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DISCIPLESHIP SERIES: Knowing Thyself is Key to Knowing God

February 13, 2011
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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. 

© 2011 by S. Michael Craven

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Response from : Thomas Peck  

February 15, 2011 4:21 AM

Very well put. So many are walking away from Hell instead of running to Heaven. Their "brand" of Christianity is all about them and what God is doing for them and how He is blessing them.
Sacrifice is giving up the hour or so to go to long as a good lunch at a restaurant follows. REPENT and be saved, not feel a little bad and be saved!

Response from : Cynthia Geisert  

February 15, 2011 6:17 AM

For years, as a Bible teacher, I've said this same thing....yet in different words. I so agree with you and appreciate your use of Calvin's writings. My perspective was more personal: How can we offer people forgiveness if we've never received it? How can we grant others grace, if we haven't been washed by his grace? How can we share the love of Jesus, if we haven't experienced that love? And to your point.....if we know ourselves, we can't live without forgiveness, grace and love everyday, sometimes every minute. If we take an honest Biblical look at ourselves,our attitudes, our actions, and our nature, then we must repent to move forward in faith. It is in knowing ourselves that we see the need of a Savior and Redeemer. It's in knowing ourselves and knowing Jesus Christ, that we have hope. And knowing ourselves isn't enough; We must know our Triune God who brings us to a place of Good News, the Good News indeed.
We can only really offer to others those things we know and have appropriated by faith. We can only offer others' genuine grace, love and forgiveness when we we've experienced the need of grace, love and forgiveness because we know ourselves.

Response from : Krista Barnes  

February 15, 2011 5:58 PM

Very provoking, but on target. This work is accomplished both individually and corporately, with the body of Christ. I suspect that the work of corporate repentence and searching of hearts will be accomplished in the United States in a way that will not be comfortable, and most likely the most painful experience that will produce the righteousness that God is searching hearts for. In the Old Testament when Israel had turned away from God, it was carried away into capitivity and only restored with full repentence. The US church (body of Christ) is inline for being dismantled in the same way that Israel was. I can only hope, becuase what we have today is dysfunctional, unsatisfying, superficial, and embarassing in light of the world-wide body of Christ who in some countries is earnestly seeking God and functioning like a unit or unified body who are sacrificing for God and each other.

Response from : Greg Williams  

February 17, 2011 8:18 AM


Thanks for another great article! As I read it I was drawn to Paul's exhortations in Rom. 12: 1 - 3 and Gal. 6: 7 - 9 as strong words regarding our response to God's mercy through our sacrifice and us knowing ourselves (Rom. passage) and then the exclamatory warning that we don't deceive ourselves just before he delivers the "law of the harvest!"

Isn't it interesting that he gives the warning for us to be brutally honest with ourselves as, I believe, the deception is often in that we've convinced ourselves or allowed ourselves to be convinced by much of today's weak teaching, individually and in 'group think' (including much of the western culture church today), that we are sowing in the Spirit and then when the devastation and destruction begin to come forth, instead of dealing with what and where we're sowing (in the flesh), we end up blaming God because "we're convinced and we've rationalized that we've done everything the minister or church told us to do so obviously we must be sowing in the Spirit." In this deception we then 'must determine that the problem lies in the reaping rather than in REPENTANCE and the sowing.' How sad that we have become so deceived in not knowing God or ourselves!

Thanks again and God bless in Christ!

Greg Williams;

Response from : Stella Price  

February 19, 2011 10:00 AM

I was happy to find this article. For many years I have found it important to know myself for my own health's sake if nothing else. I also know that Christians need to be aware of the 'pharisee' within. Until we know ourselves, I feel we are unable to see the chaff in our own nature nor the Christ living in others. I wonder what Christ would say today if he were to step inside our churches. Would he see little Christs or pharisees wrapping themselves in theological debate to avoid getting uncomfortable with those who need Christ. I speak to myself as well as others when I respond this way. God forgive us.


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