LCN Article
The Blessing of Honest Self-Examination

March / April 2023

Wallace G. Smith

In 2 Corinthians 13:5, God commands us, “Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not know yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you are disqualified.” Before Passover comes each year, we have an obligation to examine ourselves. But it’s not that examining ourselves is a once-a-year activity, and we shouldn’t think of it that way. Rather, examining ourselves is so important that God commands it of us, explicitly, every year before Passover, so we don’t forget.

One of the most important questions we can reflect on is, “Why am I here?” But that question is of dubious value if we don’t also ask ourselves, “Where am I?” That is, where am I in my relationships with other people? Where am I in my relationship with God? What are my aspirations? What are my fears? What are my illusions—the ideas and values I’m holding onto that aren’t actually real? What is real to me?

As we travel through life, we take in a vast amount of information, and we use that information to try and make sense of the world. But while we all like to think we base our decisions on pure, hard facts, the truth is far less reassuring. In reality, all of us filter and process those facts so quickly that the “facts” we believe we are acting on can be so personally cherry-picked or distorted that we become self-deceived—breaking the Ninth Commandment, in a sense, by bearing false witness against ourselves. Avoiding self-deception requires rigorously honest self-examination.

An Age Prone to Blindness

Coming to see ourselves honestly is difficult, and it’s prophesied to be a particular challenge in our age:

And to the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write, “These things says the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness, the Beginning of the creation of God: ‘I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, “I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing”—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked—I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see’” (Revelation 3:14–18).

One of the dominant characteristics of the final era of the Church is an inability to see itself rightly, to see itself the way that God sees it. No one is guaranteed to be Philadelphian, and no one is forced to be Laodicean. We can repent and change—or we can grow worse. It’s not just a matter of attending God’s true Church and hearing God’s true message. We who aspire to be Philadelphian need to examine ourselves all the more, understanding that God calls Laodiceanism the dominant spirit of this age and recognizing our need to be diligent against it.

In this regard, the Apostle Paul warns, “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). In other words—particularly if we’re confident in our spiritual state—we need to be careful of falling. Jesus Christ commands us:

But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly. For it will come as a snare on all those who dwell on the face of the whole earth. Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man (Luke 21:34–36).

I hope that none of you reading this are literally carousing or getting drunk, but the cares of this life affect all of us. We’ve got deadlines to meet. We’ve got things to do. We’ve got people who depend on us. We have babies who aren’t going to change their own diapers. We have kids to take to soccer practice. Perhaps we have parents who are aging, and we need to take care of them. These are cares of this life—they’re not necessarily bad, but they’re also not our highest priority. They shouldn’t be drawing us away from what is far more fundamental: a relationship with God.

Prophecy assures us that, at Sabbath services all over the world, there are men and women who fit the description of Laodicea. They are absolutely clueless about the truth of their spiritual state. God characterizes them in a way that should give all of us pause: They need eye salve, because they can’t see. In an age when that blindness is dominant, let’s not take self-examination for granted.

Also, let’s never assume that self-examination is easy. It’s hard! If we think it’s easy, we don’t really understand. Our natural state is to be ignorant of ourselves in the most significant ways. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked [or sick]; who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Nothing is more capable of distorting your perception of reality than your own heart.

Jeremiah 10:23 states, “O Lord, I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps.” The right way to direct our steps is not a part of who we naturally are. Clinical psychologist Jordan B. Peterson has said, “The probability that you can understand yourself in anything approaching totality is extraordinarily low.” These words correspond well to Jeremiah’s observation. Regardless of what we think of ourselves, we’ve all surely known someone who is blind to his own faults—or perhaps blind to his own gifts. That’s not unusual, and it’s foolish to assume we aren’t blind to some fault or gift of our own.

On top of this, we are subject to influences we have no idea are influencing us. When he’s talking to younger people, Mr. Gerald Weston often focuses on how they probably don’t appreciate how much they’re being influenced by the world around them and don’t give that influence a fraction of the credit it deserves. But even if we’ve survived puberty—and our 50s, and our 60s, and our 70s—we haven’t become any less complicated, or any less susceptible to influences. If the devil has to work harder, he works harder.

If you combine Jeremiah 17:9 and Jeremiah 10:23, you get Proverbs 16:2: “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirits.” Don’t we all think we’re right about what we think? In fact, it doesn’t make any sense to think you’re wrong about what you believe. Most of us are pretty sure we’re right, but none of us are right about everything.

King Solomon once wrote, “Truly the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil; madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead” (Ecclesiastes 9:3). While Solomon’s language is dramatic, he is expressing a very profound truth: From God’s perspective, every one of us looks a little “crazy” from time to time, making nonsensical decisions. Everyone does irrational things. How many people watch a documentary on the terrible things that smoking does to the human body, all while a cigarette hangs from their lips? If we think that somehow we’re immune to those kinds of irrationalities, we don’t know ourselves very well. It’s just part of the human condition.

Somber Solomon also reminds us, “Better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for that is the end of all men; and the living will take it to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2). What does he mean? Not that you can’t have a good time or even have a party now and then. He means that there’s something about the time and place of mourning that wakes you up to think about things differently as you recognize, This will also be my end. You just don’t think those kinds of thoughts at parties, and that’s what Solomon is saying. As human beings, we need to be woken up—and times of seriousness tend to do that.

The Right Perspective on Self-Examination

Why don’t we examine ourselves deeply enough? One reason is that, honestly, it can be scary. But it’s important to understand that examining yourself is not just about discovering all the dirty deeds you’ve ever done. Of course, if you don’t find any mistakes or failings that you weren’t aware of before, you’re probably not looking hard enough. But it’s also about finding good things. Many people are unwilling to recognize some of the gifts God has given them to help others—and that’s just as damaging, because someone who doesn’t recognize a gift is often someone who’s not using that gift to its fullest to honor God and serve other people.

Consider the “exam” part of the word “self-examination.” When a teacher gives an exam, the purpose is not for every student to get every question wrong and be proven totally inept. Instead, students will do well to varying degrees. Let’s say that you earned 85 points out of 100 on the exam. That means you’ve mastered 85 percent of the material, and you haven’t yet mastered 15 percent of it. The purpose of the exam is to help you understand clearly where you are, in an objective way. If you made a 25 on the exam, you’ve got a lot of work to do. If you made a 95 on the exam, that’s great—but don’t rest on your laurels. Work on that 5 percent and build on the 95 percent that you have done well with. The purpose of self-examination is not to beat ourselves up; it’s to see ourselves the way God sees us, to the fullest extent we can.

The problem is that our deceitful heart often tends to push us toward the positive. We’re often far more willing to judge ourselves based on our intentions and not willing to see what we truly need to change. But, even with that in mind, it shouldn’t be scary. “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him” (Psalm 103:11–13, English Standard Version).

 God is not looking for a reason to disown you. He has compassion for all of us. “He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust” (v. 14, NKJV). Yes, He wants us to grow into the fullness of Jesus Christ day by day, and He and His Son are pouring Themselves into that effort in us—and He recognizes that we’re not there yet. There’s no need to be fearful in examining ourselves. In trying to align our view of ourselves with how God actually sees us, we must recognize that He already sees us the way we truly are. He’s already aware, so we can be honest with ourselves. We must remember that He didn’t call us because of how stellar we were. He knew we were dust when He did the calling. He is the ultimate expert in working with dust.

When did the Savior choose to give everything for us? It was when we were still in that unforgiven state. “For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6–8). As an ever-living being, the most He could give is His life—and He did. Not because we deserved it, but because He loved us (1 John 4:9). But He died for the still-unrighteous, not so we would stay unrighteous, but so He could rescue us and begin investing in us to make us better, bit by bit. If we don’t see the need to grow and to change, we won’t embrace that help He’s providing readily.

Paul’s words should reassure us: “Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:14–15). Regardless of what we may discover in our self-examination day by day, there’s nothing we can find that He won’t sympathize with. We serve a Savior who could respond to our newly discovered flaws by saying, Yes, I already knew that. That’s why I died and live now—to take you by the hand and lead you forward.

Read all of Hebrews 4:16: “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” It encourages us to be bold before God, to ask of Him in faith. But it’s also about obtaining mercy—the context is that we’re going before God while our sins are holding us down. We’ve all got sins and faults of youth, acorns we planted and wish we hadn’t, because now they’re the oak trees we have to cut down. But that should not make us timid. We can go boldly before God’s throne, ask for His grace, and ask for help to chop those oak trees down—ask Him to make every swing worth two swings.

And as you and I dive in to examine ourselves, God hasn’t just said, Figure out how to do it. He’s given us valuable tools that we can take advantage of.

Use Prayer as a Tool

If we’re not regularly asking God to help us see ourselves, we need to, because we can’t do it on our own. We need His active help. If we ask, Help me see, in Your mercy, the things about me that I need to see, He will answer.

King David understood that he didn’t fully understand—that he didn’t see everything he needed to see. “Who can understand his errors? Cleanse me from secret faults” (Psalm 19:12). King David recognized that he had faults he wasn’t even aware of, and he asked God’s active help and participation. How do we get past Jeremiah 17:9? By going to Jeremiah 17:10: “I, the Lord, search the heart.” The Eternal weighs the hearts, and He can give us the information we need.

In Psalm 139, David finds wonder in how thoroughly God knows him.

O Lord, You have searched me and known me. You know my sitting down and my rising up; You understand my thought afar off. You comprehend my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word on my tongue, but behold, O Lord, You know it altogether. You have hedged me behind and before, and laid Your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it…. Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, the days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them (vv. 1–6, 16).

God knows us thoroughly. Nothing about us is a mystery to Him. He’s never thinking, I wonder why he did that; I just don’t understand that guy. No—He knows, and He’s the ultimate source of what we need to know. David takes advantage of that to pray a scary prayer: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me [test me] and know my anxieties; and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (vv. 23–24).

I remember reading that and being nervous about it because, honestly, I didn’t want to pray it. But if we recognize that the stakes are high, we want God to have the freedom He needs to show us our ways—so we should pray this. Prayer is a vital key to knowing ourselves, because if we want the One who knows us best to reveal us to ourselves, we need to ask.

The Insight of Friends and Family

I’ve never seen with my own eyes the bald spot on the back of my head—but my wife and sons have. In fact, they saw it years before I even knew it was there. If we’re constantly dismissing what our spouse says, what our parents say, or even what our children say, we need to recognize that they might be right.

In fact, even those who hate us can serve us with insight. In 2 Samuel 16, we find an illustrative occasion in the life of King David:

Now when King David came to Bahurim, there was a man from the family of the house of Saul, whose name was Shimei the son of Gera, coming from there. He came out, cursing continuously as he came. And he threw stones at David and at all the servants of King David. And all the people and all the mighty men were on his right hand and on his left. Also Shimei said thus when he cursed: “Come out! Come out! You bloodthirsty man, you rogue! The Lord has brought upon you all the blood of the house of Saul, in whose place you have reigned; and the Lord has delivered the kingdom into the hand of Absalom your son. So now you are caught in your own evil, because you are a bloodthirsty man!” Then Abishai the son of Zeruiah said to the king, “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Please, let me go over and take off his head!” (vv. 5–9).

God took advantage of Shimei’s terrible attitude to say some words that He wanted David to hear at the time, because there had been a bloodthirsty time in David’s life when he had caused a man to be killed for his personal benefit, and his house never worked quite right after that.

How does David respond? “What have I to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah? So let him curse, because the Lord has said to him, ‘Curse David.’ Who then shall say, ‘Why have you done so?’” (v. 10). He didn’t become defensive or indignant, though his accuser deserved death (Exodus 22:28; 1 Kings 2:8–9).

Why is this instructive? Because sometimes uncomfortable truths come our way from people who don’t intend to be kind, and even from people who hate us, people who insult us and tear us down. It could be a sibling, a boss, or a coworker saying terrible things, and the fact that they may be saying them with a sinful attitude—an attitude for which God will hold them accountable—doesn’t mean that we don’t still need to listen. Even if 75 percent of it is sin-induced nonsense, we shouldn’t ignore the 25 percent from which we may benefit. David didn’t.

If we can learn from an enemy, how much more should we heed the words of those who love us?

Biblical Meditation and Fasting

If we don’t take the time to think about the words we hear, we won’t learn from them. But meditation must be fed by something, and that something should be the Bible. “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow” (Hebrews 4:12). God’s word is powerful enough to carve out the hard-to-make distinctions in our lives—“a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (v. 12).

James 1:22–25 describes God’s word and law as a mirror given to us so that we can look into it and see ourselves, and he tells each of us not to be someone who looks into the mirror, finds something he needs to fix, and just walks away. But how many of us use the Bible not as a mirror, but as a lens through which we examine others? It’s always tempting to examine others, but God’s word describes itself as a mirror with which—if we’re careful, diligent, and willing—we can examine ourselves.

We need occasions where we are specially devoted to seeking the will of God and a right perspective on ourselves, and fasting is a tool that adds perspective to our self-examination. When we’re hungry, it reminds us that we’re not God. Rather, we need God, and fasting is a tool that God has given us to understand ourselves. If you find the idea of fasting regularly to be intimidating—and a lot of people do—feel free to use training wheels. Maybe you can start by simply skipping a lunch. The days leading up to Passover can be hectic for all of us, but they are also prime time for including a fast, humbly asking God to help us see ourselves more clearly. A whole day’s fast would be ideal, but any time is better than none.

Jesus Christ said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). Part of that truth is the truth about ourselves. In seeing ourselves truly and rightly, we have freedom from lies, freedom from illusion, and freedom to walk more effectively toward the Kingdom of God and a closer relationship with our Father, rooted in a real knowledge of who we are. The truth about ourselves is worth seeing—because, truly, that truth will make us free.