Introspection vs. Self-examination

Posted: Tuesday, March 18, 2014 in Books, Counseling

Yesterday I considered Edwards’ Resolution #24 and the call to examine ourselves. M. Posey asked an important question in relation to this practice, “How do we do it without becoming overly introspective?” Here a distinction should be made between biblical self-examination and introspection. The former leads to freedom in glorifying God, the other to bondage and depression.

One of the best treatments on this matter is by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his book Spiritual Depressions: Its Causes and Its Cure. In Chapter One the very first thing that Lloyd-Jones considers is the necessity of distinquishing between self-examination and “morbid” introspection – and he notes how this is different in the extrovert and the introvert.

It is quite clear that we can divide human beings into two main groups. There are the so-called introverts and the extroverts. There is the type of person who is generally looking inwards and the type of person who is always looking outwards, and it is of the greatest importance that we should realize not only that we belong to one or the other of these two groups, but furthermore that this condition of spiritual depression tends to affect the one more than the other. We must start by knowing ourselves and by understanding ourselves.

There is a type of person who is particularly prone to spiritual depression. That does not mean that they are any worse than others. Indeed, I could make out a good case for saying that quite often the people who stand out most gloriously in the history of the Church are people of the very type we are now considering. Some of the greatest saints belong to the introverts; the extrovert is generally a more superficial person. In the natural realm there is the type of person who tends to be always analysing himself, analysing everything he does, and worrying about the possible effects of his actions, always harking back, always full of vain regrets. It may be something that has been done once and for ever but he cannot leave it alone. He cannot undo what has been done, but still he spends his time analysing and judging and blaming himself. You are familiar with that type of person. Now all that is transferred into the spiritual realm and into their spiritual life. In other words, it is obvious that the danger for such people is to become morbid. I have already said that I could mention names. Surely the great Henry Martyn belonged to this type. You cannot read the life of that man of God without seeing at once that he belonged to the introspective type. He was an introvert and he suffered from an obvious tendency to morbidity and introspection.

Those two terms remind us that the fundamental trouble with these people is that they are not always careful to draw the line of demarcation between self-examination and introspection. We all agree that we should examine ourselves, but we also agree that introspection and morbidity are bad. But what is the difference between examining oneself and becoming introspective? I suggest that we cross the line from self examination to introspection when, in a sense, we do nothing but examine ourselves, and when such self-examination becomes the main and chief end in our life. We are meant to examine ourselves periodically, but if we are always doing it, always, as it were, putting our soul on a plate and dissecting it, that is introspection. And if we are always talking to people about ourselves and our problems and troubles, and if we are forever going to them with that kind of frown upon our face and saying: I am in great difficulty – it probably means that we are all the time centered upon ourselves. That is introspection, and that in turn leads to the condition known as morbidity.

Here, then, is the point at which we must always start. Do we know ourselves? Do we know our own particular danger? Do we know the thing to which we are particularly subject? The Bible is full of teaching about that. The Bible warns us to be careful about our strength and about our weakness. Take a man like Moses. He was the meekest man, we are told, the world has ever known; and yet his great sin, his great failure was in connection with that very thing. He asserted his own will, he became angry. We have to watch our strength and we have to watch our weakness. The essence of wisdom is to realize this fundamental thing about ourselves. If I am naturally an introvert I must always be careful about it, and I must warn myself against it lest unconsciously I slip into a condition of morbidity. The extrovert must in the same way know himself and be on his guard against the temptations peculiar to his nature. Some of us by nature, and by the very type to which we belong, are more given to this spiritual disease called spiritual depression than others. We belong to the same company as Jeremiah, and John the Baptist and Paul and Luther and many others. A great company! Yes, but you cannot belong to it without being unusually subject to this particular type of trial.

The cure for “morbid introspection” is given throughout the book – the gospel! This is why Lloyd-Jones says that the believer should preach the gospel to himself every day. I think the key to understanding Edwards’ resolution is the word “frequently.” We “frequently” examine self – we constantly look to Christ. Doing so takes our eyes off of self in an unhealthy way (morbid) and puts them on Christ – the healer and forgiver of whatever ails us. It is to see ourselves as He sees us. To Him be the glory!

  1. mpose says:

    This complements what you were saying Sunday about Law and Gospel. Just as the Pastor must preach the Law and bring the Gospel as the remedy, the believer must do the same when he preaches to himself.

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