Looking to Jesus is the best and surest way to become more like him. It is, therefore, a serious mistake to think that we grow in the Christian life by focusing on our sins and struggles. A biblical approach to transformation is not fundamentally introspective and self-focused, but Christ-ospective and gospel-focused.
Many of us tend to be self-reflective to a fault. Self-examination is vital, but it can quickly lead to morbid introspection. Too often, we end up taking an approach to spiritual growth that turns us inward, reinforcing our natural self-absorption and exacerbating our problems.
Help and change will not come ultimately from looking inward. Self-discovery pales in comparison to the power of Christ-discovery.
“The Spirit’s goal in showing us our sin is to drive us to Christ and the sufficiency of his grace.”
There’s an insightful sentence on introspection in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel, The Scarlet Letter. Arthur Dimmesdale is a pastor who secretly committed adultery. Rather than humbling himself in confession and turning to Christ for mercy and help, Dimmesdale tragically turns inward.
Persistent guilt, fasting, self-mutilation, and sorrow cannot heal him. The minister soon loses his mind, destroys his health, and ruins his soul through the torment of endless self-reflection. Hawthorne writes, “He thus typified the constant introspection wherewith he tortured, but could not purify, himself.”
There is a kind of introspection that will only torture and is powerless to purify us.
Better Than Self-Searching
This is why Charles Spurgeon warned against spending too much time looking inward. He noticed that hyper-introspection “breeds morbid emotions and creates despair.”
Spurgeon said that trying to make spiritual progress through excessive introspection is like a store owner who closes his shop because he is worried he is not selling enough. The store owner goes into the backroom and spends all his time taking inventory of things he hasn’t sold.
That’s an accurate picture of what we often do when we introspect. We try to escape anxiety by analyzing our soul to measure how much peace we are currently experiencing. We attempt to treat shame and feelings of worthlessness by turning inward to examine our self-worth. We battle persistent guilt by meditating on our many sins.
“It is not much use if we are experts in identifying sin, only to be novices in applying grace.”
We fail to recognize that certain sins and struggles gain their power by fixing our attention entirely upon themselves.
There is a better way to grow in grace. Praise God, something better than self-help, self-searching, self-discovery, and self-actualization is here. Spurgeon gives wise and liberating counsel to overly-introspective souls when he says, “Forget yourself and think only of Christ.”
Where Grace Comes From
The puritan Thomas Hooker observed that one of Satan’s strategies for keeping us in sin is to lead us to dwell excessively on our sin. He says the devil’s lie is that the more we focus on our sin, the more we will be free from it. Satan keeps us in our sin by turning us inward, but the gospel frees us from sin by turning us outward.
John Newton says, “It is better for you and me to be admiring the compassion and fullness of grace that is in our Savior, than to dwell and pore too much upon our own poverty and vileness.” The Spirit’s goal in showing us our sin is to drive us to Christ and the sufficiency of his grace. It is not much use if we are experts in identifying sin, only to be novices in applying grace.
“Do not be always pouring down over the imperfections of your own heart, and dissecting your own besetting sins,” writes J.C. Ryle. “Look up. Look more to your risen Head in heaven, and try to realize more than you do that the Lord Jesus not only died for you, but that He also rose again, and that He is ever living at God’s right hand as your Priest, your Advocate, and your Almighty friend.”
Happy Souls, Holy Souls
In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he celebrates the transforming power of beholding the glory of Christ: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Hebrews 12:1–3 says that we are to run the Christian race looking to Jesus and considering him. The essence of the Christian life is treasuring Jesus Christ: “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8). And one day, when Christ appears, “we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
“Change will not come ultimately from looking inward. Self-discovery pales in comparison to Christ-discovery.”
The transformation has begun. Look up and be changed! No more endless dissection of besetting sins. Instead, behold the Lamb of God, who takes away your sin (John 1:29). Behold the one who has irrevocably united you to himself, the Son of God who loved you and gave himself for you (Galatians 2:20), and now lives forever to intercede for you (Romans 8:34).
Looking to Christ is not only a sight that brings rejoicing; it is also a sight that brings renewal. Seeing his glory not only makes our souls happy; it makes our souls holy. We are not changed by beholding self, but by beholding Christ our Savior.