If you are a religious person and I were to ask you what you consider to be the most important thing in the world, I suspect you may say something like, “Knowing God and doing His will or what He calls me to do.”
To suggest that knowing, loving and serving God plays an important role in your life and spirituality will not surprise anyone. But if I were to suggest that knowing self plays an equally important role, it might set off some alarming bells!
No, I don’t intend to suggest that. But I do like to say that knowing self is of importance – that there’s virtue in self intimacy, and a vital link between knowing God and knowing self. I would also like to establish that an understanding of the interdependence of knowing self and God has held a lasting and respected place in Christian theology.
Consider, for example, John Calvin’s opening words in The Institutes of Christian Religion: “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.” Or Thomas a Kempis’s words: “A humble self-knowledge is a surer way to God than a search after deep learning.” And a prayer of St. Augustine: “Grant, Lord, that I may know myself that I may know Thee.”
Why is it so important to know myself? First, as in the quotes above, it is the one main way of knowing God. Second, it is also a way of learning to love others as we are called upon “to love our neighbors as ourselves.” It helps us not to relate with people in a condescending, judgmental, self-righteous or moralistic way (see Romans chapters 2 and 15); instead, to relate with them in humility and empathy, with genuine care and concern.
Third, in knowing self, I learn to love myself as God loves me. It ensures that I do not live a lie. What do I mean? There are, in all of us strengths and competencies. But therein lies also within, a prideful self, a competitive self, a covetous self, a lustful self, an envious self, an exhibitionistic or narcissistic self, and a deceitful self.
The human capacity for self-deception is astounding. Jeremiah 17:9 puts it clearly – the heart is deceitfully wicked, above all else. If we aren’t aware of the dark side of who we are, it is going to have increased power and influence over our lives. Blind spots are dangerous – to self and to others. Also, things that are hidden or avoided don’t grow weaker; they grow stronger! They will tyrannize us and cause us to fall. Much of the people’s failure today is because they are not aware of or refuse to acknowledge their dark sides or blind spots.
How then do we know ourselves? Primarily through Scriptures, through self-introspection and social interaction. The apostle James likens the Bible as like a mirror that shows us our true selves. This consist not only of our sins and sinful tendencies, but our “loveliness” as made in the image of God, redeemed by His precious blood and regarded as His children and His beloved.
In self-reflection or introspection, the discipline of psychology can be of valuable help as psychology is essentially the study of human beings and behavior. Solitude and journaling can provide the platform for such self-reflection. Finally, friends and family members (especially our spouse!), classmates and working colleagues also act as a mirror to who we are as they give us honest and constructive feedback.
There is virtue in self-intimacy. Though it takes time, self-knowledge does lead to a deeper appreciation and respect for this unique person God has made us to be. Above all, it allows God to shape us by His grace and to use us for His glory.