Aristotle once said, “knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom”. What do you think about that? Do you agree, disagree? Let’s park that there, I’ll come back to it in just a moment.
At church yesterday I preached a sermon about Jesus’ famous words from John 8:12:
“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
As I was preparing the passage, one thing which really struck me about it was the idea of knowing ourselves. How do you know yourself? Do we know ourselves truly, just by virtue of being ourselves, or are there still things about us which are unknown even to us? I apologise if that sounds a bit weird and abstract. Let me make it a bit more concrete. Have you ever been in a situation where you discover something about yourself that you didn’t realise? I think it happens sometimes under pressure – we discover who we really are, in a way which we wouldn’t have done otherwise. Someone who sees a child drowning in a river discovers that actually their instinct is to dive in and help. Someone faced with a difficult situation realises they are less patient and forgiving than they thought they were.
Or perhaps you’ve seen or read stories where the protagonist goes on a ‘journey of self discovery’. People sometimes use the expression “finding myself” – implying that they needed to discover who they were, their purpose, and so on. It seems to me that we are a mystery even to ourselves sometimes. How do we find our way through the fog?
As I was looking at Jesus’ words, I realised that true identity – true knowledge of ourselves – can only come when we see ourselves in the light of Christ. All of us by nature, as Jesus says, “walk in darkness”. This is a big theme in John – see especially John 3:19-21:
This is the verdict: light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
By contrast, God does not walk in darkness. Many people know John’s famous statement “God is love” (1 John 4:8), but I think fewer people know his statement from the beginning of the same book: “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). In other words, not only does God not walk in darkness, but God is himself light. So, as Jesus, says, if we want to walk in the light we need to see ourselves in God’s light. It turns out that true knowledge of ourselves is bound up with true knowledge of God.
In a strange kind of way, I think Aristotle was onto something when he said “knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom”: the book of Proverbs famously says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov. 1:7) – perhaps they are two sides of the same coin. We only truly know ourselves when we know God, when we see ourselves in his light.
But what does it mean to see ourselves in God’s light? In John 7:7, Jesus says “[the world] hates me because I testify that its works are evil.” Jesus is the one who bears witness to the world that its deeds are evil. In the passage from John 3 I’ve already quoted, it says: “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.”
In other words, what Jesus does is expose evil for what it is. You and I, without the light of Christ, could get on perfectly happily in sin, in evil – all the time thinking that there was nothing wrong. But as soon as we bring the light of Christ into the picture, it bursts our bubble (to mix metaphors a little). We can’t pretend there’s nothing wrong anymore.
Think about dirty windows: In our house we have a toddler running around. Toddlers, it hardly needs saying, love to put their sticky hands all over your nice clean windows. You end up with the glass covered with hand prints. The thing is, for the majority of the time you don’t really notice: on a typical day – grey and cloudy at this time of year – the glass looks fairly clean. You can’t see the hand prints. But as soon as the sun comes out, as soon as the light streams through the windows, they show up clearly.
This is how it is with the relationship between us and Christ: when we walk in the darkness, we look pretty clean. But as soon as we come towards the light, it exposes all our flaws. It exposes the fact that we walk in darkness. It exposes the fact that we are actually living a lie about ourselves: we are not the people who we kid ourselves that we are.
What this means is, we do not have true knowledge about ourselves until we see ourselves in Jesus’ light. Unless we can see ourselves as sinners, we do not know ourselves truly. And, the real problem: if we do not see ourselves as sinners, we cannot seek God’s forgiveness. Jesus says in Mark 2:17, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” If we don’t acknowledge that we are ‘ill’ to begin with, we won’t bother to seek a doctor. Think of the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail – instead of admitting defeat at any point, he simply denies that he has any injuries at all. It’s an absurd picture, but I think it’s akin to what Jesus is saying people do by nature: denying the obvious fact that there is something wrong with us!
Why is any of this an issue? Why does it really matter? Back in John 8, Jesus says to the Pharisees: “I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins” (v24). Dying in sin – this is the fate for anyone who does not believe that Jesus is the one who “takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Sin separates us from God; sin incurs God’s righteous wrath and judgement. To die in our sins is not a good thing. As Hebrews 10:31 puts it, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
And so the key question for us all is: will we let Christ expose us for who we are? Will we come to the one who exposes our darkness, and yet is the only one who can take away our darkness? It is literally a matter of life and death.