In 2 Corinthians 13:5 Paul writes: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?” The Corinthian Christians have professed that they have placed their faith in Christ. But does their life match their profession? “True profession should issue in a life characterized by “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22). From all appearances, the Corinthians, on Paul’s return, will be found wanting on virtually every count.” (See here.) Telling others that you are placing your faith in Christ is not equivalent to actually placing your faith in Christ. As Jim Hunter has taught me, “intentions minus actions equals nothing.”
Healthy, God-filled, in-Christ self-examination is good because good fruit grows out of its soil. In the light of God’s presence, be examined by God. But do not hate yourself. Self-hatred is not of God. Why? Because God loves you.
As strange as this may sound, history shows that self-hatred has at times been religiously engaged in as a good thing to do. For example, in the news yesterday we read that Pope John Paul practiced self-flagellation. He beat himself to get (he thought) closer to Christ. The CNN article reads: “Pope John Paul II used to beat himself with a belt and sleep naked on the floor to bring himself closer to Christ, a book published Wednesday says. The late pope had a particular belt for self-flagellation and brought it with him to his summer residence, according to the book, “Why he is a Saint: The True story of John Paul II.” “As some members of his own entourage were able to hear with their own ears, both in Poland and in the Vatican, Karol Wojtyla flagellated himself. In the closet, among the cloaks, a particular pant-belt hung from a hook, which he utilized as a whip and one which he always had brought to Castel Gandolfo,” the book says.”
Don’t do that. I do not doubt that John Paul did this. I have a friend who is a Roman Catholic priest who, when he was in a monastery, wore a “cilice.” A cilice is “a small, light, metal chain with little prongs worn around the thigh. The cilice is uncomfortable–it’s supposed to be–but it does not in any way hinder one’s normal activities and there’s absolutely no Da Vinci Code gore.”
I am sorry my friend had to wear this, and that the Pope physically whipped himself. In many ways John Paul was and remains a man I admired. But I do not admire this behavior, and would not want it emulated (which undoubtably will happen). Self-flagellation comes, mistakenly, from something Paul write in 1 Corinthians 9:
“Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. 27No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
Paul here is speaking figuratively. He’s not actually training to run in the Olympic Games. His training is spiritual. Paul didn’t literally beat his physical body. See here Dallas Willard’s excellent writing on what it means to enter into the “spiritual gymnasium.”
Self-examination is tricky, since it is easy to be mistaken, because we bring our own self to examine our own self. I remember, years ago, speaking before a group of medical students in Michigan State University’s Medical School. In dialogue with them they told me that they were cautioned about examining their own selves and would do well to get an outside opinion from another doctor.
With this in mind, I think as we examine our own selves to see if we are in the faith, attached to the Real Jesus, we should take care that such self-examination does not morph into self-hatred. Here is where a spiritual coach/director can be helpful; viz., someone you trust and who loves you and can discern the deep waters of your heart. (Proverbs 20:5) When we discover sin in our heart we are not to climb onto the cross, nail ourselves to it, and die for our own failures. Jesus has already done that for us, and his sacrifice is enough. Don’t beat on yourself to get closer to Christ. Christ has already allowed himself to be wounded, all for the sake of reconciling us to God.