A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on July 17, 2011.
Genesis 28:10-19a; Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24; Romans 8:12-25
Some stories hit so close to home that they are hard to enjoy. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of those stories.
In Wilde’s story Dorian Gray is a vain, corrupt man who acted without restraint of conscience. His greatest wish was that he would stay forever young. His wish came true, and he remained forever the same. No sign of age could be seen on his face. No gray could be found in his hair.
However, a portrait of himself hanging on his drawing room wall began to change. It reflected the real toll that Dorian Gray’s lifestyle was taking on his soul and body. It made Gray uncomfortable to see this painting of himself aging while he stayed young, so he hid the painting in the attic and continued to live his hedonistic lifestyle.
Several years later, while looking for something in the attic, Dorian Gray accidentally knocked the cover from his portrait. He stood face to face with himself as he really was. He saw etched into his appearance all of the evil, all of the resentment, all of the degeneracy of his life. He had only been deceiving himself all those years by looking into mirrors that showed him as he wished to be.
I see myself all too clearly in this story, and I’m guessing you do, too. Most of us only want to look into mirrors that show us what we wish we could be, not what we really are. We want those proverbial mirrors to reflect people who never grow old (or bald!), never do wrong, and never fail at anything.
We not only want to see that image ourselves. We spend enormous amounts of time and energy managing our image so that others will see that same flawless reflection when they look our way. We even engage in “image management” with God, doing all in our power to convince God that we are fine, upstanding people—not perfect, of course, but much better than most.
The obvious problem with this approach, is it means living a lie. The not so obvious but very real problem is this kind of self-deception also leaves us stuck on the journey of spiritual transformation. Because until or unless we are prepared to do the hard work of genuine self-examination in God’s presence, our journey of spiritual formation inevitably remains stalled in the mud of denial.
Why is it we so resist seeing ourselves as we really are?
Ruth Haley Barton insightfully suggests that most of us were frequently shamed by our families of origin and our churches growing up, and we don’t think we can handle the truth of honest self-examination. Many of us project lots of self-confidence on the outside while inwardly we are wracked with far too much self-doubt to take an honest inventory of ourselves.
And while we would never admit it at church, most of us doubt God’s love. We’re pretty sure that if God really knew us at our pathetically sinful core, he would never love us. So like Dorian Gray, we keep looking only in those mirrors that show our best side…to ourselves and God.
All the while, there is a deep longing in our soul that goes unsatisfied. Because one of the deepest longings of our hearts is to be completely known and unconditionally loved. Deep in our souls we are weary of all the finessing and hiding required to deceive ourselves and God. We want to be loved, just as we are. And we want to change so that the same old flaws won’t continue to sabotage our journey of spiritual growth.
Today, we are going to review two ancient practices of the Christian faith, two forms of self-examination designed to help us overcome our spiritual blindness and self-deception. The first is called the “examination of consciousness.” The second is called the “examination of conscience.” The first has to do with seeing God more clearly, the second with seeing ourselves more clearly. Both are critical to spiritual transformation, or the process of being conformed into the image of Christ for the sake of others.
As it happens, we are not ready to see ourselves as we really are until we see our ever-present, always-loving God. That’s why the examination of consciousness, also known as the “daily review” or the “daily examen” is so important. This practice of sensing and celebrating God’s presence gives us the confidence we need to take that scary plunge into the inner depths of our own souls.
The Bible teaches that God is present at all times. The problem is that we are often blind to that presence. It’s not that we walk around with our eyes closed. It’s that we are usually so preoccupied with the doing life that we simply miss the author of life in our very midst.
The Old Testament character Jacob is a case in point. Jacob is in far too great a hurry to be aware of God. He’s trying like crazy to escape his homicidal brother, Esau, whom he has cheated out of his father’s birthright and blessing.
After running himself ragged, Jacob finally collapses in exhaustion, so tired that he uses a hard rock for a pillow as he falls into a deep sleep. Then he has his famous “Jacob’s Ladder” dream complete with angels descending and ascending into heaven. God speaks to Jacob in the dream, promising him that he will possess the very land on which he is sleeping, and that his descendants “shall be like the dust of the earth.”
Furthermore, says God, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.” In other words, says God, “You can’t go anywhere that I won’t be. Escaping my presence is impossible.” Later, King David will affirm this same idea in Psalm 139 when he writes,
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there (vv. 7-8).
Jacob awakens from his dream with a new set of spiritual eyes. “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it! How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
John Ortberg describes the dramatic shift in Jacob’s life this way. Once he was spiritually mindless, oblivious that God was present with him and communicating with him. Now he is spiritually mindful, aware that God is always present, consistently communicating with his spirit.
In Romans 8 the Apostle Paul confirms the reality of God’s persistent communication with us in the depths of your soul. The very fact that we instinctively pray to God as our Heavenly Father confirms, says Paul, that the Holy Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.
God is with us all the time, loving us and leading us, guiding us and prompting us…whether we know it or not. The practice of the daily review gives God the opportunity to transform us into spiritually mindful Jacobs who are aware of the awesome presence and guidance of God in our lives.
The examen of consciousness involves taking a few moments at the end of each day to review what happened that day, inviting God to show us where he was present with us and how we responded to his presence. And so we ask, “Where did I see God today? What promptings did I notice in my spirit? How did I respond to God? Or ignore God? Or tune out God?”
You can also conduct the examen on a weekly rather than daily basis. The point is to review regularly how you and God are crossing paths, how you and God are communicating with each other.
This past week I spent three wonderful days with the 17 hardy souls from our church who braved the beastly heat of Helena, Arkansas last week to work with a CBF ministry for impoverished communities called “Together We Hope”. I know it was blazing hot here. But when I landed at the Memphis airport last Tuesday afternoon, the heat index was 115 degrees. And I thought I had surely landed in Sheol!
But as I watched our 17 and roughly 185 other members of CBF churches from around the country interact with those very poor but very loving residents of Helena, I knew I was seeing God in action. As our folks played games, and taught swimming lessons and made crafts with children, and visited and prayed and rehabilitated dilapidated homes with adults, the presence of Christ was palpable.
Over an evening meal, Monty Yoder and I had the opportunity to visit with a young African-American man who was full of personality. He was explaining to us how he came to be a Christian. He was recruited to be a counselor at a Christian camp by white counselors desperate to keep rambunctious African-American kids under control. He took the job and worked wonders with those kids, even though he knew he was anything but a Christian.
So he figured he ought to at least start reading the Bible to see what this Christianity stuff was all about. And his life began to change immediately. As he put it, “I didn’t know that when I started reading the Bible, it would change my life and I wouldn’t know it!”
Did it ever! These days this dynamic young man makes a four hour round trip twice a week to mentor and disciple troubled black young people in Helena, Arkansas. As I heard him tell his story, I felt like saying, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I didn’t know it! How awesome is this place!”
Now all of my experiences with God are not that dramatic. But the more I review my days, the more I realize God is with me, and God is communicating with me all the time if will only watch and listen.
Once I am aware of the constantly communicating, constantly loving presence of God, I’m ready for the examination of my conscience. Knowing that I am safe with this God who loves me so, I now ask God to bring to mind attitudes, actions, and moments when I fell short of the character of Christ or the fruit of the Spirit. And I do so (at least in theory), willing to see what I have done without rationalizing, and listen to God without defending myself.
Because, you see, my natural or “false” self wants to deny I did anything wrong. Or wants to minimize it. Or explain it away.
What’s odd about my hiding my “stuff” from God is that God already knows what’s going on in my life. In fact, God knows me better than I know myself.
My namesake in the Bible, King David, tried the “hide and seek, deny and rationalize” game. He slept with another man’s wife, and then had the man killed to cover his sin. None of that worked, of course, with our all-knowing God.
As David writes,
“O Lord you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and rise up;
You discern my thoughts from far away.”
Last weekend we laid to rest Earline King, a nationally known sculptor who produced hundreds of pieces of sculpture over the last 43 years that are displayed around our city, state, nation, and world. I would guess that Earline knew every inch of every sculpture she created. And I would say that God knows you even better than Earline knew her sculpture.
When we examine our consciences in God’s sight, we allow God to show us when and where we have sinned. Then, we name the sin before God in a specific way. Many of us resist this, wanting to generalize our sins. But as Richard Foster says, the same generalized confessions that insulate us from humiliation also insulate us from the inner healing only specific confession can bring.
There are times when we also need to go beyond God with our confessions. Recently I have experienced the release that comes from confessing a particular sin to a spiritual friend or my spiritual director. And when we have hurt others with our behavior, it is appropriate for us to confess our wrongs to the person we offended, and if necessary to make restitution.
Now, what I notice about myself is that I am prone to find excuses not to enter the examen of my conscience because I am too anxious about what will happen. But every time I muster the courage to practice this examination, I feel lighter inside, freer of the wounds that hurt me and the bondage that held me.
My friends, if you want to be conformed into the image of Christ, there is no detour around regular, even daily self-examination. Avoid it, and you will remain stuck. Try it, and God will use it to change your life!