Of God and Self

Of God and Self July 8, 2016
Courtesy of Pixabay
Courtesy of Pixabay

Our wisdom, insofar as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. [1] —John Calvin

I can hear my friends now: “Matthew! You’re beginning an article with a Calvin quote?!” Why, yes, yes I am. And here’s why: because, regardless of the many things I disagree with Calvin over, it’s a great quote. Indeed, without knowing ourselves we can’t expect to know God and without knowing God we can’t truly know ourselves. The sad thing is, so many of us don’t act as if this is true. We talk about God in terms of his loftiness, like a king on his almighty white throne. God is omni-everything. And perhaps God is, but that is not my point here. My point is that we then turn around and, in spite of humans being made in God’s image, talk about ourselves as things like “filthy rags,” for instance. We treat others as such too. We do things like insist, with cold faces, how those we don’t like are going to burn in hell for their iniquities. Then we send them there through war and conquest and terror. Assuredly then, I’m afraid we have missed the mark when it comes to knowing God and Self. The proof is in the pudding, unless of course God is a maniacal tyrant just like we human beings tend to be.

To be honest though, I am not above reproach here. I’m as guilty as anyone for, at one point, not knowing either God or Self. In recognizing this, I must have empathy for others, for all deserve this much (lest I find myself to be a hypocrite!). After all, everyone is on a journey, with some further along the path than others.

So, when I meditate on God and Self, I can’t help but think of John’s prologue. The writer states: “In him [Christ] was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:4). This very light that shines in all people is the means by which we can know both God and Self. God has designed it as such by choosing to reside within us. And this is a universal thing. We don’t activate this light with some magic formulae, nor do we bring it into ourselves at any point. It just is. So wake up to it. Throughout our journeys, then, when we discover truths about God we discover truths about our Self and when we discover truths about our Self we discover truths about God. But Calvin is correct in that which of the two precedes the other is difficult to discern. It is, in fact, a “chicken and the egg” scenario.

So what, then, are we talking about when we talk about God? Is God an angry old man in the sky, a la Zeus? Is God simply—or, rather, complicatedly—a list of attributes like the folks who thought up the Westminster Confession of Faith state? Is God like Janus, or in other words, two-faced? Or is God something else entirely? Is God just like Jesus, who taught that God’s perfection is in terms of his love for enemies and blessing of those who are unrighteous (Matthew 5:43–48)?

It is my greatest hope that God is just like the latter.

I am fairly confident, then, in saying that whatever understanding we have of God will greatly affect how we view the human being. Should we believe God to in fact be the angry old man in the sky, for example, we will generally act in one of two ways: either mimetically emboldened as zealous warriors for our God or paralyzed with fear should we think that old man is some day going to turn on us. I may be oversimplifying things but this seems to be a fairly accurate assessment.

On the contrary, when we believe God is exactly like a first-century Jew named Jesus, we tend toward living out a much more human-centered way of being. Now, don’t confuse that to mean a self-centered worldview, but rather, a human-centered one in the same way that Jesus viewed it—where God is discovered by giving one’s self away, in love, for the other. Jesus said it best when he taught, “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). And if that is indeed the case, because God knowledge and Self knowledge are so intertwined, then that teaching points toward the very heart of God. Remember friends, God is love, and the greatest act of love God could do is to lay down his life for us. Because we have the testimony of the gospels that is just what I believe the true Christian message is. And so this becomes our new Reality.

Know thy self and you will know God, for God has placed within each and every one of us his very essence. You will find God from without, sure, in and among the creation we all live in. But you can’t discover your relation to God without searching within. So we must journey into the infinite in both directions, internally and externally, and into all spaces of the cosmos for there exists no space where God is not.

Shalom.

1. Calvin, Institutes, 15.

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  • Ellen Hammond

    Well said, Matthew! You started off with a wise quote, regardless of whose it is. Obviously, Calvin was on his own journey of searching for truth when he wrote that. Too often we tend to throw out the baby with the bath water and miss the good parts because we disagree with other things someone has said.

    You have a gift for keeping it real and explaining things in ways simple enough for most people to understand. When we grasp the truth that God is in all of us, we begin to see ourselves and others in a whole new light.

  • Matthew

    Thanks Ellen. I’ve learned it is wise to not toss people out entirely just because they may be wrong on certain things. Such is the case with Calvin.