Saturday, October 18, 2008

Living a Life of Self-Examination

What ought the spiritual life of the Christian be like? Is this a question we ever consider? Perhaps this question isn’t even on our “radar map.” We might take for granted that the Christian life basically consists in attending church every Sunday and the occasional potluck . Yet you’ve doubtless heard in at least one Sunday sermon that we cannot be Christians just on Sunday morning, but 24 hours, 7 days a week. In other words, coming to church on Sunday isn’t about “putting on a face,” and then returning during the week to a life that is “not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). Practicing Christianity is not a “one hour a week exercise.” This would be the very definition of hypocrisy—to be hiding behind a pious mask, while our actions do not match our words (see the context of Galatians 2).

Perhaps we all should be struck cold by the thought that our lives rarely measure up to the standard of our own words or our own commitments—let alone the perfect and unchangeable standard of God’s Ten Commandments. How can we escape such a charge that we too are hypocrites? One way is to double our efforts to do well, and maintain that pious image. But for any who have attempted this, they will soon discover that it produces either self-righteousness (a “holier than thou”) attitude—or, just as likely, a despair that realizes this is only a game that furthers the self-deception. If no one else can tell that our words and pious image are but a mask for the guilt and darkness hidden within—we still know it full well. And the mental/emotional exhaustion of maintaining such a mask can lead a person to despair of all hope. “Who am I kidding?” “Why does it seem so easy for everyone else?” “What would people think of me if they really knew my heart?”

So again, how do we escape the charge that we too are hypocrites? St. John answers, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8-10). To say we have not sinned is self-deception, and worse—makes God out to be a liar. So the solution to the dilemma is not to deny that we are hypocrites, or to deny that we have continually fallen short of the standard of God’s law—rather the solution is to confess our sinfulness. To confess is to speak back to God what is true about ourselves. Thus we affirm that God is true in calling us to account for our sin, and that there is no one who is righteous and never sins (Eccles. 7:20). Or as Jesus said, our heart itself is the source of “evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt. 15:19). Rather than being an “inner source of goodness,” our heart is the fountain from which flows the evil thoughts that give rise to evil actions.

So what is the consequence of confessing our sins? First of all, the mask comes down—the pious fa├žade is removed, and we face the fact of our sinfulness before God. Then, “He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We give up the exhausting and self-deceiving game of pretending our innocence, and face God’s mercy as a completely undeserved gift. We experience the washing over of God’s forgiveness, cleansing our deepest stain, freeing our conscience from an aging and increasingly heavy burden of guilt. Freeing us to confess even our failures—that we are in this life simultaneously both saint and sinner (Rom. 7).

Back to the original question of “What ought the spiritual life of the Christian be like?,” we find that it ought to be a daily life of self-examination. And by that I mean just what Martin Luther said in the first of his famous 95 Theses: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Repentance and confession aren’t one-time acts, an infrequent practice, or even a weekly ritual to be carried out only on Sunday morning. Our entire life is to be one of repentance. Day by day we should examine our lives and confess our sin. The Small Catechism asks “What sins should we confess?” and gives this answer: “Before God we should plead guilty of all sins, even those we are not aware of, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer; but before the pastor we should confess only those sins which we know and feel in our hearts.” It goes on to give a useful starting point for how we might learn a daily life of self-examination: “Which [sins] are these?” “Consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments: Are you a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, or worker? Have you been disobedient, unfaithful, or lazy? Have you been hot-tempered, rude, or quarrelsome? Have you hurt someone by your words or deeds? Have you stolen, been negligent, wasted anything, or done any harm?”

To this list we could add our own questions—but the important thing is that this gets at a fundamental part of our Christian life that is too often overlooked. Simply, that is to daily examine our sins and confess them to God, and want to do better. Having confessed our sins, we do not hide our sins behind a mask, but have the full confidence that we have been forgiven and cleansed, and that our sins are separated from us farther than the east is from the west! (Ps. 103:12) The Christian life of self-examination leads to only one solution for our guilt: the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ! In Christ, there is no condemnation for us (Rom. 8:1).

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