It won’t substitute for a trip to the doctor’s office. And it usually isn’t adequate for an employee review. And a building inspector certainly won’t allow it. But for the believer, self-examination is not only allowed, but it is commanded.
A believer is called to examine his salvation — is he genuinely saved (2 Cor. 13:5)? He is told to examine his own spiritual work — are his actions consistent with who he says he is (Gal. 6:4)? He is to examine His fellowship with Christ at the communion table — is all known sin confessed (1 Cor. 11:28)? He is to examine all things — is every aspect of his life conforming to Christ (1 Thess. 5:21)?
The believer is called by God to regularly and consistently engage in this process of self-examination. What is the trajectory of his life and what are his base affections and desires?
The Greek word that is generally used in the New Testament for “examine” means to test something for the purpose of approving it. Is it genuine? Does it conform to the given standard? This is to the content of the believer’s self-examination. Is his life in Christ genuine? Is he inwardly what he purports to be externally?
Let’s be honest. That kind of examination is one of the most difficult things we do. While we have access to see what is in our hearts like no one except God Himself, the process of self-examination is difficult for us because we are so prone to self-delusion. We are tempted to excuse ourselves when we would not excuse someone else for the same sin. We can see inwardly, but we tend to intentionally look with clouded glasses so that we don’t condemn ourselves. The saying “I’m hardest on myself” is almost never true. And our defensiveness and argumentativeness when confronted with sin reveals that we are not likely to examine ourselves accurately.
That’s one reason that the Old Testament affirms that one of the marks of a righteous man is that he speaks truth in his heart (Ps. 15:2).
Now despite our tendency to do an inadequate job of self-examination, we are not excused from the process. We must still engage in this process of searching our hearts to determine the character of our lives. So how will we do it well?
We will grow in effectiveness in examining our hearts when we allow the Scriptures to do the primary work for us. God’s Word is given to us to examine us and reveal the nature of what is inside us — this is the cutting and piercing work of the Sword and the discerning and dividing work of the Word (Heb. 4:12). It not only serves as a critique of our actions, but it also serves to evaluate and judge our very thoughts and motivations. Nothing about us is hidden from the Word of God or its author (Heb. 4:13).
Through the careful reading and ingesting of God’s Word, God will evaluate all the hidden parts of our hearts and they will be fully exposed in the light. Scripture exposes what we really are to ourselves. And it does this soul surgery more effectively than a neurosurgeon does brain surgery. And that is why the Scriptures are necessary. If we are willing to hear God’s evaluation, these living words will cut and discern and evaluate us. So let us pray that God will use a verse like Ps. 139:23-24 to aid in our needed self-examination —
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.
The wise (and growing) believer is the one who reads Scripture with a mind that is open to examination and correction. He does not read the Scriptures to confirm what he (pridefully) believes himself to be as much as he reads the Scriptures to have his life conformed to Christ. He wants the Word of God to expose areas of his life where he is pharisaical and not living in conformity to Christ so that he can be transformed.
Kent Hughes was exactly right when he wrote,
“…if we really want to understand ourselves, we must fill our souls with God’s Word. God’s Word — read, meditated upon, and powerfully applied — will give us brilliant discernment and profound self-knowledge.…This gift of self-knowledge is no small grace because when we grasp something of the serpentine ways of our hearts, we are disposed to cast ourselves even more on God’s grace.”
It is a necessity to engage in self-examination. And because we see with imperfect and deluded eyes, it is also necessary that we used the Scriptures to guide us in that examination.