A summary of Christian identity formation.
Author’s Note: NovaSeeker contributed to the writing of this essay.
Reader’s Note: This post is the fifth in a series on Gnosticism.
Length: 1,200 words
Reading Time: 4 minutes
As we have learned so far in this series, Gnosticism means “having knowledge”, and the new agey idea of “knowing one’s self” appears to fit seamlessly into this paradigm.
A couple years ago, I was seeing my pastor for marital counseling. It was clear to me that he thought “knowing one’s self” was a very important part of our relationship with God. At first, I wondered why he was talking about pop psyche self-therapy so seriously. I asked him how this relates to Christianity, and he said it was central to our faith. This was a totally new concept to me.
My mind started racing, trying to understand how this could fit in.
I couldn’t remember ever hearing this idea in all my years of church attendance.
The Gospel of Thomas talks at length about the importance of knowing one’s self, but I never took it seriously because it was rejected from canonization.
I couldn’t think of any passage in the Bible that addressed this. I knew the Bible says that we should “die to the self” (John 12:24; Romans 6:3-11; Galatians 2:19; 2nd Timothy 2:11), but the Bible never explicitly says we should “know our self”. Doing a topical search of the Bible doesn’t turn anything up, because the words “know” and “knowledge” are everywhere.
I only knew of one passage that mentions anything to this effect, where Paul writes,
“Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?”2nd Corinthians 13:5 (NKJV)
But “knowing that Christ is in you” seems to be a totally different idea from “knowing one’s self”.
Biblical Foundations for “Knowing One’s Self”
My pastor gave me a couple verses that can be construed to this effect.
4 And we have such trust through Christ toward God. 5 Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, 6 who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.2nd Corinthians 3:4-6 (NKJV)
This relates to the idea of “knowing one’s self” in terms of realizing our identity as a minister of the new covenant, and coming to terms with all the ways our natural self is at odds with this new identity.
In “knowing oneself”, we have to discern first what our actual Christian “self” is. The “old man”, in Paul’s words, is not our true self (but often the one we identify with in our fallen-ness), but our new self is the one we need to be cultivating and growing — and yet, that new self is not what we would generally call “self”, in that it is not seeking the interest of our selves, as individuals, but God’s interest and His will for us. That process — of continually dying to the old self and choosing to live in the new/Christ self (living “in Christ”, literally in His flesh, in His divinized humanity, by means of having “put on Christ” as Paul says) — which is only possible through the action of grace, is the entirety of the Christian life in the Orthodox view. So the process is one of constant discernment (“Is this my selfish self, or the new man seeking this?”) and constant death to the “selfish self” of the “old man”.
Orthodoxy tends to look at such things through the lens of some of the teachings of the early church fathers. A good summary I think is this relatively brief article by Fr. Stephen Freeman, who is an Orthodox priest in Tennessee:
Ancient Faith (Fr. Stephen Freeman): Dying We Live (2011 March 23)
Martin Luther viewed things in a very similar way. In the discussion on “Baptism” in his “Small Catechism“, Luther has the following entry:
“Fourth, what does such baptizing with water indicate?
It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
Both the Orthodox and Lutheran understanding are based on the following passage.
3 Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 4 Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
5 For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, 6 knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. 7 For he who has died has been freed from sin. 8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, 9 knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. 10 For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. 11 Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.Romans 6:3-11 (NKJV)
In essence, death to the selfish “old man” self and the bringing to greater life inside us of the new baptismal self is a daily thing in the life of the Christian.
The other passage my pastor shared with me was 2nd Corinthians 13:5, which I already knew about, but he explained this from the viewpoint described above, and put it into context with the idea of “knowing one’s self”.
The Christian concept of “knowing one’s self” is understanding that the natural selfish self is not our true self, as Fr. Stephen talks about (and as Paul wrote), but that our true self is our new, baptismal selves which have “put on Christ” and are “alive in Christ”. Hard to do, but with grace and perseverance it is possible.
As you can see, the Christian concept of “knowing one’s self” differs greatly from the Gnostic concept of “knowing one’s self”, which has more to do with how one can manage one’s self in order to maximize the pleasures of idolatry without falling victim to the same.
Likewise, the idea of “finding one’s self”, which is a phrase we often hear, could also have two vastly different meanings. The worldly concept of this phrase is to discover just how much idolatry one can get away with before being ruined by it. Ironically, it is not so uncommon for this to lead to the “breaking” experience described in the previous post, Breaking the Stronghold of Gnosticism.
Unfortunately, there seems to be a vacuum of teaching on this topic, so the Christian meaning of “knowing one’s self” is never differentiated from the Gnostic concept, and the true value of “finding one’s self” never comes into focus.
- Serious Faith (Brent Riggs): Do you not know? Part 1 (2009-08)
- Serious Faith (Brent Riggs): Do you not know? Part 2 (2009-08)
- Hal Chaffee: Do you not know yourself? That Jesus Christ is in you? (2010-05-03)
- Open Bible (Stephen Smith): 100 Bible Verses about Knowing Yourself (2021-10-22)
- Blending Ame: Holy Spirit vs. Sinful Nature (2021-10-30)