One of the most remarkable facts of human behavior that I have observed is that human beings are profoundly ignorant of themselves. In asserting this I do not assume that such ignorance of self is necessarily sin. For while ignorance of oneself can be self-willed and thus the truth revealed by God suppressed (see Romans 1:18) I am not considering that now. What I am referring to is not being self-aware. We see this in children and call it innocence. In adults we call need to call it what it is: Choice to remain immature with the consequence that the person does not travel down the path of knowing and understanding what it means to be a human being.
Consider your own experience as a child. Did you not have to learn about the world around you? Was it not necessary for you to go through a process of gradual discovery of your feelings, desires, interests, talents, values and abilities? And did you not need other people to be around you and to speak to you about these things in order to spur you on toward accurate self-understanding? Yes, I suspect that this was true of you just as it was for me—even though the particulars of your story may differ from mine. (Or perhaps this process was arrested because of trauma—take courage for God can take you through this maturation process even as an adult!)
In the Western world, this process of self-discovery has been perverted and suppressed in many different ways. We live in what is generally called a “post-modern” culture, in which we can see people’s self-ignorance and quest for “self-actualization” on full display. I assert that both are prominent because people in this time live with contradictory ideas about Truth and Reality.
I would argue that no other people in human history have been more concerned with themselves and finding what identifies them fundamentally and thus gives some kind of personal assurance of value and dignity. And what is more remarkable is how broad and open people consider their options to be to name and shape their identity (or is it identities?)—and to do so many have shed the authority of Scripture, moral traditions, their ancestors’ faith or any authority outside of oneself as having any binding hold over them. This shift in expectation is staggering in its implications for the person who has assumed this: Consider the weight of soul such a person must carry in this journey of attempted self-discovery!
Yet how far from actual self-knowledge a person locked into this mind-set actually is. The promise of having so many options turns out to be a cruel trick. For how do we know where to start looking and what questions to ask? Who should one consult—after he or she realizes that help from other people is necessary? What began as a search for “truths” easily shrinks back into a narcissistic focus of the mind upon feelings and thoughts alone.
This turn is necessary and logical because we have turned from Truth and thus do not have any clear moral or spiritual compass by which to know even the basic geography of the human soul. This is like trying to find a road by turning off into the swamp to go swimming. Yet so many attempt such folly as it was one’s birthright to pave the way forward for oneself by oneself—thus all they are left with is the self.
I am sympathetic to both the longing and desire to search for one’s identity. This is both human and good. But when sin enters into this process, as in what I have described above, one gets sidetracked into a dense forest of deceit and deception. Only the Lord Jesus can rescue a person from this fog of deception; for the Truth will set free those who want to be free! And we can discover the most surprising stranger (oneself) in the process of focusing on one’s thoughts, feelings and memories if we are willing to seek the truth by listening to the Truth.
What will we find if we seek the truth in the light of Truth? We will encounter the Holy One. And if we are willing we will see together our sinful condition and what God has destined us for—namely, to be men and women who can practice true righteousness and holiness in community which seeks to worship and serve God. And in entering existentially into God’s life through the Lord Christ, we can understand true joy. Then we can understand what William Gurnall affirmed:
“Now holiness is the ideal condition of the soul just as health is of the body; thus a holy life must be a pleasant life. Before sin spoiled Adam he lived a pleasant life in paradise. When a person is made holy, then, he [she] begins to return to his [her] primitive state and with it, to his [her] primitive joy.” (The Christian in Complete Armour, Vol. 2 [Banner of Truth], pp.218-219.)