Looking Down One’s Own Throat
Both John the Baptist and Jesus Himself went around preaching “Repentance for the remission of sins.” They urged people to repent of their sins, but did not ask first whether they had committed any sins! It was taken for granted. The fact is, of course, that everybody starts out life facing in the wrong direction, driven by the love of self and love of the world. This is part of our inherited humanity. Therefore, unless we go into reverse or turn around (unless we are “converted”) we shall all end up in hell. This is a general rule, and I see no reason why you or I or any other particular person should be exempt from it. “Unless ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” This is difficult for most of us to swallow. The set-up in which we live as respectable middle-class people in a civilized society excludes the more obvious vices. Probably none of us has committed any glaring sins lately. We live good moral lives, helping one another and so on. We feel we are fairly all right, as good as or better than the next man. And so we develop a complacency which verges on self-approval. We are “the righteous who have no need of repentance,” to quote an ironical comment of our Lord’s. He only came, He said, to call sinners to repentance; the righteous apparently were hopeless! Even God cannot help anyone who thinks he is O.K.
If we come into this category of the self-satisfied righteous, it is about time we had a jolt. What we need is a course of honest self-examination to shake us up! Otherwise, I’m afraid we shall just drift downwards with the current, until it is too late. But if we begin to find out things that are unsatisfactory about ourselves, then we can repent and be forgiven, after which we can make real progress toward heaven.
The purpose of self-examination, then, is to change one’s character for the better. Can you change human nature? Of course you can! Just consider how you yourself have changed since childhood. Some things that absorbed your interest then would bore you now, whereas other more adult interests and concerns have taken their place. And you can go on changing till the day of your death. I have seen very dominating and aggressive people mellowing in their old age; which is, for them, an important change for the better. Others, who loved to amass property and judged everything in terms of money, begin to lose their attachment to their possessions, which indicates that their “love of the world” is lessening. Old prejudices are abandoned; we become more liberal. Oh yes, human nature can change! The point is: do you want to change, or be changed? If you don’t, nothing can save you. That is why so many people fossilize or go stagnant in their old age. Surely, as Christian people, we want to become angels and live in heaven? But to achieve this, we must be prepared to change our whole personalities; we must “die unto self, and be born again from the Lord.” Merely being Christian people and belonging to a church won’t save you; you must be re-born! And re-birth presupposes repentance, and repentance presupposes self-examination – knowledge of what we have got to repent of.
But how, you may ask, can we examine ourselves? Isn’t it like trying to look down your own throat? Well, for an animal it would be impossible; but one of the main differences between man and beast is that man can detach himself from himself and judge himself objectively. Not easily, however. Swedenborg warns us that self-examination will prove difficult at first. But he gives us encouragement by assuring us that it will grow much easier with practice.
There are two kinds of self-examination; or, rather, two levels on which self-examination can be applied. There is the outer level of deeds, and the inner level of motives. These correspond roughly to the daily scrutiny of our actions, which must necessarily be somewhat superficial; and the occasional inner probing, which is a major operation and should not normally be undertaken more frequently than, say, once or twice a year. To illustrate what I mean, I will refer to a nephew of mine who works in a plastic factory. His job is to see that the correct standard of production is maintained in the firm’s daily output. That is like our regular daily self-examination, done usually in bed before going off to sleep. You review the day, and think: “Oh, I should not have done this, or said that!” or, “I really ought to have done so and so! Lord, I’m sorry. Help me to make a better job of it next time.” The other kind of self-examination, the deep-level probing into motives and value judgments and personality quirks, is comparable, in the factory, to the overhaul or replacement of obsolete processes, the introduction of better machinery and systems of production, and so on. You cannot be doing this all the time, or you will never have any production at all; but you should undertake it occasionally, for the sake of long-term improvement.
Self-examination, if it is to be effective, should be detailed and specific. General Confession, what the psychologists call “blanket admission of guilt,” gets you nowhere. Martin Luther made a big mistake when he abolished the confession of individual sins. He wrote: “No man can ever know his sins; therefore, they cannot be enumerated; moreover, they are interior and hidden, so that a confession of them would be false, uncertain, maimed or mutilated. But he who confesses himself to be nothing but sin, includes all sins, excludes none, and forgets none.” This, surely, is nonsense! In fact, the reverse is the case. He who includes all sins, is conscious of none, and so forgets them all! The practical and realistic thing to do is to take one sin at a time, note the occasions on which we commit it, try to see why we commit it, pray to the Lord for help in avoiding it, and then work hard until the very desire for that sin is no longer in our system. Then start on another specific sin.
In examining oneself, it is useful to have some sort of yardstick, and the most commonly used is the Ten Commandments. But do not limit yourself to the obvious surface meaning of the Commandments. You may not have killed anyone literally, but have you sought to destroy him by contempt? You may not have committed adultery literally, but, as Jesus remarked, to look upon a member of the opposite sex with lust is to commit adultery in one’s heart. Deeper still, to profane good with evil is spiritual adultery. You steal from God if you take for yourself the praise and honor due to Him, and so on. But, even if, like the rich young ruler in the gospel story, you have “kept the Commandments from your youth up,” the question still has to be faced: “What has been your motive for keeping them?” Has it been because you have really desired to discipline yourself to a heavenly life, or merely because you have wanted to earn a good reputation and be thought well of by your set? Here is where self-examination can be of help.
Ask yourself: “Would I commit these evils if I could do so without being found out? – or if I lived in a society which practiced them and approved of them?” This is vital, because after death all external restraints will be removed; you will be able to do exactly what you like, and will no longer be concerned with what other people think of you. Then, those who refrained from breaking the Ten Commandments merely through fear of loss of reputation, plunge into evil with delight. At last they can do openly what they have always longed to do! But if you train yourself here in this world to refrain from committing evil because evil is hellish and against God’s will, then after death you will be free from any desire or prompting toward evil. The main purpose of life here is to develop self-discipline; for self-discipline, after death, is the only discipline to which we shall be subjected.
When we come to examine our motives or motivation (“why we are what we are? – what is our ultimate purpose?”), our yardstick should be the Two Great Commandments: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God above all else, and thy neighbor as thyself.” The best definition of sin is “anything which prevents us from loving, or having a good relationship with, God or our neighbor.” No action can be judged good or evil apart from the effect it has on a relationship. If it helps us to relate better with the Lord, it is good; if not, it is evil. Or, if it helps us to relate better with other people, to think better of them and to desire and seek their welfare, then it is good; if not, it is evil. As we examine ourselves on this level, we shall probably find we are riddled with self-love, concern for our own importance; or with love of the world, desire for possessions, ease and comfort and “security.” We shall find we have been continually asking ourselves: “Does this benefit me?” “What do I get out of it?” – which represents the motivation of hell. And so our main purpose in future will have to be to swing over from love of self to Love to the Lord, and from love of this world to Love to the Neighbor.
Some people find it helpful to write down in a notebook or on a sheet of paper the results of their self-examination. Make a list of your sins or your tendencies to selfish motivation and work out an order in which you think you should try to deal with them. Afterwards you can throw the paper away. Burn it in the fire, if you like; watch your sins go up in smoke! Or keep it for future reference, to see how you are progressing. At one church camp we attended, we were told to write a letter to God; and then on the back of the sheet, we had to write what we thought God’s reply would be. We sealed it up in a stamped envelope addressed to ourself, and left it with the secretary of the camp. In six months’ time she posted all the letters in the mail, and as I reread my letter, and God’s supposed reply, I was reminded very vividly of my feelings in the peak experience of the camp and was able to recapture the determination I had then formed to live my life on a more spiritual level.
In “God’s reply” there will undoubtedly be an expression of love and complete forgiveness. If we sincerely confess our sins before Him, and desire to amend our lives, He will forgive us and remove them at once. Jesus Himself showed this in His parable of the Prodigal Son, which makes it abundantly clear that anyone who turns back home from a far country is welcomed by his Father with open arms. Many people, however, although they know they are in a far country and have a vague feeling that they would like to return home, never make the actual effort of leaving their old wretched condition and going to their Father for forgiveness. Guilt feelings that do not lead to repentance and restitution are worse than useless. The maudlin confessions of an alcoholic are all part of the game; he takes a perverse pleasure in castigating himself and is disappointed if you don’t listen to him and condemn him. I have known people who have been going to psychiatrists for years, and seem to take pleasure in telling you all that is wrong with their mental outlook, and how they got that way. Some traumatic experience in their childhood, perhaps: like the old lady who spent her life being waited on in bed, because, when a child, she “saw something nasty in the woodshed!” It is the same with people who tell you all their physical ailments, the surgery they have had, the pills they take, and their indigestion mixture. It would be dreadful for such people if they were cured; they would no longer feel important.
One can imagine the Prodigal Son sitting among his pigs in the far country, a picture of penitent misery, going through his past life in his mind, seeing all the mistakes he has made and the sins he has committed, castigating and condemning himself for them, saying: “It’s all my own fault that I got this way. I am a worthless sinner. I deserve everything that has come to me.” And if someone were to come along and say, “Why don’t you go back home and ask the Old Man’s forgiveness?” he would reply, “My father would never forgive me! My sins against him have gone too deep! Leave me alone in my misery! I a unclean from head to foot.” That is not how the story goes in the Bible, of course; but it is how it goes with all too many sinners in this world, who take a sort of twisted pride in their evils and guilt, a pride which prevents them from accepting the forgiveness which their heavenly Father is longing to give them, or even from accepting forgiveness from their friends on earth. Such people are mighty good at repentance, but not “for the remission of sins!” Their confession gets them absolutely nowhere; if anything, the weight of it pulls them down into the mire (Bunyon’s “Slough of Despond”).
What the Lord wants is the lightening of the load that is pressing down on us; He wants us to be released, to soar! Will you allow Him to raise you up? Having discovered a sin of some sort in the murky depths of your heart, repent of it and let the Lord remit it; let Him remove it completely and absolutely, and replace it with something good from Himself. Do not ever hanker after that sin again. Don’t even think of it! Don’t even stop to bury it! Let the dead bury their dead, while you go and follow the Master. As for your love of self and love of the world, may they be whittled down and deprived of their power. Take up your cross and follow the Master to Calvary Hill and share His crucifixion, so that you may also share His resurrection and inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. “For this my son was dead and is alive again; was lost, and is found.”