Reading Jesus' words in Mark 8 this week piqued my curiosity: What is the relationship between “knowing yourself” (i.e. learning to “accept” the self God made you to be) and Jesus’ command to “deny yourself”? When Jesus tells us to deny ourselves, is he telling us not to be ourselves?
At the very least, we know that among the things Jesus calls his followers to deny are the sinful parts about themselves. Let us take, for example, someone who deals with control, but doesn't know that he gravitates toward control. This is a real part of who he is (the “real” him, if you will) but he simply doesn’t know it about himself. Question: can he “deny” that part of himself in any meaningful sense? No, he can’t. Why? Because he doesn’t yet own that as a part of himself. You cannot deny what you don’t know you have. You cannot put to death what you do not know is alive. And I don’t mean in general; I mean “alive” in you.
For years I did not understand this. I understood that to know God was eternal life – Jesus himself said so in John 17:3. So I devoted my life to knowing him: reading Scripture, praying, studying, etc. And I knew that we were called to deny ourselves, die to self, be crucified with Christ – verbs that communicated to me that who I was really wasn’t all that important. Yes, God loved me, but he really wanted me to be like Jesus, not like myself; and so I never paid any attention to who I really was. Oh, and don’t mishear me: I still paid plenty of attention to myself (I’ve always been an introspective, self-focused type of person). I just didn’t pay any attention to the things about me that drove that type of behavior. I didn’t understand myself; i.e. I didn’t “know” myself.
But – and here’s the bottom line – insofar as I didn’t know myself, I couldn’t deny myself. I couldn’t deny what I didn’t know was there. I couldn’t put to death what I didn’t know was alive. And to the extent that I couldn’t put to death those parts of myself, those same parts could never be brought back to life again by Jesus. And so they weren’t. I would just hunker down and try my hardest not to be selfish, not to be unkind, not to be impatient. And all the while – yep, you guessed it – I continued being selfish, unkind, and impatient. Why? Because, knowing that selfishness, unkindness, and impatience were wrong made it hard for me to willingly embrace and admit that they perfectly described my life. But to ignore this fact made it impossible for Jesus to impact me in those places. And so I continued to find no new life there. I had left Jesus out of the equation, and as a result could not draw on his resurrection life at all for love, kindness, or patience.
At the root of the problem was this: I had no self-knowledge. I didn’t know the real me; and therefore couldn’t deny myself, take up my cross, and follow Jesus. I didn’t think knowing myself made all that much of a difference. But it made all the difference in the world! I had been trying to relate with God in relationship. That was the point, right? Sure, but you cannot get to know another person if you do not first know yourself.
And so it comes to this: you cannot deny yourself if you do not first know yourself. You cannot deny what you don't know is there. And so what you and I need is to rightly know ourselves. “A humble self-knowledge is a surer way to God than a search after deep learning” said Thomas a Kempis. And he's absolutely right.