As many of you know, Together for the Gospel 2018 begins today, Wednesday, and runs to Friday, April 11–13. The conference is sold out, and I think that means over 12,500 people have registered. Wow.
Pastor John, you’re about to get on a jet from Minneapolis to get to Louisville, where you’re scheduled to once again cap off the conference with the final plenary session Friday afternoon — a message I really look forward to hearing. Here’s the title: “New God, New Gospel, New Gladness: How is Christian Joy Distinct?” I got a preview in a recent meeting. Wow. I’ll never view Psalm 4:7 in the same way! More on that later. But before you leave, here’s our next question.
How do we know if we’re given to too little introspection, or to too much introspection? How do we find the right balance between self-examination neglected and self-examination made toxic? It’s another really good question from a listener to the podcast. His name is Nolan.
“Dear Pastor John, I earnestly desire to take the Bible seriously when it talks about evaluating yourself. But I often find myself encountering unhealthy introspection into the sin in my life and my failure to overcome it. On many days, it has led to despondency and discouragement, making it a challenge to believe the truth I try to preach to myself. What are some strategies you use to evaluate yourself, while at the same time not going overboard to the point of paralysis and discouragement?”
Such a good question. It’s so relevant for so many people. I’ve wrestled, not only myself, but with people after services in prayer about this kind of doubting of ourselves because of introspective failure. I’ve had this come up with as much frequency as any other thing I’ve had to deal with.
“Paul wants us to have enough self-knowledge to enjoy the assurance of our salvation through faith in Jesus.”
So the first thing I want to say to Nolan is don’t give up in your fight for faith and in your fight against paralyzing introspection. I have known people who, because of these kinds of inner conflicts, simply throw in the towel on Christianity and walk away from Christ and give themselves to whatever kind of heart-numbing habits they can find.
I’m pleading with you, Nolan, and others like you, that you not do this. That you be willing to struggle with this, if necessary, all the way to the grave.
Don’t throw in the towel on Christian faith. Not only do you not know what wonderful and surprising breakthroughs the Lord may have for you ten years from now after a long struggle, but you will find on the other side of the grave how short life was and how wonderfully worth it, in this life, it was to hold fast to Jesus in all the struggle while he was holding fast to you.
But you asked for strategies for avoiding paralyzing introspection, so here are two or three passages from the Scriptures and a couple of thoughts.
A Biblical Balance
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:3–5,
With me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself [in other words, generally I have a clear conscience], but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.
When Paul said, “I do not even judge myself,” he didn’t mean he never examines himself. Because he says in 2 Corinthians 13:5, “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? — unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” Paul wants us to have enough self-knowledge so that we can enjoy the assurance of our salvation through faith in Jesus.
So let’s meditate on those two passages, letting 2 Corinthians 13:5 protect us from a cavalier failure to do any serious self-examination and letting 1 Corinthians 4:3 protect us from devastating self-judgment and self-condemnation, which belong only to God.
Here’s another passage that has been so helpful to me: Romans 7:21–8:1. On the one hand, this text is heartbreaking, and on the other hand, hope giving. Paul says,
I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
“In the end, when all introspection is over, our confidence that we’re children of God is a gift of the Spirit.”
I know there is a big dispute about how to interpret Romans 7. But I’m giving you my interpretation. You judge for yourself.
It seems to me that Paul is showing us that Christians walk through Romans-7 seasons in which we feel the overbearing power of remaining indwelling sin that makes us cry out, “Oh, wretched man that I am!” But we can cry out without losing the sure reality that victory has been decisively given, thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ.
It has been decisively given, and it will someday be fully experienced, through Jesus Christ our Lord, so that we can say, “Therefore” — in spite of all this struggle in Romans 7 — “therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
I think it is a great help when we diagnose ourselves the way Paul does. It helps to have categories in our minds from Romans 7 that help us to understand the nature of our struggle.
The Gift of the Spirit
The last thing I would do is draw Nolan’s attention to Romans 8:14–17:
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
Now, I think Paul is saying that, in the end, when all introspection is over, the confidence that we are the children of God is a gift of the Holy Spirit. You can’t make it happen merely through rational introspection. It is a gift.
“Hate your sin. Make war on specific sins by the power of the Holy Spirit, and constantly look away from yourself.”
But he does not just leave us hanging at that. He gives the ordinary pathway along which the Spirit gives this confidence. He says, “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.”
The “being led” that he has in mind in this context is not like being led to be a missionary or to marry this woman or live in this location. No, no, no, no — none of that at all. The “being led” he has in mind in this context is, number one, being led by the Spirit into warfare with sin. He who puts the death the deeds of the body will live (Romans 8:13). It means being led by the Spirit into warfare with sin.
Secondly, it’s being led by the Spirit into the humble and dependent cry, like a little child, “Abba, Father.”
So, Nolan, hate your sin. Make war on specific sins by the power of the Holy Spirit, and constantly look away from yourself to your Father in heaven and to Jesus Christ, whose death and resurrection make it possible to call him not only a just judge but an all-caring Father.