A Discussion on Self-Reflection
I was planning on posting this as a comment in another discussion (I apparently opened up a can of worms and then wasn’t invited to the party in a different post), but when it became longer than my arm and far-reaching in its scope, I figured I might as well just post it here and elsewhere.
Someone commented that self-reflection leads to despair, and thus why would we want to engage in that? First, not all self-reflection or self-knowledge will lead to despair. It is possible to be surprised at the good that one finds, the transformation that God has already enacted within the soul, the love that has arisen, etc. Seeing what God has done in oneself can be a great spur on towards Him and towards what is good and can inspire one to praise and gratitude.
Second, who is to say that all despair is bad? There is despair that is rooted in hopelessness that is right to decry, though I think some are prone to this. In fact, I think we all are prone to it given the proper circumstances. However, there is another kind of despair that is valuable to God and the soul. We all attempt to save ourselves through one means or another. However, we may, and hopefully will, come to a point where we will look and realize that these means aren’t acutally accomplishing what we believed and hoped they would. What is left, then, but to despair of those means of saving ourselves? This despair is good; it leads us away from our idols and opens up the possibility of encountering God and letting Him be our salvation – the only true source of it.
As an example of this – take a man I know who teaches at a seminary. He was put into a situation where he was essentially forced to reflect on his interaction with Scripture. After examining a passage of Scripture for weeks, he suddenly realized that he was analyzing it and understanding it and figuring it out and connecting it to other relevant passages and finding all the nuances of meaning, but what he was not doing was letting it affect him. He was dissecting it, but it was not dissecting him, feeding him, or changing him. He realized that he was holding rational analysis of Scripture as his salvation rather than the God within the Scripture. Only when he began to reflect on himself was he able to realize his mistake and begin the process of repentance. Only after looking within could he find where he needed God.
As for Biblical credence for self-reflection, I submit that Psalm 139 is an excellent source, but that’s already been noted in the previous discussion.
I would also submit Proverbs. Take, for example, Prov. 13:4, ‘The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, But the soul of the diligent is made fat.’ (NASB) How does one know whether or not one is a sluggard if one does not reflect on oneself to see? How does one know if any proverb is particularly applicable to them or how best to apply a proverb if one does not look at oneself?
Similarly, I submit Matthew 3:1-2: ‘Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”‘ How do we know what to repent of if we don’t look within?
I offer Matthew 23:25-26. Jesus comdemns the Pharisees for their external actions while denying or neglecting the evil in their hearts. He commands them to “clean the inside of the cup and dish”, but how can they do this without looking inside?
Romans 7 is Paul’s discussion on the effect of the law. His take was that the law produces clarified knowledge of sin (vs. 7), but how does one know if, to use his example, covetousness resides in the heart unless one looks inside one’s heart? The purpose of the law is to offer an external plumb line for internal (and external) comparison.
For those who are amenable to historical rather than biblical evidence, I would point to Augustine’s Confessions as a beautiful example of a man examining his heart and reflecting on where he went astray and how he needed and needs Christ.
If you’d like something more Protestant friendly, I submit John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, where the first line is “Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” To know ourselves, we must reflect on ourselves
A few additional things occur to me as I write this. First, self-reflection is of itself not salvific, and anyone who claims that self-reflection is what will save us is in error. It is, however, part of the initial salvific process. If one does not recognize one’s need for a savior, then one will not turn to Christ that He might offer salvation. The only way to recognze one’s need for a savior is to look within first and see the missing piece or to see that one is unable to accomplish what is necessary – to change oneself. Then, once the gift salvation is embraced, then you’re still stuck with this annoying sin inside, and you have to point to it and say to God again, “I need help there.” We must look within ourselves to know that we need salvation and again to know that we need sanctification.
Second, it is certainly possible to overdo self-reflection, and many do. There are those, including Martin Luther at first, who are overly scrupulous in their search for what is wrong with oneself. Such people lack understanding of the forgiveness and love of God. The one thing they seem to miss seeing in their self-reflection is their abandoning of God’s love. There are also those who are constantly looking inside themselves in order to try to fix everything on their own. Similarly, such people do not understand God’s work is what changes us rather than our own. There are also those who turn inwards and reflect on themselves endlessly, seemingly without purpose. A psychological look at these folk might point out that they react out of habit, out of searching for what is familiar, out of living where they feel safe (in their minds or emotions rather than in the world). All of these self-reflective movements are obsessive and get in the way of God sanctifying us. But these mistakes do not negate the value of self-reflection in the first place.
Third, the purpose of self-reflection is not to take away from God’s responsibilities and capabilities but rather to work with Him. God’s view of man is better than man’s view of man. This is why, in self-reflection, one must take whatever one finds and offer that to God so that God may confirm it, reject it, expand on it, and/or tell us what to do with it. By reflecting on ourselves and finding things that are good or bad and offering those up to God, we are offering a sort of sacrifice of ourselves as Paul spoke of in Romans 12. Yes, God can and does reveal our hearts to us, but is it right to sit and wait for God to do this? Have we no part in this process?
Fouth, self-reflection can be a frightening process because it can lead towards, as previously noted, despair or guilt or shame. Many avoid self-reflection or push against it, often unknowingly, because they do not want to encounter these things. How much more comfortable life is when we’re not feeling guilty, ashamed, empty, hopeless, etc.! We all do this, actually, to a greater or lesser extent. Our fear of encountering the unknown or seeing what we don’t want to see is a huge impetus for not looking into one’s heart. Fear, however, is not sufficient reason to avoid something unless said fear is debilitating, and in either case, we are sustained by love, which casts out fear – gradually.
Fifth, self-reflection does not negate God-reflection. Whatever we find in our hearts from self-reflection must be taken to God and whatever we discover about God must be related to ourselves (and others). Both are part of a healthy spirituality.
We must know who we are in order to be in relationship with God. How do we know where we are loving God well or poorly unless we know ourselves? How can we know how we are deceiving ourselves about how we love or fail to love our neighbor unless we look into our hearts carefully? Self-reflection is implied throughout Scripture, demonstrated and urged by history’s foremost theologians, and every person engages in it to some small extent whether they realize it or not simply to get through their daily lives. The ultimate purpose remains, however, to lead us towards relationship with God.