lost discipline of self-examination

The Lost Discipline of Self-Examination

When a person is brought to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ by the grace of God, the Holy Spirit immediately implants new desires into their heart and mind (Philippians 2:13; Ezra 1:5; 1 Kings 8:58). Where once indifference, apathy, and enmity to the things of God were dominate principles of their heart and mind, now there is a growing desire to please and honor Him, simply for the sake of who He is.

Where once the pursuit of self-gratification characterized our life, now self-denial and self-sacrifice become the dominate characteristics. The enmity which characterizes the natural man’s attitude toward God is replaced by a reverent, loving, and grateful disposition toward God that manifests itself in a desire for obedience to His revealed will.

The various ways Christians go about implementing these new Spirit-given desires are often referred to as spiritual disciplines. These disciplines include prayer, a pursuit of true knowledge and understanding of Scripture, mortifying sin in our life, fellowship with other Christians, and various other disciplines prescribed in Scripture.  These disciplines help us grow in Christlikeness.

The Most Essential Spiritual Discipline

Of all the spiritual disciplines prescribed in Scripture, one of the most essential for genuine spiritual growth and maturity is also one of the most neglected and ignored by many professing Christians today.  That is the spiritual discipline of self-examination. What is even worse is that many people within modern Christianity actually disparage self-examination as dangerous to one’s spiritual health.

The trend today is to teach people that once they have “accepted Jesus” into their life they have done all that is necessary for salvation. Their place in heaven is secure and they should never doubt their salvation, nor should they allow anyone to ever question their salvation. However, this course of thinking is spiritually toxic, and has produced scores of people who are living under the self-deception that they are truly converted despite the absence of any tangible evidence of a transformed life. These people are told to place their trust for assurance of salvation in their own self-assessment, personal opinion, and subjective experience.

Any positive response to the gospel or any interest in religion is accepted as evidence of genuine conversion.  Typically this disdain for self-examination is the product of a numbers driven model of ministry. A model more interested in generating impressive statistics that garner the attention of the world than in a concern for the spiritual welfare of eternal souls. This offspring of spiritual pride desires to make a good showing in the flesh and boast in the flesh of others (Gal 6:12, 13).

David’s Heartfelt Plea

Few people in the Bible were more sensitive to their own spiritual weaknesses and less self-confident of their own opinion of themselves than King David. In Psalm 139:23, 24 David cried out, “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, and lead me in the everlasting way.”

There are three things we should notice about David’s heartfelt plea.

First, David’s request is not for God’s benefit nor that God might search him for His own information. In the first six verses of this psalm David has already acknowledged God’s exhaustive knowledge of himself, “You scrutinize my path and my lying down, and are intimately acquainted with all my ways” (v.3). David is asking for his own benefit; that he might see beyond his own self-deception and opinion of himself and see himself as God sees him.

Second, David desires to know if there is any “hurtful” way in him. The word “hurtful” is also translated “wicked” and literally means to cause pain. The same word is used in Psalm 78:41 concerning Israel’s rebellion against God, “How often they rebelled against Him in the wilderness, and grieved Him in the desert.” As a man after God’s own heart, David desired to avoid any wicked attitudes and behaviors that were inconsistent with his profession of faith and would bring dishonor and grief to God.

Third, the result for which David desired God”s search of him was an eternal goal – to be led in the “everlasting way”.  He did not desire the most expedient or pragmatic way; or the way he thought was right or that agreed with his personal agenda; or the way in which he might have the least trouble , discomfort or interruption of his lifestyle; but the way that would stand the test of time.

David was not interested in how others perceived him, or even in his own estimation of himself. The only approval that counted was God’s. It is obvious that David did not trust in his own opinion of himself, much less in any single event that had occurred in his life, to know whether or not he was in a right relationship with God. He was still afraid that there might be some sinful way in his life which he secretly harbored or had escaped his own notice.

Corinth and the Sermon on the Mount

This same danger threatened the church in Corinth, although the church there did not seem to be as sensitive to their spiritual deficiencies as David was to his. Some people in the church in Corinth were so spiritually lethargic to the Apostle Paul’s repeated admonitions, or even openly disobedient to him, that he warned them to: “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you – unless indeed you fail the test” (2 Corinthians 13:5)?

Toward the end of His Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) Jesus warned that many who imagine themselves to be saved, will one day experience the dreadful discovery that they have been horribly self-deceived. “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven…Many will say to Me on that day, ’Lord, Lord, did we not prophecy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matthew 7:21-23).

Concluding Thoughts

It should be obvious, just from this brief survey, that self-examination is a vitally indispensable discipline for all who profess to be true Christians. Self-deception is a powerful characteristic of all humanity.

Christians as well as non-Christians are susceptible to the deceptions of their own hearts. If there is one thing in which most people are woefully deficient, it is a knowledge of their own wicked heart.

The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it” (Jeremiah 17:9)? Notice that Jeremiah said our heart is more deceitful, than all else. This means it is more deceitful than the temptations of the world, the philosophical arguments of unbelievers; and the teachings of false religions.  It is even more deceitful than Satan himself. Only God can see into the recesses of the human heart; it is beyond human understanding.

Any assurance of salvation that is based solely on a person’s own self-assessment, personal opinion, or singular spiritual experience is indeed a tenuous and potentially false sense of assurance. We are too susceptible to the deceitfulness of our own heart and the trickery of Satan to place any confidence in our own assessment of our spiritual health.

Proverbs 28:26 states, “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool.” Yet today people are often advised to do this very thing – to trust in the leadings of their own heart and mind. “Follow your heart” is the mantra of modern society. But there is nothing of which we should be more suspicious than our own heart.  If we could see our hearts as God sees them, we would think that no fate could be too bad for us (Lamentations 3:39).

When the prophet Isaiah was granted a glimpse of God’s holiness and majesty, he saw himself for the person he truly was.  He cried out, “Woe is me, for I am ruined!” (Isaiah 6:5). Paul told the Christians in Rome, “I say to every man among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think:” (Romans 12:3). But this is the insidious and deceitful nature of pride. Nobody thinks they think of themselves too highly because they believe the opinion they have of themselves.

If they didn’t believe their own opinion of themselves they would abandon it. But it is precisely because they do believe it that they think more highly than they ought. In light of Scripture’s warnings, the necessity of self-examination should be abundantly clear. Given our propensity for self-deception, it is essential we know what self-examination is not so that we do not deceive ourselves into thinking we have engaged in it, when in reality we have not. This is what I shall do, Lord willing, in my next post.

The Glory of God changes everything


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