“And when it was evening, He came with the 12. And as they were at the table eating, Jesus said, ‘Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.’ They began to be sorrowful and to say to Him one after another, ‘Is it I?’” (Mark 14:18-19).
This instructive and poignant incident in the lives of Jesus and His disciples points out a problem from which no one is free. That is the problem of incomplete self-knowledge. When the disciples each asked Jesus, “Is it I?” they were indicating in sincerity and good faith that they were not sufficiently in touch with their own inner beings to deny infallibly the presence of betraying thoughts or deeds.
Out of 11 innocent men, not one was sufficiently sure of his own innocence to affirm it emphatically. Each man recognised that perhaps betrayal of His Lord had unwittingly entered his life.
In asking, “Is it I?” the disciples first of all recognised their finiteness and their incomplete self-knowledge.
Second, they acknowledged their sinfulness as being so all pervasive and deep that it could work undetected and unrecognised in even the most spiritually sincere life. The Psalmist recognised the same phenomenon when he prayed, “But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults.” (Psalm 19:12).
Third, they manifested a willingness, like the Psalmist above, to receive new self-illuminating data, even if it necessitated confession and repentance. Above all, their attitude of openness, even to the hidden sinfulness in them, revealed that their hearts were in the right place. They wanted to do the right thing, and if they had failed to do so, they were willing to fulfil the law at a secondary level by sorrow and repentance for their failure.
This example of the disciples is salutary for us, because most of us are interested only in what reinforces our own lofty views of ourselves. Robbie Burns was conscious of the problem in his quaint reflection, “Would the gods the gift gie’ us to see ourselves as other see us.” And of course, “Know Thyself” has been a basic pillar in the structure of human wisdom from time immemorial.
Sometimes the first step to seeing ourselves more fully is to see God more fully. When Isaiah had a vision of God’s holiness, he also had a vision of his own lack of it. Only after Paul met Christ on the Damascus road did he say, “Oh, wretched man that I am.”
Confident of this, the Psalmist, acknowledging his incomplete self-knowledge, could pray, as can we, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalm 139:23-24). And if time is short we can simply say, “Lord, is it I?” Maybe we can also pray, again with the Psalmist, “Teach me wisdom in my secret heart” (Psalm 51:6). I pray this daily and find it instructive, important and challenging. I also pray daily a lovely poetic prayer out of the Anglican Prayer Book, “Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
May this be a set of prayers you too can use.