Spiritual self-examination

Some time ago I read about a Sunday School teacher who gave his class a lesson on how individuals must personally confess their sins to God, in order to receive His forgiveness. When he closed the session he happened to causally ask “How many of you have sins you would like to confess to the Lord?” Everyone sat as quiet as a mouse. Finally one child raised her hand and said “Please sir, I don’t have any sins to confess for myself, but I know plenty of other people who do!”

This humorous story has quite a lesson for adults because often we think much the same way even though we should know better! We are all too quick to criticise others for their behaviour but how often do we really take a good look at ourselves and see ourselves as God sees us? Early in my ministry I heard about a woman of mature years who confidently told her Vicar that she hadn’t committed a sin for over ten years. The minister listened carefully to what she said and then with great spiritual insight replied, “That’s some achievement, you must be very proud of it.” The woman famously responded, “Yes I am very PROUD of it indeed.” This response of course enabled the minister to explain to her that a heart full of pride was a sinful heart and that in reality she was very far from perfect after all!

Scripture teaches that individuals who think they are without sin are dangerously deceiving themselves (1st John Ch1v8) and that everyone has things they need to repent of personally, so as to be forgiven by God. As it teaches in Romans Ch 3v23, “we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Jesus gave the parable of the Pharisee and the Sinner in Luke Ch 18vs9-14 as a direct warning to all those who think they are righteous and have nothing of which to repent. We are told in verse 11 that the so called “good man” who also happened to be a religious leader prayed to God saying “I thank you that I am not like other men: thieves or adulterers.” The Sinner on the other hand, acknowledged his faults and pleaded to the Lord for forgiveness and mercy. Having approached God in a spirit of humility and repentance, it was the Sinner who received forgiveness rather than the man of pride who boasted that he had never stolen or committed adultery.

This lesson in humility is one which many need to take to heart. All too often I encounter people who are quick to complain about the moral state of society, but who never actually look at their own personal moral standards. They are quick to point out the faults of others but they never acknowledge or lament how much they too have personally failed the Lord. They think they have committed but few actions needing repentance, so in their own eyes they are “good enough” for God. Just like the Pharisee they say to themselves “Since I haven’t murdered anyone, and I don’t rob banks I am therefore a good person!” But since when did murder and robbing banks become the only commandments one can break?! If only these people looked at their personal lives in the light of the rest of God’s commandments they would be truly humbled and begin to see themselves as God sees them.

Over the years Christian writers have produced numerous “devotional aids” and “check lists” to help people do this very thing. The aim of these writings is to enable individuals to better assess their spiritual condition so that pride would be replaced by humility and the end result would be true repentance, forgiveness and peace with God. These devotional aids encourage a real depth of spirituality because all too often a clear conscience is simply a sign of a bad memory rather than the result of living a genuinely Godly life.

Here are two devotional gems worth repeating from long ago. As we read them one can easily see why previous generations were so spiritually minded. Clear and concise, these devotional aids written to assist generations long gone still have the same power today to make us really think and see ourselves as God sees us. They strip away pride and give us the conviction that we are all in need of God’s most profound mercy not just murderers and bank robbers!

The following is an extract from the 1922 “Children’s Service Book” published for use at children’s services throughout the (Anglican) Church of Ireland. Immediately after the Creed the congregation repeated these words;

My duty towards God is;

to believe in Him, to fear Him,
And to love Him with all my heart, with all my mind, with all my soul
and with all my strength;
to worship Him, to give Him thanks,
to put my whole trust in Him, to call upon Him,
to honour His Holy Name and His Word,
and to serve Him truly all the days of my life.

My duty towards my neighbour is;

to love him as myself, and to do to all men as I would that they should do unto me;
to love, honour and support my father and mother;
to honour and obey the King, and all that are put in authority under him;
to submit myself to all my teachers and spiritual pastors;
to hurt no body by word or deed;
to be true and just in all my dealing;
to bear no malice or hatred in my heart;
to keep my hands from stealing, and my tongue from evil speaking, lying and slandering;
to keep my body in temperance, soberness and chastity;
and not to covet other men’s goods, but learn and labour truly to get mine own living.

The service then continued with prayer and hymns. If all this is thought provoking for children and teenagers, it is as nothing when compared with what has been written to help adults in their thinking."

What follows is a shortened extract from a book widely distributed to adults in the (Anglican) Church of England on the subject of “Self examination” before taking Holy Communion. It was printed in 1897.

Before you come to Holy Communion, very carefully examine your heart and your life. If you are strict with yourself you may be shocked at the number of sins these questions will bring back to your mind. But it is better to have the pain of them now and know God’s forgiveness and peace than to have them laid to your charge before the Judgment Seat.

Since my last Communion has my love for my Saviour increased? Do I wish I loved Him more? Have I been thankful when God has sent me special mercies? Do I trust Him wholly. Am I bearing fruit in my character?

Have I said my prayers each day? Have I said them meaningfully and sincerely? Have I been a
coward; afraid of what people might say to me and so left my Godly duties undone rather than be laughed at or ill-used.

Have I used an oath or bad words of any kind? Have I used the Name of God in common idle talk? Have I read my Bible regularly, and asked the Lord to help me understand it? Have I broken any promises?

Have I said my prayers each day? Have I said them meaningfully and sincerely? Have I been a coward; afraid of what people might say to me and so left my Godly duties undone rather than be laughed at or ill-used.

Have I used an oath or bad words of any kind? Have I used the Name of God in common idle talk? Have I read my Bible regularly, and asked the Lord to help me understand it? Have I broken any promises?

Have I gone to Church, or have I been satisfied with any excuse to stay away? Have I tried to keep watch over my thoughts when at a service?

Have I behaved as I ought to my Father and Mother and prayed for them? Have I been kind to my brothers and sisters? If a husband and father; have I loved and been thoughtful for my wife and my children, bringing home my wages instead of spending them on myself? If a wife and mother; have I loved and been thoughtful for my husband and children and tried to make a loving home for them?

When provoked do I answer back? Have I tried to bring up my children in the ways of God and encouraged them in what is good and set them a good example? Have I been a kind neighbour?

Have I from my heart forgiven all who have done me wrong or have I repaid evil for evil? Do I acknowledge that two wrongs don’t make a right? Am I too proud to ask forgiveness of any one whom I have injured? Have I fought against my bad temper and tried hard to overcome it?

Have I bravely resisted bad thoughts and prayed for help against them or have I encouraged them? Have I mixed with bad companions more than necessary? Have I kept as much as possible out of the way of temptation? Have I led others into sin? Have I been vain regarding my personal appearance or my cleverness and ability?

Have I stolen money or anything belonging to another? Have I cheated in anyway, by tricks of the trade, neglecting work which I have been paid to do or paying those I employ too little for their work? Have I wilfully run into debt? Am I trying to repay all I owe?

Have I been a busybody and gossip in other people’s matters? Have I spoken ill of others either truly or falsely? Have I told any lies? Have I been jealous when any kindness has been shown to a neighbour and grumbled because it was not done to me instead?”

The devotional check list then concludes with the following moving prayer; “Oh Lord, deal not with me according to my sins neither punish me as my iniquities deserve. O Lord God, Who has graciously promised to forgive all sinners who turn to Thee in true sorrow for their sins, receive me I pray Thee, unworthy as I am. Pardon all my sins of thought and word and deed. Have mercy upon me most merciful Father, for Thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, forgive me all that is past and grant that I may ever hereafter serve and please Thee in the newness of life to the Honour and Glory of Thy Name, through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

There is a famous story told about Martin Luther, one of the leaders of the Church during the time of the Reformation. He had been taking stock of his life and had listed all the many sins he had committed. He was appalled at the length of this list and felt Satan say to him “how will you go to Heaven having done all these bad things?” Martin began to feel really worthless and downcast until he sensed the Holy Spirit give him the answer. At the bottom of his list of sins he wrote 1st John Ch1v7 “The Blood of Jesus Christ His Son, cleanses us from All sin”. In John Ch 19v30 we are told that immediately before Jesus died on the Cross He cried out “It is finished”. In the Greek, these words mean “paid in full”. The debt of Martin’s sins had been “paid in full” and so have ours, if we are truly repentant. Jesus bore the penalty of our sins on the Cross. Now there is complete forgiveness available for all those who are humble and penitent.

Rather than bringing despair, these devotional aids should assist us in our spiritual growth by making us all the more grateful for the Cross and showing that “we have much work still to do” in our personal lives. Life is a school and we all stumble in many ways. The correct response when we sin should be repentance and a commitment to try harder in the future because the only real failures in God’s eyes are those who stop trying and give up.