Inspect but Don’t Introspect
The same apostle who wrote “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Cor. 13:5) wrote in an earlier letter to the same church “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself” (1 Cor. 4:3).
There is a paradox here. I think John Piper gets the balance right: “Periodic self-examination is needed and wise and biblical. But for the most part mental health is the use of the mind to focus on worthy reality outside ourselves.”
Here are some quotes along these lines:
Cultivate the habit of fixing your eye more simply on Jesus Christ, and try to know more of the fullness there is laid up in Him for every one of His believing people.
Do not be always poring down over the imperfections of your own heart, and dissecting your own besetting sins.
Look more to your risen Head in heaven, and try to realize more than you do that the Lord Jesus not only died for you, but that He also rose again, and that He is ever living at God’s right hand as your Priest, your Advocate, and your Almighty Friend.
When the Apostle Peter “walked upon the waters to go to Jesus,” he got on very well as long as his eye was fixed upon his Almighty Master and Savior. But when he looked away to the winds and waves, and reasoned, and considered his own strength, and the weight of his body, he soon began to sink, and cried, “Lord, save me.” No wonder that our gracious Lord, while grasping his hand and delivering him from a watery grave, said, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” Alas! many of us are very like Peter–we look away from Jesus, and then our hearts faint, and we feel sinking (Mat. 14:28-31).
Learn much of the Lord Jesus.
For every look at yourself take ten looks at Christ.
He is altogether lovely . . . .
Live much in the smiles of God.
Bask in his beams.
Feel his all-seeing eye settled on you in love.
And repose in his almighty arms.
In Surprised by Joy C. S. Lewis explains why introspection can be counterproductive in the act itself:
In introspection we try to look “inside ourselves” and see what is going on. But nearly everything that was going on a moment before is stopped by the very act of our turning to look at it. Unfortunately this does not mean that introspection finds nothing. On the contrary, it finds precisely what is left behind by the suspension of all our normal activities; and what is left behind is mainly mental images and physical sensations. The great error is to mistake this mere sediment or track or by product for the activities themselves.
For those who want to explore this issue in more depth, the best contemporary treatment is probably David Powlison’s seminar, “In the Last Analysis: Look Out for Introspection.” Tony Reinke provides some notes.
Finally, the most detailed treatment I know is found in Thomas Chalmers’s introductory essay to William Guthrie’s The Christian’s Great Interest. He is a strong proponent of self-examination, but thinks we know ourselves best by first looking outside ourselves. Here’s a taste:
Now it is not by continuing to pore inwardly that we will shed a greater lustre over the tablet of our own character, any more than we can enlighten the room in which we sit by the straining of our eyes towards the various articles which are therein distributed.
In the one case, we take help from the window, and through it from the sun of nature—and this not to supersede the proposed investigation on our part, but altogether to aid and encourage us in that investigation.
And in the other case, that the eye of the mind may look with advantage upon itself inwardly, should it often look outwardly to those luminaries which are suspended from the canopy of that revelation which is from above—we should throw widely open the portal of faith, and this is the way by which light is admitted into the chambers of experience—in defect of a manifest love, and a manifest loyalty, and a manifest sacredness of heart, which we have been seeking for in vain amongst the ambiguities of the inner man, we should expose the whole of this mysterious territory to the influences of the Sun of righteousness, and this is done by gazing upon him with a believer’s eye.