misunderstandings of spiritual self-examination

5 Gross Misunderstandings of Spiritual Self-Examination

In my last post, I tried to explain the deceitfulness of our own heart and how necessary and indispensable the spiritual discipline of self-examination is in the life of a believer. Also, I promised in this post to describe what self-examination is not so we do not deceive ourselves into thinking that we have engaged in it when in reality we have not.

1. Self-examination is not a spiritual to-do list.

It is not making a list of all the religious activities we think make us more spiritual and checking off the boxes at the end of the day feeling smug and self-satisfied that we have lived up to our own expectations. This is self-exaltation, not self-examination, and is a recipe for self-righteousness practiced by those who trust in themselves that they are righteous, and view with contempt those who don’t measure up to their standards. They pray to themselves and thank God they are not like other people (Luke 18:9-11).  They ignore the primary focus of self-examination — the thoughts and intentions of their heart.

2. Self-examination is not comparing ourselves with others.

Many think that if they maintain a higher morality and stricter sense of ethics than the culture at large then they are to be commended and praised. They think that if they take care to wrong no one, to be of a kind, generous spirit, honest in their dealings, clean in their language, moral in their behavior, then they have done more than others to pacify God.

If they practice random acts of kindness to those less fortunate than themselves, they see no reason why God should be angry with them, and if He is, surely they have done more than most to appease Him. Many think their religious activity is a measure of spirituality, and if they go on mission trips, hand out gospel tracts, are busy at church, volunteer in a homeless shelter, or other humanitarian and benevolent activities, they are much more spiritual than those who do not. Their shirt is covered with spiritual merit badges for all to see, their good works are a testimony to their spiritual superiority, and they see no reason why God should not be as pleased with them as they are with themselves.

But in making their comparison, they deceive themselves because their comparison is flawed. They forget that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and that all our righteousness is as filthy rags. It is illogical for a fallen creature to measure their morality, ethics, spirituality, or goodness against an equally fallen creature. It is like one manure pile boasting that it smells less than another manure pile. There is nothing virtuous in being a little better than the worst. There is no moral superiority in being less bad than the baddest.

Not only is the comparison as a whole self-deceptive, but there is much self-deception involved in making the comparison. Nothing is more common than for people to speak of the faults in others when they have the same faults in themselves. Proud people are very prone to accuse others of pride. Dishonest people often complain of being wronged by others. Gossips resent it when they are the focus of other’s gossip. What politician does not accuse another of playing fast and loose with the truth and misrepresenting the facts?

When a person observes odious and offensive dispositions and behaviors in others, he is not under the same delusions as when he sees these same dispositions and behaviors in himself.  He can see how hateful pride is in others as with envy, discontentment, malice, greed, dishonesty and all sorts of other evil dispositions and practices. “You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God” (Romans 2:22, 23)?

He can plainly see other’s defects because he does not look through the same lenses when he looks at himself. He is quick to excuse, minimize, and forgive his own defects while at the same time exaggerating the defects of others so as to make his own appear less repugnant.

3. Self-examination is not selective.

Some think that being better than average in one area compensates for their deficiency in others. Some flatter themselves that being above average in moral purity will compensate for the choices they make in entertainment; that because they do not engage in some behaviors they are free to participate in others. Because they are strict with Bible reading and prayer they can cut corners when it comes to leading a holy life.

They schizophrenically compartmentalize their life into secular and religious realms thinking one is not to influence the other, that their devotion in the religious realm will compensate for a lack of holiness in their secular realm, or that giving generously to ministry compensates for greedy and questionable business practices. They think because they honor God with their mouth this more than compensates for their compromises with sin when it comes to their actions.

4. Self-examination is not based on intentions or emotions.

Some compliment themselves that because they intended to do certain things they have actually done them. They think God is pleased with the sincerity of their intentions, and the more sincere the intention the more God is pleased. They intend to spend more time reading and studying Scripture. They intend to rise earlier to pray. They intend to give more to the Lord’s work. They intend to reform their life. They intend to follow Jesus wholeheartedly. They intend, and intend, and intend, and in so doing they flatter themselves that one day they will.

They never stop to consider that none of their intentions have ever come to fruition. Hell is full of good intenders who never proved to be good practitioners.

5. Self-examination does not rationalize and justify sin.

  • Self-examination does not blame sin on circumstances or on the actions of other people.
  • Self-examination does not excuse sin as a personality quirk. It does not minimize sin just because it has become culturally acceptable, as has divorce, profanity, promiscuity, immorality, and immodesty.
  • Self-examination does not redefine sin as a disease or disorder, as has been done with drunkenness, immorality, disobedience, and covetousness.
  • Self-examination does not turn sin into a virtue or make the sinner a victim of his own sin. No one will ever repent of a sin that has been legitimized, because once sin has been legitimized, those engaging in it will never again tolerate it being labeled as sin. “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed” (John 3:20).

People often deceive themselves by one or more of these ways into thinking they have examined themselves when in reality they have not. That is because none of these counterfeits examines the source of sin — the fallen and deceptive human heart. They all make the fatal human flaw of focusing on the external rather than the internal. They are all oriented toward performance and not motivation. Sadly, the same thinking dominates most of the professing church today.

People derive their ideas of Christianity not from the Bible, but from how others have defined Christianity. As a result the word “Christian” has virtually lost all meaning.

In a chapel address delivered in 1916 to students at Princeton Theological Seminary, the great Princeton theologian B.B. Warfield once remarked,

How many worthy words have already died under our very eyes, because we did not take care of them!….If you persist in calling people who are not gentlemen by the name of gentleman, you do not make them gentlemen by so calling them, but you end up making the word gentleman mean that kind of people….Does the word “Christianity” any longer bear any definite meaning? Men are debating on all sides of us what Christianity really is….People set upon calling unchristian things Christian are simply washing all meaning out of the name.

If everything that is called Christianity in these days is Christianity, then there is no such thing as Christianity. A name applied indiscriminately to everything, designates nothing….But the dying of the words is not the saddest thing which we see here. The saddest thing is the dying out of the hearts of men of the things for which the words stand. (The Works of B.B. Warfield, Baker, 1981, Vol. 2, 395-397)

Concluding Thoughts…

It is a malignant flaw of human nature to consistently base the value and quality of things on their external appearances. The prophet Samuel looked at the outside when sent by God to anoint a new king over Israel (1 Sm 16:7). To men, the Pharisees appeared righteous, but they were in reality full of dead men’s bones (Mt 23:27, 28).

The Corinthians disparaged and maligned Paul’s ministry because they judged it by worldly standards of success and achievement. Paul freely admitted his oratory skills were not as polished as those of the false teachers, and that compared to them he had a low entertainment value (2 Cor 11:6). But Paul did not come to Corinth to entertain. The Corinthians “looked at things as they are outwardly” (2 Cor 10:7).  David prayed, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me.”

David’s plea focuses entirely on the heart, on the internal character, not the external performance. The heart, not behavior, is the object of true self-examination. Behavior is important only in that it is an indication of what fills the heart.

This is the reason why in our superficial culture which is fixated on appearance and success, genuine self-examination is so neglected today and why it is absolutely necessary. And it is necessary for at least five reasons, reasons which we will begin to explore in my next post.

The Glory of God changes everything


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