It was Socrates who supposedly said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
The season of Lent is characterized by, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, “Self-examination.”
But what does that mean for us as followers of Christ?
How do we practice self-examination in a uniquely “Christian” manner?
Self-Examination Leads to Freedom
It needs to be said, first of all, that, according to Paul in Romans 8, there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
Thus, self-examination, when done by a Christian, will never lead to condemnation.
Our sins have been forgiven through the cross of Jesus, so we can engage in the process in full confidence that whatever we may discover, regardless of how difficult or painful, can be taken to the cross with the assurance of God’s forgiveness in Christ.
There is biblical warrant for self-examination.
The psalmist writes, “Search me out, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my restless thoughts. Look well whether there be any wickedness in me, and lead me in the way that is everlasting” (Psalm 139:22-23).
And Paul exhorts the Corinthians, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5).
Why? Because only “the yoke of Christ is light and His burden easy” (Matthew 11:30).
The other burdens we carry will eventually crush us and those closest to us.
So, How Do We Practice Self-Examination?
Historically, Christians have used various “tools” for self-examination.
Many find the 10 Commandments to be helpful, while others use the so-called “Seven Deadly Sins” (Thomas Aquinas called them “cardinal vices”). Still others find the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount a helpful framework for self-examination.
Personally, I often use the Great Commandment, which Jesus identified: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.
And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).
The process of self-examination involves prayerfully walking through one of these tools, attentive to ways in which we have, to use the words of a well-known common prayer, “sinned against [God] in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”
As things occur to us, we write them down, pausing to acknowledge our sins—the attitudes, dispositions, actions that are out of line with God’s intentions—to God.
When this process, which can take several hours, is complete, meditating on scriptures like 1 John 1:8-9 is helpful: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Many find it helpful to shred or burn the paper on which the sins are written as a tangible sign of the forgiveness we receive.
Others find it helpful to share the list with a trusted friend, a spiritual director, or a pastor, allowing that person to assure us with words of God’s forgiveness.
What is the goal of Self-Examination?
As we receive God’s forgiveness, we begin (or continue) the process theologians often call “sanctification” (meaning “to make holy”, or, more literally, “to set apart”), which is, by the power of Spirit within us, how we become more and more the people that God intends us to be.
We begin to cultivate new habits and practices in which the Spirit is free to work on our broken hearts.
This is, ultimately, the “end” (i.e. “goal”, or, to use a Greek word, “telos”) of self-examination: leading us to a place of greater capacity both to receive and to give the love of God, because that is kind of person that God has created each one of us to be—a receiver and giver of love, love rightly ordered according to God’s intention for us and for all of creation.
Self-examination may seem daunting, and is, in fact, often painful.
However, when understood as a process under-girded by the radical forgiveness and acceptance offered us through the cross of Christ, with the goal of making us more and more the people that God created us to be, it becomes a gift.
I hope and pray that each one of us receive this gift during Lent, experiencing the love of God in our hearts and in our congregation.
And, as a result, I pray we become able to give this love, the love that drove Jesus to the cross, to a world in such desperate need.