It’s a phrase that has been attributed to both Socrates and Plato, but it’s also a mantra that has been taken up in the modern day. In so many words, all kinds of gurus from all kinds of perspectives are saying the same thing – Know thyself, and then obey thyself. That is, the chief end of mankind is to understand what makes you uniquely happy, and then to pursue that happiness regardless of what stands in your way.
Of course, there is an assumption behind this philosophy. It is assumed that when we end up knowing ourselves, we will find a great deal of freedom and release and gratification when we finally do. Or, in other words, that we will like what we find. But the Christian knows better. Or at least we should know better.
The Christian, of all people, should live with an awareness of just what we are capable of.
“Pride comes before destruction, and an arrogant spirit before a fall,” says Proverbs 16:18. If that is true, then we should all have a very healthy distrust of ourselves. Problem is that we often look at those around us – whether in the news or in our personal relationships – and see their struggle with whatever, and we tend to think that we would never do that “thing” they have just done. That somehow we are above it. But we are not.
A wise person recognizes this reality; a wise person knows what he or she is truly capable of.
This is neither a popular nor a pleasant line of thinking. It’s not pleasant because who really wants to acknowledge the potential darkness inside of them? And it’s not popular because we live in a day and time of constant self-affirmation and self-care; the idea of coming to grips with our own potential for sin and evil runs counter to that.
Nevertheless, we as Christians are to have a “sober” estimation of ourselves (Rom. 12:3). That is, we are to think neither too highly nor too lowly of who we are and what we might accomplish for good or evil. To go a step farther, though, recognizing our capabilities for darkness is important if we want to be wise people for at least two reasons:
1. Knowing what we are capable of helps us set guardrails.
If we recognize our own potential for darkness, then we should also set about making sure we are avoiding opportunities in which our sinful nature can run rampant. In wisdom, we put walls of protection around ourselves, our time, and our habits. This is not an act of fear or paranoia; rather, it’s an acceptance of the reality of the sin inside of us. Whether it means an internet filter, a tightly controlled spending schedule, or a regular accountability group, we do what we can to protect ourselves – from ourselves.
2. Knowing what we are capable of refreshes our appreciation of grace.
Slowly but surely, the longer we are Christians, we tend to forget that we, like everyone else, were once upon a time dead in our sins and transgressions. We drift into the mindset that we weren’t actually “that bad,” and as a consequence, we lose our wonder at the grace that’s been given us. Reminding ourselves of our potential for darkness actually refreshes our wonder and appreciation of what God has done for us in Christ.
Yes, Christian, you have been saved by grace. And yes, Christian, you needed to be saved by grace. As those, then, who have been brought from darkness to light, let us in wisdom remind ourselves of our potential so that we might never, but God’s grace, reach that potential.