On Wednesday night, those of us who were here for the Ash Wednesday service spent a few minutes thinking about one of the most famous verses in the Bible, Revelation 3:20, where Jesus says to the church in Laodicea: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me”. This verse has been used many, many times by preachers and evangelists to illustrate the way a person becomes a Christian. Jesus is standing outside the door of our lives, knocking; he waits for us to open the door and welcome him into our hearts. This is what it means to become a Christian: to open the door and let Jesus into the centre of our lives, as our Lord and our Saviour.
Well, that’s true, but it can also be a cop-out for those of us who are already Christians. This verse has more to say to us. In fact, there are things that our Lord wants to say to each of us as we consider this verse and what it means for us.
You see, in its original context this verse was addressed to people who were already Christians, but who had allowed their love for Jesus to become lukewarm. Maybe at one time they’d been enthusiastic followers of Christ, but over the years, various distractions had come into their lives, and routine had taken over, and gradually their love had grown cold. Maybe they didn’t even realize it, but the truth was that Jesus was no longer welcome in the centre of their lives, among the things they treasured the most. Jesus had become a peripheral figure, a leisure time activity, someone to think about when they didn’t have more interesting or exciting things to do. But no longer could they say, as St. Paul had said in Philippians, ‘For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain’ (Phil. 1:21). ‘That’s fanaticism’, they whispered to themselves; ‘I prefer moderation in all things!’
Is this you? Is this me? If it is, then I’m absolutely certain that the Lord is calling to us this Lent to do something about it. He’s calling us to make a decision, to stop running in the wrong direction, and to open ourselves up once again to his loving presence and his loving will. Are you ready to do that? Am I? Are we ready to turn from distractions, hear that gentle knock, and open the door to the Lord once again?
But opening the door isn’t just a matter of praying a prayer and leaving it at that. It’s about habits and practices. We understand that, because human relationships are like that too. We can tell someone we love them and that they’re important to us, but unless we build into our lives the habits and practices that bring growth, the relationship isn’t going anywhere. We can’t just say the right things and feel the right things – we have to do the right things as well. Or, as Jesus said to his disciples in John 14:15: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”. Real love is like that – it always leads to action.
In the Ash Wednesday service, we read these words:
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God.
Here are six concrete practices or habits we can build into our lives, as a way of opening the door to Jesus and making him welcome in the depths of our hearts. Six practices, one for each Sunday of the Lenten season – it might almost have been planned as an outline for a sermon series, don’t you think? So let’s start today with the first one: self-examination.
What’s the purpose of self-examination? This is an important question, because God has no interest in introspection for its own sake. Those of us who are introverts can sometimes fall into the trap of spending way too much time looking inside ourselves, while all the time we’re ignoring the needs of the people around us. But self-examination isn’t an end in itself; it’s meant to lead to change. Listen to what the letter of James has to say on the subject:
‘But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing’ (James 1:22-25).
Here’s a beautiful picture of self-examination: looking into the mirror and seeing ourselves as we really are, not because we’re so fascinated with ourselves, but because we need an honest view of our condition, so that we can identify the things that need changing in our lives.
Actually, the phrase ‘self-examination’ can be misleading. It means ‘examination of the self’, but some people take it to mean ‘examination of the self by the self’. And the truth is that if I’m the only one doing the examining, it probably won’t be very helpful, because we human beings are not very good at this. In his spiritual classic The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis talks about how easy it is for us to practice self-examination for half an hour without discovering things about ourselves that are perfectly obvious to those who live with us on a daily basis!
When we make self-examination a do-it-yourself affair, we tend to fall into one of two equal and opposite errors. The first is to make excuses for ourselves. We were tired when we said that. We were frantic with worry. We were going through so much stress at work. We’re only human. All true, maybe, but not too helpful if what we’re actually doing is making excuses to stay as we are.
The other error is to be too hard on ourselves. We look inside ourselves and we see so much selfishness and anger and pride and hate, and we find it hard to believe that God could possibly want to have anything to do with us. We’ve confessed the same sins so many times, and promised to change, but we haven’t. And so self-examination leads not to repentance but to despair.
What’s the solution? Well, listen to these words from Psalm 139:
‘Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting’ (Psalm 139:23-24).
What we see here is a partnership. I turn to God out of genuine desire for real change in my life. I know I need God’s help, so I open myself up to God’s guidance. I call on the Holy Spirit for help. “Holy Spirit, you are the one who guides us into all truth. Today, please guide me into the truth about myself. Show me the sins I need to repent of. Bring to mind the most important issues you want me to work on. Help me not to be afraid. Give me the courage to face these things, and then guide me as I consider how to make the changes you want me to make”.
Sometimes it helps to have another human being accompany us on this journey – a soul friend, a spiritual companion, a person who can shine a light on our path from a different direction and help us make connections we might not make ourselves. Pastors and priests often do this, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be a pastor or priest. Any wise and experienced older Christian can help us, as long as they’re willing, and as long as they are prepared to be both gentle and honest with us.
So how might we begin to practice regular self-examination?
It helps if we have a clear vision to aim for. Remember that passage from James we read a moment ago, the one about looking in the mirror? James said,
‘But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing’ (James 1:25).
The Scriptures can act as a mirror for us, helping us to see our true spiritual condition. There are some wonderful scripture passages that that are very suitable for this purpose. Many Christians will think about the Ten Commandments, and they aren’t a bad place to start. Personally, though, I find the Lord’s two great commandments most helpful:
‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength”. The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”’ (Mark 12:29-31).
These two commands are used in our general confession week by week, and in fact that confession can be a very useful model for us for everyday self-examination:
‘Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves’.
We can spend a few minutes in silence, intentionally slowing down and asking the Holy Spirit to give us wisdom and insight. Then we can work our way through the words of this confession, line by line. How have my thoughts been today? Have they been generous or judgemental? Trusting or anxious? Loving or hateful?
What about my words? Have I told the truth, spoken gently, been helpful to people, in the words I’ve spoken or written? Those of us who use the Internet regularly, who leave Facebook status updates and comment on other people’s posts – have we written the sort of thing we’d be glad to share with Jesus?
And what about our actions? The confession talks about sins of omission and sins of commission – in other words, we sin by doing the things we shouldn’t do, but also by not doing the things we should do. Personally, I find the second category troubles me far more! What about that visit I should have paid to someone who was lonely? The loving, helpful action God was asking me to do for someone in need? What about the golden rule, ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you’ (Matthew 7:12)?
It’s so easy to excuse ourselves if we only think of sin as specific evil actions – lying, stealing, adultery, violence etc. But Jesus sets the bar a lot higher. I will find my true joy as a human being when I learn to love God with everything in me – heart, soul, mind, and strength – and when I learn to love others in the same way I love and care for myself. So I need to think about myself in the light of those two great commandments. How am I doing? How are you doing?
Personally, I find it helpful each day to spend a few minutes in self-examination using this general confession as a guide. But at this point in time I can hear some people saying, “Where am I possibly going to find the time for this?” And it’s true – some of us are very busy people. We work demanding jobs, we’ve got families at home, and some days it’s all we can do to fulfil all our responsibilities and then grab a couple of minutes at the end of the day before we collapse into bed and sleep the sleep of the just!
So what’s the solution? To do no self-examination at all, because we don’t think we have time for it? I don’t think that’s a viable option. One of the Greek philosophers once said, ‘An unexamined life is not worth living’, and I think the biblical authors would have agreed with that statement.
Let’s be clear – we’re talking about fifteen minutes. I know a lot of very busy people seem to be able to find far more time than that each day to read Facebook updates – not just from friends, but from people they barely know! Can we find time to turn the computer off for a few minutes and turn to the prayer of self-examination? I’m a morning person, so I find it a lot easier to do it at the beginning of the day; others might choose a different time. Maybe you think you can’t do it every day. Alright then – try for two or three times a week to start off with. Two or three times a week is better than not at all!
‘Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting’ (Psalm 139:23-24). Is it time for us to start putting this biblical prayer into practice? Is it time for us to open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit as he shines his searchlight into our hearts? Is it time for us to take the risk of honesty and vulnerability before God, and maybe before another human being as well? I suspect that it is.
But let me leave you with one more thought. For some of us, maybe this is a harsh teaching. Maybe we find this idea scary, like going to the doctor for our annual physical and being afraid of what we’re going to hear. But let’s remember that the Lord who we’re inviting to examine us is the Lord who loves us far more than we love ourselves. He’s the Lord who came and lived and died for us. He’s the Lord who said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
That’s why we’re examining ourselves – so that we can make the changes we need to make in order to discover the way of life and joy and peace and love that Jesus is holding out to us. That’s not a miserable thing! It may involve some hard work, but the end result will be transformation and joy! So let’s not be afraid of self-examination. Let’s take the risk of asking the Holy Spirit to help us to know ourselves as we truly are, so that we can then take the next steps toward becoming the kind of people that he wants us to be – people who will find our true joy and happiness in finding his purposes for us, and putting them into practice. Amen.