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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.

The most glorious thing of all about God is that He is gracious.

Indeed, much later on in the Bible, Paul tells his young friend and protégé Timothy that a key function of the Bible as the God-breathed Word is not only to teach, but also to rebuke and then correct (2 Tim. 3:16). In our heart of hearts, we all know we need to be “straightened out” but are often unclear or uncomfortable with how to go about it. We can often treat it as the spiritual equivalent of an annual performance review at work.

The beauty of this psalm is that God’s way of achieving this goal is not to put us under the microscope and make us look at our lives in all their ugly detail. Instead, He simply brings us into His presence. We have a family friend who is an interior designer, and every time he comes to stay we hold our breath. Simply having him in our home makes us aware of its décor in an altogether different way. Our home, which we would describe as just “the way it is,” becomes “this is what it could be!”

David has spent eighteen verses in the full iridescence of God’s glory, and he sees himself not only in terms of what he isn’t, but in light of what God intends him to be. The beauty of the gospel is that Jesus, the truest of all friends, has come not merely to help us try just a little bit harder or be just a little bit better, but He has come to transform us into His likeness (Gal. 4:19). This is the kind of spiritual corrective surgery we need more than anything else.

David’s final petition in the closing verse of this psalm is that God might direct him: “Lead me in the way everlasting!” (Ps. 139:24). When it comes to following maps or grasping GPS directions, I am not the greatest navigator in the world, but my wife is. So, I gladly defer to her direction when it comes to reaching my desired destination.

No doubt, this plea in the case of David arose out of memories of painful failure in his attempts to follow the right path in his own life. Despite being a great king and shrewd strategist, all too often he had been unwise in his judgments and decisions—with tragic consequences. So now, like a little boy, he looks up to God and says, “Please lead me!” Yet this is perhaps the greatest hallmark of a healthy child of God. As the hymn writer put it: “Lead me, Lord. Lead me in your righteousness.” We all need to be directed in life’s journey—from birth right through to final breath—and the only sure guide upon whom we can rely is God.

Given that no one, by nature, likes to have their life laid open to someone else’s scrutiny, what gave David the courage and the confidence to allow himself to be scrutinized by God in this way? The only answer can be that in the midst of the glory of God to which he had been exposed from his childhood, he knew that the most glorious thing of all about God is that He is gracious. He knew, therefore, that though the glory of God was guaranteed to expose the spiritual grime of his soul, the result would be that God would wash him afresh and lead him forward to better things.

The glory of God is incarnated in Jesus Christ, but so, too, is His saving grace. In the words of John the Evangelist, “We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). We are guaranteed to be exposed by the radiance of His glory, but only that we might be expiated—cleansed—from the filth of our sins and clothed in His perfect righteousness.

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