A self-assessment calibration

A philosopher once said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” To ‘know thyself ’ became the catch-cry of the Greek Empire. Benjamin Franklin said, “There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond and to know one’s self. Observe all men; thy self most.” However, most people in today’s world never undertake this kind of introspection. To the world, self-examination would be associated with a physical, biological activity, such as monitoring our physical health for signs of illness. That profits a little. But for us this morning, self-examination means something so much more profound; it’s a self-assessment, a test of the extent to which our mind is aligned with the mind of Christ and our behaviour aligned with the behaviour of Christ.

Unlike the academic tests familiar to many of us, this one isn’t about right or wrong; it isn’t about our ability to develop a persuasive argument; it isn’t about our ability to write elegantly, regurgitate facts or think on our feet. It’s a regular self-assessment calibration, one that foreshadows a much largerscale audit that will happen at some point in the near future at the judgment seat of Christ. It is significantly harder than an academic exam. It’s not scheduled on a specific date so you have to make time for it. There’s no invigilator so no-one will stop you from cheating. It’s not marked so you don’t get feedback. There’s no immediate consequence if you don’t do it at all. And it’s confronting; that’s why most people don’t do it. Self-knowledge is painful relative to the pleasures of illusion. It involves taking stock and looking at the big picture; asking where we’ve come from and where we’re headed. It involves addressing, head-on, issues that we spend time hiding from others or suppressing. It requires submission to an unbiased spiritual inquisition, without fear or favour. It requires us to be objective and honest with ourselves, which is a surprisingly difficult task. It requires us to admit that we were wrong and that we need to take some remedial action.

Consider our ways

The Scriptures contain a number of direct and indirect references to self-examination. In addition to 1 Corinthians 11 (which we are very familiar with) we also read, “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove (or assay in the fire) your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?” (2 Cor 13:5). The NIV has, “Examine yourselves to see if your faith is genuine; test yourself.” The prophet Haggai, writing at a time of national complacency after their return said, “This people say, ‘The time is not come, the time that the LORD’s house should be built’” (1:2). Haggai’s message was, “Consider your ways” (v5,7). In effect, the prophet was saying, ‘Have a close look at your attitudes and behaviour’. Similarly, the prophet Ezekiel encouraged the wicked man to turn away from all his transgressions that he had committed that he should surely live and not die (18:27–28). Jeremiah also pleaded, “Let us search and try our ways, and turn again unto the LORD” (Lam 3:40). The “consider our ways” sentiments are also expressed in passages such as Psalm 4:4, 77:6 and 119:59.

Just from these few examples we can build a picture of an intense deliberation, a pondering, deep, meaningful conversation between our heart and our head that, importantly, leads to realignment, behavioural change and action. It’s a highly individual affair, to be done, as if it were, upon our bed alone, in silence, with the primary aim of identifying the areas where we’ve done wrong or perhaps could do more. It is not a superficial exercise; references to the heart and the soul clearly link self-examination with our emotions – it should stir up our emotions. This might help to create the right sense or mood for our own self-examination. If it’s not a cathartic or emotionally cleansing experience, we might not be probing deeply enough or asking the right questions. The heart is, ironically, the figurative source of both the problem and the solution. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” is a quote well known to us. It’s the seat of self-deception and the seat of enlightening inspiration.

Self deception

the old Adam dies hard. We understand intellectually why we sin and make decisions that we know are not in the best interests of our discipleship. So why do we keep doing it? Sometimes we deliberately ignore our conscience but in general that’s pretty rare; at other times we are able to talk ourselves into behaviour, using all manner of flawed logic based fundamentally on the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh and the pride of life. Proverbs makes several references to the power of self-deception in the context of assessing one’s own position before God. For example, “All the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes; but the LORD weigheth the spirits (motives)” (16:2 see also 21:2; 26:12; 30:12). Isaiah also warned, “Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight” (5:21). Paul refers to the false security brought on by selfdeception: “Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor 10:12). If we go through a considered thoughtful self-audit and find nothing to change, we should be very careful – we’re on a dangerous path and should take heed, lest we fall! He writes to the Galatians, “If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load” (Gal 6:3–5 NIV).

Here we see references to another key way in which we can miss the mark of self-examination – using the wrong benchmarks. The Pharisees almost seemed genuine in their belief that they were holier than others, hence the Lord’s parable of those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others. He concluded that “every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:9–14). It is so easy to see the faults in others (relative to our own faults, cp Matt 7) and to use what we see as a poor example to lower our own benchmarks (see 2 Cor 10:12). Even Aaron sought to justify to Moses his involvement in building the golden calf, on the basis that the people were prone to evil: “Thou knowest the people, that they are set on mischief ” (Exod 32:22–24). We have just one benchmark: Jesus’ example, against which all excuses, pride and masking are useless.

The ‘core’ issue

Many people are a little like an onion. This vegetable is an integrated being, but one that comprises a series of layers that prevent others from seeing the real core. the outermost layer reflects the information that is public and obvious – like our appearance, our clothing, our hairstyles and some aspects of our behaviour. Peeling away a layer, we arrive at those behaviours which are not publicly visible. Peeling away another layer, perhaps we arrive at some aspirations, goals and motivations, which might be shared with a few close friends. Perhaps the next layer, of insecurities, issues and problems, are known only to ourselves and perhaps our best friend or partner. Eventually, after peeling away enough layers, we come to the inner core – the authentic self; the one invisible to all on earth, except us.

This is precisely the core that is the subject of our self-examination. The other layers are all secondary, in that they indirectly reflect the true character and values. The challenge to be “transformed by the renewing of [our] minds” begins at that core. This process of peeling away the layers of the metaphorical onion has a practical parallel – you peel it off a layer at a time and sometimes you weep; it’s not easy or pleasant. It’s also akin to the more familiar metaphor of us as roughly hewn stones that need to be chipped away, sometimes at great personal agony, until we become a stone that is fit to sit alongside other stones. It is, in the words of David in Psalm 77, a conversation with our soul: searching our soul and communing with our own heart. We’re the only one who can do it fully because we’re the only one who knows the fullest extent of what’s going on in there. Those layers that we build around ourselves in an attempt to protect and disguise the inner core are generally unhelpful and in many cases they’re only fooling one person – us! Most people have incredibly bad self-awareness.

The Apostle Paul warns the young man Timothy: “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim 4:16 NIV). If we need constant calibration to make sure our desired behaviour is in keeping with the behaviour we actually display, how much more is this true of the calibration of our behaviour, motives and values against those of Christ?

The internal struggle

Do we sometimes find ourselves falling into the trap of confessing a sin only to add a rationale for why we did it? then we realise just how pathetic our explanation is. The process of confronting a sin and articulating exactly what that is – and then listening to ourselves attempting to justify that sin – is very useful. We then realise just how futile it is to attempt to justify ourselves to the One who knows full well our motives. If we have fully digested the enormity of our sin – just how serious even the simplest sin is in the eyes of God – we arrive at a point when the weight of failure overwhelms us; we have absolutely no choice but to acknowledge, with an acute sense of humility, head bowed, a sunken heart and almost with shivers up our spine, that this problem is completely beyond our own ability to solve. We should never forget that the confession of our sin and the seeking of forgiveness is tantamount to placing our hand on that animal’s head and understanding that the sin we have committed makes us worthy of death. When considered in that light, we sit here, each one of us, in judgment. At the very least, through our confession of repeated failure, we learn the lesson of humility and self-distrust and the need for trust in God. The remedy for pride is true self-knowledge at work!

Paul captures this internal struggle, this dialogue between the heart and the head very well in Romans 7. There he is pained to say: “For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin” (see v14–25). We referred to Lamentations 3 earlier, where Jeremiah is deeply afflicted by sin and remorse: “My soul hath them still in remembrance, and is humbled in me. This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope. It is of the LORD’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness” (v20–23). The objective is not to be hamstrung by this overwhelming weight of a stricken conscience but to have it set completely free and to leave feeling lighter, with our sins identified, confessed, repented of and forgiven.

The exercise is only truly worthwhile if it is devoid of deception; no justification is plausible; there is no value in leaving anything out. In fact, it is quite the contrary. Indeed, when it comes to our relationship with God, any masking effort is completely futile; in that discussion we are seen for what we are: “poor, miserable, blind and naked” and, like the fish in the fishbowl, which cannot hide, cannot escape the observer’s gaze. Nothing less than complete transparency is enough.

The all-seeing eyes of God

It has been said that there are chapters in every life which are seldom read and certainly not aloud. Let that not be said of us. The psalmist opened his heart to God: “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psa 139: 23–24). Paul encourages all of us, “Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us” (Rom 12:3 NLT). We should be very critical of ourselves in this process, because God will be. Solomon observed, “For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil” (Eccl 12:14). All worldly ambition, whatever image we may project to other people, whatever perception of success that we wish to create, vanishes in the gaze of One who sees through all those outer layers of the ‘onion’ to the core intents and motives of our heart. Our challenge this morning is to give ourselves our own audit. The benchmark for this audit is Jesus Christ. Let’s lift our eyes to him and then, with heads bowed, have a full and frank conversation with ourselves about how we’re tracking against that benchmark. A full audit is coming someday soon; let’s be prepared. ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’