Self Knowledge


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 thine hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it.”

ONE of the most remarkable characteristics of a rational being is the power of self-inspection. The brute creation possesses many attributes that are common to human nature, but it has no faculty that bears even the remotest resemblance to that of self-examination. Instinctive action, undoubtedly, approaches the nearest of any to human action. That wonderful power by which the bee builds up a structure that is not exceeded in accuracy, and regularity, and economy of space, by the best geometry of Athens or of Rome; by which the beaver, after having chosen the very best possible location for it on the stream, constructs a dam that outlasts the work of the human engineer; by which the faithful dog contrives to perform many acts of affection, in spite of obstacles, and in the face of unexpected discouragements,—the instinct, we say, of the brute creation, as exhibited in a remarkably wide range of action and contrivance, and in a very varied and oftentimes perplexing conjuncture of circumstances, seems to bring man and beast very near to each other, and to furnish some ground for the theory of the materialist, that there is no essential difference between the two species of existences.

But when we pass beyond the mere power of acting, to the additional power of surveying or inspecting an act, and of forming an estimate of its relations to moral law, we find a faculty in man that makes him differ in kind from the brute. No brute animal, however high up the scale, however ingenious and sagacious he may be, can ever look back and think of what he has done, “his thoughts the meanwhile accusing or else excusing him.”

The mere power of performance, is, after all, not the highest power. It is the superadded power of calmly looking over the performance, and seeing what has been done, that marks the higher agency, and denotes a loftier order of existence than that of the animal or of material nature. If the mere ability to work with energy, and produce results, constituted the highest species of power, the force of gravitation would be the loftiest energy in the universe. Its range of execution is wider than that of any other created principle. But it is one of the lower and least important of agencies, because it is blind. It is destitute of the power of self-inspection. It does not know what it does, or why.

“Man,” says Pascal, “is but a reed, and the weakest in all nature; yet he is a reed that thinks. The whole material universe does not need to arm itself, in order to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water is enough to destroy him. But if the whole universe of matter should combine to crush him, man would be more noble than that which destroyed him. For he would be conscious that he was dying, while, of the advantage which the material universe had obtained over him, that universe would know nothing.” The action of a little child is altogether nothing and vanity compared with the energy of the earthquake or the lightning, so far as the exhibition of force and the mere power to act is concerned; but, on the other hand, it is more solemn than centuries of merely natural processes, and more momentous than all the material phenomena that have ever filled the celestial spaces, when we remember that it is the act of a thinking agent, and a self-conscious creature. The power to survey the act, when united with the power to act, sets mind infinitely above matter, and places the action of instinct, wonderful as it is, infinitely below the action of self-consciousness. The proud words of one of the characters in the old drama are strictly true:

“I am a nobler substance than the stars,
Or are they better since they are bigger?
I have a will and faculties of choice,
To do or not to do, and reason why
I do or not do this: the stars have none.
They know not why they shine, more than this taper,
Nor how they work, nor what.”


But this characteristic of a rational being, though thus distinctive and common to every man that lives, is exceedingly marvelous. Like the air we breathe, like the light we see, it involves a mystery that no man has ever solved. Self-consciousness has been the problem and the thorn of the philosophic mind in all ages; and the mystery is not yet unraveled. Is not that a wonderful process by which a man knows, not some other thing but, himself? Is not that a strange act by which he, for a time, duplicates his own unity, and sets himself to look at himself? All other acts of consciousness are comparatively plain and explicable. When we look at an object other than ourselves,—when we behold a tree or the sky,—the act of knowledge is much more simple and easy to be explained. For then there is something outside of us, and in front of us, and another thing than we are, at which we look, and which we behold.

But in this act of self-inspection there is no second thing, external, and extant to us, which we contemplate. That which is seen is one and the same identical object with that which sees. The act of knowledge which in all other instances requires the existence of two things,—a thing to be known and a thing to know,—in this instance is performed with only one. It is the individual soul that sees, and it is that very same individual soul that is seen. It is the individual man that knows, and it is that very identical man that is known. The eyeball looks at the eyeball.

And when this power of self-inspection is connected with the power of memory, the mystery of human existence becomes yet more complicated, and its explanation still more baffling. Is it not exceedingly wonderful, that we are able to re-exhibit our own thoughts and feelings; that we can call back what has gone clear by in our experience, and steadily look at it once more? Is it not a mystery that we can summon before our mind’s eye feelings, purposes, desires, and thoughts, which occurred in the soul long years ago, and which, perhaps, until this moment, we have not thought of for years? Is it not a marvel, that they come up with all the vividness with which they first took origin in our experience, and that the lapse of time has deprived them of none of their first outlines or colors?

Is it not strange, that we can recall that one particular feeling of hatred toward a fellow-man which rankled in the heart twenty years ago; that we can now eye it, and see it as plainly as if it were still throbbing within us; that we can feel guilty for it once more, as if we were still cherishing it? If it were not so common, would it not be surprising, that we can react upon acts of disobedience toward God which we committed in the days of childhood, and far back in the dim twilights of moral agency; that we can reflect them, as it were, in our memory, and fill ourselves again with the shame and distress that attended their original commission?

Is it not one of those mysteries which overhang human existence, and from which that of the brute is wholly free, that man can live his life, and act his agency, over, and over, and over again, indefinitely and forever, in his self-consciousness; that he can cause all his deeds to pass and re-pass before his self-reflection, and be filled through and through with the agony of self-knowledge? Truly such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it. Whither shall I go from my own spirit, and whither shall I flee from my own presence. If I ascend up into heaven, it is there looking at me. If I make my bed in hell, behold it is there torturing me. If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there must I know myself, and acquit or condemn myself.

But if that knowledge whereby man knows himself is mysterious, then certainly that whereby God knows him is far more so. That act whereby another being knows my secret thoughts, and inmost feelings, is most certainly inexplicable. That cognition whereby another person understands what takes place in the corners of my heart, and sees the minutest movements of my spirit, is surely high; most surely I cannot attain unto it.

And yet, it is a truth of revelation that God searches the heart of man; that He knows his down-sitting and uprising, and understands his thought afar off; that He compasses his path and his lying-down, and is acquainted with all his ways. And yet, it is a deduction of reason, also, that because God is the creator of the human mind, He must perfectly understand its secret agencies; that He in whose Essence man lives and moves and has his being, must behold every motion, and feel every stirring of the human spirit. “He that planted the ear, shall He not hear? He that formed the eye shall He not see?” Let us, then, ponder the fact of God’s exhaustive knowledge of man’s soul, that we may realize it, and thereby come under its solemn power and impression. For all religion, all holy and reverential fear of God, rises and sets, as in an atmosphere, in the thought: “Thou God seest me.”

I. In analyzing and estimating the Divine knowledge of the human soul, we find, in the first place, that God accurately and exhaustively knows all that man knows of himself.

Every man in a Christian land, who is in the habit of frequenting the house of God, possesses more or less of that self-knowledge of which we have spoken. He thinks of the moral character of some of his own thoughts. He reflects upon the moral quality of some of his own feelings. He considers the ultimate tendency of some of his own actions. In other words, there is a part of his inward and his outward life with which he is uncommonly well acquainted; of which he has a distinct perception.

There are some thoughts of his mind, at which he blushes at the very time of their origin, because he is vividly aware what they are, and what they mean. There are some emotions of his heart, at which he trembles and recoils at the very moment of their uprising, because he perceives clearly that they involve a very malignant depravity. There are some actings of his will, of whose wickedness he is painfully conscious at the very instant of their rush and movement. We are not called upon, here, to say how many of a man’s thoughts, feelings, and determinations, are thus subjected to his self-inspection at the very time of their origin, and are known in the clear light of self-knowledge. We are not concerned, at this point, with the amount of this man’s self-inspection and self-knowledge. We are only saying that there is some experience such as this in his personal history, and that he does know something of himself, at the very time of action, with a clearness and a distinctness that makes him start, or blush, or fear.

Now we say, that in reference to all this intimate self-knowledge, all this best part of a man’s information respecting himself, he is not superior to God. He may be certain that in no particular does he know more of himself than the Searcher of hearts knows. He may be an uncommonly thoughtful person, and little of what is done within his soul may escape his notice,—nay, we will make the extreme supposition that he arrests every thought as it rises, and looks at it, that he analyzes every sentiment as it swells his heart, that he scrutinizes every purpose as it determines his will,—even if he should have such a thorough and profound self-knowledge as this, God knows him equally profoundly, and equally thoroughly.

Nay more, this process of self-inspection may go on indefinitely, and the man may grow more and more thoughtful, and obtain an everlastingly augmenting knowledge of what he is and what he does, so that it shall seem to him that he is going down so far along that path which the vulture’s eye hath not seen, is penetrating so deeply into those dim and shadowy regions of consciousness where the external life takes its very first start, as to be beyond the reach of any eye, and the ken of any intelligence but his own, and then he may be sure that God understands the thought that is afar off, and deep down, and that at this lowest range and plane in his experience He besets him behind and before.

Or, this man, like the most of mankind, may be an unreflecting person. Then, in this case, thoughts, feelings, and purposes are continually rising up within his soul like the clouds and exhalations of an evaporating deluge, and at the time of their rise he subjects them to no scrutiny of conscience, and is not pained in the least by their moral character and significance. He lacks self-knowledge altogether, at these points in his history. But, notice that the fact that he is not self-inspecting at these points cannot destroy the fact that he is acting at them. The fact that he is not a spectator of his own transgression, does not alter the fact that he is the author of it.

If this man, for instance, thinks over his worldly affairs on God’s holy day, and perhaps in God’s holy house, with such an absorption and such a pleasure that he entirely drowns the voice of conscience while he is so doing, and self-inspection is banished for the time, it will not do for him to plead this absence of a distinct and painful consciousness of what his mind was actually doing in the house of God, and upon the Lord’s day, as the palliative and excuse of his wrong thoughts. If this man, again, indulges in an envious or a sensual emotion, with such an energy and entireness, as for the time being to preclude all action of the higher powers of reason and self-reflection, so that for the time being he is not in the least troubled by a sense of his wickedness, it will be no excuse for him at the eternal bar, that he was not thinking of his envy or his lust at the time when he felt it. And therefore it is, that accountableness covers the whole field of human agency, and God holds us responsible for our thoughtless sin, as well as for our deliberate transgression.

In the instance, then, of the thoughtless man; in the case where there is little or no self-examination; God unquestionably knows the man as well as the man knows himself. The Omniscient One is certainly possessed of an amount of knowledge equal to that small modicum which is all that a rational and immortal soul can boast of in reference to itself. But the vast majority of mankind fall into this class. The self-examiners are very few, in comparison with the millions who possess the power to look into their hearts, but who rarely or never do so. The great God our Judge, then, surely knows the mass of men, in their down-sitting and uprising, with a knowledge that is equal to their own. And thus do we establish our first position, that God knows all that the man knows; God’s knowledge is equal to the very best part of man’s knowledge.
In concluding this part of the discussion, we turn to consider some practical lessons suggested by it.

1. In the first place, the subject reminds us that we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

When we take a solar microscope and examine even the commonest object—a bit of sand, or a hair of our heads—we are amazed at the revelation that is made to us. We had no previous conception of the wonders that are contained in the structure of even such ordinary things as these. But, if we should obtain a corresponding view of our own mental and moral structure; if we could subject our immortal natures to a microscopic self-examination; we should not only be surprised, but we should be terrified.

This explains, in part, the consternation with which a criminal is filled, as soon as he begins to understand the nature of his crime. His wicked act is perceived in its relation to his own mental powers and faculties. He knows, now, what a hazardous thing it is to possess a free will; what an awful thing it is to own a conscience. He feels, as he never did before, that he is fearfully and wonderfully made, and cries out: “O that I had never been born! O that I had never been created a responsible being! these terrible faculties of reason, and will, and conscience, are too heavy for me to wield; would that I had been created a worm, and no man, then, I should not have incurred the hazards under which I have sinned and ruined myself.”

The constitution of the human soul is indeed a wonderful one; and such a meditation as that which we have just devoted to its functions of self-examination and memory, brief though it be, is enough to convince us of it. And remember, that this constitution is not peculiar to you and to me. It belongs to every human creature on the globe. The imbruted pagan in the fiery center of Africa, who never saw a Bible, or heard of the Redeemer; the equally imbruted man, woman, or child, who dwells in the slime of our own civilization, not a mile from where we sit and hear the tidings of mercy; the filthy savage, and the yet filthier profligate, are both of them alike with ourselves possessed of these awful powers of self-knowledge and of memory.

Think of this, ye earnest and faithful laborers in the vineyard of the Lord. There is not a child that you allure into your Sabbath Schools, and your Mission Schools, that is not fearfully and wonderfully made; and whose marvelous powers you are doing much to render to their possessor a blessing, instead of a curse.

When Sir Humphrey Davy, in answer to an inquiry that had been made of him respecting the number and series of his discoveries in chemistry, had gone through with the list, he added: “But the greatest of my discoveries is Michael Faraday.” This Michael Faraday was a poor boy employed in the menial services of the laboratory where Davy made those wonderful discoveries by which he revolutionized the science of chemistry, and whose chemical genius he detected, elicited, and encouraged, until he finally took the place of his teacher and patron, and acquired a name that is now one of the influences of England. Well might he say: “My greatest discovery was when I detected the wonderful powers of Michael Faraday.” And never will you make a greater and more beneficent discovery, than when, under the thick scurf of pauperism and vice, you detect the human soul that is fearfully and wonderfully made; than when you elicit its powers of self-consciousness and of memory, and, instrumentally, dedicate them to the service of Christ and the Church.

2. In the second place, we see from the subject, that thoughtlessness in sin will never excuse sin.

There are degrees in sin. A deliberate, self-conscious act of sin is the most intense form of moral evil. When a man has an active conscience; when he distinctly thinks over the nature of the transgression which he is tempted to commit; when he sees clearly that it is a direct violation of a command of God which he is about to engage in; when he says, “I know that this is positively forbidden by my Maker and Judge, but I will do it,”—we have an instance of the most heaven-daring sin. This is deliberate and wilful transgression. The servant knows his lord’s will and does it not, and he shall be beaten with “many stripes,” says Christ.

But, such sin as this is not the usual form. Most of human transgressions are not accompanied with such a distinct apprehension, and such a deliberate determination. The sin of ignorance and thoughtlessness is the species which is most common. Men, generally, do not first think of what they are about to do, and then proceed to do it; but they first proceed to do it, and then think nothing at all about it.

But, thoughtlessness will not excuse sin; though it is a somewhat less extreme form of it, than deliberate transgression. Under the Levitical law, the sin of ignorance, as it was called, was to be expiated by a somewhat different sacrifice from that offered for the wilful and deliberate sin; but it must be expiated. A victim must be offered for it. It was guilt before God, and needed atonement. Our Lord, in His prayer for His murderers, said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The act of crucifying the Lord of glory was certainly a sin, and one of an awful nature. But the authors of it were not fully aware of its import. They did not understand the dreadful significance of the crucifixion of the Son of God, as we now understand it, in the light of eighteen centuries. Our Lord alludes to this, as a species of mitigation; while yet He teaches, by the very prayer which He puts up for them, that this ignorance did not excuse His murderers. He asks that they may be forgiven.

But where there is absolutely no sin there is no need of forgiveness. It is one of our Lord’s assertions, that it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah, in the day of judgment, than it will be for those inhabitants of Palestine who would not hear the words of His apostles,—because the sin of the former was less deliberate and wilful than that of the latter. But He would not have us infer from this, that Sodom and Gomorrah are not to be punished for sin. And, finally, He sums up the whole doctrine upon this point, in the declaration, that “he who knew his master’s will and did it not shall be beaten with many stripes; but he who knew not his master’s will and did it not shall be beaten with few stripes.” The sin of thoughtlessness shall be beaten with fewer stripes than the sin of deliberation,—but it shall be beaten, and therefore it is sin.

The almost universal indifference and thoughtlessness with which men live on in a worldly and selfish life, will not excuse them in the day of accurate accounts. And the reason is, that they are capable of thinking upon the law of God; of thinking upon their duties; of thinking upon their sins. They possess the wonderful faculties of self-inspection and memory, and therefore they are capable of bringing their actions into light. It is the command of God to every man, and to every rational spirit everywhere, to walk in the light, and to be a child of the light. We ought to examine ourselves; to understand our ruling motives and abiding purposes; to scrutinize our feelings and conduct. But if we do little or nothing of this, we must not expect that in the day of judgment we can plead our thoughtless ignorance of what we were, and what we did, here upon earth, as an excuse for our disobedience.

God expects, and demands, that every one of His rational creatures should be all that he is capable of being. He gave man wonderful faculties and endowments,—ten talents, five talents, two talents,—and He will require the whole original sum given, together with a faithful use and improvement of it. The very thoughtlessness then, particularly under the Gospel dispensation,—the very neglect and non-use of the power of self-inspection,—will go in to constitute a part of the sin that will be punished. Instead of being an excuse, it will be an element of the condemnation itself.

3. In the third place, even the sinner himself ought to rejoice in the fact that God is the Searcher of the heart.

It is instinctive and natural, that a transgressor should attempt to conceal his character from his Maker; but next to his sin itself, it would be the greatest injury that he could do to himself, should he succeed in his attempt. Even after the commission of sin, there is every reason for desiring that God should compass our path and lying down, and be acquainted with all our ways. For, He is the only being who can forgive sin; the only one who can renew and sanctify the heart. There is the same motive for having the disease of the soul understood by God, that there is for having the disease of the body examined by a skillful physician. Nothing is gained, but everything is lost, by ignorance.

The sinner, therefore, has the strongest of motives for rejoicing in the truth that God sees him. It ought not to be an unwelcome fact even to him. For how can his sin be pardoned, unless it is clearly understood by the pardoning power? How can his soul be purified from its inward corruption, unless it is searched by the Spirit of all holiness?

Instead, therefore, of being repelled by such a solemn truth as that which we have been discussing, even the natural man should be allured by it. For it teaches him that there is help for him in God.

His own knowledge of his own heart, as we have seen, is very imperfect and very inadequate. But the Divine knowledge is thoroughly adequate. He may, therefore, devolve his case with confidence upon the unerring One. Let him take words upon his lips, and cry unto Him: “Search me, O God, and try me; and see what evil ways there are in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” Let him endeavor to come into possession of the Divine knowledge. There is no presumption in this. God desires that he should know himself as He knows him; that he should get possession of His views upon this point; that he should see himself as He sees him. One of the principal sins which God has to charge upon the sinner is, that his apprehensions respecting his own character are in conflict with the Divine. Nothing would more certainly meet the approbation of God, than a renunciation of human estimates of human nature, and the adoption of those contained in the inspired word.

Endeavor, therefore, to obtain the very same knowledge of your heart which God Himself possesses. And in this endeavor, He will assist you. The influences of the Holy Spirit to enlighten are most positively promised and proffered. Therefore be not repelled by the truth; but be drawn by it to a deeper, truer knowledge of your heart. Lift up your soul in prayer, and beseech God to impart to you a profound knowledge of yourself, and then to sprinkle all your discovered guilt, and all your undiscovered guilt, with atoning blood. This is salvation; first to know yourself and then to know Christ as your Prophet, Priest, and King.

William G. T. Shedd, Sermons to the Natural Man, (New York: Charles Scribner & Co., 1871), 40–58.

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