Some Practical Thoughts on Self-Examination
Haggai called the people to consider their ways. I suggested this was an invitation to us today as well. But it isn’t something we do very regularly. Perhaps one of the reasons few people take time to examine themselves is that they are unsure how to go about it. Let me suggest three ways one could go about a time of self-examination. These are not original with me, but were passed on by my spiritual director and others. Ruth Haley Barton has some very good stuff on self-examination in her book Sacred Rhythms.
In each of these cases it’s important to find a quiet place (free from distractions) where you can focus your heart and your thoughts on God. Turn the electronic devices off. Be still and know that He is God! I encourage you to take a few moments in silence just sitting in God’s presence. When you are ready, begin!
1. Review the past day/week.
It’s as though we are in a film room and we invite the Holy Spirit to replay the significant things from our day/week. We ask him to draw our attention to places where we had a “deep sense of life-giving connection with God”; places where we felt most alive or most encouraged. Ignatius of Loyola called these experiences consolations.
At the same time, we also ask God to show us times during the day when we sensed a loss of God’s presence or out of touch with God. Life was drained from us. We felt off-center or full of confusion or rebellion or some other negative feeling. Ignatius called these experiences desolations.
By paying attention to the consolations and desolations we can see where God was moving and we responded to Him and where he was moving and we missed it. These times of examination can be times to rejoice and be thankful for God’s presence and also times of confession when we’ve failed to respond as we should to God’s activity in our lives.
I find taking time for a daily examination makes me more aware of God’s presence throughout the day and helps to keep me centered on him.
2. Review the past year.
A whole year spiritual inventory wherein one examines the past year utilizing one’s contemplative awareness that involves four specific thrusts:
A. Looking back Using the power of memory, one reviews the past year and deliberately exercises the discipline of noticing.
This is similar to the daily examination above only for the whole year. If one has practiced daily times of examination, this time will be easier – it might be simply reviewing journals rather than thinking back through the whole year. Our desire is to see when there were times of consolation and desolation throughout the year.
B. Looking through – Dependent upon the mind of Christ, one discerns the apparent connections and deeper meaning in one’s experiences (themes and patterns).
What do the themes and patterns that emerge tell us? Are they pointing us in a direction? Is there something to add or take away? Should we press on? Or do we need to repent and change directions?
C. Looking forward –Relying on sanctified imagination, one envisions future direction (what and where God’s calling/leading may be) for the upcoming months or year.
What is God calling us to in the days, months or year ahead? Where are we going?
D. Looking around – Drawing on the resources of community (the gift of “one anothering”), one determines needed support and structure to press on toward the next year.
Do I need someone to hold me accountable to the path God is calling? Do I need someone to walk the path with me? What, within the community of faith, will help me to move forward to where God is calling me?
3. Personal Reflection – taking a look inward, outward, and upward.
A. Solitude (inward presence)
How would I seek to be more present to myself and create a free space in my heart to understand more deeply who I am in God?
B. Service (outward presence)
How could I be more present to others and create a free space for them in order for me to better understand who they really are as my neighbor whom I am supposed to love and serve hospitably?
C. Prayer (upward presence)
How could I become more fully present to God and create a free space for him so I understand and experience more profoundly who God truly is in my life?
Most of the time our self-examination will point out small things we need to adjust or change. But on occasion, we will sense God inviting us to something bigger. At that point, a natural question is: “how do I know it’s really God and not just my own wishful thinking?” Bob Mumford in Take Another Look at Guidance, that there are three things God has provided that will line up when something is God’s will: the Word of God (objective standard); the Holy Spirit (subjective witness); and circumstances (divine providence and the wisdom of godly others).
I believe Ruth Haley Barton offers a broader list of questions to consider before moving forward:
1. Scripture: How does this choice relate to Scripture? Is there a particular Scripture that God is bringing to my mind as I ponder it? What is it saying to me?
2. Consolation and desolation: Which choice brings the deepest sense of life, inner peace, and freedom?
3. Life of Christ: Is the choice consistent with what I know of the mind and heart of Jesus?
4. Character growth and development: How will this direction nurture the fruit of the Spirit in me – especially the fruit of love? What does love call for? Will this choice nurture what God is doing to grow me spiritually or develop my character?
5. Eternal perspective: Does this choice reflect the value of what is eternal and permanent and holds the deepest value? On my deathbed, which choice would I wish I had made?
6. Community: How does this choice fit with others’ observations of who I am and what God is doing in my life?
7. Direction and calling: How does this choice fit with the overall direction and calling of God in my life? Does the choice allow me to continue living into my calling?
Self-examination can seem intimidating and scary. I hope these suggestions will help it become something much more livable. I believe it’s something that ultimately should become a way of life!