Question: "What does the Bible say about self-examination?"
Answer: Self-examination is an important part of living as an authentic Christian, but by nature we prefer self-deception. Deceiving ourselves is easy and comfortable. We want to believe ourselves better, smarter, and more ethical than we really are, so careful, Spirit-directed self-examination keeps us honest with ourselves and with God.
We need self-examination to combat the spiritual deception rampant in the world. Scripture tells us to confess our sin to God, which requires a certain amount of self-examination. If we can never find any sin to confess, then “we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). It is dangerous to lie to ourselves. Second Corinthians 13:5 instructs us to examine ourselves to see if we are truly in Christ. One of Satan’s favorite traps is to whisper false assurance to an unregenerate heart. Without Spirit-directed self-examination, our enemy’s lie is too pleasant, believable, and palatable to challenge on our own.
First Corinthians 11:28 warns of another way we deceive ourselves. In giving instruction about taking the Lord’s Supper (Communion), Paul says that we must first examine ourselves so that we do not take the elements “in an unworthy manner.” We take the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner when we harbor willful sin in our lives and refuse to repent of it (see 1 John 1:9). When we examine ourselves before partaking of the Lord’s Supper, we have the opportunity to agree with the Lord about our sin, repent of it, and receive His forgiveness. We can then take the elements in a worthy manner, in fellowship with God and other believers, purified through the blood of Jesus (1 John 1:7; Romans 5:8–10).
We should also self-examine our motives and attitudes before taking the Lord’s Supper. If we are distracted, angry, or impatient, we should get our thoughts under control (2 Corinthians 10:5) before entering into that sacred act. The ordinance loses its meaning when we are not fully engaged in its symbolism, and that dishonors the sacrifice of Christ. Paul scolded the Corinthian church for the disrespectful way they were participating in the Lord’s Supper. Some were hogging the food, and some were getting drunk on the wine (2 Corinthians 11:20–22). They were told to examine themselves or they would face judgment; some had even died as a result of their lack of self-examination (1 Corinthians 11:30–32).
One difficulty with self-examination is that we do not always know our own hearts. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” True self-examination must be done with the Holy Spirit, who searches the deep things of the heart (1 Corinthians 2:10–11). The church of Laodicea was in sore need of self-examination, but they had a hard time seeing their problem: “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Revelation 3:17). The psalmist says, “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” (Psalm 139:23–24). The psalmist here admits that he does not even know whether his actions and motives are pure. So he invites the Lord, the Righteous Judge, to test him and reveal to him his own sin.
Lack of self-examination can lead to ongoing self-deception; however, an over-attention to one’s self is also unhealthy. We can become so inwardly focused that we take our eyes off of Jesus and make self-improvement our god. A.W. Tozer, in his classic work The Pursuit of God, says, “The man who has struggled to purify himself and has had nothing but repeated failures will experience real relief when he stops tinkering with his soul and looks away to the perfect One. While he looks at Christ, the very thing he has so long been trying to do will be getting done within him” (p. 85). We should examine ourselves in light of the truth being revealed to us from Scripture and allow God’s Word to convict and change us. At the same time, we must humbly admit our inability to change ourselves and rely on the power of the Holy Spirit within to transform us into the image of Christ (Romans 8:29).