3am. Startled awake. Can’t sleep. Wide awake.
Random pain didn’t wake me up. It wasn’t a rock thrown through our window (although that definitely happened a couple weeks ago). It wasn’t a storm raging outside.
A question had triggered a storm inside – Am I doing a good job?
Have you ever been there? Wide awake, questioning a decision, a conversation, your actions, your inactions, your competency? Rather than dreaming of sugarcanes and smiling faces, you’re dreaming of a court room. You re-examine every single thought, emotion and task.
Self-examination is tricky. On the one hand, the Bible tells us to examine ourselves before pointing out other’s sin (Mt 7:5), to examine ourselves before taking communion (1 Cor 11:27-31), to examine all our ways in light of God’s sovereignty (Lam 3:37-40), to examine the consequences of our foolish ways (Job 13:23; Lk 15:17-19), to examine our work rather than comparing it to others (Gal 6:4) and even to examine our salvation (2 Cor 13:5).
The Apostle Paul also regularly examined his ministry for fear of running in vain (1 Cor 15:10; Gal 2:2; Gal 4:11; Phil 2:16; 1 Thess 3:5). Self-examination is necessary and good.
Yet, on the other hand, self-examination can become unhelpful, self-centered and toxic. Rather than trusting the Lord, you can find yourself up all night torturing yourself over your failures, mistakes, and even your victories, thinking they should have been better.
For church planters, starting a church can be a breeding ground for morbid introspection, doubts and ulcers.
We all know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus builds his church (Mt 16:18), yet the temptation is to think that just one more hour of strategic planning, one more meeting, or one more prayer walk is going to be the difference between the life and death of our church plants.
When you’re caught like a hooked fish in unbiblical self-examination and your thoughts are thrashing around, how do you move from toxic, torturous self-examination to trustworthy, truthful self-examination? Here are three suggestions:
Invite the Holy Spirit into the conversation
I can’t communicate how many nights I’ve stared at the ceiling with my mind running a hundred miles an hour, only to think after that hour, I should pray. Holy Spirit, what are you trying to show me?
We spend so much energy trying to fix our lives that we often neglect the simplicity of prayer. The Spirit of God is our comforter when we’re driven by guilt, shame or fear (Jn 14:16). He convicts us when we’re too flippant about our sin (Jn 16:8-11), He always points us to Christ (vs.13-14), He reveals truth that was once hidden (1 Cor 2:8-13), and He prays for us when we don’t know what to pray (Rom 8:26).
That’s the kind of person I want to help me examine my life. Many a night, He’s revealed crucial areas for growth and helped my mind stop racing to embrace sleep.
Invite trusted friends into the conversation
You are the object of your self-examination, but self-examination is not a solo venture. Sin and its effects make it too difficult to see ourselves clearly. We are either too hard on ourselves, or we think too highly of ourselves.
You and I need trusted friends who know us well enough to enter into our self-examination, “…speaking the truth in love” (Eph 4:15). We need to invite others into our inner dialogue, and then be prepared to receive the truth.
These friends may confirm our weaknesses, limitations or sin. They may tell us our conclusions about ourselves are true. Or these friends may affirm the grace of God in our lives. They may help us see that our conclusions about ourselves are lies from the enemy to discourage and destroy.
In both cases, we need to be prepared to celebrate our wins and mourn our losses. In the wins, we cling to grace, remembering that “by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor 15:10). And in the losses, we cling to grace, remembering that “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10).
Grace surrounds us and gives us the freedom to try and fail without condemnation, as well as try and succeed without pride. Trusted friends help us move from toxic to trustworthy self-examination by helping us discern the truth of our own examination and the truth of God’s grace in our wins and losses.
Invite Christ crucified into the conversation
Here’s my obligatory, famous guy quote for this article:
“For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.” – Robert Murray McCheyne
You’ve most likely heard this famous quote before, but I wonder if we misunderstand it. I wonder if we interpret this quote to say something like, “Focus on Christ to the extent that you forget about yourself.”
Now, self-forgetfulness is a wonderful thing, but Biblically speaking we never fully forget ourselves. When people truly encounter Jesus, only then do they fully understand themselves (Isa 6:1-5; Lk 5:1-8).
Even when Paul challenged the Corinthian church to examine their salvation, do you remember where their examination ended?
“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? – 2 Corinthians 13:5
Biblical self-examination always ends with either a re-affirmation of our union with Christ or an affirmation that we are not united with Christ.
Self-examination becomes toxic when we take Christ out of the picture and fill it up with us – our performance, our skills, our failures, our wisdom, our lack of wisdom, etc. This doesn’t mean that we take the “self” out of self-examination; it means we need to distinguish between our old and new self.
As Christians, when we invite Christ crucified into the conversation about how we’re doing, we look away from our performance and to the cross. There we see that Christ is our substitute. We see our old self with his failures, weaknesses, sins and limits swallowed up in the death of Christ.
We, also, see Christ crucified resurrected. Because He’s alive, we’re alive! We see our new self in Him, purchased by His blood to make us new creations (2 Cor 5:17). We forget about and die to our old selves, and we discover in Christ our new selves — covered by grace and given gifts for the sake of the body (Eph 4:7-8). He is the head; we are the body. You can’t separate the two (Eph 5:23; Col 1:18).
Discovering our new selves in Christ doesn’t lead us to pride or self-centeredness; it leads us to humble gratitude and Christ-centeredness.
How are you doing?
So, how’s it going? Are you so hard on yourself that your nightly routine is to rewind and replay every conversation from your day? Are you so consumed by thoughts of your performance that there’s no room for Christ’s perfect work? Do you beat yourself up and live in a constant state of toxic, torturous self-examination? Or are you so afraid that you never examine yourself? Does your pride keep you from examining yourself?
The good news of the gospel for all us masochists and posers is that Jesus was crucified.
As masochists, you don’t have to crucify yourself again and again through torturous self-examination, because Jesus was tortured for you. You don’t have to be perfect, because His grace perfects you.
As posers, you can come clean because Jesus knows you better than you know yourself and He still died for you. You can face the music because His grace makes you safe.
Because of Jesus, you don’t have to view self-examination as a bad thing. You can view it as an opportunity to celebrate God’s grace and to take steps toward growth in your giftedness.
Let’s finish McCheyne’s quote from earlier and see that biblical self-examination leads us to the grace and love of God in Christ:
“For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ. He is altogether lovely. Such infinite majesty, and yet such meekness and grace, and all for sinners, even the chief! Live much in the smiles of God. Bask in his beams. Feel his all-seeing eye settled on you in love, and repose in his almighty arms.”