Γνῶθι σεαυτόν (Know thyself)


Mike Yaconelli was one of those people who influenced countless young Christians in the English-speaking world of the late 20th century, whether they knew it or not. One of the things that made him so special was his ability to dispense with pretense and set an example for others in the art of knowing ourselves. He wrote:

If I were to die today, I would be nervous about what people would say at my funeral. I would be happy if they said things like “He was a nice guy” or “He was occasionally decent” or “Mike wasn’t as bad as a lot of people.” Unfortunately, eulogies are delivered by people who know the deceased. I know what the consensus would be. “Mike was a mess.”

[Messy Spirituality: God’s Annoying Love For Imperfect People, (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Zondervan Publishing House, 2002), 11. See also, Karla Yaconelli, ed., Michael Yaconelli: Selected Writings, (El Cajon, CA, USA: Youth Specialties, 2003), 24.]

The ancient Greeks had a saying: “Know thyself” (Γνῶθι σεαυτόν, Gnōthi seauton), and some of them thought it was important enough to have prominently inscribed in one of their temples. The 16th century theologian John Calvin wrote that the knowledge of ourselves is intimately tied to the knowledge of God. Mike Yaconelli knew himself, and in knowing himself he showed us how to know ourselves. He openly admitted the truth that the rest of us are either too afraid or too blind to admit: we are messes, and sooner or later other people find out about it. Everyday each one of us fulfills the prophecy that is the title of John Ortberg’s book, Everyone’s Normal Til You Get to Know Them.

Even though God originally created everything good, including people, something has gone terribly wrong. All it takes is a glance at a newspaper to know that, deep down, even the most outwardly balanced and seemingly upright among us harbor dark secrets in their souls. And all it takes is a little reflection on the smug satisfaction we feel inside when the personal foibles of the rich, famous, and self-righteous are publicly exposed to make us realize that we’re actually relieved we’re not well known enough for our own very real failures to make the headlines.

We know we are messes because we make messes, and we make messes because we are messes. There are really only two kinds of people on this score: those who admit it, and those who deny the obvious.

And no matter how hard we try to deny it or hide it or ignore it, we secretly know that we don’t measure up. We do things we know are wrong, and even when we don’t we’re not doing everything we know we should. Unless we have become so used to doing bad things that it doesn’t bother us anymore, we at first feel guilty because we’ve violated our own consciences, and then we feel shame because we thought we were better than that, and now it’s clear that we’re not. So then we live in dread that others will find out.

One day Steve Brown spoke in a student chapel service at Wheaton College, where I was working at the time. Acknowledging the presence of the erudite faculty, he declared that there wasn’t a single one of them that didn’t have something in his or her past that if he were to broadcast it from the chapel stage they wouldn’t immediately run out to look for the nearest bridge and jump off.

Human beings spend a lot of time covering up guilt and managing shame. We even think we can cover up guilt after it has been exposed, if only we can make others look more guilty than ourselves. And we think we can manage shame by obsessing about appearances, so that even our sense of shame becomes distorted as we worry about projecting an image instead of the real cause of our problems: our own choices. We end up feeling ashamed for not having the nicest house or the most prestigious job or the right education or the best-looking spouse. Ironically, all the energy we waste on trying to look good for others ultimately shows that we have something to hide.

One day I came across a company web site that made me laugh so hard I cried. They took all the accumulated guilt, shame, and angst of my life and distilled it into a parody of those exquisitely-designed motivational posters with their fabulous photographs and prodding platitudes. The company is called Despair, Inc., and under a photograph of a sinking ship bearing the large title, “Mistakes,” their poster’s caption read: “It Could Be that the Purpose of Your Life Is Only to Serve as a Warning to Others.”

Mistakes

I almost wet my pants. And yet, on some of my darker days, I wonder whether this isn’t precisely the case.

Another thing I remember Steve saying was, “I’ve committed a lot of sins—that you’ll never know about.”

We can look at shame as the painful sense that there is something truly ugly inside us. Any sane person would try hide such ugliness. Sometimes the pain is so great the first person we hide it from is ourselves.

Which reminds me: the guy who invented the Hokey Pokey died. I hear they had a hard time getting him into his casket. They put his left foot in…and that’s when the trouble started.

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