Examine Yourself, Forget Yourself

Help for the Overly Introspective

To many, the idea of self-examination sounds about as enjoyable as standing before the mirror and slowly surveying your bodily imperfections. Who has heard, “Let’s spend some time examining ourselves,” and smiled?

For some, self-examination may even recall memories we have tried hard to forget. Maybe, in some miserable past, we spent untold hours digging inwardly, desperately trying to root out hidden sins. In the process, we discovered just how dark and hopeless — how Christless — life underground can be.

I can sympathize. I remember times when I felt locked in my own soul like Christian in the castle of Giant Despair. I’ve lived through long seasons without spiritual sunshine. Morbid introspection still tempts me today.

“In Scripture, healthy saints look outward mainly, but they don’t look outward only.”

But alongside that dismal past and present danger, I’ve also discovered something unexpected: the cure for unhealthy introspection is not simply to think about yourself less, but to think about yourself better. Yes, self-examination can become a prison cell of introspective gloom — but it need not. Done rightly, self-examination can become a pathway to spiritual health, a friend who leads us inward only to lead us further outward, who shows us self so we might see more of Christ.

Search Me, O God

But why, some may ask, do we need to examine ourselves at all? If God transforms us as we behold Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18), why would we spend any time beholding self? We change by the outward look, not the inward, don’t we?

Indeed we do. We are plants who grow by the rain of self-forgetful worship, the sun of Christward praise. Nevertheless, even well-watered, well-lit plants need to watch for thorns. Similarly, self-examination doesn’t grow us by itself, but it may clear the ground for growth — and keep us from getting choked.

In Scripture, healthy saints look outward mainly, but they don’t look outward only. Like Timothy, they keep a close watch not only on the gospel but on themselves (1 Timothy 4:16). Like David, they love to consider God’s glory in sky and Scripture, but they also allow that glory to illuminate self (Psalm 19:11–14). As the author of Hebrews exhorts, they devote their best attention to “looking to Jesus,” but from time to time they also consider the weights and sins that slow their pace (Hebrews 12:1–2).

The wise know that spiritual progress yesterday does not guarantee spiritual progress today. Judases become traitors and Demases become worldlings one small, self-deceived step at a time. And as both history and experience testify, it is all too possible to live a half-life as a Christian, bearing tenfold fruit when one hundredfold could be ours — if only we would stop to pull the thorns that block our way.

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates famously said. And we justly add that the unexamined soul will not go on living — or will limp instead of run.

How to Examine Yourself

How then might we examine ourselves without becoming imprisoned by introspection? How might we draw water from the soul’s well without falling in?

Healthy self-examination can take many forms, and what helps one soul may help another less. As with prayer and Bible reading and other spiritual disciplines, Scripture gives us principles but leaves plenty of room for personal application. Consider, then, some basic guidelines for self-examination and how you might make them your own.

1. Plan to examine yourself.

Often, self-examination becomes morbid when it turns from a spiritual practice to a spiritual atmosphere: a vague cloud of condemnation that follows you around, a crippling sense of self-consciousness.

Scripture never counsels such a constant inner gaze. The life of a saint is a self-forgetful, Godward, others-oriented life. “Love God” and “love neighbor” are the twin priorities of our days (Matthew 22:37–39); “examine yourself” is a practice meant to serve those greater loves. And strangely enough, one way we might reclaim healthy self-examination is by giving it a thoughtful, well-defined spot in our schedule. Instead of perpetually examining yourself, plan to examine yourself.

“Only the Searcher of hearts can expose our hearts; only God can make us known to us.”

Such a plan will include a specific when. Many saints across church history have benefited from a brief time of self-examination every evening, a few minutes when we can remember the day’s mercies and confess the day’s sins. But for growing in the practice of self-examination, especially for those prone to morbidity, I might suggest something a little longer but less frequent — say once a week (perhaps in place of a normal devotional time).

As important as the when is the what. Where will you focus your attention? For most of us, “examine yourself” offers too broad a charge. But “examine your prayer life,” “examine your friendships,” “examine your parenting,” “examine your relationship with money” — these we can get our hands around.

I find it helpful to think in two broad categories for self-examination: callings and concerns. By callings, I mean the areas of responsibility God has given you: disciple of Jesus, husband or wife, mother or father, church member, friend, neighbor, employee, and so on.

And by concerns, I mean those areas of your soul that call for careful attention. Say, for example, you feel a pang of envy on a Tuesday afternoon at work. You confess the pang but don’t have time in the moment, or perhaps even in the day, to plumb its depths, even though you sense it would be helpful to do so. Why did I feel that? Where did that come from? Having a plan for self-examination allows you to say, “I’m not sure, but I don’t need to figure that out now. I’ll return to it on Friday” — or whenever you have planned.

2. Let God’s word guide you.

So there you are on Friday morning (or whenever), with time set aside for self-examination. What might that time look like? We might take some cues from David’s prayer in Psalm 139:23–24:

Search me, O God, and know my heart!
     Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
     and lead me in the way everlasting!

David knows that only the Searcher of hearts can expose our hearts; only God can make us known to us. So, instead of diving into his own soul unaided, he asks God himself to search him.

Notice, however, that David doesn’t simply ask God to search him; he also places himself in the presence of this searching God. Most of Psalm 139 travels the depths of God, not self. David stands in awe of God’s all-knowing thoughts, God’s all-seeing eyes, God’s all-encompassing presence, God’s all-consuming righteousness. And then, in the context of this profound Godwardness, David says, “Search me.”

Psalm 139 (and the rest of Scripture) gives self-examination a decidedly asymmetrical focus: we see ourselves rightly only in relation to God. So, if you want to examine yourself well, follow David and place yourself in God’s presence. Practically, as you examine yourself, allow adoration to play just as significant a role as confession. And all along the way, treat God’s word as your best guide — the word given for our reproof and correction (2 Timothy 3:16), the only word that can discern the heart (Hebrews 4:12).

To that end, consider choosing a passage relevant to your present focus and using it like a pathway into the soul. If you want to examine your prayer life, linger over the Lord’s Prayer. If you want to examine your husbanding, look into the mirror of Ephesians 5:22–33. If you want to get beneath some persistent tug toward bitterness, walk slowly through Psalm 37 or 73. And as you do, ask God himself to search you.

3. Query your soul and confess your sins.

To sharpen our self-examination, we might look again to David’s prayer. As he asks God to search him, he doesn’t ask God to reveal everything about him. But he does ask to see “any grievous way in me” — any unknown or half-known sin, any deepening unbelief, any developing pattern that could keep him from following “the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:24).

Similarly, we don’t need to treat self-examination as an exhaustive enterprise. We cannot know everything about ourselves, or even everything about one part of ourselves. No matter how self-aware we become, we will die knowing ourselves, just as we know God, only “in part” (1 Corinthians 13:12). But we do want to see anything that needs our present attention — any poisonous bud that could open into grievous sin.

As we meditate on a passage, we may find help from asking questions like the following (drawn from page 148 of Tim Keller’s book Prayer):

  • Am I living in light of this?
  • What difference does this make?
  • If I believed and held to this, how would that change things?
  • When I forget this, how does that affect me and all my relationships?

If such questions reveal sins we have tolerated, habits we need to stop, subtle compromises that have grown over time, good — our self-examination is bearing fruit. An hour ago, something troubling lay hidden in the soul; now no longer. Now we can take it, place it before the Lord who knows us exhaustively yet loves us eternally, and say with David,

I acknowledged my sin to you,
     and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
     and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. (Psalm 32:5)

4. Forget about yourself.

Self-examination, like deep-sea diving, is a good but occasional exercise. God has not given us enough light or oxygen to swim always in the deeps; sun and air and land await us above. So, once you have queried your soul and confessed whatever sins you’ve seen, return to the surface.

“The end of self-examination is not self-consciousness, but Christ-consciousness.”

The prayer acronym A.C.T.S. puts thanksgiving after confession for good reason: in Christ, confession of sin is not a room but a doorway, not a wall but a path. God would not have us sit forever in some gloomy cellar of guilt; he would have us sing under the blue sky of his kindness and walk in the broad fields of his grace, his steadfast love our atmosphere (Psalm 32:10). So, if self-examination does not regularly lead us to a fuller, deeper, sweeter taste of God’s grace in Jesus, then somewhere self-examination has gone wrong.

The end of self-examination is not self-consciousness, but Christ-consciousness. Yes, we have scrutinized our souls for a time, but only so we might bring our sins to Christ and receive his strength to walk a better way. The last step of self-examination, then, is simply this: forget about yourself. Go love your God. Go love the people he has placed before you. Go walk in “the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:24).