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Self-Examination

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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SELF-EXAMINATION.—‘Our conclusion, then, is that the state of mind which is now most naturally expressed by the unspoken questions, Have I been what I should be? Shall I be what I should be, in doing so and so? is that in which all moral progress originates’ (T. H. Green, Prolegomena to Ethics, p. 337).

1. Duty of self-examination.—Every man’s conscience bears witness to the reasonableness and necessity of self-examination. It means taking oneself seriously, and applying to the moral and spiritual life methods analogous to those adopted in all other departments of knowledge and skill. It is the comparison of our motives and actions with the Ideal of what they should be; and all such self-scrutiny, as T. H. Green suggests, has a real identity with the reformer’s comparison of what is actual with a social ideal. He who would attain excellence in any difficult work must be constantly testing and examining his results. He must be on the alert to overcome slackness, discover errors, ensure progress. In Christian discipleship, the most arduous, as it is the most noble, of all pursuits, there is the same imperative demand. This duty is enforced (1) By Holy Scripture. The mission of the ancient prophet, as distinct from that of the priest, was to apply a constant spur to the consciences of men. Much of his message was expressed in the exhortation, ‘Let us search and try our ways, and turn again to the Lord’ (Lamentations 3:40). He bade men examine themselves in the light of God’s known character and will (Isaiah 1:10-20, Jeremiah 7:1-28, Ezekiel 18:19-32, Hosea 14:1-9 etc.). If Jesus did not in so many words call on men to examine themselves, yet the necessity and duty of such self-criticism were implied in all His ministry and teaching. In the Sermon on the Mount, as in so many of His parables, He was holding up before men the ideal by which they must test their lives. And the same may be said of all the Apostolic Epistles (1 Corinthians 11:28, 2 Corinthians 13:5).—(2) By the experience of wise and good men. The saying, ‘Man, know thyself,’ was frequently on the lips of Socrates. He made it the text of his life and teaching. But how shall a man know himself unless he brings his thoughts, his passions, his conduct, into strict review, and scrutinizes them in the ligh of conscience and duty? What a large place, again, did this work of self-examination fill in the lives of serious-minded men and women of earlier and simpler times than ours. Thomas à Kempis, in the Imitation of Christ, is much occupied with this duty; and Jeremy Taylor, in Rules and Exercises of Holy Dying (chapter ii.), devotes many pages to the reasons and benefits of the habit of the daily examination of our actions. ‘He that does not frequently search his conscience,’ he remarks, ‘is a house without a window.’

2. Difficulties and dangers of self-examination.—(1) There is the danger of a morbid self-consciousness hurtful to the spiritual life. An analogy may be drawn with bodily health. A sure way of producing sickness and physical disorder is for a person to be constantly worrying himself about his health, and living, as it were, with his fingers always on his pulse. ‘Is this self-consciousness a good thing? Does it not hinder action, destroy energy? Does it not cultivate a habit of mawkishness, an indelicate desire to expose the most secret passages of our souls, even to the public gaze?… In how many other ways do men testify that they feel this self-consciousness to be a disease which will destroy them if they cannot be cured of it! What numbers does it bring to the feet of the spiritual director!’ (F. D. Maurice). Do we not live our best life when we just go on doing our duty and filling our place, never considering ourselves at all? ‘There is a kind of devotion to great objects or to public service which seems to leave a man no leisure and to afford no occasion for the question about himself, whether he has been as good as he should have been, whether a better man would not have acted otherwise than he has done. And again, there is a sense in which to be always fingering one’s motives is a sign rather of an unwholesome preoccupation with self than of the eagerness in disinterested service which helps forward mankind’ (T. H. Green).—(2) A more serious difficulty is that in this work of self-criticism we occupy the double position of being both the examiner and the examined. We are at once the judge, the witness, and the prisoner at the bar. What scope for self-deception, for evasion, for duping ourselves! Are we not in danger of condemning trifles and overlooking serious faults and vices? How easy to confuse the issues in this complicated process! to lose sight of the due proportion of things! to play tricks with ourselves! Is there any escape from this difficulty?

3. Suggestions for self-examination.—If the dangers mentioned above are to be escaped, this exercise must be conducted (1) with the most humble dependence upon God and desire for His help and guidance. Consider specially Psalms 139:23-24. The Psalmist could not trust himself. He knew how sin eluded him, how it disguised itself, how it hid in secret chambers where his search could not follow it. He needed the aid of One who could accomplish a deeper and more penetrating work than he himself could undertake. Consider also 1 Chronicles 28:9; 1 Chronicles 29:17, Psalms 26:1-2; Psalms 44:21, Proverbs 16:1-2; Proverbs 20:27, Jeremiah 17:9-10.—(2) The examination must be very largely objective, i.e. not merely, or chiefly, a scrutiny of feelings or motives, but an investigation of actual conduct in the light of God’s law and of Christian ideals. The desire expressed in the hymn, ‘’Tis a point I long to know.… Do I love the Lord, or no?’ may often be best answered by a reference to such words as are found in John 14:15; John 14:21; John 15:14. See also Matthew 7:21-29, Mark 3:35. ‘Do you notice how many times our Saviour says: “If ye love me, keep my commandments”? It is as if a child should rush passionately to its mother and throw its little arms round her neck, and say convulsively, “O mother! I do love you so!” “Well, my dear child, if you do, why are you not a better child?” ’ (H. W. Beecher, Conduct the Index of Feeling).—(3) Special consideration should be given to 2 Corinthians 13:5Jesus Christ is in you.’ Therein lies the secret by which self-examination may be a reality and not a fiction; therein is found the protection from the dangers already referred to. There is a true Light which lighteth every man; One who dwells with us, near us, in us; One who will save us from self-flattery and self-deception, and from mawkish self-consciousness. In the light of His presence self-examination is safe and fruitful.

Literature.—The most suggestive remarks which the writer has seen on this subject are found in a sermon by F. D. Maurice, Lincoln’s Inn Sermons, vol. iii. p. 179, ‘How Self-Examination is possible.’ T. H. Green’s Prolegomena to Ethics, Bk. iv. ‘The Application of Moral Philosophy to the Guidance of Conduct,’ chs. i. ii., is worthy of most careful study; cf. Jeremy Taylor, The Rules and Exercises of Holy Dying, ch. ii. ‘On the Daily Examination of our Actions’; Thomas à Kempis, Of the Imitation of Christ, Bk. i. ‘Admonitions useful for the Spiritual Life’; W. G. T. Shedd, Sermons to the Natural Man (1879), p. 181; W. L. Watkinson, Studies in Christian Character, 1st ser. (1901) p. 10; W. S. Wood, Problems of the NT (1890), p. 83; T. B. Dover, Alive unto God (1888), p. 37.

Arthur Jenkinson.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Self-Examination'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​s/self-examination.html. 1906-1918.
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