November 22, 2017

Another Look: Examine Yourself?

Woman throwing a stone, Picasso

Woman throwing a stone, Picasso

A man named Andrew contributed a short story on theopenend.com about hypochondria. In it, he wrote:

Today I have lymphoma. Yesterday was bowel cancer. I curiously palpate my underarms, searching for that slippery lump, stealthily hiding from my grasp. I check again, and again. I then move up to my neck, again massaging for lumps. My temperature is high. The low-reading thermometer is lying. It is frustratingly difficult to explain to someone the affliction that is hypochondria and the terror one experiences with this condition. It is not an obsession, it is the solid, unwavering belief of illness which is not abated, soothed or remedied by reason. Logic is irrelevant and I often describe the illness as an “inhibition of reason” whereby the sufferer is capable of seeing and understanding reason but is unable to truly believe said reason. Bouts of hypochondria last for days, weeks or months, sporadically disappearing and resurfacing. Sometimes I beg for the uncertainty to be removed, sometimes I yearn for the very condition I fear to take its place inside me, to wreak its ungodly havoc on me.

There are theological teachings and pastoral approaches that encourage spiritual hypochondria. Always admonishing believers to “examine themselves,” Christian leaders who teach this way are in danger of creating congregations filled with people who live under an unrelenting spirit of fear and insecurity, constantly checking their pulses, taking their temperatures, and gazing into the mirror, interpreting every irregularity as the sign of a serious, perhaps fatal disease.

I don’t believe the Bible calls us to examine ourselves like this. It calls us to keep our eyes on Christ.

The passage that seems to call Christians to self-examination is 2Corinthians 13:1-10

This is the third time I am coming to you — EVERY FACT IS TO BE CONFIRMED BY THE TESTIMONY OF TWO OR THREE WITNESSES.

I have previously said when present the second time, and though now absent I say in advance to those who have sinned in the past and to all the rest as well, that if I come again I will not spare anyone,

since you are seeking for proof of the Christ who speaks in me, and who is not weak toward you, but mighty in you.

For indeed He was crucified because of weakness, yet He lives because of the power of God For we also are weak in Him, yet we will live with Him because of the power of God directed toward you.

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?

But I trust that you will realize that we ourselves do not fail the test.

Now we pray to God that you do no wrong; not that we ourselves may appear approved, but that you may do what is right, even though we may appear unapproved.

For we can do nothing against the truth, but only for the truth.

For we rejoice when we ourselves are weak but you are strong; this we also pray for, that you be made complete.

For this reason I am writing these things while absent, so that when present I need not use severity, in accordance with the authority which the Lord gave me for building up and not for tearing down.

Context means everything when trying to understand this passage. Linda L. Belleville describes the situation in Corinth that Paul was addressing in this letter:

It was at Corinth that [Paul] encountered his most formidable pastoral challenge in the form of traveling Jewish Christian preachers who not only invaded his territory but also claimed credit for his work, stressed sensationalism and challenged his credentials and his authority.

…Paul calls these preachers “false apostles” and “deceitful workman” who were “masquerading as servants of righteousness” when in fact they were servants of Satan (2Cor 11:13-15). They were preaching another Jesus, Spirit and gospel (11:4), and their intention was to lead people astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ (11:3…).

Chapters 10-13 of this letter directly address this situation. And now, here in ch. 13, Paul comes to his conclusion. Note this carefully — he is preparing to visit Corinth, to meet with a church that has been influenced by counterfeit teachers who have been trying to get the congregation to disown Paul and his teaching. Paul taught a “weak” servant Christ; the false teachers taught a “mighty,” sensationalistic Christ. Verse 3 says that Paul is coming to prove himself and his doctrine to them, because they are, “seeking for proof of the Christ who speaks in me.” The issue at hand is this: Is Paul a genuine apostle who preaches the true Christ?

In that light, he tells them: 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?” And then note the all-important statement that follows: “But I trust that you will realize that we ourselves do not fail the test.”

  • Why does Paul tell them to examine themselves?
  • Because he wants them to see that Christ is indeed among them because of Paul’s preaching.
  • This, therefore, will prove that Paul is a genuine apostle, and that the other teachers are false.

So then, the Corinthians are to examine themselves to prove Paul’s authenticity. He is not advocating here a regular spiritual discipline of checking myself out to see if I am a genuine Christian. He is writing to a church that he addressed in ch. 1 with these words:

Now He who establishes us with you in Christ and anointed us is God, who also sealed us and gave us the Spirit in our hearts as a pledge. But I call God as witness to my soul, that to spare you I did not come again to Corinth. Not that we lord it over your faith, but are workers with you for your joy; for in your faith you are standing firm. (1:19-22)

Paul is confident that this congregation is in Christ. What is at stake is his relationship with them, and their ongoing acceptance of his gospel. What is at stake is their recognition of Paul as the genuine apostle. They have been listening to other voices who are threatening to lead them astray, away from Paul’s teaching, away from Christ. So the Apostle says to them, “Look at yourselves! Isn’t Christ among you because of my teaching? These other teachers have brought you a different Christ, a Christ of power and not weakness; a Christ of glory and not of the Cross. If the real Christ is among you, then that should show you that I am real and that my ministry is approved by God.” 

His words are more about a church approving Paul than about individuals looking at themselves in the mirror.

Paul’s real message about self-examination as a spiritual practice is found in Paul’s first letter to this church:

But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. (1Cor 4:3-4).

Paul looked to Christ, not in the mirror. Paul spent his time examining the grace and mercy of God, not his own heart. Paul didn’t get insecure and fearful when others questioned his faith because he had God’s word of acceptance and the confirming presence of the Holy Spirit. He knew he was the “chief of sinners,” even as an apostle (1Tim 1:15 — note the present tense), but he also knew whom he had believed and he was convinced that He is able to guard what Paul had entrusted to Him until that day (2Tim 1:12).

It is always appropriate to confess our sins. Of course this will mean practicing a form of self-examination to help us understand where we have gone astray, so that we can bring it honestly and openly to God and/or an appropriate confessor. But nowhere does the New Testament call us to look in the mirror constantly so as to make sure we look like genuine Christians.

Stop it. Look to Jesus. Believe the Gospel.

Comments

  1. Eckhart Trolle says:

    Paul comes across as a kind of guru or megachurch preacher, trying to keep control over local groups so they don’t start following one of his rivals. He was pretty much self-appointed, on the basis of a mystical vision (he told several versions of the story) and apparently did not get along well with Jesus’s family and disciples. It’s as though all of India were to disappear, leaving only Sai Baba to represent Hinduism.

    • This idea is nothing new, and if any of these other preachers’ writings were to surface, it would be a treasure of our religious heritage, every bit as much as the Didache and St. Ignatius’ letters were.

    • He….apparently did not get along well with Jesus’s family…..

      According to some evidence in the New Testament, neither did Jesus.

      • Eckhart Trolle says:

        Touche. But Jesus strikes me as a bit of a grifter himself.

        • Ah! Therein is your core objection, which is not to Paul, but to Jesus as he’s limned in the entire New Testament. Paul says nothing that contradicts what the Jesus of the Gospels says; the Epistles and the Gospels are witnessing to the same phenomenon from different angles. What you object to is the portrait of Jesus that the NT in its entirety draws.

          To me, Paul seems far less like a religious extremist than Jesus does in the NT. Paul rarely speaks directly of hell, unlike Jesus; Paul rarely thunders in his rhetoric, unlike Jesus at his prophetic height; Paul is always making accommodations to the needs of the local communities, always pleading with them to behave themselves, while Jesus is unyielding in his prophetic demands and warnings of judgment. I think the picture painting Paul as an inflexible religious tyrant is the result of a really poor reading of the NT texts, and the desire to lay all the subsequent mistakes and sins of Christian history at the feet of someone other than Jesus (although I know that you, my dear ET, are not prone to this inclination).

  2. I don’t buy it. To examine oneself is to be reflective, or maybe vice versa, and some of the more frequent posters here are self-reflective, which means that they examine themselves, albeit by comparing themselves to Christ. Writers such as Robert, w and Damaris are a few of those reflective ones, which means that they look at themselves, self-examination if you will.

    What Paul is referring to is DOUBT! Did the Corinthians DOUBT Paul’s credentials? If so then they should look at their OWN faith as a testimony to Paul’s fruit as proof of his Apostleship.

    I may be totally wrong, or maybe I have misunderstood the post, it wouldn’t be the first time, nor the last. And if I AM mistaken then I offer my apology for being too quick with the comment. But, in the end, if I were to be told to STOP examining MYSELF then my faith would remain static and stale. It is in self-examination that the Holy Spirit shines a light on my inadequacies and leads me to one higher than myself.

    “Look to Christ”, as a phrase, just seems like a religious ejaculation that a well-meaning pastor may give when presented with a congregant’s problem. To ME, at least, it has lost its true meaning.

    • I think I agree with you, Oscar. While I understand the general thrust of the article – self-examination to the point of hypochondria is unhealthy, even in the spiritual realm – I think there are many statements by Jesus that essentially say, “Look in the mirror.” In fact, if anything I’d say Jesus’ consistent message is “Don’t judge others, look in the mirror.”

      Maybe it’s best stated:
      -Self-examination THINKING you’re unhealthy = unhealthy
      -Self-examination TO SEE if you’re unhealthy = healthy

    • Context, context, context. Of course there is room in biblical life and thought for considered self-examination and repentance. But our tendency, all too often, is to read such considerations into every place in Scripture that uses similar language, even if it doesn’t fit the original context. It’s a very… Well, *lazy and self-centered* way of reading the Bible when it comes down to it. Just because *we* don’t have a particular problem doesn’t mean somebody else doesn’t either. And the Bible has the perfect right to prescribe different solutions to different spiritual problems – and expect us to have the wisdom to know which is applicable to our particular circumstances. The “one solution fits all” mentality is a big problem here.

    • I agree with your observations, oscar. It’s looking at myself that causes me to look to Jesus Christ, that drives me to him. And it’s the New Testament Christ who tells me to remove the plank from my own eye, so that my relationships to others, to the world, may be compassionate and helpful, because illuminated by self-knowledge, rather destructive and self-serving, because shaped by blindness to my own defects and motivations. This self-knowledge, which is acquired through self-examination, is sought so that I may be with and serve others in ways that are not actually destructive; that self-examination may become mere navel-gazing, or lead to an overly scrupulous state of mind, is no argument against the importance of non-judgmental and compassionate self-examination. I think of Luther as someone who, in his attempts to escape from scrupulosity, threw the baby out with the bathwater, by rejecting personal self-examination; the result was that he cast a long dark shadow, and was driven by inner compulsions and demons that moved him toward a less and less compassionate attitudes and actions toward those he viewed as his enemies, and even those who had been his friends.

      • Oh, I know that Luther recommended a daily examination of oneself in the light of the Ten Commandments, and a daily review of personal sins for confession, and he may even have practiced these. But a moral inventory of oneself to check for sins is not what I’m talking about, and may even be detrimental to the search for real self-knowledge, especially if one thinks that after confessing them and being absolved they should immediately be forgotten, which seems to have been Luther’s approach. Such an attempt at forgetting when no real healing has occurred results in the projection onto the outer world of the things which we are blind to in ourselves, and in inflicting on others our own unresolved problems. I think Luther is a good example of how this works.

        It could be that nothing in the late medieval practice of self-examination equipped Luther or anyone else with anything except extreme scrupulosity in measuring oneself against moral standards, and taking an inventory of personal sins. To the degree that Luther’s theology short-circuited this, it was salutary; to the degree that it repeated the same dynamic in abbreviated form, it was unhelpful. Where self-examination is understood as merely holding oneself up against a list of moral imperatives, it cannot lead to significant self-knowledge, or healthy psychological or communal dynamics.

        • This post was written to counter the kind of self-examination demanded of people in many churches — in my experience typically those of the neo-Puritan variety — which robs believers of their assurance and leads to excess scrupulosity.

          Of course we are to be thoughtful about ourselves and our lives. If not, Internet Monk would have no reason to exist!

          • “Scrupulosity” — a word I’ve heard used mostly by faithful Catholics, which I wish would be used by a wider audience.

            It seems like the only common word in Protestant vocabulary that’s in the same ballpark is “legalism,” but scrupulosity goes even further and penetrates deeper.

          • This was my experience and many of my friends. Too many wasted tears and nights stressing over ourselves and our sin.

            Freedom is only available when you quit caring.

          • Freedom is only available when you quit caring.

            There’s a blanket statement that covers a lot of territory. I can not really accept that freedom would become available to me if I quit caring about my relationship to my wife, about how what I do affects her, unless I was seeking the freedom available through divorce. As applied to obsession with concern over ones sins, I think there is truth in your statement; as applied to a host of other matters, like the one I just mentioned, I think it’s untrue. In those other matters, what Janis Joplin sang is true: “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.”

          • The word scrupulosity is used by Roman Catholics because there is tendency to develop this problem among a substantial minority of those who try to live strictly by the canons of RC moral theology; this problem existed long before evangelicalism came along. The dimension it includes that the word legalism does not is the psychological reality of being caught in a rictus of dread when confronted with the idea of ones own sinfulness, and the feeling of ones own ability to meet the religious requirements for the forgiveness of ones sins. Rat in a trap, is the common phrase that comes to mind.

    • “Look to Christ” might be a term in our dialect of Christianese, then? A buzzword whose name you can’t really nail down?

  3. Christiane says:

    I suspect that the more we see the faults of others, the less we see our own; except that sometimes, we choose to see in others those very negative things about ourselves that we refuse to ‘own’ and take responsibility for . . .
    (I think this is called ‘projecting’)

    greatest Scriptural picture of this for me is the story of the Pharisee and the Publican in the temple . . . it’s all there, the blindness and pride of the Pharisee, the humility and honesty AND repentance of the Publican . . . oh, yeah

    • –> “I suspect that the more we see the faults of others, the less we see our own…”

      I think this is true. Therein lies the danger of telling someone, “You need to self-examine.”

      I think Jesus would say, “You best self-examine first, before you tell someone else to.”

  4. Truly self examination leads towards humility in who we actually are. This seems to be a strength that I have encountered in others and have marveled at. For me the look inward seems to start from outside in what I see in others and then points back to me and then I see what I do. Sometimes it isn’t as bad as what I see in others but it actually softens my heart and I realize how temporary things are here.

    Jesus is mighty, In ways that maybe these false teachers were not teaching. IDK…..Only one side to the letter. Jesus’ might was humility, joy, hope and love just to name a few. Still I believe his faith in who he is and was never wavered. Sometimes I feel that rising in me who I am in Him to my Father. Only to see I still have so far to go. It is when that light, his light comes through me do I feel something indescribable by me and I know something more real than everything that will fail here at sometime. ( sorry this includes the sciences). Mind not working 100% yet from car wreck took a bad hit to the head. Trying though and I improve a little daily

    • w,
      I appreciate your comment. I think self-examination done with an attitude of self-judgment, where we approve or disapprove of ourselves as measured against a list of moral standards, ultimately makes us religious neurotics: we end up masochistically diminishing ourselves, or relentlessly criticizing others, or both. Self-examination done compassionately with a view toward understanding our own motivations, and our needs, helps us to understand he motivations and needs of others. It also opens us up to loving relationships with others, in which we allow them to be themselves rather than making them bear the burden of our inner work.

      I hope and pray that you recover quickly and thoroughly from your injury.

    • As you’ve pointed out, for a Christian the thing that keeps the hard work of self-examination going should be love; it may start in the desire to relieve oneself of inner suffering and conflict, but if it stays there, it becomes pathological.

  5. I don’t create a distinction between self examination and seeing Christ only. “I have died and my life is hidden with Christ….” On the other hand scripture says that, “..in the last days men will be lovers of self..” That is the ego. My present point of view. My stance, my position, my team, my desire. I think Rohr said, or quoted someone else saying, “my truest self is Christ.” If I am searching my deep self I am finding Christ in me the hope of glory. There are those who say they are focused on Christ but fail to identify themselves in union with that reality creating a shallow mental framework where they are not joined to his cross but see him as the superman good guy leader. They are on his team and those outside are the bad guys. With that lack of reflection they create a wide swath of destruction as they traipse about projecting all of their pain and neuroses onto all within their view, armed with an agenda for the betterment of the poor sinners. These are the people who every died in the wool sinner avoids like the plague. With no self reflection/knowledge of Christ crucified, they sound like clanging symbols and appear to the world like jailers looking to fill their prison. Having said all of that, I agree with the post if the distinction is made between the ego and the self.

    • >I agree with the post if the distinction is made between the ego and the self.

      An important point, a crucial point, but let me suggest a very slight revision in pursuit of clarity. “I agree with the post if the distinction is made between the ego and the Self.” It is becoming a convention in contemporary discussions to refer to the “self” with a little “s” as the egoic part of our human nature, what Paul sometimes calls “the old man”,and “Self” with a capital “S” to refer to our God nature or spirit, what Paul sometimes calls “the mind of Christ”. In the understanding of many good teachers today, the ego and the self are the same thing.

      Chris, I know that you know this. I’m speaking to those for whom these concepts are often problematic and even nonsensical. Your distinction is vital to understanding this message today. Otherwise we are left with the contradictory calls to stop unhealthy introspection while at the same time continually examining yourself. CM makes a valiant attempt to untangle this knot but it’s a hard one. Maybe even worse than being trapped in the house of mirrors of your ego is solving this by developing a seemingly spiritual or religious ego.

      • –> “CM makes a valiant attempt to untangle this knot but it’s a hard one.”

        Agreed. And kudos for CM for writing such a though-provoking piece. I’ve pushed back a little on it, but I appreciate his “making us think.”

      • I for one don’t think the distinction between the self and the Self is problematic or nonsensical, Charles, I just think it’s untrue. I wonder why you don’t acknowledge the possibility that some may disagree with your analysis, not because they are less spiritually evolved or stuck in archaic ways of thinking, but because they’ve explored the possibility you describe and have rejected it when they found it to be untrue and/or it didn’t work for them. That’s not a judgment against your embrace of this idea, but a recognition of the limitations and contingency of all of our epistemic paths, your, and mine, included.

      • Charles, I want to make myself clear. To do that, I must recall your own comments, ones in which you were critical of traditional versions of Christianity for excluding outsiders, either by limiting access to the Communion table, or by including in their religious services things like the recitation of Creeds and professions of faith, things you consider to be archaic and divisive, and unwelcoming to any but insiders. The implication included in some of those comments that those who don’t agree with you are not spiritually evolved, or are obstructed from seeing what you see by a kind of ingrained spiritual ignorance, has the same impact on me that those things you consider divisive and exclusionary have on you. It seems to discount the conclusions to which my life and experience have led me as mere way stations, from which I must inevitably one day move on in the direction you’ve already gone, or be dead-ended forever.

        But, by the bowels of Christ, remember that you may be wrong: I may never need to go to the place you are, or to the places you intend to go, to find my way to God, to Jesus. The path you are treading may be right for you, and many besides you, but it may not be right for me, and for others. You may be on the path of spiritual evolution, but we are not; for us, using the metaphor of evolution for the spiritual life is worse than useless: it’s a positive impediment. We see biological evolution as an impersonal process, without mercy or intelligence, without conscience or love, and we are loathe to speak of God and spirituality using that metaphor, because it fills us with the most extreme hopelessness. Please don’t assume that we must or will, in this life or another, adopt your understanding to go where God would have us go; if that is the condition, then, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man-like, we will refuse to go.

        Rant over.

        • Robert, calm down, no one is forcing you to evolve or take any path other than what you decide is best for you. You have free will, as do we all.

          >> I wonder why you don’t acknowledge the possibility that some may disagree with your analysis, not because they are less spiritually evolved or stuck in archaic ways of thinking, but because they’ve explored the possibility you describe and have rejected it when they found it to be untrue and/or it didn’t work for them.

          My analysis? My analysis? Do you think I invented this? Acknowledge the possibility that some may disagree? Are you serious? People have been opposing the call to an inner spiritual life for going on two thousand years in the Christian tradition. I would guess that historically maybe one out of a thousand have responded positively. I’m guessing that today that might be closer to one out of a hundred, which from my point of view is progress in the right direction. Widespread disagreement is a given.

          Jesus didn’t require anyone to look for the Kingdom within, but he did point it out. You are perfectly free to interpret his words to suit yourself along with all those who reject an inner spiritual journey as valid. It is certainly not the only way to God. The mental and intellectual way works for those in tune with that method. I personally find that limiting, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t follow it. You are not me, which I think should be as obvious to you as to anyone else, and hardly worth getting bent out of shape over..

          Wouldn’t it be a lot easier for you to either just not read my posts, or if you do to assume that they are not directed at you? I long ago learned that you have closed the door on the inner journey and wish you well on your outer search for truth. Everyone has their own path to follow. It’s encouraging to me to find others on a similar path to my own, but never expected, always a pleasant surprise and a rarity.

          I’m sorry if I have not made it clear that my remarks are not ordinarily directed at you and that I am not expecting anyone to agree with me. I try to qualify my remarks to make that plain and to avoid being pontifical, which I find extremely irritating in others. I do look for others who think outside the box, but that doesn’t mean we will agree in outlook or perspective. I am quite used to most people finding my thoughts and perspectives unacceptable, so it is a found treasure for me to be able to share them here.

          • “The Kingdom of God is among you.” That’s my way; my true self develops in my social relations, in the relational patterns and fields that form between me and other people, and me and the world, and between me and the Church. And that’s where I find Christ, too. I have looked for him within, but there is no deep Self there.

            You seem to me to be promoting a new orthodoxy, to replace the old ones, and I actually think there are lots and lots of people on board with you. But I’ll stick with what’s left of the old orthodoxies, or whatever I can cobble together from them.

      • Well said. The religious ego is possibly the most dangerous because it feels sanctioned to address the sins of all but itself. Of course what Mike is saying, eyes fixed on Christ, precludes that possibility in the same way that hearing the true Self does because it is essentially the same business. The ego, the small self, the natural man, the persona – whatever we call it; that must be brought into subjection to Christ. Then the new creation, the true Self, can be found one in being with Him. This is where I think reflection is necessary. Testing the spirits so to speak. Is it Christ in me who speaks or is it my petty ambition or pride again? Do I know the difference? It is a lifetime’s work, in my opinion, to learn the discernment necessary in that regard and even then it is cased in mystery. The only thing I’m after is the honest expression of Christ as he has taken up residence in me and being able to discern him from the natural man because they will share this space until they don’t.

  6. A little rushed today, but the post makes a lot of sense to me. Thanks, chap mike, not only for the reminder to look for Christ, but to be encouraged by his work in, and among us. This community aspect of the witness of the risen Christ is solid food for encouragement. HE is risen indeed, and with us, time to open my eyes wide and really see.

  7. I wonder how much literal, rigid Bible translations contribute to this problem? When I was a young fundamentalist I used the King James Version to hammer so many ideas that I later found to be completely wrong. Makes me think that Christians of this persuasion want a Bible that is wooden and follows Hebrew and Greek grammar so they can make it say anything they like, so they can avoid the plain meaning, so it will support doctrines built upon a particular archaic phrase?

    • –> “Makes me think that Christians of this persuasion want a Bible that is wooden and follows Hebrew and Greek grammar so they can make it say anything they like, so they can avoid the plain meaning, so it will support doctrines built upon a particular archaic phrase?”

      Yes. That’s the beauty of iMonk, to remind us we are fallible and to stop using the Bible as a weapon.

      • IF the Bible translation is literal and not flowing then one looks at verses or passages instead of the whole point of the book/chapter. So we base theology from snippets, sound bites. IF the chapter is unintelligible then we focus only on the verse that makes sense to us.

  8. Thank you. I am so glad for this interpretation. I love when I read something about the BIble that breaks out of the traditional understanding, and for the better. I have known so many who have driven themselves crazy thinking about their sin because of self-examination passages. I will remember this for the future.