A childhood memory of my grandfather came back to me with strong clarity recently. I recall one day that he came and told me that he wanted to show me something. He always kept a can of gasoline on hand in a locked area that his grandchildren never had access to (full of his tools and other things he had collected over the years). So he went and got the can of gasoline. After pointing out an anthill in the front yard, right next to the street, he proceeded to show me how you get rid of ants: By pouring quite a bit of gasoline down the hole and then lighting a match and putting it down into the entrance. Needless to say we did not see any ants come out of that hole again for a long time (though they did eventually come back).
Why do I tell this story? For one is it memorable and humorous. But more than that it confirms how essential relationships with other people are—for good or bad. None of us are autonomous! I observed and learned from my grandfather something that day and his influence has remained with me and in part has shaped me. Those who actually believe they are autonomous (and try to live that way) are also the same people who are very unhealthy mentally, unhappy, unable to be intimate with others and unproductive in life. Even the most wicked person knows that he or she needs other people—if only to use them for some self-serving end.
The road to self-discovery requires being in relationship with other human beings. Other people are like mirrors in that we observe both the likeness and differences between us. As we commonly say, we “see ourselves” in the behavior and life experiences of other people. This is true of both good and evil behavior, personality, past trauma and so on.
And the spiritual journey of faith, which necessarily requires progressive self-knowledge, requires being in relationship with one’s Creator. Revelation of truth is both necessary and delightful to one who is on this path. “I run the way of your commandments, for you enlarge my understanding.” (Psalm 119:32, NRSV) How else can I yield up myself (in present progressive tense) as a living sacrifice to God (see Romans 12:1) if I am not constantly learning the truth about myself?
This is a dynamic process that requires us to be willing to experience pain and to make changes in how we think and behave. I think that this is the reason why the Lord’s proclamation was to repent and receive the Kingdom (with he bringing it). For in this way, in encountering the living God in the incarnate Lord, we see the Image of God; this in turn allows us to see ourselves reflected back. We can choose to agree with the truth—owning and renouncing the sickly, twisted and frankly perverse formation of our inner life; or we can reject the gift of inner sight granted by the Holy Spirit and substitute our own false reality.
This is the actual process and choice we are all confronted with if we begin to seek to know the truth. For to know the truth about God is necessarily to see oneself in the light of Truth (see Psalm 27:1; 36:9; 43:3; 118:27; 119:105, 130). And since God is most concerned with the heart—our real core of motives and will—he will always show a willing person the condition of his or her heart.
Having progressively accurate self-knowledge is a necessary gift of being set free by the Son and staying free—that is to give oneself to be made holy. How can one be spiritually free without knowing oneself—acknowledging one’s sins, owning one’s value as created in God’s image, embracing God’s love and forgiveness and opening oneself to the Spirit’s work of holiness? And how can one grow in love of God, in progressively learning how to walk with the Spirit and understanding of one’s vocation in life as rooted in one’s identity in the Lord Jesus? I say that only as a believer continues to know him or herself in the light of the Word written and in persistent conversation and petition to God.
And is not this the greatest pleasure a human being can know—to be loved by God and transformed in the inner self to be like him in this life and for eternity? Only sons and daughters of the Most High God would affirm a yes answer. For they alone know for themselves that this is true and that pursuing holiness in knowing God through the Lord Jesus is the way of discovering one’s identity.
“A holy life is the life of God, much like the life God Himself lives. Holiness is the life of His life. Now friends, do you not think God lives a life of pleasure? And what is the pleasure of His life but holiness?” (William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour, Vol. 2 [Banner of Truth], p.220)