There are thousands of self-help books on the market. People are feverishly attempting to come to grips with who they are in this confusing world. Not only can you read books on self-help you can watch Dr. Phil on television or listen to Dr. Laura on the radio. Yet, I often find when I am exposed to these pontiffs from the church of self-helpism they often give prescriptions for human flourishing that are contradictory.
I think I know who I am. I can examine myself and make declarative statements about what I understand about my existence. It seems illogical to think that I do not know who I am, and yet there are clearly times in which I am wrestling with questions about myself.
For 16th century theologian John Calvin our pursuit of wisdom and understanding must begin with knowledge of God and ourselves. He states in book one chapter one of the Institutes of Christian Religion, “Nearly all wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern.”
An understanding of ourselves is inextricably linked to our understanding of God. We cannot come to know our true humanity until we understand ourselves in light of God’s created universe. People often think we can have a clear concept of humanity by closely examining ourselves, other humans and civilization at large, but to do so is to fundamentally misconstrue the true nature of human existence.
Calvin holds that man can never have a “clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked at God’s face…” Any attempt that we make to examine ourselves without a clear understanding of God and his intentions for humanity is to act by our fallen nature and is self-deceiving. Someone must stand outside of our fallenness and enlighten us of our true existence.
In the Old Testament direct encounters with God often resulted in people responding with pronouncements of their impending doom, because they now understood who they truly were in comparison to God’s perfection.
When Isaiah was brought into the presence of God in his throne room and encounters God in his glory Isaiah responds, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5) In this moment of stark clarity, Isaiah, who is a man of some holiness, realizes who he truly is in relation to God’s true holiness. The word “Lost” that Isaiah uses can be understood as “I am ceasing to exist.” These are strong words from a prophet of God, and yet when in the presence of God who we are becomes exceedingly clear.
Humanity is constantly in a state of denial. We are unable to truly see ourselves for who we are without God enlightening us. On our own we are unable to be truly honest with ourselves regarding the true state of humanity. Consequently, we are unable to properly understand the nature of our human depravity, and the real gift of saving grace that was done when Christ sacrificed himself for us on the cross.
For Calvin, our ability to properly understand ourselves and the world around us is totally dependent on a clear understanding of God. If we are left to our own devices we are not able to even begin to ascertain what it means to live a life of purpose and fulfillment. At best what we have weak understanding of human possibilities. We can find Calvin’s views echoed by CS Lewis in The Weight of Glory:
We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
Humans without an understanding of God are doomed to a life wallowing in the mud thinking that they have found their best when it is just a shadow of what is true flourishing.