It is indeed true what the Psalmist says in Psalm 139: “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” The more we ponder our own creation as we have come, by the hand of God, from the parents whom God has used to bring us into the world, the more we stand amazed at the complexity and wonder of our own nature.
We talked a little bit in our last letter about the unity of body and soul as God created us. We must still mention a few other things which belong to this general subject.
All the knowledge which we possess comes into our souls by means of our bodies. Our minds and our wills appropriate this knowledge because, through our senses, our sensory nervous system, our brain and the power of our souls, this knowledge of God’s revelation is given to us. But the soul has other powers also. For one thing, the soul has what we could perhaps call an inner sensory system. I mean to say that we not only come to know, through the senses, the things in the world about us, but we have an inner sensory system which makes us aware of what goes on within us. This too is very complex and mysterious, but a very real fact of our life.
We can, by some mysterious and inner sense know about ourselves. We can, e.g., know that we are hungry and that we have need of food. We can know that we have pain somewhere and that something is not functioning properly in our bodies or that some sickness has taken hold of us. There is a very real condition which exists in our bodies, but through some sensory ability we can sense this and know that this is true.
But even more than this, we can know certain things about our soul. We can, e.g., know our moods and feelings. We are not only angry about something, but we can know that we are angry. We are not only disturbed in our souls about something that has happened, but we have the power within us to sense this disturbance and know that this is how we feel at the moment. We are always busy thinking and willing, but we can be aware of this thinking that is going on. We are aware and have knowledge of ourselves.
This is often called self-awareness or self-consciousness. This self-awareness is something which develops in a person in the early years of his life. He does not have it immediately when he is born. A little child, e.g., has little, if any, consciousness of himself. We even talk about the fact that a child is completely unself-conscious. We see him or her perform in a Christmas program in Church and his actions up on the platform are completely without any awareness of himself or that others see him. You have probably noticed that children often speak of themselves in the third person. Instead of saying, “I would like to go outside to play,” they say instead, “Jimmy would like to go outside to play.” This use of the third person is so common because they do not really know themselves yet as individual persons. A baby which looks at itself in the mirror does not have any idea that that image in the mirror is a reflection of itself. There comes, oftentimes, a moment when suddenly that child begins to understand that the image in the mirror is doing exactly the same thing which the child itself is doing. As the child ponders this and begins even to experiment a bit by performing different actions and watching what the image in the mirror does, the child suddenly begins to realize that that image is indeed a reflection of itself, and there comes the dawning awareness of the fact that the child is a person in its own right. He (or she) suddenly realizes that he himself is a distinct and individual person. With this comes the beginning of self-awareness.
This is indeed a marvelous and wonderful power. The fact is that we are so used to it and it has become so much a commonplace part of our life that we scarcely realize it as one of the powers which our souls possess. But a little thought about it will soon remind us of how intricate and complex even this part of our life is. A tree does not have this kind of self-consciousness—although it is a living creature. Even animals do not have this—at least in a very large measure. God created the animals also in an ascending scale. Certainly the lower forms of animal life such as one finds in worms and mosquitoes do not have, so far as we know, this kind of self-awareness. When one comes to higher forms of animal life such as is found in dogs and cats, there may be some dim reflection of what is found in man, for animals were created in the image of man just as men were created in the image of God. But the reflection is very dim and very imperfect.
But in man, this is a very great power. What do I mean, e.g., when I say that I am hungry? That is a rather simple statement, and yet it has many implications. If I am truly hungry then this simple statement means that my body does not have sufficient nourishment in order to continue to supply the energy which is needed to function in the tasks which God gives me to do. Certainly that is true, first of all. But it also means that some kind of sensation is created in my body—perhaps a sensation which is one of discomfort. And, without any doubt, it is a sensation which is unpleasant. But that sensation is something (perhaps those who study the body can pinpoint it more exactly) which exists objectively in my body in the same way in which the color of a rose exists objectively in the rose. Yet, just as I have eyes which can see the color of the rose, so I also possess some inner sense which can sense in some way this discomfort which arises from a lack of food. And, having sensed this feeling of discomfort, that feeling is transmitted to my soul so that my mind and will come to know about it. And, not only do my mind and will come to know about it, but my mind and will come to know and understand that I am the one who is hungry. With my eyes I can see hunger in other people, especially when it is evident in real starvation. But in this case I do not mistake what I see with my eyes concerning others with what is true of me. I know, not only that someone somewhere is hungry, but I know I am that one. And, coming to this conclusion, I can set about doing something about it.
Now all this is wonderfully complex. But there are other aspects to this matter which we need to touch upon here.
I think the best way to get at what needs to be said is to point out to you that Scripture requires of us, in a certain measure, that we live lives which are characterized by self-forgetfulness. This is most clearly evident from the command of Scripture to love God with all our hearts and minds and souls and strength. And Scripture teaches clearly that the manifestation of love is always characterized by a certain forgetting of one’s self. This is eminently true of God’s love for us. When Scripture says that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son (John 3:16), then Scripture means, among other things, to say that God’s love for the world was so great that He did not think of Himself or the great suffering which would be required of Him to give for us the gift of His Son to die on the cross for the sins of the elect. The price needed to redeem us was a very great price which God had to pay to secure our redemption. It was the price of the suffering of God’s own dear and beloved Son. But because He loved us, He did not stop at the price. Love did not think of the tremendous price. Love went ahead and gave Christ for us.
When this love for us is shed abroad within our hearts and we are, by the gift of that love, enabled to love in turn, that love which becomes manifest in our lives must take on the same characteristic—though, of course, in a human and earthly way. Our love can never equal God’s love. But the characteristic must be the same. When we love God, this love must be characterized by a certain abandon, a complete self-forgetfulness which reveals itself in obedience to God, whatever the personal cost. It must be a love which so completely absorbs us that we do not think of ourselves at all. If God commands, love impels. When, e.g., God commands a man not to be unequally yoked together with unbelievers, and obedience to this command requires that he leave a job, without any promise of another, because of entanglements with an ungodly worldly labor union, then if the individual ponders the matter because to leave his job will involve the possibility of insufficient money to provide for the needs of his family and finally refuses to leave his job because he is fearful of losing his income, then he has no love. He has thought about himself and his personal problems and has allowed these, rather than his love for God, to determine the course of his action. Abraham loved God so completely that he was obedient even when the command came to him to sacrifice his only son, the son of his old age. Love required nothing less. And to accomplish this there had to be this self-forgetfulness.
The same is true of our love for one another. Love expresses itself in such a way that love forgets completely about one’s own personal comfort, one’s own desires, one’s own inclinations. Love is so wrapped up in the good of the object of that love that, with this self-forgetfulness, one does all he can for the other. This must be true between husband and wife when they love each other in the Lord. This must be true of parents and children in the bonds of the covenant. This must be true of the saints mutually. And, ultimately, this must characterize our love for our neighbor always—whoever that neighbor may be.
Now, while all this is true, it also is true that Scripture calls us, in another sense, to be concerned about ourselves. We must love our neighbor as ourselves. We must take heed to ourselves—this is a very common injunction of Scripture. We must engage in continuous self-examination, and we are called to engage in this spiritual exercise especially when we prepare to go to the table of the Lord.
So we have here a rather strange situation: we are called to a life of self-forgetfulness, and we are admonished in various ways to be busily engaged in thinking about ourselves, examining ourselves, and even loving ourselves. How can we harmonize these two?
There are some profound spiritual truths that are at stake here, and we must call attention to them. But we ought, I think, to wait until another letter for that.
Fraternally, in Christ,