Nosce te ipsum et Deum
“Know yourself and God”, The personal motto of Thomas Cranmer.
People are obsessed with identity. From star-signs, to Myers & Briggs personality types; we as human beings have a near compulsive obsession with the pursuit of self-identification. This is a problem for all of us, but I think young people most of all. Have you ever noticed that rigid identity typings are a major feature of most Young Adult literature? The sorting hat, the colour-groupings of the Darkest Minds, Twilight’s vampire powers, and the districts of the Hunger Games. Young people are obsessed with being pigeonholed. I believe this speaks to a pervasive anxiety in our culture. We don’t know who we are. We don’t know where we belong. We don’t know what is right for us.
For a long time I thought that doing Christian Theology and reading my Bible properly meant ignoring this impulse. Putting aside my desire to know myself , and turning my attention toward God. Doesn’t that sound like a Godly impulse? To turn your attentions away from yourself and toward God?
But that’s missing something isn’t it. God often speaks about who we are, and a good deal of the Bible is concerned with how we ought to think of ourselves. For instance, the entirety of the Wisdom literature is drawing lines between knowing God and knowing how we ought to live. Of course this wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord, but it doesn’t stop there. God’s will is that as we learn more about him we will actually realize things about ourselves. Through contemplating God we realize a lot of things about what it means to be human, and many of our identity anxieties are put to rest.
What I’m saying is that your impulse to understand yourself isn’t there to be ignored, but that pursuing it properly should lead you to your Bible. If you want to know more about yourself don’t settle for an online personality test; know God, and then you will know yourself. With that end in view let me give you three ways that knowing God helps us discover ourselves.
Knowing God reveals who we are not
The Lord is exalted over all the nations,
his glory above the heavens.
Who is like the Lord our God,
the One who sits enthroned on high,
who stoops down to look
on the heavens and the earth? – Psalm 113:1-6
Until we actually encounter God it is rather easy for us as humans to think highly of ourselves. In practice when I stop to consider whether or not I’m generous, i’m not measuring myself against an abstract set of principles to make a decision. In reality I’m most likely going to be comparing myself against other people I know, and asking if I’m more or less generous than they are. We do this with all sorts of things in life before we encounter God. We measure our behaviors against other people, and so long as we are similar or better than others we come to think of ourselves as good people. This is obviously a flawed method of self-scrutiny. When you think of goodness as the median behavior of the people around you, the easiest way to see yourself as good is just to surround yourself with bad people. Problem solved.
Meeting God changes this with the addition of a single new person in our life. Jesus. A man who is so good that the comparison game becomes untenable. As we learn more about who God is and what he is like: His perfection, His power, His glory; we forfeit our high ground. Because I know just how patient God is I know just how much I lack patience. Because I know how powerful God is I am well aware of my own creaturely limitations. In this way, knowing God grounds our sense of self and gives us a sense of humility. It becomes hard to judge one another when God is so high above us that the view from the top levels out the differences between us.
Knowing God reveals who we ought to be
As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” – 1 Peter 1:14-16
The humility that knowing God produces doesn’t end with self-loathing. God actually invites us to move beyond our recognition of sin and into a life of Holiness which he not only shows us, but also empowers us to follow. It is a profound truth that being “created in God’s image”, means that while we are only creatures… we are still called to a grand and noble purpose. There are ways in which we are unlike God, this is certain. But God’s plan for us is to grow us toward him. To make us more like him, over time as we study the blueprints of his Son Jesus so that we might more and more resemble him in our character. Of course we don’t do this on our own steam, God promises that his Holy Spirit will change us as we grow in knowledge of God. His promise is that we will eventually live up to our calling.
Knowing God gives us a resilient sense of self
You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old man, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new man, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. – Ephesians 4:22-24
And finally, as we learn more about God and grow in our confidence that He is working in us, we learn to ground ourselves in a resilient sense of self that isn’t tossed around or easily budged. I have heard preachers say more times than I can count, that “our identity should be in Christ”. If I can freely admit something now, for the longest time I had no clue what they were talking about. I suspect that I’m not alone. It’s a very strange thing to ask someone to “put their identity in Christ”. What are you even asking them to do? I hope you will use clearer language or at least explain what you mean if you ever decide to adopt this line for yourself!
If I might suggest a definition though, I think that when people talk about “putting your identity in Christ”, they really mean something like this: The thing that matters most about you is what Jesus has done for you. The way that God sees you is not shaped by your own sin, but by the perfect work of Jesus. The way that you should see yourself should not be characterized only by your failures. You are a beloved child of God. You should consider yourself and act with a dignity and self-respect that comes from the respect of Jesus… in whom is your “identity”.
And most importantly for your own sanity, you are free. You don’t need to obsess over whether or not you fit into this identity-grouping or that. It’s okay if you aren’t quite like everyone else, or if you don’t look like James Dean. What matters most about you is what Jesus did for you… and because of this you have gone from being a dying person who was worried about the things in this world; to a person who will live eternally and should be concerned with eternal things.
To have your identity in Christ is to think about yourself in the big-picture of God’s plan for your life; and to derive comfort, hope, and a sense of assurance from the knowledge that who you really are can’t be shaken. You are secure, whether you know it or not. God is holding you tightly. He will not let you go.
Because of this, you can be comfortable in your own skin. A Christian has every reason to feel at home with who God has called them to be. To pursue Godliness, and give their greatest efforts to living God’s way and growing in their faith; and to have the perspective and self assurance (which comes from knowing God) to absorb criticism, failure, disapproval, or even shame. A Christian whose identity is in Christ, does not derive their sense of self from the acceptance of those other than Christ. As such, they are free. They are not driven by a need for approval; they have God’s approval. They are not driven by need at all, but rather by delight. Joy should be the central motivator in the Christian life; joy which rises up from knowing what God has done and from intentional reflection upon God’s word… a joy which leads to sharing that same love with others.