The wisdom of the prudent is to discern his way, but the folly of fools is deceiving. Proverbs 14:8
There is one principle undergirding our spiritual growth which is least taught or understood today. It has to do with the principle of self-knowledge or self-awareness.
We hardly take soul-searching seriously unless we are hit with a crisis, i.e. a painful relationship breakdown or a major work failure. However, being self-aware is actually needed in our daily life, work and discipleship. Routinely, are we capable of asking these questions:
• What are my motivations, the “whys” of what I do?
• How is my behaviour impacting others?
• Am I dictated by a incessant need to please others?
• Is the “fear of man” determining my actions?
• Why am I feeling downcast? Am I simply tired physically or are there some underlying issues which I am not at peace with?
• Do I have fears that I have not faced up to?
Am I capable of taking my intense feelings, positive and negative, out of the depths of my heart for a moment, and putting them where I can look at them – and where Christ can look at them?
It’s what the ancient spiritual traditions meant by ‘dispassion’. It’s a negative-sounding word, and it’s not much better in Greek, because apatheia is the source of our English word “apathy”. But dispassion, apatheia, in the spiritual understanding of the early Christians, is about stepping back a bit from how we are feeling, what we think we are wanting, and what other people are wanting. We are saying: ‘Just a moment – can I make some space around these feelings, these instincts, these emotions, these desires? Can I create a bit of space and not allow my reactions instantly to be dictated by them?’
This applies equally to positive feelings of ecstasy and enthusiasm as to resentment or sadness. Stand back a little, give those feelings room to breathe; give yourself room to breathe. Ask, “What’s this really about?” Self-awareness, and this rather strange word ‘dispassion’, is about developing some sense of our freedom from the projections, the expectations and the busyness that control our lives.
We can only get to dispassion when, in our prayer and in our life generally, we make enough space to reflect, to hear God. We encounter such moments when we pause to pray: “Search my heart, O God.” It is about being still enough and to begin to realise who we really are. That self-awareness is often needed if there is to be change and growth.
Something to this effect was happening in the conversations between Jesus and Peter in John 21. What did Jesus do to Peter? He simply asked questions. Deep and penetrating ones. They were questions that caused Peter to probe his own heart, his priorities and motivations.
Sometimes, the real problem is not the absence of God but the absence of us. Even when we pray, our true selves are in absentia. In our busy city life, there are really no short-cuts to the practice of this discipline of apatheia. You have to find the space to be quiet and to be still. Sometimes another person, asking the right questions can also help us to find the space for self-awareness.
I should add that often, we can rob the person from the needful path of self-discovery and discipleship experiences when we rush into defining a person’s problems or weaknesses. Instead, we should encourage the person to pray, reflect and seek the Lord. You need to help him or her to step back and find the space to be more self-aware. From there, true growth and change will take place.