By Professor Andrew Dyck
As a boy, I picked raspberries for several summers. Whenever I had filled a flat with fruit, the farmer would weigh it on a balance scale to discern two truths: the truth of how much I had picked and the truth that I had not hidden rocks or dirt clods under the berries. The pointer or tongue of the scale pointed out the truth of my berries’ mass. In Latin, the tongue on a scale is its examen.
As Christians, we need an examen to help us discern the truth about our lives. Socrates is credited with saying, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” In Romans 12:3, we’re reminded to think about ourselves truthfully “with sober judgment.”
Sadly, self-examination can debilitate us with crippling guilt, paralyzed decision-making, or glib self-praise. We need a more truthful and more loving examen. 1 John teaches us two complementary practices that comprise the examen we need. With these practices we welcome God to inspect our lives, freeing us to live in peace.
Confession, Acts of Love
One part of the examen is acknowledging to God our sins (1 John 1:8–2:2). God expects us to stop sinning (1 John 2:1)—to become like Jesus. To say we’re already free of sinning is to lie and call God a liar (1 John 1:8, 10). Instead, we need the habit of naming our specific sins and confessing them to God (1 John 1:9). As we become honest about our sins, we’ll discover that God is so faithful and righteous that he forgives and purifies us through Jesus Christ (1 John 1:9, 2:1–2).
1 John 1:8-2:2
If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (NIV)
The other part of the examen is acknowledging to God our acts of love (1 John 3:18–24). We need to notice the ways in which we’ve cared for other people concretely and practically (1 John 3:18). This is necessary whenever we feel inwardly accused of failing God and others (1 John 3:20)—especially when this feeling is due to self-doubt or excessive scrupulosity. Our loving actions are God’s love moving through us to others. When we see this, our inaccurate hearts can be reassured in God’s presence (1 John 3:19). We can be at rest, knowing that the Holy Spirit is at work through us (1 John 3:24).
Whenever we practice these two habits—confessing our sins and noticing God’s love in our own loving actions—we rely on God to show us which realities we need to see. Left to ourselves, we are blind to the truth of our lives. However, God has not abandoned us to our own devices. Our divine parent has promised to comfort and discipline us, according to our need.
1 John 3:18–24
Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: if our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: we know it by the Spirit he gave us. (NIV)
Two models are particularly helpful for learning to pray an examen true to 1 John.
In the book Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life (1995), Dennis, Sheila, and Matthew Linn recommend we take a few minutes each evening to become quiet in God’s presence and then ask, “For what moment today am I most grateful? For what moment today am I least grateful?”
These simple questions open the door to God’s loving examen. They offer us an end run around self-condemnation and self-deception. They’re suitable for all ages, including young children. They can help us in times of decision-making. Asked over weeks and months, they can help us discern the movement of Jesus’ Spirit in our lives—especially when a wise Christian accompanies us.
A Five-Part Prayer
A recent adaptation of the examen from the Spiritual Exercises by Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) invites us to retreat each day for a five-part prayer (SJ New Orleans Province). Recall that you’re in God’s presence. Give thanks for God’s gifts in the past day. Ask God by the Holy Spirit to help you look at yourself honestly and patiently, without condemnation or complacency. Review your day’s actions and attitudes, noticing where you acted freely and where you were swept along without freedom. Lastly, talk with Jesus about your day: thank, confess, resolve, and rest. (Limiting the prayer of examen to 15 minutes helps us avoid becoming self-absorbed.)
God has destined us to be joy-filled instead of guilty, righteous instead of sinning, and confident instead of merely optimistic. Prayerfully receiving God’s examen is a wonderful way of allowing God to work these transformations in our lives.
Andrew Dyck, PhD, is assistant professor of Christian spirituality and pastoral ministry for MB Seminary at Canadian Mennonite University. He and his wife Martha are part of Westwood Community Church and Winnipeg’s Imago Dei group. Reprinted with permission, with minor revisions, from Mennonite Brethren Herald (Nov. 2007).