Knowledge of Self


PSALM 139:1–6.—“O Lord, thou hast searched me, and known me. Thou knowest my down-sitting and mine uprising; thou understandest my thought afar off. Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word in my tongue, but lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether. Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid thy hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it.”

IN the preceding discourse upon this text, we directed attention to the fact that man is possessed of the power of self-knowledge, and that he cannot ultimately escape from using it. He cannot forever flee from his own presence; he cannot, through all eternity, go away from his own spirit. If he take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the earth, he must, sooner or later, know himself, and acquit or condemn himself.

Our attention was then directed to the fact, that God’s knowledge of man is certainly equal to man’s knowledge of himself. No man knows more of his own heart than the Searcher of hearts knows. Up to this point, certainly, the truth of the text is incontrovertible. God knows all that man knows.

II. We come now to the second position: That God accurately and exhaustively knows all that man might, but does not, know of himself.

Although the Creator designed that every man should thoroughly understand his own heart, and gave him the power of self-inspection that he might use it faithfully, and apply it constantly, yet man is extremely ignorant of himself. Mankind, says an old writer, are nowhere less at home, than at home. Very few persons practise serious self-examination at all; and none employ the power of self-inspection with that carefulness and sedulity with which they ought. Hence men generally, and unrenewed men always, are unacquainted with much that goes on within their own minds and hearts. Though it is sin and self-will, though it is thought and feeling and purpose and desire, that is going on and taking place during all these years of religious indifference, yet the agent himself, so far as a sober reflection upon the moral character of the process, and a distinct perception of the dreadful issue of it, are concerned, is much of the time as destitute of self-knowledge as an irrational brute itself. For, were sinful men constantly self-examining, they would be constantly in torment. Men can be happy in sin, only so long as they can sin without thinking of it. The instant they begin to perceive and understand what they are doing, they begin to feel the fang of the worm. If the frivolous wicked world, which now takes so much pleasure in its wickedness, could be forced to do here what it will be forced to do hereafter, namely, to eye its sin while it commits it, to think of what it is doing while it does it, the billows of the lake of fire would roll in upon time, and from gay Paris and luxurious Vienna there would instantaneously ascend the wailing cry of Pandemonium.

But it is not so at present. Men here upon earth are continually thinking sinful thoughts and cherishing sinful feelings, and yet they are not continually in hell. On the contrary, “they are not in trouble as other men are, neither are they plagued like other men. Their eyes stand out with fatness; they have more than heart could wish.” This proves that they are self-ignorant; that they know neither their sin nor its bitter end. They sin without the consciousness of sin, and hence are happy in it. Is it not so in our own personal experience? Have there not been in the past ten years of our own mental history long trains of thought,—sinful thought,—and vast processions of feelings and imaginings,—sinful feelings and imaginings,—that have trailed over the spaces of the soul, but which have been as unwatched and unseen by the self-inspecting eye of conscience, as the caravans of the African desert have been, during the same period, by the eye of our sense?

We have not felt a pang of guilt every single time that we have a thought a wrong thought; yet we should have felt one inevitably, had we scrutinized every such single thought. Our face has not flushed with crimson in every particular instance in which we have exercised a lustful emotion; yet it would have done so had we carefully noted every such emotion. A distinct self-knowledge has by no means run parallel with all our sinful activity; has by no means been co-extensive with it. We perform vastly more than we inspect. We have sinned vastly more than we have been aware of at the time.

Even the Christian, in whom this unreflecting species of life and conduct has given way, somewhat, to a thoughtful and vigilant life, knows and acknowledges that perfection is not yet come. As he casts his eye over even his regenerate and illuminated life, and sees what a small amount of sin has been distinctly detected, keenly felt, and heartily confessed, in comparison with that large amount of sin which he knows he must have committed, during this long period of incessant action of mind, heart, and limbs, he finds no repose for his misgivings with respect to the final examination and account, except by enveloping himself yet more entirely in the ample folds of his Redeemer’s righteousness; except by hiding himself yet more profoundly in the cleft of that Rock of Ages which protects the chief of sinners from the unsufferable splendors and terrors of the Divine glory and holiness as it passes by. Even the Christian knows that he must have committed many sins in thoughtless moments and hours,—many sins of which he was not deliberately thinking at the time of their commission,—and must pray with David, “Cleanse thou me from secret faults.” The functions and operations of memory evince that such is the case.

Are we not sometimes, in our serious hours when memory is busy, convinced of sins which, at the time of their commission, were wholly unaccompanied with a sense of their sinfulness? The act in this instance was performed blindly, without self-inspection, and therefore without self-conviction. Ten years, we will say, have intervened,—years of new activity, and immensely varied experiences. And now the magic power of recollection sets us back, once more, at that point of responsible action, and bids do what we did not do at the time,—analyze our performance and feel consciously guilty, experience the first sensation of remorse, for what we did ten years ago.

Have we not, sometimes, been vividly reminded that upon such an occasion, and at such a time, we were angry, or proud, but at the time when the emotion was swelling our veins were not filled with that clear and painful sense of its turpitude which now attends the recollection of it? The re-exhibition of an action in memory, as in a mirror, is often accompanied with a distinct apprehension of its moral character that formed no part of the experience of the agent while absorbed in the hot and hasty original action itself. And when we remember how immense are the stores of memory, and what an amount of sin has been committed in hours of thoughtlessness and moral indifference, what prayer is more natural and warm than the supplication: “Search me O God, and try me, and see what evil ways there are within me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

But the careless, unenlightened man, as we have before remarked, leads a life almost entirely destitute of self-inspection, and self-knowledge. He sins constantly. He does only evil, and that continually, as did man before the deluge. For he is constantly acting. A living self-moving soul, like his, cannot cease action if it would. And yet the current is all one way. Day after day sends up its clouds of sensual, worldly, selfish thoughts. Week after week pours onward its stream of low-born, corrupt, un-spiritual feelings. Year after year accumulates that hardening mass of carnal-mindedness, and distaste for religion, which is sometimes a more insuperable obstacle to the truth, than positive faults and vices which startle and shock the conscience. And yet the man thinks nothing about all this action of his mind and heart. He does not subject it to any self-inspection. If he should, for but a single hour, be lifted up to the eminence from which all this current of self-will, and moral agency, may be seen and surveyed in its real character and significance, he would start back as if brought to the brink of hell. But he is not thus lifted up. He continues to use and abuse his mental and his moral faculties, but, for most of his probation, with all the blindness and heedlessness of a mere animal instinct.

There is, then, a vast amount of sin committed without self-inspection; and, consequently, without any distinct perception, at the time, that it is sin. The Christian will find himself feeling guilty, for the first time, for a transgression that occurred far back in the past, and will need a fresh application of atoning blood. The sinner will find, at some period or other, that remorse is fastening its tooth in his conscience for a vast amount of sinful thought, feeling, desire, and motive, that took origin in the unembarrassed days of religious thoughtlessness and worldly enjoyment.

For, think you that the insensible sinner is always to be thus insensible,—that this power of self-inspection is eternally to “rust unused?” What a tremendous revelation will one day be made to an unreflecting transgressor, simply because he is a man and not a brute, has lived a human life, and is endowed with the power of self-knowledge, whether he has used it or not! What a terrific vision it will be for him, when the limitless line of his sins which he has not yet distinctly examined, and thought of, and repented of, shall be made to pass in slow procession before that inward eye which he has wickedly kept shut so long! Tell us not of the disclosures that shall be made when the sea shall give up the dead that are in it, and the graves shall open and surrender their dead; what are these material disclosures, when compared with the revelations of self-knowledge! What is all this external display, sombre and terrible as it will be to the outward eye, when compared with all that internal revealing that will be made to a hitherto thoughtless soul, when, of a sudden, in the day of judgment, its deepest caverns shall heave in unison with the material convulsions of the day, and shall send forth to judgment their long slumbering, and hidden iniquity; when the sepulchres of its own memory shall burst open, and give up the sin that has long lain buried there, in needless and guilty forgetfulness, awaiting this second resurrection!

For (to come back to the unfolding of the subject, and the movement of the argument), God perfectly knows all that man might, but does not, know of himself.

Though the transgressor is ignorant of much of his sin, because at the time of its commission he sins blindly as well as wilfully, and unreflectingly as well as freely; and though the transgressor has forgotten much of that small amount of sin of which he was conscious, and by which he was pained, at the time of its perpetration; though on the side of man the powers of self-inspection and memory have accomplished so little towards the preservation of man’s sin, yet God knows it all, and remembers it all. He compasseth man’s path, and his lying-down, and is acquainted with all his ways. “There is nothing covered, therefore, that shall not be revealed, neither hid that shall not be known. Whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the house-tops.” The Creator of the human mind has control over its powers of self-inspection, and of memory; and when the proper time comes He will compel these endowments to perform their legitimate functions, and do their appointed work. The torturing self-survey will begin, never more to end. The awful recollection will commence, endlessly to go on.

One principal reason why the Biblical representations of human sinfulness exert so little influence over men, and, generally speaking, seem to them to be greatly exaggerated and untrue, lies in the fact that the Divine knowledge of human character is in advance of the human knowledge. God’s consciousness and cognition upon this subject is exhaustive; while man’s self-knowledge is superficial and shallow. The two forms of knowledge, consequently, when placed side by side, do not agree, but conflict. There would be less difficulty, and less contradiction, if mankind generally were possessed of even as much self-knowledge as the Christian is possessed of. There would be no difficulty, and no contradiction, if the knowledge of the judgment day could be anticipated, and the self-inspection of that occasion could commence here and now. But such is not the fact. The Bible labors, therefore, under the difficulty of possessing an advanced knowledge; the difficulty of being addressed to a mind that is almost entirely unacquainted with the subject treated of. The Word of God knows man exhaustively, as God knows him; and hence all its descriptions of human character are founded upon such a knowledge. But man, in his self-ignorance, does not perceive their awful truth. He has not yet attained the internal correspondent to the Biblical statement,—that apprehension of total depravity, that knowledge of the plague of the heart, which always and ever says “yea” to the most vivid description of human sinfulness, and “amen” to God’s heaviest malediction upon it.

Nothing deprives the Word of its nerve and influence, more than this general lack of self-inspection and self-knowledge. For, only that which is perceived to be true exerts an influence upon the human mind. The doctrine of human sinfulness is preached to men, year after year, to whom it does not come home with the demonstration of the Spirit and with power, because the sinfulness which is really within them is as yet unknown, and because not one of a thousand of their transgressions has ever been scanned in the light of self-examination. But is the Bible untrue, because the man is ignorant? Is the sun black, because the eye is shut?

However ignorant man may be, and may desire and strive to be, of himself, God knows him altogether, and knows that the representations of His word, respecting the character and necessities of human nature, are the unexaggerated, sober, and actual fact. Though most of the sinner’s life of alienation from God, and of disobedience, has been a blind and a reckless agency, unaccompanied with self-scrutiny, and to a great extent passed from his memory, yet it has all of it been looked at, as it welled up from the living centres of free agency and responsibility, by the calm and dreadful eye of retributive Justice, and has all of it been indelibly written down in the book of God’s sure memory, with a pen of iron, and the point of a diamond.

And here, let us for a moment look upon the bright, as well as the dark side of this subject.

For if God’s exhaustive knowledge of the human heart waken dread in one of its aspects, it starts infinite hope in another. If that Being has gone down into these depths of human depravity, and seen it with a more abhorring glance than could ever shoot from a finite eye, and yet has returned with a cordial offer to forgive it all, and a hearty proffer to cleanse it all away, then we can lift up the eye in adoration and in hope. There has been an infinite forbearance and condescension. The worst has been seen, and that too by the holiest of Beings, and yet eternal glory is offered to us! God knows, from personal examination, the worthlessness of human character, with a thoroughness and intensity of knowledge of which man has no conception; and yet, in the light of this knowledge, in the very flame of this intuition, He has devised a plan of mercy and redemption.

Do not think, then, because of your present ignorance of your guilt and corruption, that the incarnation and death of the Son of God was unnecessary, and that that costly blood of atonement which you are treading under foot wet the rocks of Calvary for a peccadillo. Could you, but for a moment only, know yourself altogether and exhaustively, as the Author of this Redemption knows you, you would cry out, in the words of a far holier man than you are, “I am undone.” If you could but see guilt as God sees it, you would also see with Him that nothing but an infinite Passion can expiate it. If you could but fathom the human heart as God fathoms it, you would know as He knows, that nothing less than regeneration can purify its fountains of uncleanness, and cleanse it from its ingrain corruption.

Thus have we seen that God knows man altogether,—that He knows all that man knows of himself, and all that man might but does not yet know of himself. The Searcher of hearts knows all the thoughts that we have thought upon, all the reflections that we have reflected upon, all the experience that we have ourselves analyzed and inspected. And He also knows that far larger part of our life which we have not yet subjected to the scrutiny of self-examination,—all those thoughts, feelings, desires, and motives, innumerable as they are, of which we took no heed at the time of their origin and existence, and which we suppose, perhaps, we shall hear no more of again.

Whither then shall we go from God’s spirit? or whither shall we flee from His presence and His knowledge? If we ascend up into heaven, He is there, and knows us perfectly. If we make our bed in hell, behold He is there, and reads the secret thoughts and feelings of our heart. The darkness hideth not from Him; our ignorance does not affect His knowledge; the night shineth as the day; the darkness and the light are both alike to Him.

This great truth which we have been considering obtains a yet more serious emphasis, and a yet more solemn power over the mind, when we take into view the character of the Being who thus searches our hearts, and is acquainted with all our ways. Who of us would not be filled with uneasiness, if he knew that an imperfect fellow creature were looking constantly into his soul? Would not the flush of shame often burn upon our cheek, if we knew that a sinful man like ourselves were watching all the feelings and thoughts that are rising within us? Should we not be more circumspect than we are, if men were able mutually to search each other’s hearts? How often does a man change his course of conduct, when he discovers, accidentally, that his neighbor knows what he is doing.

But it is not an imperfect fellow man, it is not a perfect angel, who besets us behind and before, and is acquainted with all our ways. It is the immaculate God himself. It is He before whom archangels veil their faces, and the burning seraphim cry, “Holy.” It is He, in whose sight the pure cerulean heavens are not clean, and whose eyes are a flame of fire devouring all iniquity. We are beheld, in all this process of sin, be it blind or be it intelligent, by infinite Purity. We are not, therefore, to suppose that God contemplates this our life of sin with the dull indifference of an Epicurean deity; that He looks into our souls, all this while, from mere curiosity, and with no moral emotion towards us. The

God who knows us altogether is the Holy One of Israel, whose wrath is both real, and revealed, against all unrighteousness.
If, therefore, we connect the holy nature and pure essence of God with all this unceasing and unerring inspection of the human soul, does not the truth which we have been considering speak with a bolder emphasis, and acquire an additional power to impress and solemnize the mind? When we realize that the Being who is watching us at every instant, and in every act and element of our existence, is the very same Being who revealed himself amidst the lightenings of Sinai as hating sin and not clearing the thoughtless guilty, do not our prospects at the bar of justice look dark and fearful? For, who of the race of man is holy enough to stand such an inspection? Who of the sons of men will prove pure in such a furnace?

Are we not, then, brought by this truth close up to the central doctrine of Christianity, and made to see our need of the atonement and righteousness of the Redeemer? How can we endure such a scrutiny as God is instituting into our character and conduct? What can we say, in the day of reckoning, when the Searcher of hearts shall make known to us all that He knows of us? What can we do, in that day which shall reveal the thoughts and the estimates of the Holy One respecting us?

It is perfectly plain, from the elevated central point of view where we now stand, and in the focal light in which we now see, that no man can be justified before God upon the ground of personal character; for that character, when subjected to God’s exhaustive scrutiny, withers and shrinks away. A man may possibly be just before his neighbor, or his friend, or society, or human laws, but he is miserably self-deceived who supposes that his heart will appear righteous under such a scrutiny, and in such a Presence as we have been considering. However it may be before other tribunals, the apostle is correct when he asserts that “every mouth must be stopped, and the whole world plead guilty before God.” Before the Searcher of hearts, all mankind must appeal to mere and sovereign mercy. Justice, in this reference, is out of the question.

Now, in this condition of things, God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him might not perish, but have everlasting life. The Divine mercy has been manifested in a mode that does not permit even the guiltiest to doubt its reality, its sufficiency, or its sincerity. The argument is this. “If when we were yet sinners,” and known to be such, in the perfect and exhaustive manner that has been described, “Christ died for us, much more, being now justified by His blood, shall we be saved from wrath through Him.” Appropriating this atonement which the Searcher of hearts has Himself provided for this very exigency, and which He knows to be thoroughly adequate, no man, however guilty, need fear the most complete disclosures which the Divine Omniscience will have to make of human character in the day of doom. If the guilt is “infinite upon infinite,” so is the sacrifice of the God-man.

Who is he that condemneth? it is the Son of God that died for sin. Who shall lay anything to God’s elect? it is God that justifieth. And as God shall, in the last day, summon up from the deep places of our souls all of our sins, and bring us to a strict account for everything, even to the idle words that we have spoken, we can look Him full in the eye, without a thought of fear, and with love unutterable, if we are really relying upon the atoning sacrifice of Christ for justification. Even in that awful Presence, and under that Omniscient scrutiny, “there is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.”

The great lesson, then, taught by the text and its unfolding, is the importance of attaining self-knowledge here upon earth, and while there remaineth a sacrifice for sins. The duty and wisdom of every man is, to anticipate the revelations of the judgment day; to find out the sin of his soul, while it is an accepted time and a day of salvation. For we have seen that this self-inspection cannot ultimately be escaped. Man was made to know himself, and he must sooner or later come to it. Self-knowledge is as certain, in the end, as death. The utmost that can be done, is to postpone it for a few days, or years. The article of death and the exchange of worlds will pour it all in, like a deluge, upon every man, whether he will or not. And he who does not wake up to a knowledge of his heart, until he enters eternity, wakes up not to pardon but to despair.

The simple question, then, which meets us is: Wilt thou know thyself here and now, that thou mayest accept and feel God’s pity in Christ’s blood, or wilt thou keep within the screen, and not know thyself until beyond the grave, and then feel God’s judicial wrath? The self-knowledge, remember, must come in the one way or the other. It is a simple question of time; a simple question whether it shall come here in this world, where the blood of Christ “freely flows,” or in the future world, where “there remaineth no more sacrifice for sin.” Turn the matter as we will, this is the sum and substance,—a sinful man must either come to a thorough self-knowledge, with a hearty repentance and a joyful pardon, in this life; or he must come to a thorough self-knowledge, with a total despair and an eternal damnation, in the other.

God is not mocked. God’s great pity in the blood of Christ must not be trifled with.

He who refuses, or neglects, to institute that self-examination which leads to the sense of sin, and the felt need of Christ’s work, by this very fact proves that he does not desire to know his own heart, and that he has no wish to repent of sin. But he who will not even look at his sin,—what does not he deserve from that Being who poured out His own blood for it? He who refuses even to open his eyes upon that bleeding Lamb of God,—what must not he expect from the Lion of the tribe of Judah, in the day of judgment? He who by a life of apathy, and indifference to sin, puts himself out of all relations to the Divine pity,—what must he experience in eternity, but the operations of stark, unmitigated law?

Find out your sin, then. God will forgive all that is found. Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. The great God delights to forgive, and is waiting to forgive. But, sin must be seen by the sinner, before it can be pardoned by the Judge. If you refuse at this point; if you hide yourself from yourself; if you preclude all feeling and conviction upon the subject of sin, by remaining ignorant of it; if you continue to live an easy, thoughtless life in sin, then you cannot be forgiven, and the measure of God’s love with which He would have blessed you, had you searched yourself and repented, will be the measure of God’s righteous wrath with which He will search you, and condemn you, because you have not.

William G. T. Shedd, Sermons to the Natural Man

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