Keeping a Clear Conscience
A strategy for self-examination
© 2002 by Paul Thigpen
A college sophomore assigned to me for academic advisement once complained that he wanted to switch to his roommate's math professor. "The one I have now," he explained, "gives tests every week, and sometimes pop quizzes, too. But my roommate's prof gives only a final exam!"
As it turned out, his schedule couldn't be changed, so he had to tough it out with the texts and quizzes each week. But when semester grade reports came out, he had scored well above his roommate in math. "You must have studied hard, " I suggested.
"You bet I did," he said with a grin. "And it was all those tests and quizzes that kept me on my toes!"
The Value of Spiritual Exams
That student's insight into the value of frequent math examinations has a spiritual parallel. The Scripture teaches that each of us will one day undergo God's own "final exam": "For we will all stand before God's judgment seat," insists the Apostle Paul. "So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God" (Romans 14:10, 12).
If the Lord will be examining us closely after we die, wouldn't it be helpful to our spiritual growth to undergo some regular, if lesser, examinations in the meantime, as a way of monitoring our progress? Doesn't it make sense that frequent "tests and quizzes" might help us learn our spiritual lessons better along the way?
No doubt God Himself frequently examines us in this life. The prophet Jeremiah addressed Him as "the Lord Almighty, You who judge righteously and test the heart and mind" (Jer 11:20). The psalmist even urged God to examine him: "Test me, O Lord, and try me; examine my heart and my mind" (Ps 26:2).
Nevertheless, the Apostle Paul reminded us that we shouldn't wait for divine testing to learn about our spiritual progress. He told the Christians at Corinth that
whenever they approached the Lord's Table, they should take time for self-examination: "A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup" (1 Cor 11:28). Such scrutiny, he insisted, could keep them out of considerable trouble. "If we judged ourselves," the Apostle chided his flock, "we would not come under judgment" (Ex 31).
The Examination of Conscience
How do we go about the kind of reflection that will show us where we've failed and how we need to grow? For centuries, many Christians have practiced what has traditionally been called an examination of conscience. This form of self-inspection, made regularly, involves an honest comparison of our recent thoughts, words, and deeds with biblical standards of holiness.
A word of caution may be necessary here: No doubt many people find the word "examination" discouraging and even daunting. In the first class session of each semester, when I review with my university students the requirements of the course, they often groan at the mention of midterms and finals. The same may be true of Christians who tend to approach the spiritual life as if it's only a series of lessons to help them "perform" to the satisfaction of a demanding God.
I try to help my students overcome their fears by viewing the "big picture" of the class: what it is we're trying to learn, and why it's worth learning. I encourage them to see exams simply as a means to an end, a helpful tool for growing intellectually and personally. In a similar way, I think, we need to approach the spiritual discipline of examining our conscience.
The final goal isn't to please some cruel or fussy Schoolmaster in heaven who takes delight in seeing us squirm and fail. The goal is in fact something altogether different: We want to know, love, and be like the Glorious One who made us, who gave Himself to save us, who calls us to Himself to live with Him in perfect joy forever. "When He appears" at last to take us home, we want to "be like Him," so we can "see Him as He is" (1 Jn 3:2). And how will that come about? "Everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure" (v. 3).
We examine ourselves because it's part of our purification, our sanctification, our becoming like a holy God. The term "examination of conscience" has long been employed because, as we have seen, the imagery of the "exam" or "test" is grounded in Scripture. But we should keep in mind other biblical imagery as well.
Consider, for example, the poignant psalm King David wrote after he had sinned horribly, first by committing adultery with Bathsheba, and then by murdering her husband in an attempt to cover up the crime (see 2 Sam 11:1 — 12:25). The king expressed a keen sense of being morally and spiritually dirty, stained, polluted, smelly — in desperate in need of cleansing and purifying: "Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. … Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. … Create in me a pure heart, O God" (Ps 51:2, 7, 10).
How did David hope to be cleansed? By coming face to face with his sin, confessing it to God, and trusting in God's mercy. To "confess," after all, means literally "to say with," "to say the same thing as" — that is, to confirm what someone else has said. This is precisely what David did after the prophet Nathan compelled him to examine his ways (see 2 Sam 12:1-15). He said to God: "I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge" (Ps 51:3-4).
This entire psalm, then, was the prayer of sincere confession that followed the king's honest self-examination. It was a cry from the heart of a man who wanted nothing to come between himself and his God. "Daddy!" this filthy son was saying, "I need a bath!"
And so it is with us as well. Daily we fail, and the "dust" of our sins slowly accumulates on our souls, loading us down, blurring our vision, infecting the self-inflicted wounds of our disobedience to God. To be relieved of this terrible burden, we must examine ourselves, confess our sins to God, and be healed. As David sang to the Lord in another psalm:
Blessed is the man … in whose spirit is no deceit. When I kept silent … day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD" — and you forgave the guilt of my sin (Ps 32:2, 3, 4, 5).
Do we want to come closer to God, to know the beat of His heart, to move in beautiful harmony with His desires? Then we should be eager to examine our conscience so that we can learn what keeps us from close communion with the Lord, and expose those sins to the healing bath of His mercy.
How to Have an Examination of Conscience
So how do we employ the classic spiritual discipline, the examination of conscience? We simply ponder carefully a list of questions that help identify both sins of commission (thing wrongly done) and sins of omission (things wrongly left undone). These queries — which are the most useful when they are specific and hard-hitting — may be prompted by the Ten Commandments or other scriptural passages. They serve to elicit a truthful, realistic analysis of spiritual progress.
In addition, each sin or sinful habit identified is to be pondered in the light of its surrounding circumstances. We consider whether we have willingly placed ourselves in what is known as the occasion of sin — that is, in a situation that is likely to expose us to temptation. We look for patterns in this regard. Recognizing such patterns can help us avoid temptation in the future.
As we have emphasized, we want to identify problem areas and gain a realistic picture of ourselves so we can be cleansed. If we keep that purpose in mind, then we won't allow such self-examination to lead to a morbid preoccupation with our failures or a sense of despair. The process should always have two aspects: looking closely at ourselves, then looking closely at God. The one action must always lead to the other. "Let us examine our ways and test them," urged the prophet Jeremiah, "and let us return to the Lord" (Lam 3:40).
Why must we take the time for self-examination? Our tendency as fallen creatures is to justify ourselves and to mislead ourselves about our spiritual condition. Like the adulteress in Proverbs, we often think casually of sin: "She eats and wipes her mouth and says, 'I've done nothing wrong'" (Pr 30:20). But the first letter of John sums up the situation clearly: "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" (1 Jn 1:8-9).
To confess our sins, we must have some idea what they are. One good approach to honest self-knowledge, then, is a prayerful examination of conscience based on relevant biblical texts, employing them as a mirror in which we can view ourselves. The Apostle James put it this way:
Anyone who listens to the Word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it — he will be blessed in what he does (Jas 1:23-25).
A Sample Checklist for Self-Examination
Christian experience over the centuries has demonstrated that there's no end to the list of questions we can use for making an examination of conscience. No list can ever be complete, so many Christians simply use different lists on different occasions. Over time, however, we usually find that certain questions are critical for our particular self-query, because they address areas in which we need to exercise special diligence.
As an example of one approach, consider a meditation on the Ten Commandments (see Ex 20:1-17; for other biblical passages that could be used in this way, see the box on this page). We'll only deal with the first three commandments here, but these questions might provide an idea of how the other commandments could be employed in a similar way.
You'll notice that each commandment is used as the springboard for questions about broadly related issues. For example, the commandment to honor parents has traditionally been viewed as encompassing proper respect for all legitimate authority. Jesus' warnings against anger, insult, and resentment when He cited the commandment against murder (see Matt 5:21-24) have led Christians to examine all forms of injurious behavior and attitudes when reflecting on this injunction. And the command against bearing false witness has usually been interpreted to apply as well to all forms of deceit.
In short, the overarching question in such an examination is this: To what degree have I kept, not just the "letter" of the law, but the "spirit" of the law as well?
Before I begin, I like to pray in the words of yet another psalm of David: "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Ps 139:23-24). In this way I ask the Holy Spirit to help me in my examination.
Here's a sampling of specific questions I ask myself:
- "You shall have no other gods before me. … You shall not make for yourself an idol" (Ex 20:3, 4).
Have I served God reluctantly or grudgingly? Has anything become more important to me than God? Have I neglected my prayer life or any other aspect of my relationship with God? Have I used my talents generously and diligently for God's glory? Do I have only a "cafeteria faith" in which I pick and choose what I will believe from the whole body of truth that God has revealed? Have I been diligent to deepen my faith through worship, prayer, Scripture study, reflection, Christian fellowship, and service? Have I been patient in accepting the difficulties and disappointments of life, placing my trust in God's providence? Have I endangered my faith by habitually reading or listening to materials that are contrary to Christian teaching? Have I engaged in any "New Age" or occultic practices that are contrary to Christian faith?
- "You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God" (Ex 20:7).
Have I taken the Lord's name in vain? Have I made use of His name mockingly, jokingly, angrily, or in some other irreverent manner? Have I told a lie under oath? Have I failed to do my best to keep my promises and resolutions made to God?
Have I used foul language — in particular, have I misused any words with a sacred or spiritually serious meaning?
- "Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy" (Ex 20:8).
Have I been faithful to join other Christians in worship regularly? When in worship services, have I tried my best to lay aside distractions and focus my attention on God? Have I spent the Sabbath in ways that are spiritually profitable? Have I engaged unnecessarily in any work or business activity on the Sabbath that would get in the way of worshipping God or enjoying the rest appropriate for this day? Have I helped the Church generously in its work to the extent that I'm able?
Waiting for the Morning
Honest questions such as these can no doubt make us uncomfortable. Who among us is pleased by what we see when we look carefully in the spiritual mirror of God's Word? Nevertheless, if we want to get "cleaned up" so we can draw closer to the Lover of our soul, then we'll take the plunge into God's cleansing mercy.
Sometimes we may be dismayed to find that our sins are legion. On those occasions, we must turn all the more quickly to God, telling Him what we've discovered and asking for His grace. I sometimes find it helpful to conclude my examination of conscience and confession to God with this biblical prayer:
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy. If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared. I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I put my hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning. … For with the Lord there is unfailing love, and with Him is full redemption. He will redeem Israel from all their sins (Ps 13).
This particular prayer is especially appropriate because it helps me turn my focus from myself to the Lord. With the psalmist, I find growing within myself a radiant hope that I will once again be bathed in the light of God's face.
Keeping a Clear Conscience
God's desire is not to condemn us, but to make us whole, no longer slaves to sin. So we must dedicate ourselves anew to "go and sin no more" (Jn 8:11). "Make level paths for your feet," the Scripture urges, "so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed" (Heb 12:13). If we end every examination of conscience by committing our way to God, we can make our own the principle by which the Apostle Paul lived (see Acts 24:16): "I strive always," he insisted, "to keep my conscience clear before God and man."
+ + +
Biblical Passages for an Examination of Conscience
An examination of conscience can make use of any of a number of scriptural passages. In addition to The Ten Commandments (Ex 20:1-17; see the main article), here are some possibilities, each with a sample question based on the text:
- The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7). "Do I hunger and thirst for righteousness?"
- The works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:16-23). "Am I self-controlled?"
- The "Love Chapter" (1 Cor 13). "Am I patient and kind?"
- Qualities to seek "in increasing measure" (2 Pet 1:5-9). "Am I steadfast?"