“Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test? ” (2 Corinthians 13:5)
Growing spiritually isn’t automatic. Left to our natural inclinations, we’ll move away from God, not towards him.
Personal examination doesn’t need to be complex to be powerful.
Great spiritual progress can be made by simply asking, “God, did I do what God wanted me to do today?” Listen to God, and allow your convictions to come into focus through prayer and reflection.
There are times when a deeper examination is necessary for growth and breakthrough. Before we get started, a few assumptions to get on the same page:
- I’m defining an action as anything that impacts the world around us. It may be a word, a look, a touch, etc. Illustration1.
- Every action leads to multiple consequences–some of which we observe and some we don’t. Illustration2.
- With these assumptions in place, shouting alone in the woods with no one to hear you is not an “action” because there are no consequences.
When I want to examine one of my past actions, the following five questions frame my rear view mirror:
KNOWLEDGE: What unchanging principles impacted my action? How did my understanding of good/evil, right/wrong, wise/foolish, true/false guide my decision?
WISDOM: How well did I apply the unchanging principle(s) to the specific situation to consider the consequences? Was I able to accurately predict all observable consequences? Did I miss something I should have caught?
DESIRE: What was I my goal, what did I want to accomplish? In a sea of consequences, which few were I looking to achieve?
MOTIVATION: Why did I want what I wanted? It’s possible to want the right things, but for the wrong reasons. This question is subtle, but it’s too important to skip. Two thousand years ago, Jesus criticised the Pharisees for being whitewashed tombs6. The warning is still relevant today: looking good without being good is a real temptation for believers. The motivations of the heart are muddy waters! They are difficult to discern because we often have several reasons, they change constantly and they are often in conflict with one another.
ATTITUDE: What was I feeling before I acted? Emotions are often an invisible game changer when they influence our actions. Feeling joy, peace, confidence leads to the best actions. Shame, sadness, anger rarely lead to good actions.
You can’t grade a test without knowing the answers. You can’t judge without a standard. As it relates to our KNOWLEDGE, our perception of truth ought to line up with what God says is true. It’s human nature to think we are right most (or all) of the time. One way we grow spiritually is to give up what we think is true and accept what God says is true.
We want our WISDOM to be accurate. That we take the principles we believe in (which are hopefully God’s principles) and correctly apply them to the current situation. We gain wisdom through prayer, observation, and reflection.
DESIRES are typically very specific because they are tied to the moment of our action. However, following the example of Jesus, we are ought to be serving others. If our act was selfish, we missed the mark. As we look to our MOTIVE, we were either humble or we were not.
Finally, our ATTITUDE ought to be joy, a feeling deeper than happiness because it’s not based on our situations. Joy comes from remembering everything God has done for us and the promise of our eternal future in his presence. This world’s greatest setbacks can’t hold a candle to the indescribable light of living in God’s presence.
The next time you make a mistake, or are surprised by your actions, work through these five questions. It will be slow and feel unnatural. That’s ok. Maybe my questions aren’t a great fit and you need to figure out your own. That’s great, go for it! The goal is to draw closer to God!
- As I was exiting the building, I paused for a moment to hold the door open for someone.
- I held the door open woman was pushing a stroller and holding a toddler–both were crying. She smiled and said thanks (observable consequence). 15 minutes later, with her kids in the car and the coffee in the cupholder, before she started her car she thought, “Why aren’t more people helpful? Why aren’t my in-laws more helpful?” As she drove away, she also descended into a pity party (an unobserved consequence).
- Several principles apply in our example, here are a few:
- Like offering a cup of water to the thirsty, it’s good to offer simple, practical help to people–even in the little things.
- It’s bad/wrong/foolish to ignore the obvious needs of others.
- Actions make a bigger impact than words.
- Helping others can encourage them, especially when they are exasperated, tired, worn out, stressed, etc.
- Service can also inspire others to serve, and it can lead to conversations.
- Too much help is inappropriate when it causes offense.
- I assumed she would positively recognize the small, simple act of help. Although she could have used more help, it would have been BEYOND inappropriate to offer to hold the toddler. If the mother was a close friend then holding the toddler would be the right thing to do. Now, to the consequence of the mother’s pity party, in this situation, naturally there is no way to predict her response.
- In this simple example, the desire was to help someone.
- Matthew 23:27
- In our simple illustration of holding a door open, perhaps the motivation was selfless, to serve like Jesus did. Maybe it goes further than that. Suppose I just finished an informal interview at a coffee shop. As I left, I wanted to impress my interviewer with a display of kindness. In this (admittedly simple) scenario, I want the right thing (to help someone) but I want it for the wrong reason (to glorify myself).
- One last time we will return to holding the door open: If I felt like I bombed my interview, I might be feeling insecure and desperate, and looking for any possible opportunity to make a good impression.