Letter to Timothy

February 1, 1980

Dear Timothy, 

We were talking about the power with which we are endowed by God to know ourselves. You will recall that we ended our last letter with a discussion of the apparent conflict between the Scriptural injunction on the one hand to live lives of self forgetfulness, and on the other to be constantly busy with knowing ourselves in some sense — as in self-examination. 

Now, before we attempt to, resolve this problem, we ought to be reminded of something else which Scripture says concerning us. Scripture tells us, in one way or another, that we cannot really know ourselves. Scripture is rather insistent upon this point. And the main reason why we cannot know ourselves is sin. Just plain sin. Sin makes it impossible to know ourselves as we truly are. 

There are several ways in which Scripture drives this point home to us. For one thing, Jeremiah writes in chapter 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” Now, it is true that the prophet means here that the depths of depravity in man are so great that it is impossible for anyone to plumb these depths. We are always surprised at how evil man really is. But the prophet means also to say that this is true of each man personally. He is so desperately wicked that he cannot even see his own sins and the depths of his depravity. He cannot know himself as he truly is. 

It is for this reason that one of the chief characteristics of men is that while they have 20/20 vision when it comes to seeing the faults, weaknesses, and sins in others, they are totally blind when it comes to seeing their own faults. You have yourself seen it happen time and time again (perhaps in your own life) that people will condemn fiercely faults in others of which they are themselves especially guilty. Jesus has this very thing in mind when he warns: “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.” (Mat. 7:3-5.) Jesus means to say here, not only that we have beams in our own eyes which need casting out; he means to say, not only that these beams are much larger than the small motes in the eye of our brother; but He also means to say that we cannot possibly see what is wrong with our brother until we have taken out of our lives the sins which are present with us. Only when we first get the beam out of our own eye will we be able to see the mote which is in our brother’s eye. But it is so terribly hard to see that beam in our own eye. And, as long as we do not see the beam in our own eye, we cannot see clearly even whether the brother has a mote in his eye. 

The same thing is true of self-examination. We cannot really examine ourselves at all. This is a spiritual impossibility simply because it is a spiritual exercise. Sin is so totally devastating that it makes us spiritually blind. We are, because of our sin, so blind that we cannot see our sin. If we are to examine ourselves, we need a spiritual power which we do not possess of ourselves. This must come from God. That is why the unregenerated man can never confess the truth of total depravity. And, indeed, the truth of total depravity makes him furiously angry. Even the regenerated child of God has a great deal of trouble with this when it becomes concrete. He probably has no trouble with the truth of total depravity as an abstract doctrine. But there is nothing which makes people so angry as to have their own sins pointed out to them. They have a natural inclination to rebel against this. Everyone of us has a lot of Arminianism in himself when it comes to the truth of total depravity as applied to his own life. 

Two things are necessary if we are really to examine ourselves. One is that we have the Holy Spirit within ourselves Who gives to us the spiritual ability to do this; the other is that we always examine ourselves in the light of Scripture. These two are really the same. Together they mean that only the Holy Spirit can tell us the kind of people we really are. The Holy Spirit tells us objectively in the Scriptures. Apart from the Scriptures we can never form an accurate and correct picture of ourselves. Apart from the Scriptures we will always think of ourselves as better than we really are. But the Scriptures tell things about us which are really true. They tell it as it really is. And the Holy Spirit, by His work within our hearts, imprints that truth upon our self-consciousness. The Holy Spirit makes what is objectively set forth in Scripture a truth which we. truly appropriate and confess. And it is this which leads inevitably to confession of sin and a deep cry for forgiveness. 

This is the reason why The Psalmist, as, e.g., in Psalm 139:23-24, prays: “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” The Psalmist is not praying this prayer that God may acquire some information about us which He does not possess. But it is only in this way of God’s searching and trying that we are able to know ourselves. 

Now there is an important principle here which concerns our entire mental and spiritual well-being. There are, on one extreme, people who in a bad sense of the word never seem to give a thought to themselves. Sometimes these people are reckless and easily endanger their own lives. They seem so utterly unconcerned about themselves that they foolishly plunge into every kind of danger without giving any thought about what it will do to them. They are, what we sometimes call, scatterbrained and irresponsible. There is often in these people, however, a deep selfishness – even though it is hidden. It is a selfishness which manifests itself in a proud disdain for their own safety and well-being but which is rooted in a desire to appear before men as brave and courageous. There is, often in these people, a recklessness which is born out of a desire to be “thrilled” by one new experience after another. And so, even though it seems as if they are self-forgetting, this is a facade which covers up a deep selfishness after all. 

But there are also people who are inordinately preoccupied with themselves. Sometimes this is sheer selfishness. Their motto in life is: “Me first, and the devil take the hindmost.” They are so totally absorbed in themselves that they seek only their well-being, their comfort, their enjoyment, their pleasure. This is a very great evil. It especially characterizes our age. Again and again Time magazine, to cite but one example, calls our present times, times of individualism. And by this fancy euphemism, Time means only that we live in times when every man is concerned only about himself and gives no thought to anyone else. 

There are people who are preoccupied with their health. They are so concerned about their health that they are always sick with something or other. They are called hypochondriacs and they make it possible for doctors to live a good life with large incomes. 

There are people who are preoccupied with their own life. They are always worried about every aspect of their life. They are the ones who are always taking these foolish and stupid tests in the Readers Digest: “Is your marriage healthy? If your score IS. 20 or better, you have a healthy marriage. If your score is below. 12, you had better see a marriage counselor.” They are preoccupied with following all the rules in bringing up children. They read manual after manual, column after newspaper column. And, because every man has a different idea and a different program, they are always mixed up and never know what is right and what is wrong. But they are sure something is wrong. And the more they read, the more certain they become that things are not right. 

They are preoccupied with their mental health. They are always engaging in some sort of self-analysis, some kind of self-psychoanalysis, and they find all sorts of things to be wrong with them. You have no doubt been struck with the fact that it is not at all unusual for people who have mental problems to be so completely absorbed in themselves that they cannot hear anything else but what immediately concerns themselves. You often have the feeling: if only they would forget themselves once, they would be cured of all their mental problems. But they are trapped in a vicious circle of thinking so completely of themselves that they are bound to find something or other wrong. They analyze and ponder every thought, every desire, every motive, every action, every event to find some significance in it which will lead to a greater understanding of self. Modern psychology is, in large measure, geared to such self-understanding. “Know yourself!” That’s the watchword of today’s world. 

This sort of a thing leads to untold grief and countless problems. And we must learn to put a stop to this. But how? 

The solution to the problem lies in the Word of God. Every bit of our knowledge of ourselves must come from the Word of God. We must fasten ourselves to that Word. We must always see ourselves only in the light of that Word. That Word must always be the mirror into which we look. Never must we come to any conclusions about ourselves apart from it. That is our only escape. If ever we try anything else, we will go wrong. 

If we do this we will discover the great spiritual truths of Scripture, first of all. We will see ourselves as totally depraved sinners who are completely unworthy of the grace of God. But, in the same Scriptures, we will see ourselves also as those who are redeemed by the blood of Christ. We will see ourselves as sanctified through the power of that blood — even though it be in principle now. 

We will see ourselves reflected in that mirror as those who, because they are redeemed only in principle, have to struggle daily with sin and its power in our lives and about us. We will see ourselves as victorious in Christ through the power of confession and forgiveness in Christ’s blood. We will see ourselves as those who have been given a place and a calling in God’s kingdom and Church. We will see ourselves as those who labor in that calling with much sin and imperfection, but as those whose labor is never in vain in the Lord. We will see ourselves as destined to live in heaven with Christ, freed from sin and blessed beyond measure in the tabernacle of God. 

And the more we see ourselves in the light of Scripture, the more also we attain to the true self-forgetfulness of which Scripture speaks as we labor in the consciousness of God’s grace. Both come together here. 

Both come together (our necessary concern with ourselves and our calling to self-forgetfulness) in seeing ourselves as God describes us on the pages of Holy Writ, The closer we live in this consciousness, the more we shall also live happy and serene lives in the midst of the world. Our troubles are rooted in our failure to attain this. Our solutions lie in the doing of this. 

Fraternally in Christ, 

H. Hanko