DISCIPLESHIP SERIES: Why Knowing Yourself Matters
The point in obtaining a true knowledge of ourselves is so we stop relying on our own righteousness, our own goodness, stop deluding ourselves—and cast the entirety of our being upon the righteousness of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. It is in ignorance of his true nature that the Christian continues to trust in his own understanding. In doing so, the unaware Christian tends to wander through life interpreting the world from his perspective and living for his own purposes rather than God's. In such cases, Christian faith may prove nothing more than something we lay alongside our life plan as a means to achieving personal peace and success.
While we remain ignorant of ourselves, we are contented with where we are and unlikely to despise the flesh. In doing so, we may find ourselves living comfortably in and of the world. Our loathsome sin nature continually entices us to resist surrendering our lives to God; willful ignorance of our true nature only strengthens this resistance. The person lacking true knowledge of his corrupt nature is easily contented with his present state and inwardly fears that a deeper level of dedication to Jesus will disrupt his sense of personal peace. Such persons heed their carnal nature as it whispers words of deceit, saying things like, "Don't get too serious about following Jesus—it will cost you all the stuff you enjoy!" or "Life just won't be as much fun."
However, contrary to a life of enforced austerity and the absence of pleasure, the denial of self is actually the means to true pleasure (joy) as one abides in Christ and discovers a new freedom from which one can truly enjoy life and the many and abundant gifts of God. How tragic that we resist the call of God because we foolishly listen to our deluded selves, believing that increased devotion will leave us in a lesser state, when in fact it is the path to unspeakable joy and enduring peace.
C. S. Lewis confronted this dilemma in his classic work, The Weight of Glory. He writes:
The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. … Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory [Harper Collins: New York, NY, 1949]).
Again, the person who understands his true nature and all of its corruptions would not be so easily pleased with himself or the shadows of happiness that derive from worldly things (i.e., "fooling about with drink and sex and ambition…"). It is God who renders us displeased with our present state and it is God who responds to this despair by revealing himself. The sorrowful knowledge of self opens our hearts to truly knowing God and this is the purpose of every life, the answer to every question, the solution to every problem, the haven in every storm. In Knowing God, J. I. Packer writes, "What were we made for? To know God. What aim should we set for ourselves in life? To know God. What is ‘eternal life' that Jesus gives? Knowledge of God. ‘This is eternal life ; that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent' (John 17:3)" (J.I. Packer, Knowing God [InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, IL, 1973]).
Packer continues, "What is the best thing in life, bringing more joy, more delight and contentment than anything else?" His answer to this question is provided by the prophet Jeremiah, who wrote, "This is what the LORD says: ‘Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches, but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me'" (Jer. 9:23-24, NIV 1984). In obtaining this knowledge of God we discover that true joy is found in a reconciled relationship to God, others, and ourselves and to the proper hierarchy of goods and people in creation. Upon knowing this and knowing ourselves, we would abandon our paltry lives to achieve these ends.
It must be understood that "knowing God" is more than knowing some things about him. Even the unregenerate can know things about God—many things—but still not know God in the way that matters. Dr. Packer distinguishes truly knowing God as being the condition in which "the unpleasantness we have had or, the pleasantness we have had not, through being Christians does not matter to us." Packer adds, "When people know God, losses and ‘crosses' cease to matter to them; what they have gained simply banishes these things from their minds."
The knowledge of what has been gained exists in direct proportion to the knowledge of one's lost state. When the living God reveals himself to sinners and they begin to listen, they cannot resist becoming aware of their guilt, and sin, and weakness, and folly—so much so that they judge their lives to be utterly without hope. Sickened by their offenses against this Holy God, they repent and cry out for forgiveness. God hears and responds to the sinner's cry with mercy and forgiveness; as one continues to listen to God, he realizes not only is he forgiven but this God is inviting him into a very personal relationship with himself—a friendship, or in Barth's phrase, a "covenant partner."
What God does to every Christian is pictured so beautifully in the story of Joseph. From prison to prime minister of Egypt, the life of Joseph illustrates the action of God in every Christian life. Not only does God rescue us from being Satan's prisoner, he does the unbelievable; he places us in a position of trust and service to the King of all kings! Joseph would not have been suited to the lofty responsibilities of his office were it not for the humiliation of his imprisonment. Likewise, we cannot assume our lofty role in God's kingdom until we acknowledge our unrighteousness and accept the righteousness of Christ, who reconciles us to God.
All Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version.
© 2011 by S. Michael Craven Permission granted for non-commercial use.
Comment on this article here
Subscribe to Michael's free weekly commentary here
Subscribe to Michael's free podcast here