We admire people who seem truly at peace, unshakably confident and unflustered by criticism; so how do we become those people?
“Know then thyself…” wrote Alexander Pope in the opening lines of his poem "An Essay on Man: Epistle II."
The poet deliberately echoes the Greek saying nosce te ipsum that allegedly was inscribed on the Temple of Apollo. Socrates and Plato spent a great deal of time arguing over how to live life in accordance with this saying and what benefits people might have from self-reflection.
The Greek philosophers’ difficulty with this small adage was that first, it seemed impossible and second, it gave no indication of where to begin in the process of knowing one’s self.
In the absence of God, their arguments were entirely justified.
Man without a maker has nowhere to begin in this impossible task of understanding the mechanics of his own soul and mind.
Despite this, these ancient philosophers could not shake the indelible sense that self-knowledge was and is important for all people. Our humanity seems bedeviled by contradictions and a constant gap between who we are and who we ought to be.
A Short Introduction to Charles Williams
T.S. Eliot wrote in the introduction of Charles Williams’s book All Hallows’ Eve, “There are some writers who are best known through their books…there are others whose writings are only the shadow of what the men have given in direct intercourse. Some men are less than their works, some are more.
“Charles Williams cannot be placed in either class. To have known the man would have been enough; to know his books is enough; but no one who has known both the man and his works would have willingly forgone either experience.
“I can think of no man who was more wholly the same man in his life and in his writings.”
Williams’ transparency and unwillingness to present himself as more intelligent or funny in his books than he might naturally be in person impressed Eliot, but the sense of completeness went beyond simply being comfortable in his own skin.
As he struggled to explain Williams’ magnetism, Eliot finally said, “…Williams seemed equally at ease among every sort and condition of men, naturally and unconsciously, without envy or contempt, without subservience or condescension. I have always believed that he would have been equally at ease in every kind of supernatural company.… For him there was no frontier between the material and the spiritual world.
“Had I ever had to spend a night in a haunted house, I should have felt secure with Williams in my company: he was somehow protected from evil, and was himself a protection.”
If there were ever words we might wish to have said of us, these would be them.
The Faulty Bridge Between Ideal and Reality
How do we set about becoming this whole person? All of us are aware of this internal tension that often makes us uncomfortable around certain people or defensive at odd moments. We’ll catch ourselves and think, Why did I say that? Why am I politely laughing at this? It’s as if we’ve abruptly caught a glimpse of a stranger in the mirror.
Paul wrote about this internal dissonance, “I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway” (Romans 7:18-19 NLT).
Straining between what we know is better and how we often are, many of us fall into an unfortunate practice.
“It is an old habit among us, a habit subsidized by the devil, to depersonalize, to abstract, to generalize not only our language with or about God but also our language with and about one another,” Eugene Peterson pointed out in his book Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ
“It is a bad habit. We avoid the personal in order to avoid responsibility. We find any way we think we can get by with to get control of God, our neighbors, or ourselves. We are relentless. We depersonalize God to an idea to be discussed. We reduce the people around us to resources to be used. We define ourselves as consumers to be satisfied.
“The more we do it, the more we incapacitate ourselves from growing up to a maturity capable of living adult lives of love and adoration, trust and sacrifice.”
This view of ourselves, others and God may temporarily comfort us with the idea that our internal problems aren’t so complicated and that God’s work inside us can be similarly straightforward. However, the grueling slavery Paul describes in Romans 7 and the glorious freedom he illustrates in Romans 8 can’t exist side-by-side if Christ’s sacrifice was an undemanding event that made all believers into “good people.”
Thanks to this, it’s not uncommon to see people rattled in their belief or falling out of their Christian walk because they cannot reconcile this image of the perfect saintly believer with their own internal war.
They want to be Charles Williams, but instead they’re T.S. Eliot trying to describe something they can’t even entirely put into words.
The Harmony of God’s View and Ours
“We believe we're meant to live a perfect life because there are some scriptures that refer to that: ‘Be perfect even as I am perfect, be holy as he is holy.’” Gary Wilkerson explains in his podcast on self-worth and anxiety.
“Here’s what I believe: my spiritual hunger can only be met if I’m perfect. Religion plus perfectionism is going to equal anxiety until we get to the place where we realize God is for us and not against us. He is drawing us through the process of sanctification and to a place of holiness.”
To accept that this process of sanctification is not completed when we said “the prayer” and will not be completed during our lifetimes is hard and perhaps a bit disappointing.
However, the difficulty and length must have a purpose.
As we learn to see ourselves truly—terribly broken and ugly in sin and yet also immensely precious because of God’s image in us and sacrifice for us—we also learn to view others the same way: broken and valuable. As we do, a congruence grows between what we believe, what we do and how we do it.
To truly “know thyself” is to treat ourselves and others more like how God does, realistically, firmly, compassionately and patiently.