John Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Faith:
“Our wisdom . . . consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.”
In other words, we must know ourselves to know God, and we must know God to know ourselves.
It’s easy to see the destructive power on ourselves of an inaccurate self-image. If we have a low opinion of ourselves, we tend to overcompensate. If our sense of identity is too high, we become selfish and self-centered.
But it is even more destructive in our relationship with God. If our self-identity is too low, then it is difficult to trust or experience His love. If it is too high, we can forget Him. Either way, it makes it difficult to walk by faith.
A healthy understanding of who we are leads us straight to the Cross, and a healthy understanding of the Cross leads us to know ourselves better. In the unconditional love of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we find our self-definition.
Knowing ourselves and God is not enough, however. A proper definition of self sees us as part of a wider community. We grow faster in our faith when connected with others. Jesus made it clear that we are interconnected with others. “By this will all people know that you are my disciples–by your love for each other ” John 13:34-35. Love calls us to together, but self-obsession drives us apart. We need the vision to see ourselves, both alone and together, before God.
We need to be part of a group, but we also need to be away from that group. If we lose ourselves too much in group awareness, we become overly dependent on our friends for support. If we lose ourselves in too much solitude, we cannot love others. If we go too far in either direction, our relationship to God suffers.
Michael Kerr relates a story of porcupines living in a common burrow while trying to endure a hard winter. If they huddle together for warmth, they get stuck by each other’s quills. If they stay apart, they freeze to death. What a picture of us! The closer we get to family and friends, the pricklier they become. People, even good people, can be irritating, insensitive, and obnoxious. But we need each other, nevertheless. We must live close enough to others to share warmth but far enough away to keep from being stuck, or else develop a thick skin. Independence keeps us safe, while community keeps us warm.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Let those who will not be alone fear being in community. Let those who will not be in community fear being alone.” To have a close relationship with God, we need fellow believers, along with a healthy self-understanding. It’s a hard balance to strike, but worth the effort.
Think about when you feel closest to God. Is it when you are worshiping in a crowd or alone in prayer?
How can you use both your alone time and together time to draw closer to God, who is with you at all times?