Unhealthy introspection is a daily threat to our joy in Christ. Many of us tend to examine ourselves in a way that is excessive, inaccurate, and leads to discouragement.
I’m failing at everything. I don’t like the way God made me. The Lord is not helping me. My service is worthless. My gifting is useless. My growth is hopeless.
Self-examining spiritual depression speaks a thousand lies. The gospel speaks a better word.
When Self-Examination Is Evil
God calls us to examine ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5; Lamentations 3:40), but healthy self-examination is a difficult and dangerous duty. The flesh seizes self-examination as an opportunity to turn our thoughts against us. Introspection is deceptive because it often looks like we’re doing the right thing: we’re not indifferent to our sin — we want to seek it out! But when that introspection makes us self-absorbed instead of Christ-absorbed, we undermine our faith.
“Self-examining spiritual depression speaks a thousand lies. The gospel speaks a better word.”
As Charles Spurgeon once said, “Any practice that detracts from faith is an evil practice, but especially that kind of self-examination which would take us away from the cross-foot proceeds in a wrong direction.”
I am familiar with this evil — the self-examination that lessens faith and leads away from the foot of the cross.
I was once in a prayer meeting with a group of pastors, and I spent the entire meeting thinking about myself and assessing my contributions. And because that apparently wasn’t enough self-absorption for one day, I left the meeting and spent the rest of the afternoon continuing the self-reflection: considering whether I shared too much or too little, wondering what others thought of me, examining my motives, and especially hoping I didn’t pray anything dumb or heretical.
When It’s Dark, Open the Curtains
Thomas Chalmers, a Scottish church leader in the 19th century, knew that self-examination can be tiring and fruitless. He once compared self-examination to a dark room full of objects. We can’t see what is there because the room is pitch black. This darkness is the reason looking at ourselves is often so unfruitful.
How do we brighten the room? Not by straining our eyes or taking more time and effort to examine the darkness. We will never see ourselves clearly simply by focusing more intently on ourselves.
Instead, Chalmers says we must to go to the window and open the curtains. Let the light of Christ break into the darkness of your soul. The sunlight in Chalmers’s image is the truth of God’s word: “If we derive no good from the work of self-examination, because we find that all is confusion and mistiness within,” he says, “then let us go forth upon the truths which are without, and these will pour a flood of light into all the mazes and intricacies of the soul, and, at length, render that work easy, which before was impracticable.”
“We will never see ourselves clearly simply by focusing more intently on ourselves.”
If you are currently lost in the maze of introspective concerns, aware of the confusion and chaos within, and burdened by renegade self-reflection, the best thing you can do is soak in the sunshine of God’s truth.
Go to the word, hear the voice of the Lord, and experience the flood of divine light pouring into your mind with clarity and comfort. The sunlight of the gospel of grace provides the necessary atmosphere for healthy self-examination.
Soak in Gospel Sunlight
So, when we go to God’s word, what light does the gospel shed on the darkness of self-examination?
The gospel brings proportion to our examination.
As we learn to treasure Christ, we will spend far more time looking to Christ than to ourselves. We learn that we are not changed by beholding self, but by beholding Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18). Robert Murray M’Cheyne famously said, “For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.”
The gospel brings pardon to our examination.
God knows the worst about you and loves you still. “He does not deal with us according to our sins” (Psalm 103:10), and he promises that if we confess our sins, he will forgive us and cleanse us (1 John 1:9). Only when we are secure in the love of God for us in Christ are we empowered for self-examination that is humble, confident, and fruitful.
The gospel brings perception to our examination.
The most important things we need to know about ourselves are not found by looking inward, but by looking to Christ. In his death and resurrection, our identity comes into focus. We see how precious and honored we are in God’s sight, the seriousness of our sin, the glory of our new identity, and the future we have in Christ.
The gospel brings power to our examination.
“God knows the worst about you and loves you still.”
Grace transforms examination from a tyrant and a burden into a means of faith, love, and hope. Self-examination doesn’t have to be buckets of water thrown on the fires of our faith. Instead, it can be fuel. We can see where God is at work in us, and we can move forward with the confidence of knowing that he who began a good work in us will bring it to completion (Philippians 1:6).
Is the gospel informing your self-reflection? Always look up before looking in. Never leave the foot of the cross. Welcome the sunlight, and watch the darkness scatter.