Tag Archives: self-knowledge

The “With Us” God: God and the Modern Self #10

When I was child the thing that troubled me most about God was that he always knew what I was thinking. As children we are not strong enough to get our way by force or knowledgeable enough to succeed through skill. But at least we can hide our thoughts from others, thereby securing a small victory over our enemies. A bully can make you cower on the outside, but in your imagination a different set of rules apply. You can enjoy humiliating your enemy without risking his wrath. You can relish knowing something she doesn’t know, which, if she knew, would make her angry.

But then there is God. It was explained to me that God knows everything and is present everywhere. Nothing can hide from God, not in heaven or on earth, and not in the secret places of the mind and heart. God cannot be deceived or mistaken.  God knows what we’ve done, what we think and what we feel. God knows the good, bad and ugly, the sleazy, slimy and selfish. And I felt uneasy.

Even as adults that uneasy feeling can return when we think about God’s complete knowledge of us. We don’t want just anyone to know our thoughts, and there are some secrets we do not want even our best friends to know. Francis Bacon famously said, “Knowledge is power.” The more people know about you the more power they have over you. But if someone knows your every secret they have complete power over you. We insist on our right to some privacy from prying eyes and attentive ears, and we identify the space inside our minds as ours alone. The constant presence of others robs us of a sense of selfhood and identity. So we can understand why some people resent the idea that God knows everything and is present to their inmost selves. They feel vulnerable and exposed and judged.

But there is another way to think about God’s knowledge and presence in our lives. Consider how much of our life’s energy is spend dealing with the problems of loneliness, inner confusion, conflict and obscurity about our identity and worth. We desperately want to be loved by others, appreciated and valued. Unless someone else loves us we remain doubtful of our worth; yet how can others love us unless they know us? And how can they come to know us unless we let them into our minds and hearts? Here we face that other problem: how can we tell others who we are when we know so little about ourselves? Even worse, we remember that along with the good there is the bad and ugly, the sleazy, slimy and selfish. We are caught between loneliness that urges us to reveal ourselves and fear of rejection and injury that holds us back.

Now let’s return to the thought of God’s knowledge of us. We must keep in mind that God is not merely an anonymous all-knowing judge of good and bad, a cosmic lie detector, a heavenly mind reader. God is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, the One whom we know by looking into the face of Jesus. And we see in Jesus’ face perfect, self-giving love. Just as in the previous essay (#9), we learned that God’s power is a loving power and his love is a powerful love, we can now say that God’s knowledge is loving knowledge and his love is a knowing love. They are one. In loving, God knows, and in knowing, God loves.

This thought places God’s complete knowledge of us in a wholly different light. God knows everything about us and, yet, still loves us. God knows every secret; yes, God knows the bad and the ugly, the sleazy, the slimy and the selfish. But he loves us anyway. The one thing we most desire, to be known perfectly and loved completely, we already have and have always had.

What about the problem of inner confusion, conflict and obscurity about our identity? Does God’s perfect knowledge and love help us with this condition? Yes, it works a revolution in this area. God knows perfectly what and who we are. And since he loves us so graciously, so unexpectedly and so unselfishly, we are freed and, indeed, compelled to love him in return. We need not struggle to reveal ourselves to God. He already knows. We need not worry what he would do if he knew. He knows and loves us anyway. If I am loved by God who knows me perfectly, I need not be so troubled by my lack of perfect self-knowledge. Someone knows! In knowing God, I know the One who knows me better than I know myself. And since God knows (and loves) I can trust him to lead me even when I cannot see the path. In my conversation with God, who knows me, God can reveal to me things about myself I could not have learned from any other source.

What if you made God’s knowledge, presence and love the foundation of your relationship to others? Perhaps you would not experience the pain of loneliness so often. God knows and is always there. Perhaps you would find new courage to reveal yourself to others, since your worth no longer depends on acceptance by others. Since you know you are loved perfectly, you may find yourself spending less energy seeking to be loved and more in finding ways to love others. Since God knows perfectly who you are, you might spend less time looking for yourself and more time seeking God. For when you find God, you won’t need to ask about yourself any longer. You will find yourself as well, for we were created to seek, know and love God.

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 10 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“The Awakening Presence”)

Questions for Discussion

1. Have you or people you know ever had an uneasy feeling about God’s all-knowing presence? Describe what you felt and thought in those moments.

2. Reflect on the dilemma of loneliness described in this essay. What does our need to be known by others say about our created nature?

3. Describe the relationship between clarity of self-knowledge and being known by others. Relate this issue to the dilemma of loneliness.

4. Why do we need to believe that we are loved by others in order to love ourselves or feel our self-worth confidently?

5. Discuss the ways believing that God knows everything about us and still loves us sheds new light on the problems discussed in the essay: loneliness, lack of self-knowledge, the need to be known and loved, and the need to reveal ourselves to others. Specifically, how have you experienced God’s healing knowledge in each of these areas?

6. Discuss the claim made in the last paragraph of the essay. Does believing God knows and loves us really enable us to become bolder in revealing ourselves to others or empower us to love others without needing acceptance in return or be less concerned with figuring out ourselves?

 For the next two weeks we will look to Jesus Christ for clues about the right way to be human in relation to the “for us” and “with us” God he has revealed.

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Freedom Ain’t So Free After All: God and the Modern Self #7

In the previous post I brought into the open the implications of modern self’s claims about itself and its powers. It claims power to free itself from limits that stand in the way of full freedom and happiness. It thinks that if it’s bold enough, angry enough, clever enough or loud enough it can break through to freedom. It considers all limits to be external barriers and imagines freedom as the absence of those limits. It wants to create itself, free itself, judge itself and save itself.

In a sense refutation of such claims is superfluous, because once you hear them you know immediately they cannot be true. You may be somewhat skeptical about a person whose manner seems a bit too self-confident and whose stories sound a bit too improbable. But perhaps they really are extraordinary. However, if that person looks you in the eye and says, “Don’t tell anyone, but I am Superman on a secret mission”, you know immediately not to take anything else he says seriously. As long as the modern self remains implicit it may seem a plausible view of human nature. But as soon as it begins to claim God-like powers and prerogatives, you know it’s deluded. But just in case someone needs further help seeing the self-deception of the modern self, let’s examine two further points of refutation.

The modern self thinks of freedom primarily as a state in which it can to do whatever it wants. We know that no such condition is possible, but let’s assume for argument’s sake that there are no external limits on our actions. Would this kind of total freedom guarantee happiness? No, it would not. We’ve all done things we thought would bring happiness only to find unhappiness following in their wake. What is this? How can it be that I freely do something, believing it will contribute to my happiness, but having done it I am filled with remorse and disappointment?

 

The obvious conclusion is that external freedom is not enough. There are internal limits from which I need freeing. I need a clearer idea of who I am and what will actually make me happy. If can’t understand myself now, why think I will be able to free myself from my self-ignorance in the future? Can the dark illuminate its own darkness? Can confusion clarify itself?

 

As if confusion about myself were not enough, there is a second problem.  Even if somehow I get free to do whatever I wish and no other hidden power determines my choices, I am limited by yet “other” forces. Suppose I set my heart on a certain goal and nothing stops me from going for it; still, I cannot know that I can make it happen as I imagine. Human beings have great powers of reason, and we can use these powers to predict future consequences of present actions. But these powers are limited, very limited. I may freely decide to take a trip and drive away in my car. But I cannot control myriads of other factors, such as driving conditions, the mechanical components in my car, and the behavior of other drivers. Hence my trip may not turn out as I imagine.

We want freedom so that we can achieve happiness, and the modern self is confident that with freedom to do as it pleases it can make itself happy. However, this is a great self-deception.  Human beings simply do not have the power to make the future turn out as they wish or the wisdom to know how to make themselves happy. Such power and wisdom is beyond the human horizon. And every thoughtful person knows this. The modern self, then, is a fantasy, a wish, a dream of becoming like God.

I end with a very sobering thought from Søren Kierkegaard. In his deeply moving devotional book Christian Discourses, he reflects poignantly on how to prepare to take communion,

 

“I will call to mind that even if I had my soul concentrated in one single wish and even if I had it concentrated therein so desperately that I could willingly throw away my eternal salvation for the fulfillment of this wish—that still no one can with certainty tell me in advance whether my wish, if it is fulfilled, would still not seem empty and meaningless to me. And what is more miserable, that the wish would not be fulfilled and I would retain the sad and painful ideas of the—missed good fortune—or that the wish would be fulfilled and I would retain it, embittered by the certainty how empty it was!”

Note: This post can serve as a companion to Chapter 7 of God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“Some Unwelcome Limits on Freedom and Dignity”)

Questions for Discussion

1. The essay argues that making the claims of the modern self explicit is a first step toward refutation of those claims. Do you agree or disagree? Explain your answer.

2. How does experience of regret or disappointment demonstrate that external freedom cannot secure the thing that makes freedom desirable, that is, happiness? Describe your experience of regret.

3. What are some internal limits on freedom highlighted by experiences of regret and disappointment? And what can free us from these internal limits?

4. What limits does experience of a freely chosen action’s failure highlight? Can the self free itself from this limit? How?

5. Evaluate this statement: we desire freedom because we desire happiness, and freedom seems like a necessary condition for gaining happiness. Hence we cannot be satisfied with any form of freedom that does not make happiness attainable.

6. What kind of freedom, if attained, would guarantee our happiness?

Note: The next post will begin the second half of the series on the theme of “The God-Centered Identity.” In this part of the series we will explore a different picture of God and humanity, one that no longer sees them as enemies and competitors.

 

 

 

Thinking and Thoughtfulness: Part 3 Introspection

Introspection

Introspection is also an important operation of reason and a necessary prelude to thoughtfulness. It attempts to look within our inner consciousness to see it apart from our relationship to external objects. Introspection works to isolate, observe and relate distinct feelings, moods, memories, ideas and values in the mind or soul. Perhaps Augustine’s Confessions does not conform exactly to my definition of introspection–which I admit is rather radical and “pure”–but it does provide an excellent example of the inward-turned eye that sorts and sifts motive from motive and feeling from feeling seeking deeper self-knowledge. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Reveries of a Solitary Walker, though narcissistic and dripping with self-pity, also displays an astounding inward awareness that is quite instructive about what we can learn from introspection.

Without introspection our consciousness would be engulfed by wave after wave of sensation or lost in abstractions of thought. Socrates’ observation that “the unexamined life is not worth living” comes to mind here. Apart from some introspection there is no self-knowledge and without self-knowledge we could not distinguish between the life we freely enact and events that merely happen in, to or through us.

Notice how introspection relates to common sense and scientific thought.  In distinction from common sense, introspection isolates the self from external relations by ignoring the external causes of internal experience. In analogy to science, it treats relations within the self like science treats relations among things external to the self. It wants to see its feelings and moods, beliefs and ideas and their interrelationships undistorted by their external relations. Whereas science wants to escape the distorting influence of internal subjectivity on our knowledge of external things, introspection wants to escape the clouding influence of external things on awareness of our internal condition. If science risks self-deception by ignoring the influence of the subjective on our knowledge of the external world, introspection risks self-deception by thinking it can isolate our internal subjectivity from the external world.

Introspection alone cannot lead to complete self-understanding because the self exists only in relation to the not-self, to the external world of people, nature and things. Nonetheless, introspection is valuable because we cannot think everything at once. We cannot think about the self in itself and its relation to external objects and the characteristics of the objects in themselves in one thought at one time. To achieve greater understanding we must move back and forth between part and whole, inside and outside, self and other to grasp all dimensions of something…even if that something is us.

To be continued…

Next time we will think about thoughtfulness itself…I promise.