Toward a Reformed Theology of Self-Awareness

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John Calvin includes this peculiar statement in the introduction to his institutes: “Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God.” It is such a strange statement from someone so focused on God first and foremost. This statement sounds like something that would come from a 20th century proponent of the therapeutic approach, rather than from a 16th century Reformer.

Actually, this statement is part of a larger argument that Calvin makes. Piecing together what he writes in three pages of the introduction to Book One of his Institutes of the Christian Religion: "The knowledge of God and that of ourselves are connected. Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God. Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self."

Is it possible that a therapeutic perspective is not quite as modern as some argue?

I have found Calvin’s statement here to be true. While Calvin does a terrific job amplifying the knowledge of God part, I believe he shorted us in the knowledge of self part.

Both Are Important

“Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self.” Even those who have studied the self thoroughly and have reflected on their own uniqueness, will find that if they do not believe in the vital sovereignty of God, their knowledge of self is incomplete. It is rather lopsided. Ultimately, a lack of knowledge leads to a flawed self-awareness.

On the other hand, we likely all know people who have a vast amount of cognitive knowledge about God but are not very self-aware. Often, their lack of self-awareness leads them to relate to others in painful ways. They know intellectually all about God’s grace and love, but the way they act toward others does not include that much grace and love, leaving relational havoc in their wake. Calvin is correct. “The knowledge of God and that of ourselves is connected.” Lack of one affects the quality of the other.

Knowledge of Self Grows Knowledge of God

Calvin’s observation could be worded positively as: “With greater knowledge of one’s self, one has greater knowledge of God.” Let’s define knowledge here as greater than intellectual assent, more like intimacy, such as a married couple “knowing” each other. Psalm 139 communicates that clearly. “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.”

I believe that self-awareness is actually a key component of discipleship. The gospels describe Jesus as exceptionally self-aware. He knew his role. He knew his purpose. He knew when it was time to keep his identity secret and when it was time to share it. A disciple is continually growing into what he/she already is—-an image of the Master--Christ.

The more self-aware people are, they better they are able to appreciate the wonder of a God who created them as the unique person they are. They even come to understand and appreciate that God cherishes them despite their flaws, and even brings good out of their flaws and pains, as well as out of their strengths. They can testify, “Father, how tremendous You are to so fearfully and wonderfully have made me, as You did all these other people as well.”

In addition, knowing one’s self feeds missional activity. In the results of a recent study, George Barna claims that “more than 100 million American adults who describe themselves as Christian contend … they are still searching for clarity regarding their purpose in life (Barna, Maximum Faith, p. 10-11).” In contrast, I have seen people who have gone through a process that unearths signs of God’s provision in their life and based on that got a clearer picture of God’s purpose for their life. As a result, these individuals have begun a variety of ministries: congregation-wide prayer movement, congregation-wide and countywide centering prayer, employment, acting, community, discipleship, teen addicts, at risk kids mentoring, speaking, international missions, and many more. Click here to see a media clip of five examples.

Understanding yourself can free you from hang-ups that get in the way of doing what you’re designed to do. One of the students in the masters’ level class I teach on “leadership and character development” was burdened by a sense of guilt. He felt like he had let God down because even though his college training was in a specialized education program focused on the urban poor, he had not gone into that line of work. Through a process that gave him greater self-awareness he realized that God used that training and degree to prepare him for his role now as a North American ambassador for a college in Zambia. What he thought was a disappointment to God, he now sees as God’s preparation for his present ministry assignment. He can move forward on this mission, freed from the burden of that guilt. Click here to read the rest of the story.

Better self-awareness also feeds relational vitality. Beyond knowing your best behavior and stress behavior, knowing what kind of situations bring out each can help you take actions to curtail your stress behavior and put yourself in environments that bring out your best behavior.

The Holy Spirit uses growing self-awareness in His sanctifying work in our lives. Self-awareness causes a husband to know why certain actions that may not hurt others, hurt his wife and children, and thus be able to avoid those behaviors. It causes a woman to see why sparks seem to fly whenever she and a fellow employee interact and how she can change her interchange to bring a less painful and more productive relationship.

For Reflection

So how about you? How have you found that growing your self-knowledge/awareness has deepened your relationship with God? How have you found that increasing your self-awareness has formed you more into the “spittin’ image” of Christ? I know I have, though I have so much farther to go in understanding why I do what I do and altering my behavior to more closely resemble Him, who’s I already am. 

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