The pastor whose story I just told had a great deal of information about God. He also seemed to know lots of things about himself. But this knowledge was all objective, not personal. It was, therefore, relatively useless to him.
He told me, for example, that he knew God is forgiving. But he had never really experienced this forgiveness, at least not in relation to any significant failure. It would be more accurate to say that he believed God is forgiving but did not know this as an experiential truth. Living the lie of his pretend self, he had always taken safe, inconsequential sins to God for forgiveness, never daring to expose the reality of his inner world to God. To do so would have required that he face this reality himself. That he had never been prepared to do.
He told me that his enemy was sloth–spiritual laziness. He said he had often asked God to forgive him for not working harder for the kingdom. But confession of such a sin was nothing more than a distraction. It kept his focus (and, perhaps he hoped, God’s focus) off the deeper things about himself that were so profoundly disordered.
He also told me that he knew that God is love. But again, this was a belief not an experience. To truly know love, we must receive it in an undefended state–in the vulnerability of a “just as I am” encounter. This man had never been able to allow himself this degree of vulnerability with anyone–not his wife, nor his children, nor his closest friends, and certainly not God.
Not surprisingly, then, his knowledge of himself was equally superficial. Listening to the things he told me about his life was like reading a throwaway paperback novel or watching a B-grade movie. The role he was playing lacked depth and reality. It was two-dimensional. As he told me about himself he was describing someone he had been watching from a distance. The knowledge he had of this person was objective and remote. It had, therefore, no transformational value. It was simply his pitiful attempt to give flesh-and-bones reality to the falsity of his pretend self. The self he sought to project to the world was an illusion.
Even after his crisis, this man had enormous difficulty being honest. His longstanding, deeply ingrained tendency to present a pretend, idealized self survived the dissolution of both his ministry and his marriage. It wasn’t so much that he told lies as that he lived them. This is the tragedy of the false self. But unfortunately, this man did not have a monopoly on falsity. It is a part of all of us, to one degree or another.
Truly transformational knowledge is always personal, never merely objective. It involves knowing of, not merely knowing about. And it is always relational. It grows out of a relationship to the object that is known–whether this is God or one’s self.
Objective knowing can occur in relation to anything that we examine at a distance. It is knowing that is independent of us. For example, you may know that the earth orbits around the sun or that Columbus arrived in the Americas in 1492 without direct personal experience of either, provided you are willing to accept the testimony of others. This is how it is with much of what we believe.
Personal knowing, on the other hand, is based on experience. It is therefore subjective. I know that my wife loves me because of my experience of her. While I can describe her love to someone else, I cannot prove it. I cannot make it objective. Yet this does not detract from the validity of my knowing.
Because person knowing is based on experience, it requires that we be open to the experience. Knowing God’s love demands that we receive God’s love–experientially, not simply as a theory. Personal knowledge is never simply a matter of the head. Because it is rooted in experience, it is grounded in deep places in our being. The things we know from experience we know beyond belief. Such knowing is not incompatible with belief, but it is not dependent upon it.
I do not merely believe that my wife loves me. I know she loves me. And as arrogant as it may sound, I can say that I do not merely believe in God, I know God–certainly not exhaustively, but nonetheless genuinely.
People who have never developed a deep personal knowing of God will be limited in the depth of their personal knowing of themselves. Failing to know God, they will be unable to know themselves, as God is the only context in which their being makes sense. Similarly, people who are afraid to look deeply at themselves will of course be equally afraid to look deeply at God. For such persons, ideas about God provide a substitute for direct experience of God.
Knowing God and knowing self are therefore interdependent. Neither can proceed very far without the other. Paradoxically, we come to know God best not by looking at God exclusively, but by looking at God and then looking at ourselves–then looking at God, and then again looking at ourselves. This is also the way we best come to know ourselves. Both God and self are most fully known in relationship to each other.
David G. Benner, The Gift of Being Yourself, 23-26.
Photo Courtesy of thinktheology.org