Self-examination is one of the most important things we are called upon to do as followers of Christ. It is also one of the most difficult things. It is important for us to assess whether we are growing into the stature of our Lord, static, or regressing. It is difficult because we find it hard to see our failings when, after all, we are in ourselves what we have chosen to be.

There is a need for us to continually review our lives, our thinking, our priorities and what we deem to be important. We need to think about how we are thinking. In our daily Bible readings we are continually measuring ourselves by the heroes of faith and in particular the superlative example, our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. But it is easy for us to be dismissive of counsel that lays us bare. I think we would all be aware of and sensitive to exhortations that touch upon known weakness and failings; we all have rooms that no-one is to enter! We feel uncomfortable and hope the speaker will soon move on to more palatable areas.

Self-examination is difficult because we find it hard to see ourselves as others see us, or more importantly how God sees us: “for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). The problem lies in the flesh, the heart or mind of man, which is “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know [understand rsv] it?” (Jer 17:9). In the following verse we are told that God can, that He knows our thoughts, He knows us better than we know ourselves: “I the Lord search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings” (v10; Psa 139:2). As scary and sobering as this is, we must take it into our reckoning. We need to recognise how deceitful the human heart is, how prone to defend itself against criticism, even when we know it to be justified and true. The demon of disguised pride is ever lurking and mitigating against us making a just, truthful and honest assessment of ourselves.

Criticism

We should actually welcome constructive criticism of our character. We may be more inclined to reject outright words offered for our betterment when we should be thankful that someone has been courageous enough to speak with us about a fault. And actually we have a responsibility towards our brethren and sisters to speak up, albeit with care and discretion, if we observe a weakness or fault: “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother” (Matt 18:15); “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him” (Lev 19:17 rsv).

But self-examination is different to criticism from without. It’s much harder. We can become experts at diagnosing the faults in others whilst being blind to our own short comings: the proverbial ‘pot’ finds it easy to ‘call the kettle black’. We need to be more aware of personal weakness and sin, and if we are we will be less judgmental and censorious of others. When Jesus said, “Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matt 7:1), he was cautioning against the common human failing of passing summary judgment upon our fellows. This prerogative belongs to God; He will determine who goes on the right hand or the left. Jesus enjoins upon us the need to look inwards, to recognise failure, and that if we do this we will be deterred from making harsh judgments of others: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (v3 rsv). So in summary, there is a responsibility to speak to a brother or sister about a fault, albeit discreetly, all the time being conscious of our own shortcomings.

The standard and the Word of God

The pattern we are striving to attain to is that of our Lord. In Hebrews 11 we have an honour roll of faithful servants to emulate. The Apostle Paul could say, “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). These examples, crowned by that of our Lord, who laid down his life for us (so great was his love), provide us with inspiration and a measure to measure our lives by.

Self-examination takes time and is best done in solitude away from noise and distraction. Having highlighted deficiency there is the need for resolution and implementation. If we are serious about growing and improving, we will put in place fixtures, changes that will assist.

Daily reading the Word of God and seeking the help of our Father in prayer are crucial in the quest for growth in Christ. James speaks of receiving with “meekness the engrafted [implanted] word, which is able to save your souls” (1:21), and likens the Word to a mirror: “… if any man be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass [rsv mirror]: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was” (v23–25). So the Word helps us to see ourselves for what we are, if we are prepared to look, to gaze into it.

Using an even more potent metaphor, the Apostle Paul likens the Word of God to a piercing sword which acts like a scalpel and lays bare: “the word of God is quick, and powerful [living and active rsv], and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” By espousing the Word, by bringing it into our hearts, we experience its influence and it enables us to discern between even our thoughts and motives. It is a powerful, active help as we examine ourselves and strive to be more like our Lord.

The fruit of the Spirit

What are the things we should be seeking to put on as we examine ourselves so we might grow? What are the goals, the fruit we are striving to attain?

Micah gives us a summary when he poses the question and answers it: “What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (6:8). It is necessary to translate this into the practicalities of daily life and to honestly appraise ourselves and ask whether in fact these principles are observable in our thoughts, words and deeds.

The Apostle Paul lists “the fruit of the Spirit”. Fruit only results from careful cultivation. So, too, we must addict ourselves to these qualities, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self control” (Gal 5:22–23 rsv). Well, how do we measure up? Every day we need to make this personal assessment.

The breaking of bread

The memorial supper is the most solemn hour in our week. The word of exhortation is designed to prepare our minds to partake of the bread and wine, the symbols of the Lord’s body and blood given for us. 1 Corinthians 11:23–32 is often read as our warrant for so doing immediately prior to the ‘taking of the emblems’. There are many aspects involved in this memorial: our mortality, sin and need, God’s love in giving His beloved Son, his love and obedience, the victory over sin, fellowship with the Father and Son, and with all saints etc. There is also the need for self-examination, for the Apostle Paul says, “But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat …” (v28). There is the need for reflection, for introspection, for it is possible to eat and drink unworthily and so to come under condemnation: “For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (v29 rsv). This need is made even more poignant when he adds, “For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged” (v31). This is why it is important to turn the searchlight of introspection upon our hearts and minds, to be as honest and sincere as we can be ‘with ourselves’. Defence, deceit and excuse must be eschewed and put aside. The blessings for doing this honestly are great. If we can examine ourselves and root out the dross, the sloth, the sin that so easily besets us, judgment in the day to come will be abated: as the apostle said, “For if we would judge ourselves [now], we should not be judged [in the future].”

So the spirit of review, of self-examination should be an element in the mix of thought we have when we prepare to partake of the memorials.

Self-examination and ‘the Last Supper’

The Lord infused into ‘the Last Supper’ the need for introspection, when he gave the alarming intimation that one of them, of the twelve, would betray him: “Verily I say unto you, One of you which eateth with me shall betray me” (Mark 14:18). It is noteworthy that he did not nominate who it was. This troubled them. They began to be sorrowful, to search their own hearts, and “say unto him one by one, Is it I?” (v19). The Lord deliberately chose not to name the one who betrayed him at that point for it had the desired effect of making them question their own loyalty and commitment to him. Matthew tells us that they “began every one of them to say unto him, Lord, is it I?” (26:22). He allowed them to ‘sweat it out’, and the delay elicited the question, “Lord, is it I?” from all of them. This teaches us that as they reviewed their lives they all must have found things, thoughts, words, deeds, that were unworthy. It was important for them as it is for us to make an honest appraisal of what is happening inside – how healthy is the inner man – and to take remedial steps if we do not like what we find … before it is too late.

“I … have hope toward God … that there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust. And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men” (Paul, Acts 24:15–16).