rom. 3:10) and “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Jeremiah confirms, “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick…” (Jer. 17:9). Every thought, every action, every inclination of the human heart suffers from a divergence from righteousness, being bent toward self and sin. The full acceptance of this fact is essential to growing in the knowledge of and obedience to God. Once again, Calvin is helpful on this point:
…we cannot seriously aspire to him before we begin to become displeased with ourselves. For what man in all the world would not gladly remain as he is-what man does not remain as he is-so long as he does not know himself, that is, while content with his own gifts, and either ignorant or unmindful of his own misery? (Institutes, 1.1.1)
How does one endeavor to become truly “displeased” with himself-truly mindful of his own misery-so he can live and rest in the righteousness of Christ? The Psalmist offers a simple starting point when he writes, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23–24). One must understand the full power and consequence of this invitation to God. It is analogous to the movie hero, wounded and dying, who resigns himself to the hands of the medic to remove the life-threatening bullet. Absent any anesthesia, the would-be physician plunges his knife deep into muscle and past bone, working to locate and remove the offending object. All the hero can do is grit his teeth, knowing that the pain-albeit temporary-is unavoidable if he wants to live.
It is here-with remorse and humility-that we daily invite the Great Physician to probe the depths of our being, exposing our true sin nature in the hope of delivering us from its effect. Like the movie hero who otherwise has no hope of living, we surrender ourselves into the loving hands of our Lord, knowing that when his work is done he will apply the soothing balm of grace to cover our wound and give us new life.