I confess to a little ‘blogger’s block’ the past few weeks, at least in part due to my own grieving over the fall, failure, fallout, and firestorm about men formerly in ministry who are very dear to me personally. In the past two years, I count 6 or 7 . . . wow, wow, wow. Knowing their backstories provokes my heart to greater mercy than those who only think they know. But I don’t have a single word of critique about others on any side of any battle, not in public at least. I can say this for sure: Men, for the most part, are far more stricken with self doubt and awareness of their own sinful flaws than ever seems to reach the public awareness. Further, those who have failed in significant ways often come to a new and deeper awareness of their need for daily grace and the importance, above all, of extending that grace to others. Oswald Chambers has rightly said, “I will never despair of any man, when I rightly discern what lies in me apart from the grace of God.”
But that is an incredible hardship, “rightly discerning what lies in me.” If we were better at the discipline of personal reflection and confession, we would be better men for Christ and His church. Where this discipline is neglected, we grow in pride and presumption. Worst of all we grow in self-righteous oblivion about our own condition. As ministers of the gospel, we need frequent personal detox. We need time to cultivate our own souls and revive the authenticity of our own relationship with Christ. From Isaiah’s “unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5), to Peter’s “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8), to John’s “When I saw the Lord, I fell at his feet as though dead” (Revelation 1:17), all genuine contact with our Creator Christ initially produces an immense sense of personal sin.
As ministers of the gospel, we need frequent personal detox.
How long has it been since you had tears of conviction about yourself, instead of the sorry substitute of self-righteous superiority over others? How long since you were truly grieved by an accurate assessment of the actual condition of your soul in God’s eyes? When rejoicing in our positional standing of ‘declared and treated as righteous’ through faith in Christ impairs our comprehension of here-and-now stalled sanctification, we can be sure that hyper grace has found a home in our hearts. As Tozer said, “A man can believe in total depravity and never have any sense of it for himself at all. Lots of us believe in total depravity who have never been wounded with the knowledge that we’ve sinned.” What an incredible insight. To get there, to get to accurate self-examination that dismantles self-righteousness and elevates afresh our reveling in grace for self and others, we need three things: 1) attention to the voice of conscience; 2) listening for Holy Spirit conviction through the Scriptures; and 3) insight from a trusted friend who knows us well and observes us frequently.
1) Attention to the voice of conscience.
To harness the directives of a biblically-informed conscience, defined by Hobbes as the soul gazing upon itself, we must search our own hearts and confess our own sins. But what exactly am I gazing upon? What can I do so I don’t just sit still in feigned spirituality and let my mind wander? I find it helpful to pray in four areas, with my Bible and journal open and a pen in hand.
a) Look up. I turn to God in His Word, which is a mirror, and get down on my knees in prayer, centering my life back on the Lord. b) Look back. Where have I been this week? And this month? What failures should I confess as sin and forsake? What priorities have been lost that must be regathered with focus and emphasis? c) Look around. Who am I neglecting? Who have I hurt? Who has needs I should be meeting? I’m not alone in this world. Other people matter to God and they should matter to me, too. d) Look ahead. What’s up ahead? How should I be different? How can I make it so? What is important that has been neglected? What’s unimportant that has had my attention?
2) Listening for Holy Spirit conviction through the Scriptures.
Recognizing the deceitful nature of my own heart, I would never allow the foolishness of thinking, I don’t see anything wrong in my actions or attitudes. To get beyond our lack of self-awareness, we invite the Holy Spirit to engage with us about matters our conscience is blind to. “Search me oh God, and know my heart. Try me and know my anxious thoughts, see if there be any wicked way in me” (Psalm 139:23-24). “The Spirit bears witness with our Spirit, that we are the children of God” (Romans 8:16), and “As many as are led by the Spirit of God these are the sons of God” (Romans 8:14). It is interesting to me that those who decry the personal ministry of the Holy Spirit in speaking to us are often those most apparently in need of that work. Oh, Holy Spirit come now and convict me of sin (the things I have done and the attitudes I have allowed which grieve your heart), of righteousness (Your holy standard revealed in Your Word), and the judgement to come (the reality of my pending accountability) (John 16:8).
3) Insight from a trusted friend who knows us well and observes us frequently.
All ministry of the Holy Spirit to us as individuals remains in the category of the subjective. To truly examine ourselves, we must seek a final quality check of our self-examination through the counsel of a trusted friend. Even the apostle Paul said, “I know nothing against myself, but I am not justified by this” (1 Corinthians 4:4). Paul was aware, as we must be, that claiming to be without fault simply because we are not aware of any is akin to “I see, said the blind man.” “Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future” (Proverbs 19:20). “Oil and perfume make the heart glad, and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel” (Proverbs 27:9). When a friend who knows us well is assured of our intention to listen without rebuttal and embrace their counsel without hesitation, we are in a position to learn what we are blind to and score big gains in progressive sanctification. When that happens, everyone wins—our spouses, our kids, our ministry partners, our congregants. Most of all, the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.
“But let a man examine himself” (1 Corinthians 11:28). Someone has said “the unexamined life is not worth living.” I was going to look up the source of that quote, but I thought it better just to get busy doing it again. I know from experience that many will read this; few will actually do it. Will you?