Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Examine Yourselves

"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?" (2 Cor 13:5).

"But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good" (1 Thess 5:21).

It is no secret that God wants us to examine ourselves. I remember growing up and hearing messages from the pulpit that reminded us we need to examine ourselves. Everyone nodded in agreement. I assume that most of the people that were present did just that; they examined themselves.

We live in a culture defined by among other things individualism. Due to this individualism, I, like many others in the congregation, had applied this to myself individually. I am responsible for myself, and therefore I needed to examine myself and only myself. I did not believe that there was anything more to it than this.

However, we collectively have been brought together as the body of Christ. Once we were not a people, but now we are the people of God (1 Pet 2:10). This means that we are a family, a community, and a body. Collectively, we pool our resources to carry out God's mission.

From the very beginning when God formed his people, he formed not a bunch of individuals, but a collective. As a result, there was a collective and communal responsibility among the people of God, such as the defeat of the people at Ai due to Achan's sin at Jericho (Josh 7:1-24). In our western individualism, such a thought is completely foreign to us. Yet there were also times of national examination, reflection, and repentance as well, such as the rainy day everyone came to the city square to repent in Jerusalem (Ez 10:9). Not every individual was guilty, but every individual was connected. So it appears that examining ourselves is not just an individual responsibility, but a communal one as well.

There is an example of this communal, heart-felt, authentic national repentance during the days of Hezekiah.

"They stood at their stations after their custom, according to the law of Moses the man of God; the priests sprinkled the blood which they received from the hand of the Levites. For there were many in the assembly who had not consecrated themselves; therefore, the Levites were over the slaughter of the Passover lambs for everyone who was unclean, in order to consecrate them to the LORD. For a multitude of the people, even many from Ephraim and Manasseh, Issachar and Zebulun, had not purified themselves, yet they ate the Passover otherwise than prescribed. For Hezekiah prayed for them, saying, 'May the good LORD pardon everyone who prepares his heart to seek God, the LORD God of his fathers, though not according to the purification rules of the sanctuary.' So the LORD heard Hezekiah and healed the people. The sons of Israel present in Jerusalem celebrated the Feast of Unleavened Bread for seven days with great joy, and the Levites and the priests praised the LORD day after day with loud instruments to the LORD. Then Hezekiah spoke encouragingly to all the Levites who showed good insight in the things of the LORD. So they ate for the appointed seven days, sacrificing peace offerings and giving thanks to the LORD God of their fathers. Then the whole assembly decided to celebrate the feast another seven days, so they celebrated the seven days with joy" (2 Chr 16-23).

What a joyful time that must have been! Honest, reflective, communal self-examination not only pleases God, but it leads to joy as well. It is a positive process.

So why is it so difficult? Rarely does a congregation reflect in communal self-reflection and examination. It is perhaps more rare than individual self-examination. Instead of true self-examination, many people in the pews seem more content to engage in Bible classes where the goal is to amass more knowledge. What about putting what knowledge to use? What about responding and acting on what comes out of Bible study? That usually does not really happen. Expectations are usually very low in the traditional Bible class. Part of the shortcoming with the typical format of Bible classes is that they remain in the realm of theory. Unlike Jesus who spent more time on practice than theory when training his disciples, Bible classes usually remain comfortably in the theory stage. Many congregations do not intentionally move beyond this.

It occurs to me that perhaps some of the reasons why people balk on communal self-examination are the same reasons people balk at individual self-examination. If there is a skeleton in the closet, issues that have not fully been dealt with, emotional scars, and things of this nature, self-examination can be painful. Even though self-examination can result not only in freedom, but also personal growth, many people prefer to stay where they are at emotionally. Is it possible that a congregation can suffer from the same things? Perhaps it is. Perhaps self-examination seems too painful and too threatening.

What makes a sound and healthy congregation is not merely that it is committed to the Bible. It is about a church that practices God's will. Jesus clearly said that not everyone who says Lord, Lord would enter the kingdom (Mt 7:21). Only those who do the will of the Father will enter the kingdom. Kingdom living is not just about believing, but about doing. Cerebral faith is no faith at all. It is useless and vain. Churches defined by cerebral faith are useless and vain as well. Ouch! Yes, self-examination can be uncomfortable. But with God's grace, we can have the grace to engage in honest reflection. The kingdom is a safe place where hurt people do not get re-hurt.

Congregational self-reflection is a much needed, God-honoring, God-mandated process. It is something that takes time, patience, honesty, humility, and especially prayer. Self-centeredness, fear, and pride get in the way of self-reflection.

Every activity, program, and physical item needs to be evaluated in light of God's mission and how it serves that mission. We should not be afraid of where it may take us. God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love and self-discipline (2 Tim 1:7). So if self-evaluation suggests that a program, tradition, or practice no longer meets God's mission, commitment and allegiance to God dictates it be discarded without fear. Change is not a bad word. Self-reflection and examination go along with change. One of the key words that New Testament writers use is metanoia. It is usually translated "repentance," but it means change or retraction.

God calls us to examine ourselves as a people. Therefore we need not fear where that will take us.