Introspection That Edifies: Part 2
In my last post, I began discussing the proper role of introspection in the Christian life. I noted that there tends to be two kinds of people as it concerns introspection—the perfectionist and the pragmatist. The perfectionist obsesses over minor details of his Christian walk while the pragmatist doesn’t worry about the “small stuff” as long as the “big things” are in order. I spent the majority of the post challenging the pragmatist not to neglect the role of introspection in spiritual growth. In this post, I want to encourage the perfectionist to make sure he is practicing a truly beneficial kind of introspection.
Most Christians agree that we need to evaluate our hearts and walk carefully. Introspection is a good thing, but is there such a thing as too much introspection? I don’t believe we should place a limit on introspection, but I am confident that it can become unhelpful when it is not grounded in the gospel. I’d like to offer four warnings to the perfectionist that are vital to maintaining edifying introspection.
First Warning: Anxiety over Hidden Sins
As a teen I understood 1 Corinthians 11:27 to mean that in order to be a worthy participant in the Lord’s Supper, I couldn’t have any unconfessed sin in my past. Therefore, I would dig and dig through my memory to remember anything I had forgotten to confess. I was anxious about being worthy to participate, but I didn’t understand Paul correctly. In context, Paul is simply urging the Corinthians to approach the Lord’s Supper in a worthy manner with reverence and fear.
I also recall some anxious moments when hearing sermons on the conscience. For example, Acts 24:16 states, “I myself always strive to have a conscience without offense toward God and man.” The preacher challenged us to search our memories for any sin we had committed against God or another person and to make it right. I want to be clear that the basic challenge is a good one. If I have damaged a relationship or I have hurt someone, I must make it right. But we get off track when we worry that maybe there is something back there that I forgot about, and until I remember it and confess it, God will not bless me. That’s not what Paul said; he only said that he strived to maintain a clear conscience.
Sadly, many Christians struggle with anxiety over hidden sins. When troubles come or their Christian experience is lacking, they assume there must be a hidden sin that God is holding against them, and they anxiously dig through their past to find it. In so doing, they fail to see that God is a loving Father, not a vengeful master. They also fail to trust the Spirit to convict his people through the mirror of the Word (Rom 8:26–27; Heb 4:12–13).
Second Warning: Legalistic View of Confession
Some Christians assume that God’s acceptance of them depends on their confession. There is a sense in which this is true. Psalm 66:18 states, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.” But it is also true that our acceptance with God is ultimately rooted in Christ, not my ability to confess every sin. We especially should not think that how much I cry or beat myself up merits God’s acceptance.
Sadly, Christians fail at this point far too often. They commit a sin, and they rightly grieve over that sin. But they think they have to regain God’s favor by making themselves miserable. Or maybe they have to take a week off of church because they aren’t worthy to worship. This is not a gospel-centered way of dealing with sin. God is our Father, and he wants us to relate to him from a position of security, not fear (Rom 8:15). And so search your heart because you love God and want to please him, but do so knowing that God accepts you because of Christ, not because of how good you are at confessing sin or because of how much you grieve.
Third Warning: Absence of Joy in the Gospel
The Christian who is anxious about hidden sin is going to have a hard time experiencing Christian joy because he is never quite sure God is really pleased with him. But you can’t read the NT honestly and conclude that this is how God wants us to live. God consistently presents himself as eager to forgive and accept any who come to him with a repentant heart (Matt 11:28–30; Luke 15:11–24; 18:9–14). And he wants his people to live before him with joy and security. Therefore, if you are an introspective person who struggles to experience joy, your problem is probably not that there is some sin you need to discover and confess. Rather, your problem is probably that you need to see God as your Father and learn to humbly rest in his grace.
Fourth Warning: A Crippling Inability to Go Forward
I had a roommate in college who loved the Lord, but he would work himself into awful mind games due to extreme introspection. He would obsess over his motives and every minor action. Despair and doubt often ruled his heart, and they crippled his joy and his ability to grow.
Again, God doesn’t want his children to live with this kind of fear, discouragement, and doubt. Jesus died, “So that we might receive the adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent for the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’” (Gal 4:5b–6). He wants us to be secure in his love and confident in his ability to change us. Therefore, I’d like to conclude with 4 implications of everything I’ve discussed in both posts.
First Implication: Maintain a serious attitude toward sin.
Romans 6 teaches that a Christian who uses grace to excuse apathy toward sin does not understand grace or the intent of the gospel. God commands us to root out sin at every level and pursue sanctification. You should reflect on the motives and desires of your heart. You should evaluate all of your conduct, and you must not tolerate anything that doesn’t align with biblical commands.
Second Implication: Work to maintain a good conscience.
The Scriptures consistently call us to confess our sins. We often find comfort in the promise of 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” But in context, John’s primary point is not God’s promise to forgive; instead, his primary point is that Christians are sin confessors. Therefore, if confession is not a daily habit of your life, you need to change that.
The same goes for human relationships. When you sin against someone, don’t pretend that it didn’t happen or assume the other person will overlook it. Humbly acknowledge your sin and ask for forgiveness. This honors God, and it will greatly improve your relationships.
Third Implication: Live in the present and the future, not in the past.
It is a good thing to be grieved by my sins, and I certainly should learn from them. But if God forgives and removes our sin (Ps 103:12), then at some point, we also need to move on. Paul had his own terrible past, but he refused to let it hinder him in the present. He said of himself, “forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:13b–14). If you are a more introspective person, be very careful that your past does not bog you down in the present or the future.
Fourth Implication: Depend on the grace of God for forgiveness and future change.
The Christian life is at its core one of peace and hope because we are justified by grace through faith (Eph 2:8) and because God has promised to complete his work of sanctification (Phil 1:6). Let God’s grace be your anchor through all of the ups and downs of your Christian walk.