A friend of mine recently wrote a blog post in response to an article written by a pastor on the absolute necessity of self-forgetfulness for spiritual growth. While I found myself agreeing with some of what this pastor wrote, I believe he overstated his case. For example, he writes:
"There is nothing in the gospel or about the gospel that encourages me to focus on me. Nothing!"
"Any version of "the gospel", therefore, that encourages you to think about yourself is detrimental to your faith."
"Sanctification is forgetting about yourself."
In many ways, I would argue the complete opposite. Let me explain with an illustration and a conversation:
The summer after my senior year of high school, I found myself on a trip to Europe with a bunch of high school students. Our tour bus brought us to Pisa, Italy to join hordes of tourists gawking at the famed leaning tower. To my surprise, the tower was considered sturdy enough at the time for us to climb the spiral staircase that traced the inside wall of the tilting cylinder.
It was an ascent like no other. Each step felt strange. As I climbed the stairs, the tilt of the tower produced a disorienting effect. Even though I knew I was ascending to the top of the tower, at times, I felt like I was actually descending. It felt like I was going the wrong way, even though every step I took was one step closer to the top.
In many ways, our own journey as Christ-followers parallels my experience climbing The Leaning Tower of Pisa. When we take our first steps as new Christians, we begin to grow. Old habits fall away. New appetites develop. We find ourselves hungry to read the Bible and connect with God in prayer. We often experience uncanny answers to prayer and learn to recognize the Spirit’s voice.
But over the years, as our relationship with God deepens, the journey often takes an unexpected turn. Things start bubbling up from our souls that we didn’t know were there or perhaps more accurately, did not want to admit were there. We find ourselves descending into parts of ourselves that we would rather avoid—dark, untamed parts of ourselves that were previously unknown, ignored, or supressed. It often feels like we are going the wrong way. Instead of inviting us to forget more and more of ourselves, the Spirit at times invites us to greater self-awareness.
This invitation can be seen in the Apostle Peter’s journey. When Jesus told Peter that he would deny Him three times, Peter refused to believe it and said, “I will never disown you” (Matthew 26:35). By his response, Peter essentially called Jesus a liar. The Son of God invited Peter to descend into parts of himself that he did not want to acknowledge. Peter doubted Jesus more than he doubted himself. Peter's refusal of Jesus' invitation to greater self-awareness let to failure.
A few years ago, while interviewing for a church ministry position, my interviewer posed an interesting question to me. She said, “You’ve been serving with Campus Crusade for Christ for over 18 years. If you could go back in time and talk with that 22 year old college graduate just starting out in ministry, what would you tell him?”
“Great question,” I thought to myself. I paused for a moment and said, “I would tell him this: the things that you refuse to see in yourself will have great power over you. You must pursue knowledge of yourself as much as you pursue knowledge of God.”
In my own experience, my refusal to see some of the darker parts of myself was a great hindrance to my growth in Christ-likeness. It felt so counter-intutive to trust the leading of the Spirit during those times. But when I did, I found that he’s took me to a place in my soul where he was waiting to meet me. A place of mercy, grace, and freedom from the things still lurking in my heart that I didn't want to admit were there.
Yes, excessive self-contemplation can hinder spiritual growth, but let's not through out the importance of spirit-led self-awareness with the bathwater of fleshly self-absorption. Knowledge of God is central to spiritual growth, but so is knowledge of self.
The importance of this "double knowledge" of self and God has a long history in Christian spirituality. For example, John Calvin famously opened his "Institutes of Christian Religion" with this statement:
"There is no deep knowing of God without a deep knowing of self and no deep knowing of self without a deep knowing of God."
The journey upwards towards Christ-likeness also means a journey downward into those parts of our self that hinder our devotion to the Master; a journey towards an encounter with things that must be acknowledged and faced in order to be defeated.
What about you? Do you tend towards knowledge of God at the exclusion of knowledge of self or vice versa? Has self-awareness been important in your own growth as a Christ-follower? Does self-forgetfulness have a place?