When I was young, psychologists urged us to discover yourself. ‘Know thyself’ was the catchphrase of the day. But, who am I? Am I the class clown of the Sixth Form, the studious mouse locked up in my room with my books, or the reverent Sunday school teacher at weekends, or all of the above?
‘Just be yourself’ is still the ‘in’ mantra. But, again, which self is ‘you’? The head teacher who issued each of his staff with a large volume on self-expression was horrified on entering one class-in-progress to find the master bashing the class pest on the head with it. ‘I’m just expressing myself, sir!’ the teacher informed his wide-eyed boss.
What light does Holy Scripture throw on these self-focus phrases?
Interestingly, there are two well-known characters who each ‘came to himself’ as recorded by Dr. Luke. Both their stories help to answer the dilemma for us.
In Acts 12:1-25 we find Peter in prison awaiting execution by the sword of King Herod. An angel stood besides him as he slept, but even the glow of the illustrious halo did not awaken him, till the visitor gave Peter a thump in his side. He is told to dress warmly, then guards seem oblivious as gate after gate of this high security jailhouse bursts open. Peter follows the heavenly guide, but thinks it’s just a vision (like reality TV today) – after all he’s had visions before (e.g. while waiting for his lunch in the preceding two chapters). Only when the angel left him did he finally ‘come to himself’ and head for the house where the church was meeting to pray for him. Then, after all those locked gates had opened to let him out, he now had to keep knocking for ages to get the church to let him in! (Some things never change, did I hear someone say?)
In this story, Peter had to wise up to the fact that this was real life and not a fantasy of his imagination. How often have we ourselves been brought to our senses from some optimistic daydreams?
The other Lucan story of self-awareness is, of course, the so-called prodigal son (Luke 15:1-32). He had been a very wilful young man who had demanded that his father should give his two sons their inheritance while he was still alive. Instead of investing it in a business venture, the lad squandered every last cent of the money, got trapped in a famine feeding pigs – a concept abhorrent to Jews (and Muslims). When he came to himself’ the issue was far deeper than that of Peter’s. He remembered he was a nonentity outside of fellowship with his father, just as none of us is truly human without a vital relationship with God. Angels, after all, are God’s domestic servants (who ‘have more than enough food’), but the human race was created to be heaven’s royal sons, indeed created in his image. And the God of the Bible is a God of living fellowship – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who never was, never is and never will be an Almighty loner. When he headed home to tell his father mea culpa, it’s all my fault, what a party followed. Quite a transformation after partying on pigswill with grunting pigs!