Jonathan Edwards saw self-examination as an important part of life. Not only did he want unbelievers to examine themselves and realize their need to come to Christ for salvation, but he wanted Christians to examine themselves and see where they fell short, to be brought to humility, repentance, and dependence upon God. And this wasn't just something he wanted for others -- he himself regularly set aside times of self-examination, to see where he fell short and be brought to humility. He saw these as an important part of his Christian life.
A hint of Edwards' focus on self-examination pops up in the sermon I recently blogged about, on the Preciousness of Time. I think if you read the sermon, or even my notes on it, with any degree of honesty, you'll begin to realize how much we have failed to value time, and how much of it we have wasted. I know I was greatly challenged by this. Edwards' application points seem aimed to incite self-examination, and probably spring from his own self-examination. For instance, he asks, "Have you not wasted your precious moments, your precious days, yea, your precious years? ... What is become of them all? What can you show of any improvement made, or good done, or benefit obtained, answerable to all this time which you have lived?"
Edwards biographer Iain Murray discusses some of Edwards' thoughts on self-examination. He writes:
The year before he settled in Northampton he had resolved in his Diary, 'To set apart days of meditation of particular subjects; as, sometimes, to set apart a day for the consideration of the greatness of my sins.' The lesson, however, became the subject not for days but years. In Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan relates how Christiana and her children were led 'down the hill into the Valley of Humiliation.' Edwards was now taken down the same path:
Often, since I lived in this town, I have had very affecting views of my own sin and vileness; very frequently to such a degree as to hold me in a kind of loud weeping, sometimes for a considerable time together; so that I have often been forced to shut myself up. I have had a vastly greater sense of my own wickedness, and the badness of my heart, then ever I had before my conversion. ... And it is affecting to think, how ignorant I was, when a young Christian, of the bottomless, infinite depths of wickedness, pride, hypocrisy and deceit, left in my heart.
Sixty years before Edwards wrote these words, Bunyan had described the Valley of Humiliation as rich and green: 'I have known many labouring men that have got good estates in this Valley of Humiliation (for "God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble"); for indeed it is a very fruitful soil, and doth bring forth by handfuls.'
Murray goes on to point out that this experience and recognition of his own sin had great effects on Edwards theology. He quotes Edwards again:
The very thought of any joy arising in me, on any consideration of my own amiableness, performances, or experiences, or any goodness of heart or life, is nauseous and detestable to me. ...of late years, I have had a more full and constant sense of the absolute sovereignty of God, and a delight in that sovereignty; and have had more a sense of the glory of Christ, as a Mediator revealed in the gospel.
What I'd like to briefly consider here is whether or not Edwards (and Murray) are off base in their view that self-examination is important. Edwards' application questions, as I mentioned, are pointed. I think we don't often ask ourselves these sorts of questions, nor do we hear them in sermons. Is this a good thing? Have we become somehow more enlightened and moved past asking unpleasant questions like these? Or ought we, generally speaking, spend more time in self-examination than we do?
I'll be interested to hear your comments, but I think the answer is that, generally speaking, Edwards was right. Some people are more prone to introspection than others, and it is indeed possible to become too introspective. But generally speaking, I think we tend to be busy all the time, and spend little time really considering much of anything, and especially not considering where we fall short. When we have spare time, we want to be entertained or otherwise kept busy, or even just relax. I think we rarely take time to stop and examine ourselves and ask ourselves difficult questions: Have our lives been in line with Scripture? Where have we fallen short? How does the sermon we recently heard apply to us?
I think the Bible speaks extensively of the need for self-examination. I won't compile an exhaustive list here, but one notable place is in 2 Cor. 13:5, which says, "Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves." (ESV) And in 1 Cor. 11 we read about those who took the Lord's supper (communion) in an unworthy manner (and suffered as a result) because they failed to recognize and repent of their sin before coming to partake, highlighting the need for self-examination prior to communion. And in Matthew 7, Jesus spoke of the need to examine ourselves when he wrote of the tendency to judge others hypocritically, trying to take the speck out of another's eye while leaving the plank in our own.
There are other passages which don't speak as directly to self-examination, but help explain why it's necessary. For example, Matthew 18 speaks of the unmerciful servant, who was forgiven a tremendous debt by a king, then goes and demands that a fellow servant repay him the tiny amount of money he is owed. From this passage, we learn that we need to understand how great a debt of sin we have been forgiven by Christ, so that we also forgive others. To see how much we've been forgiven, we need to examine ourselves and see our own sin.
Jesus also told his disciples that at best, we are unworthy servants if we have done everything God has commanded. Certainly we haven't, so we are to recognize we have been, to some degree, rebellious servants. If we recognize this, we will be more grateful for what God has done in providing reconciliation and forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ, and it will bring us to worship God more.
A further reason for self-examination is to recognize our need of God's grace in our lives, because without God's help, we are weak. Without self-examination, however, we tend to lose sight of this. The Bible says that God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. And unfortunately, without self-examination, we have a tendency to become proud, as the Edwards quotes above highlight.
Most of us probably have a tendency to focus on the good things we've done, and comparing ourselves with others. We naturally like to think we've done well, rather than operating by the Biblical realization that we are at best "unworthy servants". Self-examination can help us see that, in reality, we've fallen short. For a Christian, this is a good realization, because we are not to find our satisfaction in looking at ourselves and our own merits, but by looking to Christ and what he has done for us, and in serving him. And we need to rely on God, not on our own strength. A realization of our own sin brings us to realize how much we lack strength, and brings us to a greater reliance on God.
In all, I think Edwards, Bunyan, and Murray, were on to something important and Biblical in pointing to the need for self-examination. I want to put this idea into practice more in my own life, and I think we all ought to. Furthermore, this points out that practical, personal application of sermons is a good thing, something desirable when we're choosing a church. Sure, it's not comfortable, and we may be upset at first when we see our faults. But Biblically, we need to see our faults. After all, David prayed in the psalms, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. 24 See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." (Ps. 139:23-25) We need to see where we offend God, so that we can repent and do right.