Editors’ note: Every day we are becoming either more like Jesus or less like him. Spiritual formation is the name for that process by which Christians, in union with Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, become conformed both internally and externally to the character of Christ for the purpose of communion with God.

The closing of the year and the beginning of a new one is an opportune time to reflect on our spiritual formation and to develop habits to help us become more like Jesus. In this weekly series of articles we’ll consider eight spiritual habits to develop for 2017.

Habit 1: Assessing spiritual growth — Self-examination

Habit 2: Hearing from God — Seeing Jesus in Scripture

Habit 3: Speaking to God — Prayer

Habit 4: Engaging with God’s Word — Engaging Scripture

Habit 5: Communion with God — Worship

Habit 6: Conforming internally — Developing Wisdom

Habit 7: Conforming externally — Stewardship

Habit 8: Responding in obedience — Faithfulness

Each article will contain a brief explanation of why that habit is important, a practical application to incorporate it into your life, and a self-assessment that can be used throughout the year to gauge your progress.

Why Self-Examination Is Essential to Sanctification and Spiritual Formation

To illustrate how Israel had failed to measure up to his standard, God gives Amos a vision:

This is what he showed me: The Lord was standing by a wall that had been built true to plumb,[a] with a plumb line in his hand. And the LORD asked me, “What do you see, Amos?”

“A plumb line,” I replied.

Then the Lord said, “Look, I am setting a plumb line among my people Israel; I will spare them no longer. (Amos 7:7-8)

Since at least the time of ancient Egypt, plumb lines have been used to ensure that constructions are perfectly “plumb” or vertical. A plumb line consists of a small, heavy object attached to a string or rope. When held from the top of a construction, such as a building, it provides a way to see if the construction is straight.

God’s law was the plumb line, the perfect standard that the people were measured against. Since the time of Amos, though, we’ve been given another plumb line: Jesus Christ.

Christ is our standard of comparison for holiness, the objective of our sanctification. As Wayne Grudem explains, “Sanctification is a progressive work of God and man that makes us more and more free from sin and like Christ in our actual lives.” This is why self-examination is essential to the process of sanctification and spiritual growth: it shows us how we measure up to Jesus. 

Christian self-examination is not a form navel gazing. We are not to be self-absorbed and looking inward to see how we feel about ourselves or how we compare to other people. Instead, we are to look inward to see how we measure against the plumb line of Jesus. As Megan K. McNally says,

Self-examination should not be an introspective self obsession, but a humble, clear-minded assessment of ourselves through the gospel. It means looking to Scripture and see God’s commands as the Holy Spirit points out the sins we harbor that are contrary to the Truth.

We should regularly engage in the process of self-examination so that we grow in awareness about how we are measuring up against God’s perfect standard.

Practical Application: Asking Small Questions

Every day we are required to make thousands of decisions. Researchers at Cornell University found that people make an average of 226.7 decisions about food alone. The more power and responsibility that has been given to us the more complex, difficult, and numerous our decisions become.

King David, for example, was frequently required to make difficult decisions based on the requests that were made of him. Throughout the book of Samuel we find him using a simple technique that aided his decision-making: asking simple, clarifying questions. Time and again David asks small, simple questions such as, “What shall I do for you?” (2 Sam. 21:2) or “What do you want me to do for you?” (2 Sam. 21:4).

At first glance this practice may seem trivial. After all, who doesn't ask such questions? But when we look closer we see that David uses such simple questions to collect information for making complex decisions. As the American management expert W. Edwards Deming explained, “The ultimate purpose of taking data is to provide a basis for action or a recommendation.” Asking simple questions is often more fruitful in helping us collect the data and clarify our concerns than more complex questions.

Imagine, for example, that we feel compelled to change the direction of our spiritual lives. A broad, complex question to ask would be, “What change in my life does God want me to make so that I can better serve him?” A simpler question to ask might be, “What could I do this week to better serve God?”

The small question helps us to narrow our focus, in this case from the span of a lifetime to a single week. This frees our minds to think about small-scale solutions to our problem. We might decide, for instance, that the best way we could serve this week is to offer to babysit the children of a single mother in our church. This may point us to the larger change we seek to make, such as becoming a foster parent.

Self-Assessment on Self-Examination

Quote for reflection — “Right judgment reminds us that we ever fall short and are not ‘holier than thou.’ We also learn our strengths and the burdens we are best equipped to carry, enabling us to serve more effectively.” – R.C. Sproul

Definition — Self-examination is essential to the process of sanctification because it shows us how we measure up to Jesus. 

Meditate on the following passage: “Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come? Why should a living man complain, a man, about the punishment of his sins? Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the LORD!” (Lam. 3:37-40).

Evaluation — To possess such self-knowledge—to “know thyself”—has been considered by many spiritual writers to be necessary for attaining wisdom, humility, and spiritual freedom. We gain such knowledge by frequently reflecting on our actions and attitudes to measure how they conform to Christ. How do you feel about self-reflection? Do you find it easy to take an honest assessment of your virtues and flaws, or does it make you uncomfortable to measure your spiritual progress?

Drill-down questions

How much time per month do I spend in self-reflection?

What metrics do I find most useful for measuring my sanctification?

Am I making progress in my spiritual formation?

Do I frequently make excuses for my failure to be obedient and faithful to God’s commands?

Am I growing in faithfulness or stagnating by being too comfortable in my spiritual life?

What evidence do I find that I am “in Christ”?

Does my evaluation reveal that I see myself the way Jesus sees me?

Do I ever thank God that I am not as sinful as other people?

How am I measuring up compared to Jesus?

Key Takeaway: The Christian life requires frequent self-examination to ensure we are overcoming sin and growing in obedience.

Note: This article is adapted from Joe Carter’s new work, the NIV Lifehacks Bible: Practical Tools for Successful Spiritual Habits (Zondervan, 2016).