Prayers of self-examination.

by K.W. Leslie, 12 July

Likely you already know the “Rich Young Ruler Story”: It’s not a parable, ’cause it actually happened. Somebody—Matthew calls him a young man, Mt 19.20 Luke calls him a ruler, Lk 18.18 and all the synoptic gospels call him wealthy—came to Jesus, wanting to know how to receive eternal life. He was astute enough to realize following all of the LORD’s commands wasn’t gonna cut it. It took more than the very best karma, and maybe the rabbi knew what it was.

He didn’t like Jesus’s answer.

Mark 10.17-23 KJV
17 And when he was gone forth into the way, there came one running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life? 18 And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God. 19 Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honour thy father and mother. 20 And he answered and said unto him, Master, all these have I observed from my youth. 21 Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me. 22 And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions. 23 And Jesus looked round about, and saith unto his disciples, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!

The teenager did have a deficiency. A few of them: A shortage of generosity. Too much dependence on his earthly possessions. True, at the end of this story he went away, and we don’t know what happened to him thereafter. I hope he repented, but the gospels don’t say.

His sad story aside, he reveals a form of prayer which we Christians oughta make from time to time. It’s a prayer of self-examination: We wanna know if there’s anything more God wants us to do. Are we missing something? Have we left anything undone? Any sins of omission? Do we have a blindspot? Maybe a bunch of blindspots. God, what are they?

In my experience it’s often basic stuff which we densely never realized we should also be doing. The rich young ruler didn’t realize he should’ve been giving to the poor. Which is weird, ’cause he claimed he totally followed the Law… but I guess he forgot this passage is in there:

Deuteronomy 15.11 KJV
For the poor shall never cease out of the land: therefore I command thee, saying, Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.

Greedy people have invented all sorts of justifications for not helping the needy. Christians may not necessarily be greedy (though yeah, some of us are) but some of us have heard these justifications all our lives… and learned to agree with them, and likewise do nothing to help the needy. We don’t even think about all the teachings of Jesus, all the commands in the scriptures, in which God expects us to help the needy. It’s become this massive blindspot for plenty of Christians: “Jesus himself said ‘The poor you will always have with you,’ so what’s the point in trying to solve the problem of poverty?” The rich young ruler is hardly the only person who never noticed his blindspot till Jesus pointed it out.

But deep down, he knew it was there. The Holy Spirit was poking him in the conscience. Same as he’s poking us in the conscience: “Hey, you’re overlooking something.” So let’s ask him: What’d we forget? What more must we do?

Unless, like the rich young ruler, we don’t really wanna know.

The unexamined life of the Christian.

Psalm 139.23-24 KJV
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: 24 and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Sad fact is, most Christians aren’t gonna bother to ask God to search and know them. Never take any mental moral inventory… because we’d rather not know. Or rather not think of ourselves as having character flaws like this. It’s the self-preservation instinct gone haywire: We’re good people, right? We’re following Jesus, we’re justified by faith; Jesus makes us good. Don’t beat yourself up! That’s the devil talking.

Except it’s not the devil talking; it’s the Holy Spirit. When it’s the devil, that nagging voice within is more of an imposter-syndrome type thing: “You’re useless, you’re nothing, you’re gonna get found out, you’re not really qualified,” and so forth. It’s meant to discourage and drag you down. The Spirit, in contrast, is trying to help, not condemn: “One thing thou lackest” Mk 10.21 KJV is not a statement of condemnation, but correction. If you’re going the wrong way, and wanna go the right way, correction is good news, not bad.

But again: Christians don’t wanna hear we’re going the wrong way. We’ve convinced ourselves we’re on the right path, and any naysayers are people on a wrong path, and they’re going to hell and we’re not. If we bother to ask the Spirit, “Try me, and know my thoughts,” it’s not legitimately because we think there’s room for improvement; we want him to say, “You’re doing great! Well done, my good and faithful servant.” We want kudos, not redirection. It’s all about praise, not humility.

I’ve heard a number of preachers claim that’s really what the rich young ruler was about: He expected Jesus to tell him, “You’re doing great, kid! Keep it up.” He went away sorrowful because Jesus didn’t give him the praise he expected. If this is true, I’d expect the ruler to go away angry, not sad; hypocrites hate to get exposed. Nah; this was a legitimate question. He wanted the kingdom! Just not at the expense of his wealth.

Hypocrites will never ask the Spirit, “What do I lack?” They might ask other Christians to tell them—“What more do you think I oughta do?”—presuming the Christians will have no clue, and maybe offer some typical platitudes to which they can easily reply, “But I already do that.” It’s not a wise presumption to make about fellow Christians, ’cause the Holy Spirit might actually answer their question through us. Won’t that make ’em feel dumb.

Hypocrites or not, if somewhere in there we’re legitimately trying to follow Jesus, at some point the Spirit’s gonna bring up our omissions. Especially when they’re getting in the way of any further growth. If our blindspots and hangups keep us from ministering in ways the Spirit wants, or they stop us from reaching out to people whom the Spirit wants helped, he’s gonna get less gentle and more obvious. So if in any way we sense him poking us in the conscience, it’s time to stop right then and ask him what it’s about. If we’ve been avoiding any self-examination till then, we can’t ignore it anymore.

God knows all the blindspots.

Humans have blindspots. All of us do, with Jesus maybe the only exception. We presume we don’t, and that’s the problem with blindspots: We can’t detect ’em. It’s why we need fellow Christians who are honest with us, who can warn us where we’re fumbling. It’s why we need the Holy Spirit, ’cause sometimes our fellow Christians aren’t gonna catch things, but the Spirit catches everything.

Like this rich young ruler, we might figure we’re good and obedient. We don’t murder, don’t cheat on our spouses, don’t steal anything (not even office supplies), don’t dishonor our parents (well, not blatantly), aren’t malicious to our neighbors (although we’re sometimes apathetic), and never committed perjury. We’re good enough.

But simple obedience to God’s commands isn’t enough. Often we have lousy attitudes which need rooting out. We have resentments buried way down in there, buried so deep we can’t recognize them. Often the Holy Spirit wants us to be more radical than we are, but we figure these practices are too radical, and what we’re comfortable with is plenty devout enough. The Spirit never challenges us to do something we can’t do in his power… but we don’t wanna. The rich young ruler sure didn’t wanna.

For these reasons and more, we gotta ask the Spirit, “What do I lack?” What’s my blindspot? What challenges have I left unmet? What more do you have for me? What more can I do? Do you figure I’m ready for more? In what ways am I holding myself down?

Worse: Is my blindspot harming me? Harming others? Am I passive-aggressively treating other people in a less-than-Christlike way? Am I unwittingly alienating pagans or fellow Christians? Am I lying to myself, deceiving myself, hurting myself?

Some of us already know our blindspots. But we stopped looking at ’em a long time ago, or scratched the surface on them and figured that was plenty. Some of them are downright embarrassing. Nonetheless we need to turn to the Holy Spirit, and ask him to expose them no matter how painful they are. (And no matter how everyone else in my church may react to my newfound repentance—when they still do the same things, but convince themselves there’s nothing wrong with it.)

We’re not fine. We have to accept the Spirit’s fair critique. Not make excuses for them: “I have a very good reason for it,” or “How’s that wrong? Everybody does it,” or “When you look at it this way, it’s actually a good thing,” or “That’s just who I am.” Yep, these are all excuses I’ve made. They’re all crap. We deceive ourselves so easily.

When the Spirit told me to get rid of my sarcasm, fr’instance, I tried the “That’s just who I am” excuse. His response: “I didn’t make you that way.” No he didn’t. I made myself that way; sarcasm was my way of getting away with anger, and justifying it because it was so funny and clever of me. I liked that trait in myself; I liked being Mr. Sarcasm. But the Holy Spirit was insistent: It had to go.

So the Holy Spirit must lead the moral inventory. And the result will be a balanced one. I tend to be either far too proud of my successes, or far too hard on myself about my failings. The Spirit is far more realistic and gracious. (Stands to reason: Kindness is one of his fruits.) I may hate what he shows me, but I need to hear it from him. I can risk his piercing analysis because I know he’ll be infinitely kind and entirely honest about it. Good is good, evil is evil, and the Spirit will call it as he sees it.

And, as Jesus did with the rich young ruler, the Spirit will encourage me (and you) to do better. It might be difficult. But it always has the goal of a closer relationship with him—and life in the age to come.