We walk to heaven backwards. John Henry Newman’s famous insight articulates the importance of self-awareness to the Christian life: We can only see in hindsight the patterns of grace by which God has shaped us; we can proceed in confidence only by being keenly aware of the steps that have led us so far to this point. In this way, the news this September from the Episcopal Church Center, in which an independent study diagnosed the work culture there as characterized principally by “fear, mistrust, and resentment,” is the beginning of good news — it reveals the true starting point for renewal, unencumbered by illusion or denial. I think this perspective is part of why “self-awareness” has become something of a cultural phenomenon of late: it is the first, necessary step in any kind of societal reconciliation, institutional reform, or personal growth. Yet for all its benefits, there are limits to what it can achieve.
Recently I started budgeting in greater detail than I have before. As part of the process, I examined every purchase and transaction I had made over the last six months, to see where exactly my money was going. What do things actually cost, what do I need, and how do I get a better handle on organizing and categorizing those records? I continued to observe myself for the next three months: Where was I shopping, what was I spending, how was I tempted to go over-budget? I expected a lot of what I ended up seeing, but there were surprises too. The result was a clearer picture of my needs and what kinds of expenses I was most inclined to prioritize. I adjusted my budget accordingly, and kept to it with discipline.
After several more months of this, however, I was surprised to realize I faced a new question. My self-awareness project told me, with great accuracy, what I spent and how I was already inclined to prioritize. But it did not help me rank my priorities according to any kind of standard. It did not help me to see what the proper end of money was in the first place. Apart from rough projection, it did not help me learn what my real needs and priorities would be in the future, or what kinds of goals would be best for me to make. Answering those questions required more than self-awareness. They required an act of faith: faith to consign all my resources, plans, and goals ultimately to God, whose final plan for me I do not yet know, but who calls me nevertheless to keep near the cross of his Son, ready — as far as I can manage — to make whatever offering or sacrifice I might be asked to make.
Take another case. A little while ago, I read a short blog post friend of mine shared on Facebook. The author is a young woman reflecting on her relationship with her fiancé. In a moment of realization after an outing with another couple, she saw all the ways she had been acting selfishly lately:
I was trying to date ME. I was trying to recreate me to date because that was convenient. That took zero work to try and understand. That was safe and not messy at all. I stifled the creativity of the most creative person I’ve ever known.
The author could have stopped at this realization, and let her new self-awareness be its own victory. But instead she pressed on. She asked God for help. She began to see that the way forward for her was to allow her fiancé not to be her, but rather to be himself — and to let this other person, in all his (at times) aggravating complexity, reveal Jesus to her, according to his unique gifts and personality.
In other words, self-awareness was not enough to overcome selfishness and remorse. That required an act of love. Love asks forgiveness, love grants freedom to allow the relationship to continue unfolding; love is what does not insist on my way or boast of my knowledge or demand a response on my terms. There is a surrender here, where self-awareness ceases to avail, and I stand at the brink of an awesome, unknown depth that is another person — whose equal surrender creates the space for both of us to grow together, beyond the foresight or control of either of us.
Or a third case. In spiritual direction, one of the most important fruits of self-examination is an ever-deepening understanding of my sin, my brokenness. This enables me to be better prepared for the fight against temptation, sin, and the devil. But as St. Paul discovered, and as so many Christians since have also learned, the more I know myself a sinner, the greater a stranger to myself I appear. “I do not do the good I want, and the evil I do not want, that I do … wretched man that I am, who will save me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7) The more self-aware we are about our sin, the more we do not recognize ourselves, the more we realize we are caught in the “land of unlikeness,” far from ourselves, and far from the God who made us (Augustine, Confessions VIII.X).
Ironically, self-awareness in the spiritual life is insufficient of itself to tell us anything about who we really are, theologically speaking. It only reveals that we are not yet fully ourselves. Where do we turn for our final identity as Christians? How do we bridge the gap between what we know and what we long to learn? We cannot stop at mere self-awareness, but must make an intentional decision to live in hope: hope that the mercy of God, upon which we all depend, will finally carry us forward, that he will finally bring to completion the good work begun in us. Hope that to each of us will finally be granted the reward of the Church in Pergamum (Rev. 2): a white stone, with a new name on it, our true name, which we will recognize as our own when we “shall awake up after thy likeness, and be satisfied” (Ps. 17).
With much respect to John Henry Newman, “walking to heaven backwards” has its limits. Committing ourselves to faith, hope, and love begins with serious self-examination, unflinchingly honest self-awareness. But it is ultimately oriented toward the unknown future: not so much walking backwards as casting ourselves headlong, into the grace of God.
Just as at a funeral we commend the deceased to God’s care and keeping, and know no more of them in this life, so every day you and I consecrate our resources, our relationships, and our intentions to his grace. Where will it lead? I do not know. What will become of me? I cannot say. My task through it all is not to be ignorant of myself or to neglect my responsibilities, but still to keep a kind of “holy naiveté,” whose primary characteristic is not knowledge but trust.
One of my favorite scenes in any film is the end of A Man for All Seasons (1966, with the great Paul Scofield). Thomas More stands at the executioner’s block and pardons the headsman, saying, “Be not afraid of your office, you send me to God.”
Thomas Cranmer, standing nearby as the attending minister, retorts smugly, “You’re very sure of that, Sir Thomas?”
To which More replies, “He will not refuse one who is so blithe to go to him.”
My prayer for myself, as well as for the Church, is that we would always keep close to our hearts this blitheness to go to God, over and above (and within and beyond) whatever other self-awareness work we have to do. Only by commending our final value and identity to the unknown riches of God’s grace will we find ourselves able to live in the peace, confidence, and continuous delight that properly belong to his children.