Nosce te Ipsum (Know Thyself)
“Who Am I?” This self-imposed question erupts from deep within every human soul. While not every person may express the same degree of angst at every phase of his/her life, the way that we go about life casting ourselves in a certain role and presenting ourselves in a certain light reveals a deep desire to have and to project a particular identity. That identity may be real, or it may be a mask. (Sorry, ‘tis the season to include a mask in every social setting. J) Our false identity, which we invest in and often protect with great enthusiasm, arises out of believing ourselves to be separate from God. “I’m here on my own to make the best of it. I must succeed at being all I can be… My destiny is all up to me.” But false identities also come with the baggage of fear, insecurity, futility, and loneliness.
God created man in his image with the intent that we learn of our true identity through His self-revelation in Christ. This learning is not a quantified knowledge for knowledge sake, but rather transformational. In fact this knowing of God will continue for eternity in the sense that we will always be growing in our knowledge of who God is. Even as His glorified children, He will still be the only Eternal to be worshipped – the creator, ALL knowing, ALL powerful, infinite in His very being. While no longer restricted by mortal flesh, we will still be ‘finite’ as a part of HIS creation. A.W. Tozer noted that there is a “vast difference between being glorified and being Divine.” We were never intended to be God as God is God. The mystery of the ages is that we would become who we are meant to be in Christ. In Matthew’s gospel account, Jesus says “follow me” seven times. “The self that begins the spiritual journey is the self of our own creation, the self we thought ourselves to be. This is the self that dies on the journey. The self that arrives is the self that was loved into existence by Divine Love. This is the person we were destined from eternity to become—the I that is hidden in the “I AM.” (David Benner, The Gift of Being Yourself.)
The “I AM” statements of both the old and new testaments help us as children of God to hear and respond to our spiritual parent who knows who He is from all eternity past even as He invites us along on the journey to know both Him and ourselves. But in this knowing there is also a hiddenness, if for no other reason than God is the creator, and we are part of creation, (even as the NEW creation.)
“Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior.” (Isa 45:15)
God’s hiddenness is not intended to frustrate us, but rather to draw us in, to stir us, to inspire us, and to ultimately satisfy that very part of us created in his image desiring to learn, to discover, and adapt with real minds, hearts, and wills! In being fully human, Jesus experienced of necessity the hiddenness of God even as the words of the Psalmist (chpt 22) come from his lips on the cross: “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” The hiddenness of God is not a statement of futility, but a reality of faith. As Martin Luther suggests, faith is always understanding in concealment. “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” (G.K. Chesterton, in Orthodoxy.)
It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings. (Prov 25:2)
And so as we begin this series, I pose two questions intended to stir us to think about both our present understanding of ourselves and of God and a future together from a different perspective. Perhaps they are the kind of questions you’ve never thought about before. “What do you hope to learn about God a thousand years from now?” What do you hope to yet learn about yourself?
Authors and philosophers down through the ages have addressed the self-reflective nature of man, often as a separate discipline from the study of God. Alexander Pope wrote a poem entitled “An Essay on Man, Epistle II”, which begins “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan, The proper study of mankind is Man.” His 1700’s contemporary Benjamin Franklin, noted the great difficulty of knowing one’s self in Poor Richard’s Almanack: “There are three Things extremely hard, Steel, a Diamond, and to know one’s self.”
Much earlier in history the ancient Greek classic thinkers like Plato and Socrates parsed the concept of self-knowledge, or measuring yourself, (temet nosce). “No one is free who has not obtained the empire of himself. No man is free who cannot command himself.” – Pythagoras.
In The Gift of Being Yourself, The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery, David Benner takes time to pursue the all-important connection between self-knowledge and the knowledge of God. Throughout his book he delineates between ‘knowledge of’ something and transformational knowledge. After the quotes from the book below, we will follow Peter’s transformational knowing from chapter one.
“Christian spirituality is taking on the mind and heart of Christ as we recognize Christ as the deepest truth of our being. It is actualizing the Christ who is in us. It is becoming fully and deeply human. It is experiencing and responding to the world through the mind and heart of God as we align ourselves with God’s transformational agenda of making all things new in Christ. It is participating in the very life of God.”
“Christian spirituality involves a transformation of the self that occurs only when God and self are both deeply known. Both, therefore, have an important place in Christian spirituality. There is no deep knowing of God without a deep knowing of self, and no deep knowing of self without a deep knowing of God. John Calvin wrote, “Nearly the whole of sacred doctrine consists in these two parts: knowledge of God and of ourselves.”
Peter’s Transformational Knowing
To illustrate how this unfolds, consider the spiritual journey of Peter. The rock on which Christ promised to build his church was remarkably crumbly. But none of his disciples showed more growth in understanding of both self and God during the three years of accompanying Christ. Let us look in on Peter’s knowing at several points on this journey. The first of these is his initial meeting of Christ and Christ’s call to follow him. What might we assume that Peter knew about himself and God at this point? Andrew, Peter’s brother, met Jesus first, right away accepting the invitation to follow him. Andrew then went to Peter, told him that he had found the Messiah and brought Peter to Jesus to see for himself. Peter’s response was the same as that of his brother – he immediately left his fishing nets to follow Jesus. (Matt 4:18-22) From this account it is safe to assume that Peter accepted Jesus as the Messiah. If so, we could say that he believed that Jesus was the long-hoped-for deliverer from the oppression of the Romans. At this point, this knowing was a belief, a hope built on the conviction of his brother and his own brief contact with Jesus.
But what might he have known about himself? I am speculating, of course, but perhaps if asked about himself he might have told us that he was a fisherman. Possibly, he might have added that he was somewhat hot-tempered and impulsive. And perhaps he would have told us about his longing for a savior for his people- and this would show that he was a man of hope and faith. It is, however, highly unlikely that he could have known the depths of his fears or the magnitude of his pride. These levels of knowing of self awaited deeper knowing of God.
Moving ahead to his encounter with Jesus walking on the water (Matt 14:22-12), it seems reasonable to assume that by now Peter’s belief that Jesus was the Christ would have been even more solid. Peter had witnessed Jesus’ numerous miracles, had heard him preach to large crowds and dialogue with individuals, and had opportunity to watch him closely.
But on this night, Peter was not thinking about any of this. Out in a boat in the midst of a severe storm, Peter and the other disciples were preoccupied with their immediate safety. Suddenly seeing Jesus walking on the water toward them, they were terrified. Jesus’ words to them must have been instantly reassuring, “Courage! It is I! Do not be afraid.”
Peter immediately cried out in response, “If it is you, tell me to come to you across the water.” Christ invited him to step out of the boat and come to him, and Peter did just that. If asked what he now knew of God after this experience, Peter might tell of his increasing conviction that Jesus was indeed the Christ. He might also speak of his developing hope after witnessing Christ’s miracles. He might say that he felt reassured in knowing that God had heard the prayers of his people and had at last sent their Redeemer.
After what he knew of himself, he might be able now to speak of his fears. While he had the courage to step out on the waters at Christ’s bidding, he also experienced the terror of beginning to sink when he looked at the waves rather than Christ. But- he would likely quickly add- this had only served to increase his trust in Christ.
Jumping ahead to Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet (John 13), we see Peter’s initial refusal to allow Christ to wash his feet followed by Christ’s prediction of Peter’s betrayal. What might Peter have said of his knowing of God and self at this point?
It seems probably that Peter might now speak with confidence about his love of Jesus, the fervency of his belief that Jesus was the Christ, and his utter disbelief and shock at Jesus’ prediction of his impending denial of him. This matter of the denial must have left him profoundly puzzled. It must have been inconceivable to him that he could ever deny Jesus. Did Jesus not know the depths of his love? Did he not know of his heroic courage and the strength of his convictions? He must have assumed that Christ was mistaken in this prediction. Doubting Jesus was easier than doubting himself. He had not yet encountered either his pride or the extent of his fear.
Briefly looking in on Peter after his denial of Christ (John 18:15-27), we would probably find him self-absorbed in regret and anguish. In a moment he had been confronted by his lack of courage, his treasonous lack of loyalty and the depths of his fears. He might also be thinking about how easily his pride had been wounded by Jesus’ prediction of his denial. Perhaps he was also remembering his protestation that “Even if all lose faith, I will not” (Mark 14:29). In short, he had encountered his weakest and most despicable self, and he was likely fill with self-loathing.
Finally, what can we say about Peter’s knowing of himself and God at the point of his encounter with the risen Christ (John 21:15-25)? After the death of Christ, Peter and a number of the other disciples had gone back to fishing. What else was left? After a night of catching absolutely nothing, they met an unknown person on the shore in the early dawn, a man who asked about their catch and encouraged them to try casting the net on the other side of the boat. Immediately their nets were filled to overflowing the fish. And immediately they recognized their Lord. Peter quickly leaped overboard and began swimming toward shore.
Mirroring the pattern of his denials, Jesus asked him three times if he loved him more than the other disciples. This gave Peter three chances to declare his love – one of each denial. Jesus’ response was to repeat his invitation for Peter to follow him (John 21:19), precisely the same invitation that had begun their relationship.
What might Peter tell us at this point about his knowing of God and himself? I suspect he would have first said how little he had truly known either himself or Jesus prior to this. With regard to Jesus, I suspect he would repeat with amazement how forgiving Jesus was. What he had known as objective information from witnessing Jesus’ encounters with others, he now knew deeply and personally. And I am sure he would have spoken of his new level of readiness to follow the Christ whom he now knew in his heart, not just his mind.
The interweaving of the deepening knowledge of self and God that we have seen in peter’s experience illustrates the way genuine knowing of God and self occurs. Peter could not truly know Jesus apart from knowing himself in relation to Jesus. He did not know himself until Jesus showed him who he was. But in learning about himself, he also came to truly know Jesus.
Deep knowing of God and deep knowing of self always develop interactively. The result is the authentic transformation of the self that is at the core of Christian spirituality.
Questions: What have you learned about yourself as a result of your experience with God? And what do you know about God as a result of genuine encounter with yourself?
The first thing that many Christian would say they know about themselves as a result of their relationship with God is their sinfulness. And quite possibly the first thing they would say they learned about God from this was God’s forgiveness and love. These are important things to know, and I will have more to say about them in future chapters. But what else do you know about yourself and God that has arisen from your encounter with the Divine?
While many of us have followed Jesus for much longer than the three years we have tracked in Peter’s journey, too often we have not allowed the initial introduction to deepen into a deep, intimate knowing. Though we glibly talk about a personal relationship with God, many of us know God less well than we know our casual acquaintances. Too easily we have settled for knowing about God.
[Pastoral Comment here- Even in the life of a patriarch like Job, as Job comes to a new threshold of knowing God and himself, God meets him and speaks to him out of the place that moves Job. What really impressed Job was the laundry list of all the things that God could do and Job couldn’t! (Job chapter 40-42) Mountains, Rivers, Oceans and seashores…and Leviathans! — “Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh my!”) “Wow” Job says, “I had heard of you but now I see what you can do! Well shut my mouth!” Every transition from immature to mature involves some reaching for a depth of ability or intellect or power or ingenuity, or goodness that is beyond us. That which is a bit of a mystery to us, enticing us to know in a greater capacity. Job could not do what God had done. Earlier in the book, Job sees and describes his identity as strongly linked to what others thought of him and the things he has done for them… Job 29:11 Whoever heard me spoke well of me, and those who saw me commended me, 12 because I rescued the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to assist them. 13 The one who was dying blessed me; I made the widow’s heart sing. 14 I put on righteousness as my clothing; justice was my robe and my turban. 15 I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. 16 I was a father to the needy; I took up the case of the stranger. 17 I broke the fangs of the wicked and snatched the victims from their teeth.
This is what Job was ‘all about’. God met him at that place and challenged him to re-evaluate.]
Too easily our actual relationship with God is remarkably superficial. It is any surprise, then that we haven’t learned very much about our self as a result of this encounter? If this is your experience, don’t allow yourself to be distracted by guilt.. hear God’s call to a deep personal encounter as an invitation, not a reprimand. It is an invitation to step out of the security of your boat and meet Jesus in the vulnerability and chaos of your inner storms. It is an invitation to truly know God.