Self-examination has always been a vital component of what it means to grow in grace. In the earliest days of the church, for example, the Apostle Paul twice exhorted believers in the troubled church of Corinth to examine themselves. He issued the first challenge in relation to preparation for the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:28) and the other with regard to the genuineness of faith itself (2 Cor. 13:5).
John Calvin brings up self-examination in the opening words of the Institutes of the Christian Religion. True and sound wisdom begins with not only with “the knowledge of God,” but also “of ourselves.” The Puritans wove the practice of self-examination into the core of their teaching and piety. But the question is, How do we pursue it?
There is no shortage of ways to pursue this discipline badly. Not least because, if done in isolation, it degenerates into the kind of morbid introspection that leads to spiritual self-harm, not benefit. How, then, are we to understand what it means to “examine ourselves” in profitable ways?
The Bible provides us with a very helpful paradigm for profitable self-examination in one of David’s best-loved psalms: Psalm 139, which according to some commentators is an example of “wisdom piety intended for theological instruction.” Whatever its background, this psalm provides a balanced approach to cultivating true self-understanding that flows out of a deep understanding of God. In that sense, it shows in the most practical of ways that there is an inseparable bond between doctrine, piety, and praise in the experience of God’s people.
It is very instructive to tease out the way the psalmist engages in this exercise before God in at least three areas—all of which crystallize in the prayer he offers in the closing verses of the psalm.
First, he invites God to inspect his life: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!” (v. 23). This request is an echo of the words of praise and acknowledgement of God with which the psalm begins: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me!” (v. 1). David’s perspective on his own life arises directly out of his perspective on God.
David’s understanding of God—gained through God’s own self-revelation in the Scriptures—makes him profoundly conscious of God’s glorious attributes. God looms so large on his horizon that he is overwhelmed by Him in every way. As he reflects on what God knows (vv. 1–6), he confesses there is nothing God doesn’t know. He is the omniscient God. He goes on to reflect on where God is located (vv. 7–12) and concludes that He is everywhere—He cannot escape from His presence. The same is true when it comes to the extent of God’s control (vv. 13–18). The psalmist ponders the mystery of conception and human development in the womb and confesses that this is more than “nature”; it is the personal, wise, and loving activity of the sovereign God of heaven.
The more we know God through His Word, the more we truly know ourselves. We begin to realize that we cannot trust our own judgement about the state of our life—nor even the compliments our families or friends may extend to us. Seeing God in all His glory exposes the deep and often painful realities of what we are really like. When this happens, then we, like David, will cry out, “Search me, O God!” and mean it.
David not only invites God’s inspection, he also pleads for His correction in his life and ways: “See if there be any grievous [offensive] way in me” (v. 24). In the book of Proverbs, we are told “faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Prov. 27:6). It is a blessing to have the kind of close companions who can speak truth to us, even if it is hard to hear. David knows God to be the best of all friends in this sense.