A while back, I believe in Adam McHugh’s Introverts in the Church, I stumbled across the concept of the “examination of conscience”: deliberate and solemn spiritual reflection leading, ideally, to greater spiritual growth.
This concept is most broadly associated with Catholicism – or at least it seemed to be when I did some research on it – but Protestants are familiar with it, too. That encouragement Paul gives to “examine yourself before eating the bread and drinking the cup” (1 Cor. 11:28) that believers engage in prior to communion? Same thing.
I think we can all get on board with the idea that spiritual reflection on a frequent or semi-frequent basis is a good and necessary aspect of the Christian life. It’s hard to figure out how your faith walk is going if you never look at it, and yet we’re often tempted to treat that sort of introspection the same way we treat food that is healthy but that we don’t really want to eat: we put it on the back shelf of the fridge until it molds, and we pretend it isn’t there.
The thing is, I’ve never been really certain what “examining myself” or any sort of spiritual reflection is supposed to look like. Mostly, when I’ve engaged in it – prior to communion and at other times – I have asked myself two questions:
What is the state of my relationship with God?
Where am I screwing up?
This isn’t bad, necessarily, but it’s also not optimal. I’ve just never been sure how to develop beyond that – or, at least, I didn’t think I was until I realized that it’s precisely what I do when I write this blog.
I don’t mean that the writings themselves are my spiritual reflection: the process of the writing is. Three times a week, almost every single week of the year – barring the occasional overseas trip or catastrophe – I write a blog to post here. And in the process of writing those posts I ask myself a lot of questions and dwell on a lot of things, and it’s only recently that I realized this was a form of spiritual reflection for me that went way beyond those two basic questions I tend to ask myself otherwise. So, since I’ve found the questions I ask myself when I am writing to be pretty valuable as far as reflection goes, I wanted to share them here.
First, where is my interest and passion? What’s really calling out to me? Where is my enthusiasm at? Is there a particular chapter or verse or book or concept or character that’s been calling my name lately? Is there a thought or a theme that I can’t seem to get out of my head? What is it that God is trying to tell me or teach me, and what am I open to learning?
Second,what’s going on in my life and how is it affecting my walk? Circumstances change weekly, sometimes daily, and they all have an influence on my faith journey. Are my circumstances making it easier to grow closer to God, or more difficult? What’s happening to make me distracted or pull me away from God or to bring me closer? Are there people / problems / situations that create spiritual problems for me?
Third, what am I avoiding? What I don’t want to write about – the posts that never see the light of day or exist only in my head – tells me a lot. Think about what you avoid. Is it because the subject is a source of shame? Is it guilt you can’t let go? Is it a sin you’re not ready to relinquish? Is it a ministry you feel obliged to join but don’t want to? Is it a part of Biblical teaching that challenges you or makes you feel uncomfortable?
Fourth, where are my frailties? Where am I weak? I don’t just mean my sins, though I include those. Where do I stumble the most? What needs work? What do I need to be honest with myself about? Where am I most easily tempted, or distracted, or disappointed?
And finally, where am I growing? In what new ways has God changed or developed me? What do I know now that I didn’t last week, or last month? What little tendrils of thought are taking hold?
As you can see, spiritual self-examination is really a practice in cultivating awareness of where we are in relation to what God is doing in our lives: opening our eyes to see, with complete honesty, the full picture of our journey. It offers us a guide, a chance to look at Scripture and say, I need to do more of this or less of this, or even this is a tangled problem that I need to consider.
If you blog, then odds are you might be doing this already like I was – even without knowing it! If not, it’s easy to incorporate this sort of thoughtful reflection in your prayer life or your quiet time, and there are a lot of benefits.
Spiritual reflection is so much more than thinking “yep, I’m saved, and Jesus is amazing” and, often simultaneously, “let me ponder my giant list of sins” for communion. It’s a starting point: a place where we clear out the weeds and allow our relationship with God to continue to grow.