How to Know Oneself

Man walking on the shore of a lake. Black and white photograph.“God gave us the Bible so that we might know ourselves.”

Creative Missions

Most modern advice to know oneself says to turn inward. By examining one’s feelings and desires, so the thought goes, a person can determine one’s direction and purpose. The problem with the thought is that the person who travels inward rarely leaves the space. Rather, he or she remains there because the self often changes. Purpose and direction become murky, mysterious, unknowable.

The self regularly lies or misplaces facts, too, saying a person is better or worse than he or she is. Either way, the end result is the same: The inner self turns out to be a prison rather than a foundation for right thought, behavior, and action.

The Heart is Deceitful

The Bible offers an alternative, and ultimately helpful, perspective. Knowing oneself never comes from introspection. It’s impossible for, as Jeremiah points out, the heart is “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).

Only God knows the heart, the self, for he sees past man’s external trappings. God makes this clear when he tells Samuel not to anoint any of David’s kingly looking brothers: “God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). Jesus echoes the idea when he exposes the religious elite as “whitewashed tombs” (Matthew 23:27–8). The men may look pious and respectable on the outside, but they are filled with bones and decay on the inside.

The Bible is Honest

Such knowledge seems scary, and it is. God is holy and just. He doesn’t pretend man is good or dismiss sin; he says man is evil (Genesis 6) and requires payment for sin. However, God also is gracious, loving, kind, and merciful. His Son, instead of sheep or people, pays the price for man’s sin.

The Bible recounts all those aspects of God’s character, as well as many others, to illustrate not only how terrible mankind is but also how loved. The person who accepts that conception of reality finds freedom, not fear or imprisonment. Paul speaks explicitly of the reality in Romans 6, comparing the slave of sin and death to the slave of God and eternal life. The former leaves a person rudderless and in shackles; the latter produces a wellspring of joy, freedom, and life.

The Bible Offers Confidence

A biblical perspective on man and the world provides more than honesty. It offers confidence and comfort, too. Man may be entirely messed up, but they now have a person to run to with their sin and weaknesses: Jesus.

Being a great man or woman of God is about recognizing how broken you are and not skipping past the things that are uncomfortable. It’s about addressing the really difficult things and running to Jesus. He perfectly lived out every one of your flaws, did everything you can’t, didn’t avoid what you ignore or are too lazy to confront. He’s not just your example; he’s your substitute.

Creative Missions

Lecrae, in his memoir Unashamed, expresses the idea slightly differently: “Rather than ridding you of problems or temptations, following Jesus just means that you have a place — no, a person — to run to when they come. And the power to overcome them.”

That is, Jesus’ ability to overcome temptation means man can do the same. The person who believes in Christ receives an opportunity to say, every day, “That’s not who I am anymore.” They set down their burden of sin and shame and run toward God, recognizing that no sin is so deep or final that God’s love cannot cover it (1 John 1:5–10).

In God and his Bible, man acquires something much better than information about how to know oneself or how to live a moral life. They gain the capacity for transformation, for living as conquerors (Romans 8:31–9). How? By admitting the truth: God knows man’s heart, but he loves man anyway and makes a way, in Jesus, for the restoration and reconciliation of all things, including man’s deceitful, evil heart.

Image: Anne Worner (Creative Commons)

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