Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts;
And see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way.
- Psalm 139:23-24
The Psalmist has just given a beautiful declaration of God’s continual presence with him and intimate knowledge of him, past, present and future. (verses 1-18) Caught up in this rapture at the thought of God’s all-encompassing glory, he bursts forth in what to us modern Christians seems like an unseemly expression of anger against “the wicked” because “they speak against You wickedly.” (verses 19-22) This vehemence should not surprise us, however. His intense awareness of God’s overwhelming power and goodness made the blasphemies of the wicked utterly intolerable to him. I once heard Winkey Pratney, an evangelist from New Zealand, tell about an incident soon after he was converted as a young man. He had stopped at a diner to grab a bite to eat and while waiting for his order to be brought to the counter he heard the proprietor cursing and endlessly using Jesus’ name as an expletive. Finally, he could stand it no more so he leaped over the counter grabbed this big, burly guy by the shirt (Winkey, as his name might suggest to you, is very much a light weight) and demanded that he stop speaking that way about his beloved Savior. The man was amazed and meekly complied.
So we can understand the Psalmist’s ardor and ire though the words he uttered could not be echoed by a Christian today, now that we have seen God’s love for sinners demonstrated on the cross. But we see that immediately after this outburst, ending with “I hate them with the utmost hatred; they have become my enemies” the text quoted above appears. It would seem that the Psalmist suddenly realized that he, too, is guilty of sin, in fact, possibly even while he is feeling such indignation with the wicked, if not because of it. This leads him to ask God to search his heart to find out if there is indeed within him some element of what he hates when he sees it in others. This is the right attitude to have and there is no question but that God will answer this petition if sincerely uttered.
We all need to gain a true picture of our character and motives and we cannot have it without God’s help. The problem is that when our own hand holds the mirror for introspection we are apt to turn it away as soon as we begin to catch a glimpse of an unsightly blemish on our soul. But if God holds the mirror, His hand is steady and, above all, it not only provides the sight of what is wrong but also the way to replace it with what is good and holy. The Bible says that “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) We are extremely clever at fooling ourselves, of shielding our eyes from what would threaten our pride or sense of security. But we need to get over this reticence to see the truth about ourselves. In the end, we will reap what we have sown. The “small defect” we had thought was hardly noticeable or worthy of taking the effort to overcome will in time grow to become something that is altogether dominating and destructive, part of “the hurtful way” rather than “the way everlasting.” God loves us deeply and takes every effort to warn us and offer us His help, but we must listen in time. This will require us to engage in a healthy form of self-examination.
The Bible says that “The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord, searching all the innermost parts of his being.” (Proverbs 20:27) In another place it says, “For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him?” (1 Corinthians 2:11) We do need to cooperate with God’s Spirit in conducting an honest examination of our motives, attitudes and behavior. This involves using the “lamp of the Lord”, our own faculty of thought and reflection. However, we must not do it alone. We must depend upon the Spirit of God to lay His finger upon the problem. Otherwise, we are apt to mistake a vice for a virtue and vice versa. We also may feel overwhelmed at the amount of change we need to make and give up or end up in “the Slough of Despond”. In the language of Scripture, we need the “the word of God which is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword… piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow…able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12) by which to truly know ourselves. There are all sorts of man-made moralities and systems of ethics but only what God has revealed by His Spirit through the prophets, the apostles and by those inward flashes of insight and convictions He impresses upon our spirits as we listen to Him, can give us a true picture of ourselves and what we need to do.
One mistake that is often made in self-examination is to do it solely when we are alone and inactive. Yes, quiet times are good, even essential, but often it is when we are in the midst of activity that we can catch a glimpse of ourselves as we truly are, much as a person walking past a window catches their reflection and realizes their hair is out of place or they have been putting on weight. It is often when we are in the midst of doing things that God shines a light upon it and reveals to us our character in the light of our actions or responses to the actions of others. Later, we may take these insights to the Lord in prayer or wait upon Him in expectant silence holding these things before Him for further light. And we must remember that the goal is not to find out how bad we are but to find out the truth and where we need further growth. If we are in a healthy, growing state we will also hear, from time to time, the Lord’s “Well done, good and faithful servant…” and feel the joy of measuring true progress along the road to Christlikeness.