There comes a time in our spiritual development when the primary focus of the Holy Spirit is to lovingly help us see our true inner selves more clearly. This may well be one of the most challenging areas of spiritual formation, but it is certainly one of the most important. Saint Teresa of Avila wrote in the Way of Perfection: “Almost all problems in the spiritual life stem from a lack of self-knowledge.” Saint Teresa understood that a keen awareness of yourself and a healthy relationship to God are intricately related. So when we talk about “looking under the hood” we are in fact talking about looking into our inner self to discover the things that hinder the development of the kind of spiritual life that God wants us to enjoy. Once those hindrances are discovered, they must be lifted into the light of God’s love and grace so that healing can occur and our continued formation in Christlikeness is neither sidetracked nor stunted.
The Psalmist catches the spirit of what I mean when he says, “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way (a way contrary to truth) in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24). David is pleading with God for a thorough examination of his inmost being accompanied by whatever corrective measures are necessary. Such an intimate revelation of our true self is neither easy to pursue nor pain-free to experience. Fortunately for us, God’s gaze into our soul is always a grace-filled gaze. On the contrary, self-examination done with only the scrutiny of human eyes may only add to our fear and shame. But with grace we can see the worst of our condition yet remain hopeful of healing for “it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” (Phil.2:13).
Looking For What?
This type of Christian self-examination is not a form of navel gazing. We are not to be self-absorbed and looking inward to see how we feel about ourselves or how we compare to other people. It should not turn into a morbid process of introspection where we do nothing but examine ourselves, and where such self-examination becomes the main and chief end in our life. Rather we should embrace a healthy self-examination that looks for anything that might be offensive to God and/or anything that would hinder our growth into spiritual adulthood.
From a Biblical perspective, the primary hindrance to spiritual formation in holiness is sin. The Scripture admonishes us to, “lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us” (Heb. 12:1) and “to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires” (Eph.4:22). As fallen creatures needing redemption, we have not only been defiled by sin but we have been damaged by fallenness. The answer to sin’s defilement is forgiveness and cleansing. The answer to sin’s damage is correction and healing.
From the beginning of our new life with Christ, the Holy Spirit works with us to teach us how to walk and please God. A part of this is to teach us about sin. He will faithfully enlighten us on any behavior that is not pleasing to God or that holds the potential of harming our relationship to Him. For some Christians, He may need to start with the most obvious sins like the list Paul gives in Gal. 5:19-21. As we better understand sin, he will reveal those “culturally acceptable sins” that are not acceptable in God’s economy. Things like gossiping, “white lies”, covetousness, lust and a lack of gratitude. He will also talk to us about things we may not have known were wrong – things like sins of omission and unintentional sins. He will gently prod us to confess and repent of such things while enabling us, by grace, to rise higher in our level of living. In time, His probing and enlightening will help us to see those moments when we subtly try to manipulate others to get our own way or maybe a time when we told part of the truth but not all of it so as to save face! The Spirit will faithfully and ruthlessly seek to root all of these things out of our lives. Much of this happens by means of the Sprit led process of self-examination.
The journey that we are now on will take us to deeper levels of openness and surrender. We will grow in our understanding of what God requires, while at the same time be strengthened by grace to live a life that is “obedient from the heart” and that presents its “members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification” (Rom. 6:17-18). Sanctification is God’s answer to the defilement of sin and our conformity to Christ in true holiness. As sanctification progresses, the Holy Spirit will bring us to a place where we not only see, but are forced to deal with a deep-seated attitude – an inner orientation of our being out of which our behavior patterns flow. This “sinful self” is what causes us to keep our hands on the control levers of our life rather than abandoning them to God and His control. It will be here that the Spirit points us to our own cross! Here, at this conjuncture of self-will, self-centeredness, self-love and self-control, lies the real crux of deep inner formation in holiness. It is here that we must die to our old self. This requires a total consecration to God in love – a surrender so radical it’s like a death – to which God responds with a thorough cleansing of the heart by the inhabitation of His Spirit. From this point forward, rather than my being in charge of my relationship with God, God is given absolute control of the relationship.
God’s remedy for sin’s defilement is thorough. However, there is still much more work to be done. It does not solve all of the problems related to our fallenness and to the consequences of living in a broken body in a broken world. Sin has damaged the world we live in (it groans to be delivered) and sin has damaged us. As much as we would like for God to touch us into complete wholeness (body and mind), He has not chosen to work that way. The lives of the New Testament characters, the saints of the church and my own experience prove that there are no exceptions. He works with us and in us over time through the various means of grace to correct and heal the damage of sin. Hence the work of “looking inside” must go on.
Looking More Deeply!
Once we have allowed God to deal with the defilement of sin in our lives, we are more open and willing for Him to begin to work on the damage sin has caused. We have been born into a fallen world where sin’s impact on our culture, our community, our church, our family and our individual lives is significant. Living in such a world has consequences. I sometimes call it “sin’s collateral damage.” These problems are real and often hard to describe but are often referred to as weaknesses or infirmities. They include things like: painful hurts, brokenness, the fallout of misguided parenting, fear, fragility, perfectionism, deep inferiorities, quirks, baggage and scars from various forms of victimization and abuse. These may rightly be call emotional or behavioral damage but they so clearly impact our spiritual life and are so closely tied to our spiritual development that allowing the Holy Spirit to bring as much healing as possible to them is essential in the ongoing process of becoming spiritually whole.
Opening up our inner world in this area may be the most challenging element in the whole spiritual formation process. It is certainly one from which far too many shrink. I have met many such people who have closed their lives to this kind of honest introspection, yet who desperately need a deeper level of emotional healing. As a matter of fact, it seems that some have embraced certain misguided Christian teachings that only serve to deny or deadened their humanity, instead of setting it free to develop in all of its capacities under the influence of grace. Others avoid this path of self-knowledge because “they are afraid of being swallowed up in their own abysses. But Christians have confidence that Christ has lived through all the abysses of human life and that he goes with us when we dare to engage in sincere confrontation of ourselves. Because God loves us unconditionally – along with our dark sides – we don’t need to dodge ourselves. In the light of this love the pain of self-knowledge can be at the same time the beginning of our healing.” 
Starting The Process
The process of change begins at the point of honest transparency – with ourselves and with God. Nothing keeps people away from Christ more than their inability to see their need of him or their unwillingness to admit it. The same is true with the kind of self-knowledge that brings about spiritual and emotional maturity. Deny the problem, and nothing can be done about it; admit the problem, and at once there is the possibility of a solution. The kind of honesty I am talking about can be seen in the following steps used in systematic healthy self-examination:
1. Open the door – Invite God to show you any area of need or weakness. The opportunity to experience His correction is also an opportunity to experience His love (Heb. 12:5-11).
2. Refuse to excuse – Face the issue squarely refusing to make excuses for whatever it might be or entail. No one gets up in the morning, looks in the mirror and blames their mattress for what they see. They just accept it and work to beautify what can be beautified.
3. Partner with God – We have a responsibility to do what we can do. However, we need God’s power and grace to make lasting change. Paul portrays this partnership when he admonished us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).
4. Confess – If God points out any behavior that is contrary to truth, agree with Him quickly, acknowledge it and seek forgiveness.
5. Keep an attitude of gratitude – Continually voice to God your gratitude for all He is showing you and for what He is doing in you.
6. Welcome an outside voice – God uses community to form and shape us. He also uses individuals in that community. Develop deep spiritual friendships with those whom you can share what you are discovering about yourself and who will be able to help you see things about yourself you couldn’t otherwise see. You will need not only their insight but their affirmation and encouragement as well.
7. Establish Scripture as a baseline for your behavior – Accept nothing but Biblical behavior in your life. Old patterns of established behavior and thought die hard. Even the Apostle Peter had to be confronted with behavior that was unbiblical when he refused to eat with the Gentiles at Antioch. Even though he had experienced the outpouring of the Spirit on all flesh at Pentecost; had a vision to correct his views of clean and unclean at Joppa, and had witnessed the Gentile Pentecost first hand, he still reverted to his old prejudices and fears when under the scrutiny of leaders from Jerusalem and refused to eat with the Gentile Christians. Yet, with the help of Paul, he was able to re-orient to scripture in his behavior.
Enjoy The Journey!
The journey into self-knowledge is not only an encounter with your true self, it is also an encounter with the living God. It is coming to see something about yourself but even more, it is coming to see something about God – His sufficiency for our need. Both Jacob and Isaiah found this to be true. In Isaiah’s experience he not only saw that he was a “man of unclean lips”, but he also saw “the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up” (Isa.6:1, 5). Jacob’s bitter encounter with his true self became a momentous life changing encounter with the living God, “surely the Lord is in this place” (Gen. 28:16). Self-examination will force us to recognize that we are not what we ought to be, but it will also help us to see that God is something far more that we thought!
Such encounters with ourselves and with God, serve as an open door to a whole new dynamic of being. We may at first wrestle with what we see or turn away in horror or disbelief, but if we will choose to step across the threshold of the open door it will place us in a new open place of growth, joy and blessing. It will ultimately be a journey of joy!
- Ruth Haley Barton, a quote by Richard Rohr, Sacred Rhythms, p. 91.