Search Me O God
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We are looking at the practice of self-examination today. Examination can be a scary word. It might make us think of school (though we usually shorten it to exam of course). Being tested. Exposing knowledge or lack of knowledge, as the case may be. It might make us think of the healing professions. A medical examination. There is a certain type of person who I am very familiar with because I was one for many years. I’m talking about the type of person who avoids going to the doctor partly out of the fear of finding out that something might be possibly wrong with one. If everything seems ok then I’ll continue to go on happily about my days. Don’t be like that by the way, even I am over it, and I don’t want to tell you how many years it took me. At least not before we get to the confession part of this practice.
We’re going through spiritual disciplines these weeks before Lent. We’re looking at putting the discipline in discipleship, or the discipleship in discipline, whichever you like. When we are talking about discipleship, we are talking about what it means to be a follower of Christ. The simplest way I can describe the goal of discipleship is to be formed in the image of Christ. To become more like Christ. To know God more, and not just head knowledge or cognitive knowledge of God but heart knowledge. I mean heart not simply as the source of emotions but as the very centre of our beings. To have that centre transformed by God, by Christ, by the Holy Spirit of God. It’s the kind of thing we sing about – Search me O God and know my heart today. I want to know you. I want to be found in your truth. “I want to follow you” is where this all starts. The question is where do we go from there? What are the practices which leave us open for the Holy Spirit to do the Holy Spirit’s transforming work in our lives? Last week we looked at Lectio Divina – divine reading. Listening for God’s voice in God’s word in a most intentional way.
These things take time. Any discipline does. Think of the time you’ve put into things that you wanted to get good at and enjoy. I was really pleased to be able to go skating again this year. I’ve been meaning to do it for years. I’m doing ok at it, but I want to work on backward crossovers. These things take time.
Someone has said the unexamined life is not worth living. Self-examination can be a difficult thing though. Someone else has said when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you. There are experiences we have had or will have that make it a difficult thing to look into our own personal abysses – our own shortcomings, our own failures. RHB puts it like this in her book: “Some of us have been so shaped by shame-based family or church systems that we resist entering into deeper levels of self-knowledge for fear of being debilitated by shame or swept away by remorse. For others, our sense of self-worth is so fragile or our perfectionism so pronounced that we are not sure we could bear facing our own darkness without becoming completely unravelled.”
The verses that are most commonly used to refer to what we’re talking about this morning come at the end of Psalm 139. They’re so familiar to many. We sing them. “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (23-24) It can be a tough thing to come face to face with our own shortcomings. We all have something.
I have to say I don’t love calling this practice self-examination. Perhaps we can come up with a new term. Though we are examining ourselves, we’re not doing this alone like it was some sort of self-help ritual. Examination starts with God. This is the thing that makes it not so difficult or at least not impossible. Examination can be hard because we are brought face to face with our own unlikeness to Christ. At the same time, we are brought face to face with Christ.
Jesu Christ, who loves us. Who knows everything about us and loves us. We spend so much time hiding parts of ourselves for fear that we are not lovable, yet we long to be loved. This is how God made us. God is love. It can become a cliché. It can become trite and God forbid that it does. I love those words of the Samaritan woman who told her village about the man she had met. “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done.” He didn’t shun her. He didn’t abandon her. He told her words of life and love.
Our Psalm starts with such words. Read Psalm 139:1-5. One might question why we are inviting God to search us when God already knows everything about us. The point of this practice is more for our benefit than God’s – that we are asking God to help us come to know ourselves. We do this knowing that God knows all about us and loves us anyway. We come to the practice with words like those of the prophet Jeremiah ringing in our hearts – “I have loved you with an everlasting love, therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. (Jer 31:3). Too often we receive or give approval based on accomplishments or achievements. We might know this kind of approval through parents or other family members, friends or co-workers. Too often we feel the need to hide fears, doubts, questions, failures.
Which brings us to a major truth about this or any of the practices we’re looking at through these weeks. They should affect how we go about our days, how we show God’s love as we go through our days. As we spend time with this truth that God knows everything about us and loves us anyway, it should cause us to question how we are showing love for those around us. Does it depend on people earning our approval or is our love freely on offer?
The first step in the practice is called the examination of consciousness. Consciousness of God’s love for us. Consciousness that God hems me in behind and before, not in a stifling way, but with assurance that God’s loving hand is on me. That there is no darkness, even and maybe especially my own, that is dark to God, that the night is as bright as the day, that the darkness is as light to God. That God’s thoughts are uncountable, more than the sand, but that we come to the end and say “I am still with you.”
That we are fearfully and wonderfully made. “It was you who formed my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb” sings the Psalmist. “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.” We’re talking about developing a consciousness about who God is, how God loves us, how God has made us. Have you ever wondered about some part of yourself – personality-wise, physical wise and wondered why God made you in such a way? You might even have thought or think that it’s not such a good thing to be made in such a way. May verses like this and prayer disabuse us of such notions. “Wonderful are your works,” sings the Psalmist, “That I know very well.” You know my mind is always going. Racing. It’s hard for me to turn it off. It makes sleep hard. I can’t stay asleep. Vivid dreams. Shocked awake out of a crazy dream in the middle of the night. Can’t go back to sleep. Like all my life. At times in my life I’ve pursued unhealthy ways of getting out of my mind. I tend to throw myself into things wholeheartedly. Again this can be a good or bad thing depending on what you’re throwing yourself into. Shortly after entering vocational ministry (10 years ago this year), it became clearer why God made me in such a way through sitting with these verses from Psalm 139. “I made you fearfully and wonderfully” I heard. Use that racing mind I gave you for this. Throw yourself wholeheartedly into this. I still don’t sleep but it’s become much easier to take. I’ll use it for some examination time through these weeks and maybe even beyond.
Which starts with the examen of consciousness. Sitting with these truths that we’ve read from our Psalm and others like them. Reflecting prayerfully about our day or week (depending on how often we practice) and reflecting on how God was present with us; where we were aware of God’s hand on us; where God spoke to us; how the Holy Spirit prompted us; how we reacted or did not react in situations; where we failed.
“Where we failed” brings us to the second half of the practice of self-examination. The examination of conscience. The Psalmist’s soul is laid bare here, including anger, rage, hate even. “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?” The presence of God is a really good place to bring (and leave) anger, rage, hate. What we are doing at this point is asking God to shine God’s light on our darkness. The light of God’s glory and grace and mercy and justice and love. To ask God to help us to walk in that light, to see in that light. To pray “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.” Ask God to help us to see where we missed the mark, whether it be in something we did or did not do. Ask God to help us know what was going on within us.
There are a couple of things to say about confessing. It might be perceived as counter-cultural in a world where leaders talk about not needing to ask for forgiveness; in a world where the admission of wrongdoing or making a mistake can be taken as a sign of weakness (or at least invitation to litigation). In such a world parents may think that to confess that they messed something up and ask children for forgiveness is not the done thing. In such a world, those who lead may feel that to admit to wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness is just not something that needs to happen.
We need to ask ourselves how we’re doing with that. I realize when it comes to confessing to God, I may not be saying anything too difficult at this point. At least I hope I’m not! We may be quite familiar with 1 John 1:9. We may do very well with confessing to God and asking for God’s forgiveness on our own. We may do very well at confessing together (and we try here on a weekly basis and the corporate prayer of confession is a powerful thing). How well do we confess and seek forgiveness with one another? RHB puts it like this – “There is a big difference between saying ‘I’m sorry if I hurt you,’ and saying ‘I’m sorry I hurt you. I realize now that it was my insecurity that produced such bad behaviour. I have really prayed about this, and I believe God is showing me how I can avoid doing that again. Will you forgive me?’”
We’re seeking transformation here. It’s not just spiritual navel-gazing. We’re talking about transformation through our relationship with God and in our relationships with one another. Confession is so elemental and foundational to who we are and who we are called to be. It’s gut-wrenching. It is at those elemental and foundational levels that transformation happens. It is here that verses like Eph 4:32 take on a whole new meaning and importance – “and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
Confession and forgiveness go together like two things that go together very well go together. You really can’t have one with the other.
So let’s try it out. We won’t have a chance to take part in all of these practices together like we did last week. Self-examination is one we can do on our own if we’re not already. Daily. Every other daily. Weekly. Whatever way you might work this step into your dance or this scale into your song.
The practice of self-examination has been described like this – “When practiced rightly, it leads us into a greater sense of God’s loving presence in our life, it fosters a celebration of our created self, it offers us a safe place to see and name those places where we are not like Christ, and it opens us up to deeper levels of spiritual transformation. Self-examination is the Christian practice that opens us to the love we seek.”
We do so in the mercy and grace and love of Christ. May we know Christ in this and every spiritual discipline, so that we might show to others the same mercy, grace, and love we have been shown. May this be true for all of us. Amen