By Linda Rex
I remember the first time I ever participated in a sacred service which involved eating bread and drinking wine in communion with others of like faith. I had just been baptized and was new at the whole process. At that particular time, our church only observed this once a year. That particular observance stands out in my mind because it was so solemn and so serious. Hundreds of us stood in line to participate and everyone was completely silent.
Back then I heard many a sermon prior to this observance telling us that we were to examine ourselves so we would not take of the elements in an unworthy manner. Examining oneself meant comparing oneself against the law, including keeping food laws and holy days. By the time I was through with this kind of self-examination, there was no way I could ever come away believing anything positive about myself. It was a one-way trip towards discouragement, humiliation, and defeat.
Then one day, I heard a pastor bring out another verse which talked about self-examination, 2 Cor. 13:5-6: “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test? But I trust that you will realize that we ourselves do not fail the test.” That particular passage put the whole discussion on another level.
The first type of self-examination is really easy for an introvert like myself. I can go down a million rabbit-trails in my head where I see all the things I’ve said or done wrong, and beat myself up for each one as I go. It is a lot more difficult to do the second type of self-examination, because it involves looking beyond my broken humanity to who I am in Christ.
To see Christ in oneself is to see the truth about one’s being. First, we were created in the image of God in his likeness, to be his image-bearers—adopted children who live in loving relationship with God and one another. In Christ, God redeemed our broken humanity, restoring our fellowship with him and one another—and in the gift of the Spirit, God came to work this out in us individually, enabling us to live and walk in Christ, who was and is the perfect image-bearer of God.
When we look within, not to see ourselves but to see Christ in us, we come up against the reality we indeed fall short of Christ’s perfection. But in the same moment we find Christ stands in our stead and on our behalf. Grace triumphs over judgment in that moment. Not only does Christ intercede moment by moment in every situation. He also works to heal, restore, and renew our relationship with God and each person in our lives as we turn to him in faith and respond to the Spirit’s work in our hearts and lives.
Self-examination, then, becomes not a negative thing, but an encouraging, anticipatory experience in which we begin to see what Christ did on our behalf and what he is doing right now in each moment on our behalf. And we begin to have some hope in what he will do in the future because we are learning he is trustworthy and faithful as well as loving, and he, by his Spirit, is at work within us, transforming us from the inside out.
The first type of self-examination tends to create an outlook which is self-absorbed rather than one which is outward-looking and other-centered. The life of the Trinity is other-centered and focused outward—towards God’s adopted children who are being brought into the life and love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Within the inner relations of the Trinity, there is a mutual pouring out and receiving—a movement which is unending, and which we were drawn into by Christ, and participate in through the Holy Spirit.
We were meant, not to be self-absorbed or self-conscious, but to be focused on Christ and conscious of his indwelling presence as well as aware of his work in the world around us. Attending to God in Christ and what he is doing by the Spirit in us and the world around us keeps us from being self-centered and self-absorbed. Indeed, it is best that we come to have no thought of self-at all, but rather find our self in Christ, who by his Spirit enables us to be truly ourselves.
This does not mean we negate ourselves or diminish ourselves, but rather that we begin to truly believe we are those people God intended us to be in the first place—his beloved, adopted children who with their own unique selves live as equals in loving fellowship and harmony. And in believing, we begin to act as if this is indeed the case. In this way we image the God we were created to reflect, and find in doing so, we experience the love, joy, and peace God meant for us to participate in from the beginning.
To examine ourselves and find Christ within is a far cry from examining ourselves and ending up discouraged, defeated, and despairing. We are reminded by the apostle Paul, “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1).” Our life in Christ is a journey in which we grow—it is not a static position or a place we come to and stay in. This is an existence where all of life is a participation in Christ’s life. We find our everyday tasks and experiences take on a whole new meaning as we realize we do not live alone and on our own, but share all things with Christ in the Spirit, and join in with what God is actively doing in the world around us.
Then when we come to the communion table to eat bread and drink wine, we are seeing Christ much more clearly. The body of Christ takes on a whole new meaning, including not only the human body of Jesus Christ, and the bread and the wine, but also the group of fellow believers with which we share a common faith. It also makes room for us to welcome all others to the table, since we were all taken up with Christ in his hypostatic union with God when he bore our common humanity to the cross, died, and rose again on our behalf.
Our participation in communion is a reminder, not of our failures and shortcomings, but of the gracious gift of Christ in our place and on our behalf. By the Spirit, we put on Christ, and we live in the assurance of his mediating presence with the Father, as now we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength. This makes sharing communion with others a pleasant remembrance of joy and warm fellowship, rather than a silent, serious, painful experience we would rather forget.
Thank you, Abba, for the gift of your Son, and the pouring out of your Spirit. Thank you we are in Christ and by the Spirit we are able to share in your joy, peace, and loving fellowship. Free us from our self-focus and self-absorption, from our self-centeredness and self-condemnation. Enable us to see and embrace our true self—forgiven, accepted and beloved in Christ—and live in the truth of who we really are. In examining ourselves, may we discover we are in Christ and Christ is in us, and that by the Spirit, we are bound up in you, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly.” 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 NASB
By Linda Rex
Lent: Many years ago I used to have recurring nightmares of trying to hide from scary people or events by hiding in the walls of my home or escaping over the backyard fence. This was during a time in my life where I was starting to come to understand the magnificence of God’s grace to me while also going through some very difficult personal experiences.
I began some studies related to abuse and co-dependency, but also came across some information regarding dreams and how sometimes they are related to the internal struggles we may be going through. One of these sources indicated that dreams involving one’s home of origin spoke to the need to resolve inner issues that had not been addressed or with which one is wrestling.
The idea that I had some inner issues that needed resolved was not a new concept for me. I had already concluded that I needed to bring some light into some very dark places in my life—places where I had been abused, shamed and broken. But up to that time I had never felt safe enough to acknowledge them, much less to admit to them and begin to deal with them. I was busy hiding behind all the walls I had built up throughout my life, and spent much of my time and effort escaping my problems and pain rather than facing them.
But healing of this nature does not occur until such a time as a person is willing and able to open dark places to the healing light of God’s presence and grace. Indeed, Jesus said we experience real freedom when we measure ourselves against the light of the truth of Jesus and allow him to set us free. There is an appropriate place for us to practice the spiritual disciplines of examen and confession.
First, I’m always having to remind people that spiritual disciplines are not rituals or rites. They become rituals or rites when we misapply them, using these practices as a means of trying to make things right with God or to get God to do something for us. A spiritual discipline is very different.
When a person is walking closely with God, they will sense that God is wanting them to open another area of their lives up to him for the Holy Spirit to go to work. Often he places a desire in their heart to grow up in Christ in a new and different way. Such growth only occurs, though, by the Spirit’s transforming power and work in a person’s heart and mind, and life. So, when a person feels this sense of God’s leading, they can open themselves up to a new work of the Spirit by practicing spiritual disciplines. This creates space for God to go to work.
There are many spiritual disciplines Christians have practiced over the centuries. One of these is examen. This spiritual discipline involves “discerning the voice and activity of God within the flow of the day. It is a vehicle that creates deeper awareness of God-given desires in one’s life” (Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, pg 52).
An example of this practice in action would be when at the end of the day, a person would reflect on his or her experiences and consider how and when they experienced God’s presence throughout the day, and what brought, as some describe it, “consolation” or “desolation”. In examen we reflect on what was life-giving and what was life-draining, where we gave and received love and where we failed to do so.
It is an opportunity to consider our relationship with God and to invite the Holy Spirit to show us those things we can be grateful for and those things which may need to be changed, and to invite him to make those changes in us. As you may see, this spiritual discipline is a way to open our life up to God’s light and allow him to go to work. Practicing it regularly can help us to become more aware of God’s presence in our lives and in what ways we are actively participating in Christ’s work in the world and in us.
The other spiritual discipline I mentioned is confession. We often associate confession with the Roman Catholic practice of confessing one’s sins to a priest, but confession as a spiritual discipline is quite different. Self-examination is not meant to be, as Calhoun puts it, “a neurotic shame-inducing inventory.” Rather it is a way of opening up ourselves in the context of God’s love and grace so that we can in a real, authentic way, seek his transformation.
Confession carries this process of self-examination forward in a two-sided way. One is the declaration of what is true about ourselves—we are broken in some way and fall short of who God created us to be. The other is the declaration of who we are in Christ, the real truth of our being—that we are redeemed and in Christ we have and do experience renewal and transformation.
Our confession begins first between us and God. The light of God penetrates that dark place and we open up to God and agree that yes, this is true about me. But for real healing to be found and true freedom experienced, we may need to carry that confession forward to a friend, a safe person such as a counselor, or in the context of public error, there may need to be public confession. (James 5:16)
But talking about our faults and places of brokenness is not enough. We can talk about them until we are blue in the face, bemoan them, flagellate ourselves about them, but nothing will change in our lives. At least, not until we confess Jesus Christ as the Savior and Lord who did something about them. He has freed us from our brokenness and given us new life—we begin to confess that, and begin to invite others to share in that forgiveness, healing and restoration, and we will begin to experience transformation.
This is why so often God brings light into some dark place in our lives and then begins to bring us into relationship with others who are struggling with the same things. As I began to deal with the abuse I experienced, bringing it into the light by being honest and truthful about it, and by sharing this struggle with others, God began to allow me to help others along on a similar journey. And in the process we all experienced God’s grace and healing.
In my case, the dark dreams stopped. Walking in the light of God’s grace and healing meant I didn’t need to hide behind my walls any more. I could be genuine and real, and broken, and I was still loved, forgiven and accepted by God and by others. I began to recognize God’s presence throughout my days in the positive and the negative experiences of my life. And in sharing my broken places with others, I could help them on their journey of healing.
All of this occurs and did occur within the context of relationship. God calls us to love him and to love one another. It is in the light of spiritual community with God and others that we can stop the hiding and begin to live freely and joyfully, as well as transparently, and with authenticity and integrity. May God give us the courage and faith to come out behind our walls, and to quit running and hiding.
Dad, thank you that you are so tender with us when we are broken. And you want us to feel safe enough with you that we can and will open up our dark places to your light so you can mend and heal them. Grant us the grace to be brave enough to let others join with us in this journey of transformation and to respond obediently to your calls to open ourselves up to the light of your love and grace. Thank you, that through your Son we have redemption and restoration. In his name we pray, amen.
“So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, ‘If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ They answered Him, ‘We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, “You will become free”?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.’” John 8:31–36 NASB