There’s a fine line between self-examination and introspection.
Self-examination is good. Scripture exhorts us to examine and test ourselves (2 Cor. 13:5). So how might this important spiritual discipline take a turn for the worse? Martyn Lloyd-Jones explains:
What’s the difference between examining oneself and becoming introspective? I suggest that we cross the line from self-examination to introspection when, in a sense, we do nothing but examine ourselves, and when such self-examination becomes the main and chief end in our life.
Though self-examination can be rewarding for Christian growth, I’ve often crossed the line—and learned how detrimental introspection can be. It’s unprofitable because it’s an end in itself; it leaves us navel-gazing and discouraged. I’ve hung my head many times in its defeat. Nevertheless, we can look to God’s Word and see how self-examination, rightly deployed, is healthy and effective.
A look at Psalm 139 will help us grasp the power of self-examination as a tool in God’s hands for our growth.
Know You’re Known
O LORD, you have searched me and known me! . . . Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it. (vv. 1, 6)
Here David exults in the all-knowing, all-seeing Lord of all creation. No corner of God’s human design—our bodies, minds, or hearts—exists outside his intimate knowledge. What a comfort that God knows us perfectly!
God’s searching ministry is accomplished by his Spirit. We don’t examine ourselves by our own wisdom and knowledge but by his revealing work. We can pray: Almighty God, you know every corner of my being, far more than I could ever know. By your Spirit, give me eyes to see what’s going on in my heart and mind. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, but not for you. Search me and know me, God.
Self-examination isn’t ultimately empowered by us, but by the One who made us—and we can trust him to use what he reveals for our good.
Think on Truth
Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well . . . . How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you. (vv. 14b, 17–18)
Morbid introspection leads us to obsessing about ourselves, but self-examination turns our thoughts toward God: his character, his works, his promises, his thoughts toward us. Rather than just listening to ourselves, as introspection promotes, we talk to ourselves. We remind our souls what is true of God and his wonderful works.
Lloyd-Jones is again helpful here:
The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. . . . And then you must go on to remind yourself of God—who God is, and what God has done, and what God has pledged himself to do.
Why is this truth-talk so important? Because we’re so easily deceived by lies. Because our feelings are unreliable. Because our sin threatens to overwhelm us. Because our hearts threaten to deceive us.
Nothing pushes me to cross the line from self-examination to introspection like believing untruths about God and myself. But when I take up God’s Word, meditate on it, and preach it to my heart, I’m freed from the trap of introspection and pointed to the only One who can deliver me.
Look to Jesus
Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! O men of blood, depart from me! . . . Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! (vv. 17, 23–24)
As David ponders God’s just judgment on his enemies, he desires to be separate from them and their evil deeds. We too have a real enemy who is seeking someone to devour—and if we aren’t careful, he’ll twist our good intentions, push us into introspection, and lead us to discouragement and defeat. He’ll tell us to trust our hearts, rather than suspect them.
The Enemy’s goal is to get us stuck looking at ourselves—our flaws, our failures, our fears—when we actually need to look away from ourselves to Jesus. This is why we need the Savior! Yes, we should mourn our sin, and feel the depths of our rebellion against a holy God—that is good and right. But Satan wants that to be the end. Thankfully, it’s not the end for those united by faith to the Advocate, the righteous one.
So beware of introspection, because it only leads to despair. But embrace self-examination, because it leads to Christ.