Knowing Thyself Is Overrated

If anyone experienced the sturm und drang of waiting and watching for God, it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer.[1]  Sitting in a prison cell, he hoped to be released, hoped for the war to end, hoped to spend Christmas with his family, hoped Jesus would descend with a blast of trumpets. Days turned to months and months rolled into years. While we want to think he was always happy, fulfilled by his faith in Christ, his letters show us the struggles of a real martyr in a real world.

While he wrote marvelous meditations on the meaning of waiting and watching during Advent, one letter struck me deeply as I, too, began my advent wait. In a letter to Eberhard Bethge, He wrote:

“I often wonder who I really am – the man who goes squirming under these ghastly experiences in wretchedness that calls to Heaven, or the man who scourges himself and pretends to others (and to himself) that he is placid, cheerful, composed, and in control of himself, and allows people to admire him for it. What does one’s attitude mean anyway? In short, I know less than ever about myself, and I am no longer attaching any importance to it. I have had more than enough psychology, and I am less and less inclined to examine the state of my soul. That is why I value Stifter and Gotthelf so much.[2] There is something more at stake than self-knowledge.”

If there is an opportunity to get to really know yourself, it would have to be alone in a prison cell facing death. If there was one value and virtue held holy by Americans these days, it is being true to yourself, self-actualization.  Probably due to the luxury of not having to worry about surviving, we get to now stare at our belly buttons. Today’s popular culture encourages people to be themselves to such a degree that people are leaving marriages, families, and now their sexuality and bodies! Before you judge, this pursuit of oneself infects us all and is encouraged in conservative and liberal environments.  Know thyself, pursue your passion, be true to yourself, YOLO, I just want you to be happy.

If getting to know yourself and being true to yourself is a virtue for you, Bonhoeffer suggests it is an overrated pursuit. In fact, if you are honest, you will find you are quite a mix of contradicting, ever changing desires.  When you put everything into becoming who you truly are, you will only possess one projection of how you see yourself, a construction even farther removed than when you began.

Humans are messed up, son of a guns, who struggle with something as simple as identity! From birth we are acted upon by others and filled with experiences we do not even choose. We have deep resentments from something done to us when we were 2 years old that we do not even realize dictates our attitude toward others. Let alone, we have done plenty of damage to ourselves, so much we cannot possibly consider ourselves innocent. To top it off, “We were born upside down, born the wrong way ‘round” (as David Bowie brilliantly observes in his haunting last album, Blackstar). We are born in sin, as sinners desiring not only what is bad for others but ourselves. Evolutionists like to say our instincts are the result of millions of years of preserving and extending our species. Really? Then what explains the many dumb words and deeds we regularly do which only hurt our relationships and bodies! We do not really like ourselves any more than we appreciate others.

Sitting in a prison cell, the man who many said was kind and compassionate declared, “In short I know less than ever about myself, and I am no longer attaching any importance to it.” Bonhoeffer grew tired and confused by watching himself. So instead, he watched for Jesus.

In Advent, Jesus says, “Keep Watch!” What are we called to watch as we wait? Not ourselves, not our hopes and dreams, passions and desires; those things all end up in the grave in the end! Watch Jesus. He is the only one who did not let Satan cause Him to doubt His identity! Watch Him receive our insults quietly as He walks up the path to Golgotha. Watch Him as He lets our unbridled passions and desires pin Him to the cross. Watch Him as He cries out, “It is finished!” taking all your sins with Him to the grave. Watch Him rise again from the dead three days later.

Only in watching Jesus do we have hope in our future and real freedom from our prison of identity confusion!  Only by listening to Jesus, outside of ourselves, do we hear who we really are – forgiven children of God. This Advent watch Jesus and watch for Jesus, because a day is coming when you will truly be able to say you know yourself. When the Son of Man descends with trumpets and the dead rise, you will rise. And you will no longer be confused and will genuinely love yourself and others!  Hold on brothers and sisters, one day you will actually be yourself and know yourself and know each other, but, most importantly, know God!

[1] That is “storm and stress” for our non-Deutschlanders.

[2] This is a reference to Swiss and German novelists, respectively, who focused on stories of realism and provincial life.