This is a quote by the great Greek philosopher Socrates, a very wise man. The entire quote is, “To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.”
Many years ago, I read about a conversation a great preacher (he was, I believe, either George Whitefield or Jonathan Edwards) had with a servant girl just before he was going to leave on one of his many evangelistic preaching tours in early America.
According to memory, this servant girl asked the great preacher for some advice before he left. He suggested, “Ask God to show you who you really are,” and then left for his preaching mission.
When he returned to this same house after an extended period of time, he remembered the conversation he had with this young woman and asked one of the other servants where and how she was.
“Oh, sir,” one of the servants replied, “Not very well. God has shown her who she truly is and she has not been the same since.”
Deeply concerned about the state of her condition, the preacher made inquiries where she was, soon finding her. She was in a terrible state of anguish and suffering, having realized for the first time in her life the type of wretched, wicked person she actually was, long concealed underneath her false facade of respectability and outward goodness.
The preacher, finding her in this condition, encouraged her to “Now ask God to show you who He really is.” The story concludes how she found mercy and salvation through the shed blood of Christ and became a new creature in Him after receiving forgiveness for her sins.
I have never forgotten this story, though I read it perhaps as long as 10 years ago. Over this long expanse of time I have tried in vain to locate exactly where I heard it, doing multiple internet searches and always coming up empty.
Why this story affects me so greatly is because it touches at the heart of so much of what is wrong in modern Western civilization: this false notion that we are all such good and noble people.
I wish to be careful in my Choice of words here: I’m not saying that each and every human on this planet is a wicked and depraved individual. We all know wonderfully kind, generous and compassionate people who would do almost anything to help their fellow man. None are individually lacking some degree of goodness, compassion and kindness. There is in most of us an innate degree, differing in quality and strength, of goodness and love that separates us from the brute beasts.
On the other hand, legions are the examples of the gross depravity, selfishness, self-centeredness, and criminality that makes up such a significant portion of our population. I would be amiss if I did not remind people of the utter depravity of people like Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, mass school shooters, serial killers, genocidal maniacs, etc. We all are guilty of having a depraved, sinful nature that resides deeply within the core of our being. Watch this video and you will understand what I mean:
Most would agree that America finds itself in the unenviable position of being a post-Christian nation. One of the marks of early America was the influence of Christianity on the young nation, and one of the most prominent messages was the constant drumbeat that people, outside of Christ, are sinners in need of salvation.
In driving home this message of the need for your average American Joe and Jane’s dire need of repentance, much preaching centered on the incredible moral darkness that made up so much of your common, everyday people who one regularly rubbed shoulders with. There was an emphasis on this latent moral depravity that everyone possessed and the imperative that this evil nature should not only be recognized, but brought to the foot of the cross of Christ for forgiveness and cleansing.
I wrote about my Roman Catholic upbringing in another post (yet to be published on this blog). In Roman Catholicism and in most Protestant faiths, the concept of sin and the fact that we are all sinners in need of salvation is not only a common, but a foundational, theme.
Looking at this another way, it was unheard of for me growing up as a child in the 1960’s and early 1970’s with this modern day emphasis of “loving yourself” with the corresponding message that everybody deserves a trophy, aka “participation trophies.”
In other words, unlike when I was growing up and unlike what was standard teaching for most of America’s history from well before our founding as a nation in 1776, this current emphasis that every child is to receive unceasing heaps of praise for being such wonderful people and that all children, no matter what, are all considered equally wonderful, is a relatively recent phenomena. And the obvious question is, “Is this healthy for America to now be emphasizing this exact opposite message?”
I find myself drawn to the middle position, for having experienced first hand both extremes (first as a child raised in Roman Catholicism and later as a parent where I witnessed the “participation trophy” and “self-esteem” mentality in its infancy), and witnessing what has happened to children raised in the latter philosophy, I see the weaknesses in both camps.
Our children, of course, need legitimate praise and encouragement to grow up healthy and balanced; every loving parent understands this and acts wisely and accordingly in striking this healthy balance.
The Wiki article I linked to above has an interesting statement:
“The use of participation trophies has caused some controversy:
- Critics argue that they promote narcissism and entitlement among children to whom they are given, and are based on incorrect assumptions regarding supposed psychological benefits of self-esteem. Critics also note that some children also do not value them as much as they do “normal” trophies that are given to winners.”
And if I was to judge which of the two extremes cause the most damage to children, and if I had to choose between the two and adopt one or the other, I’m convinced the former is more healthy for the child and society at large than the emphasis on “self-esteem” and the constant, over the top, incessant drumbeat telling children how wonderful, brilliant, marvelous, and infinitely talented and uniquely special one in a trillion each and every one of them is.
What I have experienced firsthand is children, raised by the “self-esteem” brand of child rearing, have grown up in the excesses listed in the Wiki article: narcissism, a sense of entitlement, and also an arrogant and proud attitude displayed by so many children today. It’s darn right frightening.
We have reared at least two to three generations of children who are so lacking in self-awareness of the kind of selfish, self-centered and narcissistic personalities they actually are that it is almost impossible to wrap one’s head around how wicked some of these children can be, only becoming increasingly worse as they enter adulthood. And all the while, they think they are the greatest things on the planet. It is simply astonishing.
“To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.”
The Bible has some fascinating insights into this kind of behavior, and in particular, the kind of depraved conduct that will be prominently displayed during “the last days”:
“But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, slanderers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness although they have denied its power; avoid such people as these.” 2 Timothy 3:1-6
The Greek word for “difficult” means “savage, hard to endure.” We can then read this verse as: “But realize this, in the last days savage times that will be hard to endure will come…”
Though the exact meaning, time and duration of these “last days” is unclear, one can look at what has been happening in America since the 1960’s and readily see all of the characteristics listed in the verses above are in full bloom in a degree and capacity that has never been witnessed in America before.
“The unexamined life is not worth living.”Socrates
But the problem is, ever increasing numbers of deluded, lacking in self-awareness people cannot see that their personalities are consumed by many of these ungodly, even satanic, characteristics. On the contrary, they think they are the cream of the crop when they compare themselves with others. Again, their lack of self awareness to their true condition is astonishing.
There is perhaps no greater deception a person can be guilty of than spiritual delusion, the state many religious and “spiritual” people occupy where they think, by reading the Bible, meditating, practicing yoga, reading spiritual books, quoting spiritual masters, engaging in soul cleansing rituals, burning incense to clear away negative energies, etc., they are drawing close to God and becoming more and more like Him, when all the while they are living in sin and are not cleansed from their own spiritual putrefaction. They fail to recognize the central issue: the core of our inner personalities, our inner beings, are depraved. We do not need a superficial touch up to solve this problem but a complete spiritual regeneration of our natures. As Jesus said, we need to be “born again” (John chapter 3).
For example, there are countless stories of famous pastors and faith healers that, behind the scenes, away from the bright lights of the television/cable productions, are committing adultery, visiting prostitutes, skimming donation money, using their wealth to fund grotesque lifestyles of comfort, material excess and hedonism, and all sorts of other hypocritical behavior contrary to their professed beliefs in godliness.
And this type of disgusting behavior is not limited to these high profile charlatans but reaches down to the rank and file. How many single university and college “campus ministers” or bible students are sleeping with their girlfriends or boyfriends, holding their Bibles in one hand and a condom or birth control pills in the other? I have spent decades on university and college campuses and have experienced these levels of hypocrisy firsthand. And in all honesty, I must confess, in my younger years, I was guilty of some of the exact behavior, to my shame and grief. My own flimsy defense was I was consumed by grief and lived a life of overwhelming guilt when I was in these life stages because I knew I was wrong—deadly wrong and was betraying my beliefs with my spiritual hypocrisy.
Such honest introspection seems to be lacking in today’s religious communities. How many guru’s or self-proclaimed “teachers of wisdom” are making videos of themselves shrouded in cleansing incense smoke, chanting with gongs, and all the while sleeping with their unmarried “spiritual mentors” or teachers? Or smoking weed or consuming other drugs in their pursuit of enlightenment without even a thought of their obvious hypocrisy and the betrayal of their own spiritual values, histories, examples, ethics, and teachings? Or dishonoring one or both of their parents in violation of one of the Ten Commandments? The examples are endless and the most egregious examples come out of the very people and groups that claim to be the most spiritual and knowledgeable concerning the things of God and spirituality.
This is why that wise preacher’s advice to the servant girl was so powerful; somehow he must have known, or sensed, or experienced firsthand, that her behavior—her nature, her inner being, the way she typically behaved, the nuances of her speech—was contrary to what she so self-deludedly thought of herself. Evidently she was so blind and deaf to her own wickedness that this preacher seized upon the opportunity of her question to attempt to have her placed in an attitude where she might be opened to spiritual enlightenment concerning her evil behavior and/or attitudes.
It takes sincere soul searching, a move of God Himself, to peer deep inside our own hearts and see the spiritual rot that is festering there. Our godly ancestors and the general atmosphere prevalent in our country in bygone days was the opposite of the times we now live in. Then, the attitude was people were born in sin and it required a no-holds barred degree of introspection into one’s soul to come to the self-awareness that a complete regeneration of our beings was necessary. This way of thinking is virtually unheard of today.
“When men and women are unlimited and unrestrained, the evidence of history shows clearly they are all liable to become monsters of self-indulgence.” H.G. Wells
The quote above is out of a book I read years ago; I was so moved by it I committed it to memory, and I believe I am quoting it accurately. What struck me the most is the phrase “monsters of self-indulgence,” accurately and frightfully describing so many living in America for the past 60 or so years.
I believe at least some—maybe even most—of my readers would similarly benefit from asking themselves the same question presented to the servant girl. Get away to a quiet place where you can ask the Lord, “Show me who I really am.” Have the Bible with you, turned to 2 Timothy 3:1-6 and slowly go through that list, one at a time, and honestly inquire, “Am I like this?”
“How many are my iniquities and sins? Make known to me my rebellion and my sin.”Job, from the book of Job 13:23 (NASB)
It might take you days, weeks or even months to plumb the depths of your own unrealized depravity. It will also require great courage and more than a little bit of honesty to peer inside your behavior, actions and attitudes and take this fearless moral inventory of the kind of person you might truly be, but have kept hidden in your self-made darkness of ignorance, self-denial, and pride.
We have another problem, perhaps more serious than not possessing the self awareness to “see” how we truly are: most lack the will or the requisite need for the all important self examination required to discover the innate evil in each of us. In other words, a person must want to discover the oftentimes ugly truth about their authentic, deeply buried selves before they have any hope of peeling back the onion layers of hypocrisy and self delusion that keeps us from properly diagnosing and exposing our spiritual illness.
But this required self-examination is not something that everyone desires; many people are more than content to live in lies and deceptions concerning their true natures and are not interested in correctly “knowing themselves.” This is baffling to me and I don’t believe I fully understand this phenomena.
Getting to “know thyself” is not for the weak and cowardly. It requires oftentimes brutal self-examination and courage to face the reality of who we truly are, and seeing ourselves unmasked of all our self-made trappings of respectability, false love, selfish compassion, disrespect to our parents and elders, phony spirituality; hypocrisy can, like the servant girl who finally discovered she was not the little angel she had deceived herself that she was, can break us and cause genuine pain and suffering.
I believe one reason for this blithe indifference to truly wanting to know who we authentically are is the lack of a properly developing and healthy soul. This might be due, in part, because the people in our lives we hang out may also be lacking in the proper development of their souls. “Birds of a feather flock together” is a helpful adage. People of shallow character feel the most comfortable around those like themselves.
But if we seek out and are drawn to souls of nobility, men and women of godly character, high moral standards, those that aspire to moral greatness and who seek to achieve holiness in their daily lives and thinking, we will be challenged and inspired by their spiritual characters and seek to emulate them. Standing next to them, their light might cast us into shadow, causing us to cringe in our immaturity, littleness of character and stunted spiritual development (see Luke 5: 1-11). If you want to soar with eagles, you will never do so while feasting on roadkill with buzzards.
Please don’t think I am encouraging you to do something that I myself have not done; I have spent a lifetime in continuous self-reflection, understanding perhaps only a fraction of the immense depravity deeply embedded within my own heart. And the best part of this journey to “knowing thyself“ is the results that occur after sincerely asking the second question of the preacher to the servant girl: “Now ask God to show you how He truly is.”
What I have found is great mercy, forgiveness and healing as I have sought to make amends through my own sincere, deep repentance. I have learned the deep and abiding love of God that has blessed my troubled life in unfathomable ways and brought healing and restoration to my soul. I hope the same for you.