“At exactly which point do you start to realize
That life without knowledge is death in disguise?
That’s why, knowledge of self is like life after death
Apply it, to your life, let destiny manifest!”

Black Star

Hip hop embraced the phrase “knowledge of self” as a call for people to be conscious of their inner thoughts and also of the outer forces influencing them. It was a call to recognize one’s dignity, intellect, emotions, ethnicity, genealogy, and history, as well as the surrounding social structures shaping one’s reality. “Knowledge of self” is what drove Brooklyn rapper AZ to proclaim things like, “You can try to blind me, analyze, but can’t define me / My mind’s divine, heavily entwined with Gandhi’s.” In these lines, the rapper has an awareness of the layers of his own mind and of the confines of his broken society.

But what does all this have to do with us right now? New York is still considered to be one of the most influential cities in the world. Its culture can be fast-paced, cutthroat, and powerfully innovative. But during this year’s pandemic, even New York City had to slow down and pause, making it an extremely difficult season for many of us. And as we trudged through 2020, there has been a steady exposure of our deepest emotions and sins, as well as the grotesque unearthing of our society’s moral corruptions.

While I am not trying to diminish this year’s suffering, I also hope we do not overlook that this year has offered us an opportunity for unprecedented knowledge of self, both individually and as a collective. It is possible to “just get through” Covid times, looking forward to the next time we can be at our “full potential” again. And it is possible, even after the pandemic, to live our lives focused solely on productivity, pleasure, parties, and pay, until the day we die. But, as writer C.S. Lewis says, insofar as we want to experience “real warmth and enthusiasm and joy” and healing, we will have to do more than surface-level living. Hip hop is beauty that emerged from trying times in marginalized neighborhoods, where artists decided to become more reflective in the midst of trial.

Knowledge of Grace

Sixteenth century French theologian John Calvin did not know about rap philosophy, but he spoke a similar truth. He said, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion: “Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God. Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”

Christian knowledge of self first involves recognizing the patterns of our spiritual behavior and trying to explore why the patterns are there. You can see examples in Scripture, like Paul’s wrestling in Romans 7:21-25, Job’s monologues, and David in places like Psalm 43: “Why are you cast down, O my soul?” Knowledge of self is the hard and repetitive work of peeling back our insecurities. We ask ourselves, ‘Is there something (control, beauty, companionship, power, career, reputation) in my life that grasps me so strongly that if that thing is threatened, I would feel less confident, and even less worthy? Why do I obsess over things the way I do? Whose voice is most powerful in my life? How has my community influenced me; how have I influenced my community?’ These are lifelong questions and journeys, not solved overnight.

But then, of course, we cannot forget the second part of Calvin’s statement: the knowledge of God. The knowledge of self journey leads to the knowledge of God. This was the natural path for all the scriptural examples listed above. Knowing the depth of our sins and insecurities leads us to glimpse how profound God’s grace is for us. It leads us to find God’s mercy waiting for us, even in the darkest depths of our souls. We find the power of Christ fighting for us, even against things we cannot control, like our family histories and environments. And all of this can move us to worship.

Family, finding God in our individual and communal vulnerabilities is among the most healing experiences we can have, over time. Resting on God’s grace allows us the freedom to finally admit our weaknesses but at the same time be confident in the gifts he provides. There is freedom in not having to sustain false confidences to cover our weaknesses but also freedom in emboldening ourselves as people, forgiven and gifted by God, going out into the world, as his workmanship (Ephesians 2:1-10).

Sufferer, Sinner, Saint, Story

As I am writing this, I am wearing a t-shirt that says, “Jazz is freedom.” Sometimes, jazz music does not have a set beat or key signature; it just sounds like random notes. But in the randomness, there is complexity, and in that, there is freedom too. Often, we want to assign ourselves and others into rigid categories of this or that; it is easier to “figure each other out” superficially than to learn our stories. But the truth is, as Christians, we are all a complex composition of saint, sinner, and sufferer, all at once. It is in living through this tension that we meet God, conforming us, and all his creation, to the image of his Son.

Would you be willing at all to explore those messy details of being human? Is this something you would like to pursue, for change, both in yourself and beyond? If so, find somebody in your life who can help you to ask good questions in this journey of deep knowledge. And most of all, let us ask the Lord God to guide us in our reflections, one day at a time. Pray through Psalm 139, in which David sings,

O LORD, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways (Psalm 139:1-3).