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Self-examination: a spiritual “physical”?

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! (2 Corinthians 13:5, ESV)

A physical examination (short: “physical”) is the systematic process by which a doctor looks, listens, and feels the physical body of a patient, in order to find out what is wrong with the body (i.e. to arrive at a diagnosis) which will in turn help to give a way to “fix” the patient (i.e. to arrive at a treatment plan). Recently, my mother experienced the worst tummy pain of her life and was subjected to physical examination by several doctors who finally arrived at the diagnosis of intestinal obstruction. She underwent an emergency surgery and the condition, which could have been life-threatening had it not been discovered in time, was treated. She got better, and the pain, which she said was worse than the pain of childbirth, finally stopped.

Is there a spiritual equivalent of a physical examination? How do we “look”, “listen”, and “feel” the spirit for “spiritual disease” and what would be the treatment thereof?

The spiritual equivalent of a physical disease is sin, and it can take on countless forms, many of which are subtle and often escape our notice, unless we truly examine ourselves. For instance, we need to look inwardly for any manifestation of envy, which may not be an outwardly obvious sin like murder, but which the Bible warns is the source of many evils: James 3:16, ESV:

For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.”

If I am envious of a colleague’s success, I may be tempted to slander his name behind his back (1 Peter 2:1). We also need to be aware of the trap of sexual lust, where looking upon a woman may lead some to commit adultery in his heart, or others to covet pornography (Matthew 5:27-28). We need to carefully listen to ourselves for any manifestation of shamelessness, which may result in us saying something that we should be ashamed of and regret afterwards. There are so many sins that we may often overlook or even discount as “not a sin”. Uncovering these requires us to be truly honest with ourselves in order to acknowledge and confess them.

How do we diagnose our spiritual shortcomings? Jesus warns us that “evil thoughts, adulteries, …., covetousness, …,pride, foolishness” come from within the hearts of men (Mark 7:21-23). Therefore, we need to look inside our hearts: not with an open heart surgery, but by examining ourselves inwardly.

First, we can start by asking the rhetorical question: “What if God were here when I said this or did this? What would He do?” Even though we know that God is omnipresent and omniscient, I propose that this mental exercise may put our minds in a morally righteous frame. Second, we need to have a reverential fear of God, who knows every thought in our minds: a fear which can and should deter us from acting on the impulse to sin, so long as we keep a humble attitude that God commands us to have (Philippians 2:3).

Finally, we need to do what David did, which is to submit ourselves to God’s grace: Psalms 139:23-24, KJV:

Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

It is only through prayer and asking God to help us search ourselves that we can have the courage to face our own inner beings.

How do we treat our spiritual ailments? Just like how we go to a doctor to treat our physical disorders, we must turn to the Great Physician, our Lord Jesus Christ, to treat our spiritual ailments. We take comfort from the fact that Jesus Himself was tempted at various points, but still remained without sin (Hebrews 4:15). Establishing the correct diagnosis is important, but having an appropriate treatment plan is even more crucial: not only do we need to acknowledge our faults, we must also turn away from sin and hopefully not fall into the same temptation again. There are two extremes to be avoided in self-examination: on one hand, the presumptuous person thinks his sins are “not too great” and hence may fall into the temptation of thinking that it is alright to continue in it (something I can relate to sometimes when using the Lord’s name in vain); on the other hand, the person can be so dejected from being overly critical of himself that Satan may pounce on this moment and cause him to fall away from the faith. We should instead aim for the middle ground and do as our Lord commands: to pray in the face of temptations (Matthew 26:41), love our God with all our hearts and our neighbours as we love ourselves (Luke 10:27), and take comfort from the fact that God will not tempt us beyond our ability and will always provide a way for us to endure (1 Corinthians 10:13).

May we all find in Jesus the treatment our souls need in order to be free from the pain of spiritual death and receive life everlasting.


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