People, by nature, are self-conscious. This natural self-awareness demonstrates itself early in life. When a child learns, for instance, that certain facial expressions or behaviors elicit the approval of laugher from others, he quickly offers a repeat performance. As he grows toward maturity, the sense that “others are watching me” intensifies. He becomes increasingly preoccupied with the image he is projecting, tailoring his wardrobe, hairstyle, vocabulary, gait, and attitude to whatever standard by which he desires to be perceived. He sees himself as the center of the universe and deciphers the world around him in terms of how it relates to him.
Now, I concede, this ability to think of life and the world in terms of how it relates to “me” is the essence of personhood. This is what it means to be human. Without the capacity for self-consciousness, people would live impersonally like plants or by sheer instinct like animals. The God who created man in His image is Himself self-conscious: “I, even I, am the Lord, and beside me there is no savior…I am the Lord; that is my name, and my glory will I not give to another” (Is. 43:11, 42:8). The ability to be reflective is, therefore, healthy, normal, and legitimate.
But man’s natural self-awareness has been deformed by the Fall. Instead of reflecting on his life in terms of his relationship with God, man now tends to turn in upon himself as his own god. In fact, religion in both its Western form (The Greek ideal “know thyself” which is the foundation of Secular Humanism) and its Eastern form (Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. with its emphasis on self-actualization) define salvation in terms of achieving perfect self-consciousness. Fallen man obsesses about his own happiness and comfort. He frets over his reputation. He showcases his own talents, spotlights his own achievements, and does everything within his power to attain both the feeling from within and the affirmation from without that he is valuable. This, I say again, is self-awareness gone awry.
A reputable theologian once said “Man’s greatest problem is that he is turned in upon himself, and his greatest need is to be turned outside of himself in worship to God and in service to others.” Without qualification, I agree. There is something noble about self-denial, self-forgetfulness, and self-sacrifice. True freedom does not emerge from within, in other words, but condescends from above. To be delivered from what Malcolm Muggeridge called “the dark little dungeon of my own ego” is a glorious liberation.
Only the Lord Jesus Christ can set men free from themselves. When He sets someone free, they are free indeed! Free, if you please, like Moses, who returned from forty days in the mountain with God to communicate with his brethren, oblivious to the fact that the radiant glory of God reflected from his countenance. As he spoke, the people were afraid. There was something about him that reminded them of God. Everyone could see it…everyone, that is, except Moses. He “wist not that his face did shine.” Blessed unconsciousness!
When a person can do a good deed without pausing to “admire his shot,” that is blessed unconsciousness. When one can render a sacrificial service without dropping little hints on how thoughtful he was, that is blessed unconsciousness. When the Lord is pleased to display his power and presence in the life of one of His servants and everyone can see it but the servant himself, that is blessed unconsciousness. “A meek person,” said Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “is someone who is truly amazed that God and man can think as well of him as they do.” How rare is the truly humble person who lives in communion with God, but doesn’t know that it shows.
Just as there is a blessed unconsciousness, there is also a tragic unconsciousness – a kind of oblivion that poses a danger to the believer. In Judges 16:20, we read of Samson, awaking out of his sleep and purposing to “go out as at other times before” against the Philistines. But Samson was oblivious to one very crucial fact – “He wist not that the Lord was departed from him.”
Compromise, the gradual erosion of his convictions, had weakened him. Imperceptibly, he had drifted into a spiritual condition, the consequences of which it was now impossible to reverse. He presumed to shake himself, to demonstrate his great strength before the enemy, but to his surprise, his strength was gone. Tragically, Samson thought himself to be strong, when, in reality, his strength was gone.
How tragic it is when God’s people neglect to practice the discipline of self-examination! Regular audits of our attitudes, our behavior, our thought patterns, and our entire lifestyle against the standard of God’s word are essential. Periodically, as a minister, it is a rude awakening when I presume to stand before God’s people without the necessary preparation of heart that comes from a close walk with God. Oblivious to my own weakness, I think I can fulfill my calling in the energy of the flesh. It is a tragic unconsciousness, for in the moment of the test, I have no power. Perhaps you also, in the daily responsibilities of life, sometimes neglect to pray, meditate on the word of God, or interact with your fellow believers. Then, when various crises or problems arise, you presume to tackle them, but you lack the power to deal with them effectively. The flesh controls, or discouragement sets in, or temptation gets the upper hand. Oh, if you had just been mindful to maintain fellowship with God! Tragic unconsciousness.
Most of us, I suspect, are more akin to Samson than to Moses. We are oblivious to our need of the Lord, but preoccupied with our reputation before others. How much better it would be if we were unconscious of ourselves, but sensitive to our utter weakness apart from God’s power and grace! May He help us all to be in such close contact with Him that when the trial comes, we may be unmoved, all the while oblivious to ourselves in a blessed preoccupation with Him.
– Michael L. Gowens