Those of us who are naturally introspective understand the agony and bewilderment of trying to figure ourselves out. If left unchecked, we will obsess over who we really are, what motivates us, and whether those motivations are right or wrong. And of course we have met people who seem to never have these introspective thoughts. They seem to bounce cheerily through life without ever deeply examining themselves.
What is the balance between introspection and self-obliviousness? When does healthy introspection become morbid self-inspection? Consider these six Scriptural truths.
- God expects me to be have introspective thoughts.
The Scripture presents introspection as natural, and even good. Anyone who reads the Psalms will soon realize that the psalmists are very aware of their inner thoughts, emotions and feelings. The psalmist takes stock of his emotions when he asks himself, “Why are you downcast, O my soul?” (Psalm 43:5, 42:11). In another psalm, he urges himself to “bless the Lord” (Psalm 103:1-2). Certainly Scripture does not condone a happy-go-lucky obliviousness to one’s inner life. Rather, God expects me to be introspective.
- The purpose of my introspection should lead me to consider my relationship with God.
But proper introspection is not a meandering path into the labyrinth of one’s soul. While my introspective thoughts might take me on a tour of some gloomy regions of my heart, their final destination should be upward, not inward—God-focused, not self-focused. Introspection should cause me to consider whether my relationship with God is healthy or deteriorating. The psalms are a model of this God-oriented introspection. David’s introspection led him to record the agony of unconfessed sin (Psalm 32:3-4). In a later psalm, the answer to the question, “Why are you downcast, O my soul?” is not a list of the reasons the psalmist is depressed, but rather an exhortation to “hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (Psalm 43:5).
Paul urged the Corinthians, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves” (1 Corinthians 13:5). It was after the prodigal son “came to himself” that he returned to his father. Introspection should lead us to consider our relationship with God.
- Thinking rightly about myself begins with relating rightly to God.
Ultimately, it is sin that causes me to be confused about who I am. Consider that when the serpent tempted Eve, he promised her that eating the fruit would give her an identity God had already given her—likeness to God. As fallen creatures, we try to be who we were meant to be apart from the one who designed us. We try to be “like gods” without God, instead of living out the image of God. Scripturally speaking, this is the basic cause of our psychological disorientation. It follows, then, that understanding ourselves rightly will begin with restoring our relationship with our Creator, the only one who fully knows us. Blaise Pascal said, “Not only is it through Jesus Christ alone that we know God, but it is only through Jesus Christ that we know ourselves. We know life and death only through Jesus Christ. Without Jesus Christ we do not know what our life, nor our death, nor God, nor ourselves really are.”
- Thinking rightly about myself happens within the context of community.
As God exists in eternal society (John 1:1; 17:5), so we, as his image bearers, are meant to exist in society—with God himself, and with other of God’s image-bearers. How would you bear the “fruit of the Spirit”— peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance—all by yourself? When Paul exhorted the Romans to “not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment,” he did so in the context of exercising their spiritual gifts toward each other. We do not get to know ourselves more accurately in isolation from others, but in community with others. In fact, the more isolated we become, the more likely we are to be distorted and unhealthy in our understanding of ourselves, others, and even God.
- In this life, I will never completely understand myself, and I will often be deceived about myself.
“Who can understand his [own] errors?” Even our most intense self-scrutiny will not yield the fullness of our depravity. Introspective people must be aware that their introspection, unhinged from God’s revelation, will not lead to a more accurate understanding of themselves. “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).
- Ultimately, God’s knowledge of me and my knowledge of him are more important than my knowledge of myself.
Instead of saying, “I will search myself, and know my heart,” introspective Christians should learn to pray with the psalmist, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! [You, Lord,] try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me” (Psalm 139:13-14). Instead of trying to plumb the depths of my own heart, I should take comfort in the fact that God knows me far better than I can ever know myself.
Paul gives us a fascinating glimpse into heaven when he says, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been known.” It was not self-knowledge that excited Paul about being in God’s presence. Self-knowledge slips into the background amid the blazing joy of knowing, and being known by, God himself.