True Self-Knowledge

Have you ever gone through some sort of identity crisis? You know, the kind where you wonder who you are and what you are supposed to do?

After living in the same town for nearly twenty years, I moved to another state. Since then, I’ve gone through an identity crisis of sorts. Where I used to live, I knew who I was. I knew where I belonged and my role. I knew what my church needed from me and where I fit in there. Since I’ve moved, I feel like a visitor wherever I go. I often feel out of place and I wonder— who am I in this new place?

The Bible teaches us that the only way to know ourselves is to first know God.

Isaiah Learns Who He Is

In the book of Isaiah, the prophet had a vision of heaven. He saw the Lord in all His holiness. “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “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 6:1-5).

Can you imagine that? The sights and sounds Isaiah experienced were extraordinary! In seeing God on His throne as ruler of all things, Isaiah saw himself in contrast to the holiness and magnificence of God. He responded with the only thing that made sense, “Woe is me!”

R.C. Sproul comments on this passage in The Holiness of God, “In that single moment, all of his self-esteem was shattered. In a brief second he was exposed, made naked beneath the gaze of the absolute standard of holiness. As long as Isaiah could compare himself to other mortals, he was able to sustain a lofty opinion of his character. The instant he measured himself by the ultimate standard, he was destroyed—morally and spiritually annihilated. He was undone. He came apart...For the first time in his life Isaiah really understood who God was. At the same instant, for the first time Isaiah really understood who Isaiah was.”

To Know Ourselves, We Must Know God

Whatever identity questions we face in life, whether it is seeking our purpose or place, knowing what job we should do, or finding our roles in our homes, communities, and churches, we can’t know who we are until we know God. Only when we stand before His holiness and see ourselves in contrast will we realize who we truly are. As John Calvin wrote in the Institutes, “it is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he have previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself.” First we look at who God is; then we look at ourselves in contrast.

Like Isaiah, we need to see that God is ruler of all things. He sits high on the throne of the universe, ruling over all mankind and over every living thing. We often live as though we are the kings and queens of our own little kingdoms. We live as though we are independent and sufficient within ourselves. But God alone is the creator and sustainer. He gives life and breath to all things. He sustains that life with food and water He provides. This is what Job learned in his own encounter with God, “Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God for help, and wander about for lack of food?” (Job 38:41).

As the heavenly beings in Isaiah’s vision revealed, God is holy. Thrice holy. He is other, set apart from everything else in existence. Nothing and no one can compare to his glory and righteousness. Upon seeing God’s glory and holiness, Isaiah realized he was unclean and unworthy. In our daily lives, when we compare ourselves to others, and especially to the dark world around us, we can think we are okay. We don’t grasp the true depths of our sinfulness. It’s only when we understand God’s holiness do we realize no good deed would make us worthy to stand before God and live. Isaiah was rightly humbled and saw the true state of his sinful condition. An angel then took a hot coal from the altar and brought it to Isaiah. “With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for” (v.7). We too need our sin atoned for; we need a salvation and pardon from outside ourselves. God provided this through the righteous life and substitutionary death of Christ—the final and perfect sacrifice for sin.

After Isaiah received pardon, the voice of the Lord asked, “Whom shall I send?” (v. 8). Only after cleansing from sin did Isaiah receive his calling and his purpose for God. Once he knew God and himself in contrast, once he acknowledged his neediness and helplessness before the King of the universe, and once he was cleansed from sin, only then was he ready to fulfill God’s plan for him.

True knowledge of self only comes when we know God. While we will likely not encounter God the way Isaiah did, we don’t need to because we have His word. There we learn who God is in all His splendor, majesty, holiness, and might. There we see that Christ is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:30). In the pages of Scripture we learn, as Isaiah did, the true state of our sinfulness and helplessness. There we see what Christ did to make us able to stand in God’s presence and live. Only then are we ready and prepared to know ourselves, our place, and our purpose.

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