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Praying for the Examined Life

In The Apology, Plato records Socrates’ defense to the charge of corrupting the young men of Athens. In considering possible penalties, Socrates dismisses the suggestion that he just leave, and go somewhere else, and “mind his own business,” He retorts:

This is the hardest thing of all to make some of you understand. If I say that this would be disobedience to God, and that is why I cannot “mind my own business,” you will not believe that I am serious. If on the other hand I tell you that to let no day pass without discussing goodness and all the other subjects about which you hear me talking and examining both myself and others is really the very best thing that a man can do, and that life without this sort of examination is not worth living, you will be even less inclined to believe me.[1]

We’ve made a proverb of Socrates’ statement, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Here he tells us what that means—it means daily discussing virtue, and examining one’s own life and our life in society in light of virtue. To do otherwise—to “mind one’s own business”—is to disobey God.

Compare this idea of Socrates’ with Paul’s counsel to the Corinthians. First, from 2 Corinthians 13:5-9 (ESV):

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! I hope you will find out that we have not failed the test. But we pray to God that you may not do wrong—not that we may appear to have met the test, but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed. For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth. For we are glad when we are weak and you are strong. Your restoration is what we pray for.

Paul has done plenty of examination of them already, in person and in writing. He gives this counsel in anticipation of a future visit, suggesting that they not be anxious about an examination by him, as if he were simply trying to put them to shame. Rather, they should be examining themselves—not as a point of pride, not as a way to compare themselves with others—but simply to ensure that they are doing right, and maintaining the faith of Jesus Christ. The goal is their restoration.

Paul had offered similar counsel in his prior letter, when discussing preparation for the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians11:27-32 (ESV):

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.

This has been the source of much neurotic behavior by Christians. It’s one of the reasons some denominations celebrate the Lord’s Supper infrequently—how could you do it weekly and still take seriously this exhortation, some suggest. But Paul isn’t counseling a morbid, neurotic self-obsession. That’s the furthest thing from his mind, as is clear from the context. He is criticizing celebrations in which the rich bring a feast to potluck and don’t share, gorging themselves while the poor starve. To “discern the body of Christ,” in context, is not merely to understand the bread to be that body, but it is to see that those assembled, rich and poor alike, are members of his body, and to be treated with dignity and compassion.

And he gives us a couple of alternatives. If we judge ourselves—and correct our action based on what we find—we won’t have to fear God’s judgment. But even those judgments are to be seen as parental discipline, seeking to save us from condemnation.

Paul is applying a principle that we find in Jesus’ own teachings. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had said,

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matt 7:3-5, ESV.)

And again:

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Matt 5:23-24, ESV.)

We find it easy to examine others. The Corinthians did plenty of that—and they found others falling short of their expectations. Paul follows Jesus in urging them to look first at themselves.

We look to worship as a time away from the stress of the week, as a special time with the Lord. The Corinthians did, too—and they wanted others to see how special it was. Paul follows Jesus in connecting that special time with God to our relations with others. Don’t offer a sacrifice if something is unresolved with a brother. Don’t sit down to eat and drink the Lord’s Supper if anything divides you from those with whom you share the loaf and cup.

This, then, is what the “examined life” looks like for a Christian. It is to reflect on our relationships with God and others, to see if we are living the life we profess. It is to look at relationships within the church (and the world), to see if they are marked by love and justice. It is to look first at ourselves, to see if we are living lives of integrity.

Ellen White saw it as the consequence of “fear of the Lord.”

“The fear of the Lord is clean.” It uproots evil from the soul, and leads to holy watchfulness and diligence. The commandments of the Lord are exceeding broad; their principles extends to our words, our actions, and our most secret thoughts, and we should examine our lives in the light of the divine law. {BEcho June 1, 1887, par. 3.}

Should such self-examination take place only once a quarter, when we prepare for the Lord’s Supper? Ellen White suggested a daily self-examination for teachers.

Examineyourselves just as closely as you please. When night comes, talk of where you have failed through the day, and repent that you have given an example to the youth that you would not wish them to follow. {GCB April 25, 1901.}

Consider making such self-examination a daily practice in your own spiritual life. It doesn’t need to be long, simply a review of the major events of the day. Call to mind the Ten Commandments, or the “Two Great Commandments.” Recall some of Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. Ask the Lord in prayer, “Show me where I have hurt others or you.” And, so that it doesn’t become morbid or narcissistic, ask, “Show me, too, where your grace was present. Remind me of the kindnesses I and others showed.”

Finally, lest this examination end in despair, conclude with simple, honest, confession, claiming the promise of Scripture:

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9, ESV.)



Bill Cork is pastor of the North Houston and Spring Creek Seventh-day Adventist churches in Texas, and a chaplain in the Texas Army National Guard.

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