If you would grow spiritually, self-examination is an essential practice.
This should come as no surprise. We are a culture obsessed with tracking and feedback. Our fit bits and our wearable tech collect valuable information about our health and wellbeing. We track money and time to make sure we squander neither (though habitually we do). When we undertake any goal, we define our outcome and measure progress.
Why would spiritual growth be any different?
Part of the challenge lies in defining goals and measures. It’s one thing to set a health goal of “run three miles in under 30 minutes.” It’s much harder to establish spiritual goals to grow in peace and joy and grace. So we settle for spiritual performance measures like “read the Bible everyday” or “attend a Bible study” or “serve once a month at the homeless shelter.” Don’t get me wrong, Bible study and serving the needy are things we need to be doing. They shape our hearts and they express our faith. But it’s possible to do all these things and still be spiritually stuck.
This is where self-examination is so important.
It takes effort. No device can do it for you. It’s the exploration of the inner world.
It begins with stillness. To examine yourself, you need to practice quieting the mind and not being distracted.
But when you’ve stilled your mind, you need to take the extra step of directing your attention to your feelings and motivations – these are, after all, the seedbed of our actions. The book of James teaches “each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed.” Self-examination moves us away from sin management and moves us toward examining the deep roots of our self-destructive behavior.
Necessarily, this is not pretty. When we examine ourselves, we find things we’d rather forget or keep hidden. And yet, if we are to grow, we must acknowledge them.
Thankfully, we’re not alone in self examination. God is with us in it. At first that sounds terrifying, but actually it is the step toward spiritual healing and improvement. Psalm 139 gives us the big picture. Verse 1 begins with the statement that we’ve already been examined: “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.” When we examine ourselves, we do so under the guidance of the Lord who loves us, redeems us by grace, and is determined to heal us by the power of the Holy Spirit. We don’t need to be afraid.
But then verse 7-12 of the psalm talk about the fantasy of fleeing from the Lord — the fantasy of God not seeing. The only way we can indulge that fantasy is through self-deception. Through distracting ourselves by business or incessant internal chatter or fixation on technique.
Interestingly, verses 19-22 present a strange interlude “If only you, God, would slay the wicked.” The last refuge from self examination is to deflect attention to “them.” If we can just turn our attention over there, we don’t have to deal with our own internal issues. But this is a fruitless exercise. Justice is indeed in the hands of the Lord. He will deal with “them” (whoever they are). He knows the inner workings of their hearts.
And He knows the inner workings of mine.
Thus I’m back to self-examination with nowhere to hide.
The Psalm concludes with the cry “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.”
Find some time this week to sit still, to pray these verses, to have your heart searched by God, and to be comforted that even as He searches you, he shapes you.
About the cover image: This 2011 image is of a sculpture that I found in one of my favorite places: Brookgreen Gardens. The sculpture, titled “Grandmother (Rita)”, is a modern work by Richard Blake from his series Third World Women, created to celebrate the strength and beauty inherent in women of Africa and Latin America. I chose it because the pose reminds me of Rodin’s Thinker, but Rita seems more relaxed in her posture. Her face carries a sense of peace in her pondering. Also, I really like the vine covered wall in the background – adding a sense of timelessness to the work.