Self-Examination

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  • Self-Examination

    by Thomas Chalmers

    Chalmers reflects on how to begin the practice of self-examination, in his introduction to a printing of William Guthrie's The Christian's Great Interest (1658).

    There are few subjects or exercises more deeply important to professing Christians, than that which forms the principal topic in the following admirable treatise -- the work of self-examination. But self-examination is a work of great difficulty, and is accordingly shrunk from, or altogether declined by the great body of professing Christians. It is more the habitual style of the mind's contemplations to look at that which is without, than at that which is within -- and it is far easier to read the epistles of the written Record, than to read the tablets of one's own heart, and so to ascertain whether it be indeed a living epistle of Christ Jesus our Lord. There is something so shadowy and evanescent in the phases of the human spirit -- such a want of the distinct and of the tangible, in its various characteristics -- such a turmoil, and confusion, and apparent incoherence in the rapid succession of those thoughts, and impulses, and emotions, which find their way through the avenues of the inner man -- that men, as if lost in the mazes of a labyrinth, deem the world which is within to be the most hopeless and impracticable of all mysteries -- nor in the whole range of their varied speculations, do they meet with that which more baffles their endeavors to seize upon, than the busy principle that is lodged within them, and has taken up its residence in the familiar intimacies of their own bosom.

    The difficulty of knowing our own heart is much enhanced, if we are in quest of some character or some lineament which is but faintly engraven thereupon. When the thing that we are seeking for is so very dim, or so very minute, as to be almost indiscernible, this makes it a far more fatiguing exercise -- and, it may be, an altogether fruitless one. Should then the features of our personal Christianity be yet slightly or obscurely formed, it will need a more intense and laborious scrutiny ere we can possibly recognize them. Should there be a languor in our love to God -- should there be a frailty in our purposes of obedience -- should there be a trembling indecision of principle, and the weakness or the wavering of a mind that is scarcely made up on the question of a preference for time or for eternity, let us not marvel, though all disguised as these seeds and elements of regeneration within us may be, amid the vigorous struggle of the old man, and the remaining urgencies of a nature which will not receive its death-blow but with the same stroke that brings our bodies to the dust -- let us not marvel, if in these circumstances, the hardships of the search should deter many from undertaking it -- and though after months, or even years of earnestness in religion, the disciple may still be in ignorance of himself, as if blindfolded from the view of his own character; or, if arrested at the threshold by a sense of its many difficulties, the work of self-examination has not yet been entered on.

    It is thus the dark and unsearchable nature of the subject operates insensibly but powerfully as a restraint on self-examination -- and certainly there would be encouragement felt to begin this exercise, were it made to appear in the light of a more practicable exercise, that could really and successfully be gone through. It is just as if set upon the task of searching for some minute article on the floor of an apartment, of which the windows had been partially closed -- a weary and hopeless undertaking, till the sun has fully arisen, and the shutters have been altogether unfolded, and the greatest possible supply of light has been admitted into the room. Then the search might be entered upon with vigor, and just because now it could be entered upon with the alacrity of a comfortable expectation. The work is less repulsive, because easier -- and now might the whole surface of this trial for a discovery be patiently explored, just because now a greater visibility had been poured over it.

    This leads to a remark, which though a mere preliminary to the subject of self-examination, we nevertheless deem to be one of great practical importance. We think that however inscrutable at this moment our mind may be, and however faintly the marks and the characteristics of our Christianity are delineated thereupon, yet that even now the inward survey ought to be commenced, and renewed at frequent intervals, and daily persevered in. But, meanwhile, and to facilitate the search, we should do the very thing that is done in the case of a dark apartment. There should be as much light as possible thrown upon the subject from without. If the lineaments of grace within us be faint, that ought instantly to be done which might have the effect of brightening them into a more lucid distinctness, and so making the work of discovery easier then before. If the love, and the joy, and the grateful devotedness to his Savior's will, wherewith the heart of a believer is animated, be hardly discernible in his efforts to ascertain them, this is the very reason why all those direct expedients should forthwith be resorted to for stirring up the love, and for exciting the joy, and for fixing in the bosom that grateful devotedness which he is now going so fruitlessly in quest of, and which, if they exist at all, are so shrunken in magnitude, or so enveloped in their own dimness, that they have hitherto eluded all his endeavors to seek after them, if haply he may find them. Now it is not by continuing to pore inwardly that we will shed a greater luster over the tablet of our own character, any more than we can enlighten the room in which we sit by the straining of our eyes towards the various articles which are therein distributed. In the one case, we take help from the window, and through it from the sun of nature -- and this not to supersede the proposed investigation on our part, but altogether to aid and encourage us in that investigation. And in the other case, that the eye of the mind may look with advantage upon itself inwardly, should it often look outwardly to those luminaries which are suspended from the canopy of that revelation which is from above -- we should throw widely open the portal of faith, and this is the way by which light is admitted into the chambers of experience -- in defect of a manifest love, and a manifest loyalty, and a manifest sacredness of heart, which we have been seeking for in vain amongst the ambiguities of the inner man, we should expose the whole of this mysterious territory to the influences of the Sun of righteousness, and this is done by gazing upon him with a believer's eye. It is by regarding the love wherewith God in Christ hath loved us, that the before cold and sluggish heart is roused into the respondency of love back again. That the work of reading be made more easy, the character must be made more legible. That Christianity be clearly reflected from our own bosom, all must be laid open to the Christianity of the Record. If we derive no good from the work of self-examination, because we find that all is confusion and mistiness within, then let us go forth upon the truths which are without, and these will pour a flood of light into all the mazes and intricacies of the soul, and, at length, render that work easy, which before was impracticable. No doubt, it is by looking inwardly that we discover what is in the mind -- but it is by looking outwardly that we so brighten and bring out its characteristics, as to make these discernible. The gratitude that was before unfelt, because it lay dormant, let us awaken it by the sight of him who was lifted upon the cross for our offences, and then will it meet the observation. The filial affection for our Father in heaven, which before was dead, let us quicken it into a felt and gracious sensibility, by looking unto him in his revealed attitude of graciousness, and at our next exercise of self-inspection, we will be sure to find it. To revive the power of a life that is to come, which the despair of guilt had utterly extinguished in the soul, let us cast our believing regard on the promises of the gospel -- and this will set it up again, and then will we more readily ascertain, that our happiness in time is less dear to us than our hopes for eternity. It is thus that by the contemplation of that which is without, we brighten the consciousness of that which is within -- and the more manifest the things of revelation are to the eye of faith, the more manifest will the things of experience be to the eye of conscience -- and the more distinctly we can view the epistles of Christ in the written Record, the more discernible will its counterpart be in that epistle which is written not with pen and ink, but by the Spirit of God, on the fleshly tablets of our own heart. And so the work of faith, instead of being proposed by us as a substitute, we should propose as the readiest help, and far the best preparative for the work of self-examination.

    It were well, if thus we could compose the jealousy of those who deem it legal to go in quest of evidence -- but better still, if we could guide the practice of those with whom the business of salvation forms a practical and not a merely theoretical or speculative question.

    And first, we would say to them, that so far from setting faith aside by the work of self-examination, we hold that it is the former which supplies the latter with all its materials, and sheds that light over them which makes them visible to the eye of consciousness. Were there no faith, there would be no fruits to inquire after -- and it were utterly in vain to go a-seeking where there was absolutely nothing to find. To a sinner in distress, we unfold the pardon of the gospel; and we bid him look unto Jesus, that he may rejoice. We surely could not say less than this to an inquirer in darkness, even though it be a darkness that has gathered and rests over the tablet of his own character, and hides from his own view all that is good and gracious thereupon. Should the eye fail of its discernment when turned inwardly upon the evidences, we should bid it turn outwardly upon the promises, and this is the way to bring down a clear and satisfying light upon the soul. Just as in some minute and difficult search over the floor of an apartment, we throw open all its windows to the sun of nature, so we ought, by faith, to throw open all the chambers of the inner man to the light of the Sun of Righteousness. They are the truths that be without, which give rise to the traces of a spiritual workmanship within -- and the indistinctness of the latter is just the reason why the soul should be ever aiming by attention and belief at a communication with the former. When self-examination is at a loss to read the characters which are written upon the heart, it is faith alone which can make the inscription more legible -- and never will man get acquainted with the home of his own bosom, but by constant supplies of light and influence from abroad. If we feel, then, an outset of difficulty, in the work of self-examination, let us go anew to the fountain-head of revelation, and there warm, into a sensibility that may be felt, the cold and the faded lineaments of that image which it is the genuine tendency of the truth as it is in Jesus to impress upon the soul. That we may prosper when we examine ourselves, whether we are in the faith, we should have the faith. We should keep it in daily and habitual exercise, and this will strengthen it. If we be familiar with the truths that are without, less will be our difficulty in recognizing the traces that are within. The more we gaze upon the radiance, the brighter will we glow with the reflection -- and so far from opposition in the exercises of self-examination and of faith, there is the most necessary concert, the most important and beautiful harmony.

    But, secondly -- whatever difficulties there be in self-examination, we should even now make a beginning of the work. We should at least try it -- and if we do not succeed, repeat it again and again. We should set ourselves formally down to it, as we would to a prescribed task -- and it were well too if we had a prescribed time every day for the doing of it, and let a whole month of honest and sustained perseverance pass over our heads, ere we say of the work that it is impracticable. The more we live a life of faith through the day, the more distinct and legible will be that other page in the record of our personal history, which we shall have to peruse on the evening -- and however little we may have sped at this trial of self-examination, we will either be encouraged or rebuked by it, into a life of greater effort and watchfulness on the morrow. In the business of each day, there will be a reference to the account and settlement that we make at the end of it -- and the conclusion of each night will serve either to rectify the errors of our preceding history, or to animate us the more in that path by which we are moving sensibly onward to the heights of moral and spiritual excellence. Thus indeed will we make a business of our sanctification -- and, instead of that vague, and shadowy, and altogether chimerical affair which we apprehend to be the religion of many a professor in our day, will it become a matter of solid and practical acquisitions, each of which shall have a visible reality in time, and each of which, by adding to the treasure in heaven, will have its distinct bearing on the interests of eternity.

    Now, when we set about any new exercise whatever, we first begin with that which is easy, and afterwards proceed therefrom to that which is more arduous. In the work of self-examination, there is a scale of difficulty -- and it were well perhaps that we should make our first entrance upon the work at some of its lower gradations, lest we begin our attempt at too high a place, and be repelled altogether, by finding that it is utterly inaccessible.

    To guide us aright, then, in this matter, we might observe, that the overt acts of our visible history, are far more noticeable by the eye of self-examination than those affections of the heart by which they have been prompted -- and, therefore, if not yet able to read the devices of the inner man, let our first attempt be to read the doings of the outer man: "Hereby know we that we know him, if we keep his commandments." This is a palpable test, in as far, at least, as the hand, or the mouth, or the footsteps, or any of the bodily organs, are concerned -- and a series of questions regarding these were a good elementary introduction to the work of self-examination. -- Have we, throughout the whole course of this day, uttered the language of profaneness, or contempt, or calumny? Or have we said any of those foolish things which might be ranked among the idle words of which men shall give account on the day of judgment? Or have we expressed ourselves to any of our fellows in the tone of fretfulness and irritation? Or have we on Sabbath refrained our attendance on the public ministrations, and, instead of the readings and the contemplations, and the devout exercises of sacredness, have we given any time to the business and society of the world? Or have we been guilty of disrespect and negligence towards parents, and masters, and superiors of any kind? Or have we done any acts of mischief and revenge to the man whom we hate? Or have we willfully directed our eye to that which was fitted to kindle the affections, or lead to the purposes of licentiousness? Or have we put forth a hand of violence on the property of our neighbor; and, what is an offence of the same species, have we taken an undue advantage of him in the petty contests and negotiations of the exchange, or of the market-place? Or have we spoken, if not a direct falsehood, at least a cunningly devised utterance, which, by the tone, and manner, and apparent artlessness of it, was calculated to deceive? Or have we gone to any of the excesses of intemperance, whether of the drunkenness which inflames the faculties, or of that surfeiting which damps and overweighs them? And what this day have been our deeds of beneficence -- what our attentions of kindness and charity -- what our efforts or our sacrifices in the walk of Christian usefulness -- what our almsgivings to the poor -- what our labors of piety, either among the habitations of ignorance, or with the members of our own family? These are all matters that stand broadly and discernibly out to the eye of consciousness. They form what may be called the large and legible types on the tablet of self-examination. They form, as it were, the primer, or the alphabet of this most important branch of scholarship. It is as easy for us to frame a catalogue of these questions, and sit regularly down every evening to the task of applying them in succession to our recent history, and meet them with as prompt and clear a reply, as it is for us to tell at the end of each day, what were the visits that we performed, or the people whom we have conversed with, or the walks that we have taken, or the bargains that we have concluded. There is nothing of reconditeness or mystery whatever in this process, at least, of self-examination; and by entering immediately upon it, may we at length be qualified for those more profound exercises by which the intimacies of the heart are probed; and be able to arrive at a finding, and a familiarity with the now hidden depths of a spiritual experience.

    There is much to be gathered even from this more rude and elementary process of self-examination. "By their fruits shall ye know them," says our Savior; and, after all, much may be learned of the real character of our affections, from the acts in which they terminate. In natural husbandry, one may judge of the vegetation from the crop. It is not indispensable that we dive into the secrets of physiology, or that we be skilled in the anatomy and organization of plants, or that, with the eye of direct observation, we can satisfy ourselves as to the soundness of the root, or the healthful circulation of the juices which ascend from it. There is no doubt, that a good internal economy forms the very essence of vegetable health; and yet how many an agriculturalist, from whom this essence lies hid in deepest mystery, can pronounce upon that which is spread visibly before him, that there has indeed been a grateful and prosperous return for his labors. He knows that there has been a good and abundant growth, though, in the language of a gospel parable, whose design is to illustrate this very thing, he "knoweth not how." And so, to a great extent, of spiritual husbandry. One may be profoundly ignorant of moral science. He may not be able to grope his way among the arcana of the inner man. There might not be a more inscrutable thing to him in nature, than the mystery of his own spirit; and not a darker or more impenetrable chaos, than that heart which ever teemeth with the abundance of its own thoughts and its own counsels. Yet from the abundance of that heart the mouth speaketh; and words are audible things -- and out of that heart are the issues of life; and the deeds of our life or history are visible things -- and as the heart prompteth so the hand performeth -- and thus a legible expression is sent forth, even from the depths of an else unsearchable cavern, which we at least have never entered, either to sound its recesses, or to read the characters that are graven within its secret chambers of imagery. If we cannot go profoundly to work, let us go to it plainly. If the fountain be hid, let us take cognizance of the stream that issueth from the outlets. If we cannot gauge the designs, let us at least institute a questionary process upon the doings; and if we have wearied ourselves in vain at searching for the marks of grace upon the soul, let us remember that the body is its instrument and its vehicle, and we may at least examine ourselves as to all its movements of accordancy with the ten commandments.

    Let us therefore be in earnest in this work of self-examination, which is reputed to be of so much difficulty, and immediately do that which we can; and thus will we at length be qualified for doing that which we at present cannot. Let it be the task of every evening to review the palpable history of every day; and if we cannot dive into the heart, we may at least take cognizance of the handiwork. We may not yet be able to analyze the feelings which enter into the hidden life of obedience; but we can take account of the literalities of obedience. The hasty utterance by which we wounded another's sensibilities -- the pleasantries by which we enlivened a festive circle, at the expense of some absent character -- the tone of offence or imperiousness into which some domestic annoyance hath provoked us -- the excess into which we have been betrayed amid the glee of merry companionship -- the neglect of prayer and of the Bible, into which we have once more been led by distaste, or indolence, or the urgency of this world's business -- these, and many more, are surely noticeable things, which can be recalled by the memory, and rebuked by the moral sense, of the most ordinary Christian; and which, if so dealt with at the close of any day, might give to the morrow's walk a greater care and a greater conscientiousness.

    What we ought to do is to begin now the work of self-examination -- we should now make a practical outset, and do forthwith all that our attainment and ability will let us -- we should not despise the day of small things, nor idly postpone the work of self-examination till a sense, and a spirit, and a subtlety, which we at present have not, shall come upon us, as if by inspiration. If the inward motions be too faint and fugitive for us to apprehend, let us lay hold at least of the outward movements, and by a faithful retrospect and reformation of these, will our senses at length be exercised to discern both the good and the evil. What we ought to chase away from the habit of the soul is a certain quietism of inert and inactive speculation, when lulled by the jingle of an unmeaning orthodoxy, it goeth not forth with its loins girded, as well as its lamp burning, and only dreams of a coming glory, and immortality, and honor, instead of seeking for them by a patient continuance in well-doing. We ought earnestly to make a business of our Christianity, and be diligent in doing that which our hand findeth to do; and if at present the mysteries of a deeper experience look so remote and inaccessible that we cannot apprehend them, let us at least question ourselves most strictly as to the doings of our ordinary path; and under the guidance of that Spirit whose office it is to reveal all truth, will we, at length, be disciplined for greater things than these.

    In prosecuting the business of self-inspection, it is of importance that we be guided aright in our inquiries into our spiritual state; and we know of few works better fitted to assist the honest inquirer in his search, than Mr. Guthrie's Christian's Great Interest. It is divided into two parts, "The Trial of a Saving Interest in Christ," and "How to Attain to a Saving Interest in Christ"; and we think it impossible to peruse this valuable treatise, with the candor and sincerity of an honest mind, without arriving at a solid conclusion as to our spiritual condition. His experimental acquaintance with the operations and genuine fruits of the Spirit, and his intimate knowledge of the workings of the human heart, fitted him for applying the tests of infallible truth to aid us in ascertaining what spirit we are of -- for exposing and dissipating the false hopes of the hypocrite -- for leading the careless Christian to investigate the causes of his declension in godliness, and to examine anew whether he be in the faith -- and for detecting and laying open the fallacies and delusions which men practice on themselves, in regard to the state of their souls. He faithfully exposes the insidious nature of that deceitfulness of the human heart, which lulls men into a false security, while their Christianity is nothing more than a heartless and hollow profession, and they are standing exposed to the fearful condemnation denounced against those who have "a name to live, but are dead."

    Nor is his clear and scriptural exhibition of the dispensation of grace less fitted to guide the humble inquirer into the way of salvation. As a faithful ambassador of Christ, he is free and unreserved in his offers of pardon and reconciliation, through the death and obedience of Christ, to the acceptance of sinners; but he is no less faithful in stating and asserting the claims of the gospel, to an unshrinking and universal obedience, and to an undisputed supremacy over the heart and affections. And to aid the sincere Christian in the cultivation of the spiritual life, he urgently enjoins an implicit acquiescence in the guidance and intimations of the Holy Spirit, through whose operation it is that a cordial and affectionate faith in the whole of God's testimony can be wrought in the soul; by whose spiritual illumination it is that the truth becomes an instrument of sanctifying and saving us; while by the inward experience of the Spirit's light, and comfort, and renewing power, combined with the outward and visible growth of the fruits of righteousness in the character, we acquire the best and surest evidence that we have obtained a saving interest in Christ.

    The intimate acquaintance which he manifests with the spiritual life, and his clear, affectionate, and earnest expositions of the peculiar doctrines of the gospel, render this treatise a precious companion to the sincere Christian; while his powerful and urgent appeals to the conscience are peculiarly fitted to awaken men to a concern about those matters to which the Scriptures attach such an infinite importance; to lead them in earnest to avoid the possibility of continuing in deception; and to constrain them to seek after a full assurance on that subject on which, above all others, it becomes men to be well assured.

    St. Andrews, January 1825.
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