With this phrase, Plato informs us that we would better understand others when we know ourselves. This is of course true not only in human relationships but also as we seek to know God. How is this valid reasoning?
In the opening chapter of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin explains the relationship like this. First, if we are truly honest with ourselves about ourselves we will be in a better position to see the glory of God. This of course is no easy feat since we are in an age where almost everyone is above average and everybody must always be a winner. But no matter how difficult it is for us to cut through the lies that we tell ourselves we must have as close to authentic knowledge of ourselves before we can know God.
Calvin said it like this:
“For, as a veritable world of miseries is to be found in mankind, and we are thereby despoiled of divine raiment, our shameful nakedness exposes a teeming horde of infamies. Each of us must, then, be so stung by the consciousness of his own unhappiness as to attain at least some knowledge of God. Thus, from the feeling of our own ignorance, vanity, poverty, infirmity, and – what is more – depravity and corruption, we recognize that the true light of wisdom, sound virtue, full abundance of every good work, and purity of righteousness rest in the Lord alone. To this extent we are prompted by our own ills to contemplate the good things of God; and we cannot seriously aspire to him before we begin to become displeased with ourselves.”
That last italicized part is a doozy and is worth contemplating for awhile. His words echo Isaiah 57:15 “But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” It also is reminiscent of Christ’s opening lines to his Sermon on the Mount when he says that the kind of people that are in the kingdom, those whom God blesses (has shown his favor to) are ones who are marked by a poverty of spirit and mournful over sin.
But Calvin wisely doesn’t stop there but goes on to say that to possess an honest evaluation of oneself one must know God. He writes:
“Again it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself. For we always seem to ourselves righteous and upright and wise and holy – this pride is innate in all of us – unless by clear proofs we stand convinced of our own unrighteousness, foulness, folly, and impurity. Moreover, we are not thus convinced if we look merely to ourselves and not also to the Lord, who is the sole standard by which this judgment must be measured.”
It may be asked why it is we must look to God to get a true estimate of ourselves. Calvin tells us it is because only God offers the perfect standard by which we are judged. “What in us seems perfection itself corresponds ill to the purity of God.” Anyone can brag about their athletic prowess, musical accomplishment, or academic achievement to their peers and subordinates. But once they are confronted with someone who is vastly superior to them, a light is shined upon them that exposes all the flaws and illuminates all their shortcomings.
Thus it is that when we look in Scripture we find that exposure to the glory of God (like that which the prophet experienced in Isaiah 6) leaves even the godliest of people
“stricken and overcome. . . . Thus it comes about that we see men who in his absence normally remained firm and constant, but who, when he manifests his glory, are so shaken and struck dumb as to be laid low by the dread of death – are in fact overwhelmed by it and almost annihilated. As a consequence, we must infer that man is never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state until he has compared himself with God’s majesty.”
So, in recap, to truly know God we must know ourselves (in all our corruption and depravity). And to truly know ourselves we must have a knowledge of the glorious and holy God. We need humility to come to God and true humility is the result of knowing God. And the greater the increase of true knowledge of God in our minds and hearts the greater our lives will be permeated with fresh humility and grateful contentment.
The test of true humility is that we savor more and more of God’s glory and majesty. Likewise the test of true knowledge of God is an increasing humility before God.
Are you increasing in knowledge and humility before God?