“I know. I know you probably think that.”
It’s one of the most poignant lines in the 2016 film Hidden Figures.
Dorothy Vaughan is an African American mathematician providing calculations for the space program in the 1960s. Her white supervisor is condescending and contemptuous toward the African American workers—and she seems especially put off by Dorothy’s desire to receive advancements Dorothy has earned.
Then, by chance, Dorothy and the supervisor encounter each other in a restroom. The supervisor remarks, “Despite what you may think, I have nothing against y’all.” And yet her tone reveals a disdain she doesn’t appear to recognize.
Dorothy pauses before she replies. “I know,” she says. “I know you probably think that.”
It’s one of the most powerful scenes in the film because it highlights how skilled we are at deceiving ourselves.
Prejudice, lack of forgiveness, pride, love of praise—all these sins slither unseen beneath the surface of our souls. Research has repeatedly revealed that biases lurk in our implicit attitudes, but the biblical authors knew our propensity for self-deception long before the social sciences. And they knew it far better.
Prejudice, lack of forgiveness, pride, love of praise—all these sins slither unseen beneath the surface of our souls.
It’s what drove David to cry out in desperation, “Who perceives his unintentional sins? Cleanse me from my hidden faults” (Ps. 19:12, CSB). It’s why God reminded Jeremiah the prophet, “The heart is more deceitful than anything else, and incurable—who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9, CSB).
Even though we may not be aware of certain sins, from pride to partiality and everything in between, they can still be present, shaping who we are.
What can we do, then, about these proclivities to which we’re blind? Here, as in many other places, the North African pastor Augustine of Hippo (354–430) can serve us.
Help from Hippo
Early in his theological development, Augustine was convinced that sin isn’t sin unless it’s wholly voluntary. Over time, though, he began to recognize that human depravity is far deeper and more complex than he’d initially thought.
Sin has so pervaded human nature that we’re capable of committing it involuntarily, even unknowingly. Speaking of his own hidden struggle with a love for praise—a sin he didn’t recognize for much of his life—Augustine prayed, “It’s so difficult for me even to deduce to what degree I am purified from this disease. . . . I have deep anxiety regarding my hidden faults, of which your eyes are aware but mine are not” (Confessions 10:37).
It’s as if—having glimpsed his earlier self in the bathroom mirror and seen overconfidence in the purity of his motivations—Augustine now says to his younger self, “I know. I know you probably think that.” By the time of his expositions of the Psalms, Augustine puts it this way: “Our sins don’t just keep our mind from seeing the light. They keep our mind from seeing itself.”
Do you regularly ask God to reveal sins you don’t yet see? Could it be that, deep inside, you don’t want to know about them?
When we begin to take seriously the sins we don’t know, it’s easy to slip into a dark whirlpool of introspection, which can tempt us to self-hatred or despair. Reading Augustine, it can seem like that’s sometimes where he’s headed. But he never stays there. Instead, he turns from examining his own heart to pursuing God’s will.
How did Augustine do this—and how do we? Here are four lessons I’ve learned from working through his Confessions and expositions of the Psalms.
1. Lament the sins you do know.
Throughout much of book 10 in Confessions, Augustine laments the sins that he sees in himself. But the lamentations do more than recount the sins. Indeed, lamenting his known sins humbles him and helps him recognize how little he really knows about his motivations. “There remains a lamentable darkness within me,” Augustine admits, “in which my own proclivities lie hidden from me” (Confessions 10:32). Such humility, it seems, brings him to a place where he’s ready to recognize the sins of which he hadn’t been aware.
2. Ask God to show you the sins you don’t know.
“You do not have, because you do not ask,” James the brother of Jesus once commented (James 4:2). Do you regularly ask God to reveal sins you don’t yet see? Could it be that deep inside, you don’t want to know about them? This is where Augustine’s example can be particularly helpful. “I am less well known to myself than you are to me,” he cries out. “I beg you, my God, tell on me to myself” (Confessions 10:37). Later, he puts it this way: “Here, Lord, I throw my troubles on you so that I can live. I will contemplate the wonders of your law. You know my callowness and my weakness. Teach me” (10:70).
3. Submit yourself and your sins to the church.
When Augustine asks God to “tell on me to myself,” his aim isn’t simply to become aware of his filth. For immediately after speaking these words, he reveals the purpose: “so that I can confess it to the brothers” (10:37). Augustine wants to share his newly recognized sins with a community who will hold him accountable.
4. Recognize your hope doesn’t come from knowing yourself, but from knowing God.
After lamenting the darkness in which his proclivities lay hidden, Augustine reveals the hope that kept him from lapsing into a feedback loop of self-absorbed introspection: “Our sole hope, our sole confidence, our sole assured promise, Lord, is your mercy” (10:32). “It is one thing to get up quickly; it is another not to fall,” he later prayed. “My only hope is in your exceeding great mercy” (10:35).
Our tendency as fallen humans is to defend our own take on ourselves, believing there’s little hidden from our self-understanding. The Spirit’s call, meanwhile, is for us to humbly lament our blindness. And yet, when we’re led by the Spirit, we don’t remain in the shadows of introspection, wallowing in the labyrinths of our own souls. Instead, we run to the One who knows our hearts better than we know ourselves. Ultimately, his mercy is our only hope.