An inscription on the temple to Apollo at ancient Delphi said “Know Thyself.” Knowing ourselves is always important, but nowhere is it more so than in relation to the gospel of Christ. The gospel requires repentance, and repentance requires a conscience that is in touch with our real situation. As the etymology of the word itself indicates, “conscience” has to do with “self-knowledge.” Related to the word “conscious,” which literally means to “know with” ourselves, “conscience” is a form of self-awareness. It’s the awareness that our conduct is either consistent or inconsistent with what we believe to be right. Obviously, conscience can’t evaluate our actions very well if it doesn’t get accurate information about what those actions really are.
The salvation that follows godly sorrow and repentance is impossible until a realistic, truthful knowledge of one’s self has been produced. We obey God when we’ve apprehended not only the truth about the gospel, but also the truth about our own sins. We simply do not repent of sins that we’re in denial of. So we must come to grips with the bad news before we can benefit from the good news. If we avoid the issue of honesty about ourselves, we forfeit the only possibility for grace. Jesus said, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him . . . And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” (Jn. 3:16-20).
In one sense, we each know ourselves better than anyone else knows us. As individuals, we alone know all of our own thoughts, motives, and values. Our ideals and attitudes are things others know about only as we choose to reveal them, and one lifetime is just too short to reveal ourselves exhaustively to anyone else even if we should try. Hence, the information upon which others judge us is at best incomplete, and often it is inaccurate. Only we ourselves have full access to our heart’s contents. As to “self,” each of us knows things that no one else can ever know.
Nevertheless, it is also true that we are sometimes the very poorest judges of ourselves. We may have all the “raw materials” out of which we could make an accurate evaluation, but all too often we’re simply unwilling to do that. It takes more honesty than most of us can muster to be absolutely objective and candid about our own character. In the physical realm, this lack of objectivity about self is why doctors don’t diagnose their own ailments. They understand the need to consult another doctor who can look at the facts more objectively. In the spiritual realm, there is an even greater need for us to be helped in understanding ourselves (Psa. 19:12-14). When it comes to seeing our own faults and foibles, most of us have some serious blind spots. What is perfectly clear and plain to those who know us can be all but invisible to our own eyes.
Honesty about anything requires a love of truth. In order to be adequately honest with ourselves we must want to know the truth more than we want anything else, including the maintenance of a flattering self-image (Gal. 4:16). Someone has said that “life is one long struggle to think well of ourselves.” No matter what wrong we’ve done, most of us exert enormous effort trying to find some mental perspective from which we can view our actions at least somewhat favorably. Consequently, life never makes a greater demand on our courage than when we have to accept some painful fact about the sinfulness of what we’ve done (Gen. 4:3-7). We shrink away from dealing with “hard” facts about our character. But God sees these with crystal clarity — and will one day take them into account in His judgment of us (Heb. 4:12,13).
Would you like a healthy test of your honesty and love of truth? Try praying something like the following prayer from time to time:
Dear Father, help me to see myself as You do. Give me friends who love my soul in the long run more than they have to have my goodwill in the short run, friends who will not let me ignore or excuse my sins. Set me in the midst of circumstances that will make me see my true character. Bring out into the open sunshine of Your truth every fault that I have hidden from myself. Expose my secrets to others, if that’s what it takes, and help me, in Your strength and love, to be glad for the honesty this forces upon me. Help me to accept even the most unwelcome truth about who I am, so that I can change my ways. Do this, O Lord, before it is too late.