“Introspection is the beginning of all wisdom.”—-Aristotle
A quick Google search of the word introspection will instantly pull up hundreds of ready-to-tweet quotes, and many of them at first glance, including the one above by Aristotle, seem profound. Many philosophers, both Eastern and Western, from both the ancient and modern worlds, from both secular and religious systems, as well as some from (I can only assume) well-meaning Christian circles, promote the idea of introspection. According to dictionary.com, introspection is defined as 1. observation or examination of one's own mental and emotional state, mental processes, etc.; 2. the act of looking within oneself.
While famous philosophers and society at large encourage introspection, and even as social media promote the examination of oneself to the point of self-absorption, staying stuck in the mode of “the self” is unwise. We’re told to think of things that are "...true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy" (Phil. 4:8). We’re instructed in the Psalms following many passages with a particularly profound thought to ‘Selah,’ or ‘pause, and calmly think of that,’ but I can’t recall a single time when God tells us to sit and focus our thoughts on ourselves. I believe there is a potential danger to introspection as the end all, be all. In fact, based on God’s word, I would suggest there are at least four dangers:
It can lead to a downcast heart,
It causes us to focus on our circumstances, not on the goodness of God,
We forget God’s benefits and His blessings,
It is unwise.
Have you ever noticed that focusing only on yourself leads to a downcast heart? When my daughters were young, maybe 4 and 6 years old, our neighbor’s husband passed away. After friends and family had dispersed and my neighbor was alone, she called us and asked if we could please find a place to donate all the uneaten food from what was brought to her by her friends, church, neighbors, and coworkers. Knowing there was a feeding ministry in our area that served meals to many homeless people in our community, we decided to take the extra food there. My husband and I decided that this was a wonderful teachable moment for our girls as well, to show how loving your neighbors could be demonstrated in a tangible way.
We excitedly shared that we were going to help our neighbor by taking food she couldn’t use and donating it to a place that could help a lot of people in need. One of our daughters surprised us with her response: she didn’t like that idea. At all. Maybe we had interrupted her playtime, or maybe she was frightened by what she had imagined she’d see, or maybe she just didn’t want to put on her shoes, but she was not joyfully volunteering to be the hands and feet of Jesus that Sunday afternoon. In fact, she had been in a funk that whole weekend, and this proposed task just seemed to be the icing on the cake for her.
Being the supportive parents we were, we told her to stop arguing and get in the van. We gathered the enormous amount of deli platters, aluminum-covered casseroles, and bags of breads from my neighbor and drove them the short distance to the feeding center. There were already people there waiting to be fed, and the volunteers who met us to help unload the car were thrilled with what we were bringing, sharing that they were afraid that they weren’t going to have enough to serve the people that evening. This donation was going to fill in the gaps! Our girls saw and heard all this, and soon it was obvious that the lesson we had hoped to instill had hit its mark. On the ride home that day, and at our own dinner time that evening, and at bedtime that night and even on the next day, our daughter who previously voiced the loudest objection to serving expressed her proudest joy at helping feed people who would otherwise have gone hungry!
Over the years, I have observed that pattern play out in her life again from time to time. Whenever she tends to focus on herself for any substantial length of time, analyzing her circumstances or how she feels, her mood tends to decline. Whenever she focuses on actively serving others, her spirit soars. She has an incredible heart for service, especially the downtrodden. Focusing on herself shifts her heart to a direction that isn’t fulfilling. Conversely, directing her focus toward worshipping God and helping others brings her deep joy and satisfaction. This focus shift doesn't just serve as a course correction for her; it occurs for all of us.
This phenomenon shouldn’t really come as a surprise to any of us if we look at it through the lens of God’s word. I love how in Psalm 42 the psalmist encourages himself (and readers) to shift the focus from introspection, trying to analyze what his problem is, to reflection upon God’s goodness and faithfulness:
Why am I so depressed?
Why this turmoil within me?
Put your hope in God, for I will still praise Him,
my Savior and my God.
I am deeply depressed;
therefore I remember You from the land of Jordan
and the peaks of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep in the roar of Your waterfalls;
all Your breakers and Your billows have swept over me.
The Lord will send His faithful love by day;
His song will be with me in the night —
a prayer to the God of my life…
…and again later in this same Psalm,
…Why am I so depressed?
Why this turmoil within me?
Put your hope in God, for I will still praise Him,
my Savior and my God. (Psalm 42:5-8;11).
These verses reflect the uplifting change that can happen in our souls when we shift our thoughts from ourselves and our troubles to God and His goodness. In fact, all throughout the Psalms, the writers undergo periods of self-correction. Transforming the focus of their thoughts from looking at their circumstances (which were at least depressing and at most, life-threatening) to focusing on God as Shepherd, Provider, Protector, and so forth, allowed them to increase their faith and find strength to go on. We can learn from them and put this same pattern into practice by acknowledging our fears, problems, or circumstances before God, but then following up with a reminder of Who God is to us:
“The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped; my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him.” (Ps. 28:7), or
“…my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge, my savior; you save me from violence.” (2 Sam. 22:3), or
“O Lord, my Lord, the strength of my salvation, you have covered my head in the day of battle.” (Ps. 140:7).
Perhaps no one in the Bible illustrates the negative consequences of a self-focused introspection better than King Solomon. King David, Solomon’s father, had died, and at the beginning of Solomon’s reign, God told him that he would grant him anything that he wanted. Solomon requested wisdom. True to His word, God granted him wisdom, and Solomon forever became known as the wisest man on earth (see 2 Chronicles 1:7-12). Because of this wisdom his kingdom prospered more than any other before or since, and he had anything and everything one could ever hope for. At least, that’s what one might think. Towards the end of his life, however, Solomon, who lived a life of indulging every whim, became disillusioned. Read what he says in the self-summation of his life:
I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, til I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life. I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man.
So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11).
Look back over that and notice how many times the words I, me, my, and mine occur. He may have been the wisest man in the world, but he missed the mark when it came using introspection rather than praise to asses his situation! This line of thinking, focusing on yourself, your thoughts, your desires, etc. causes you to forget everything that God has done for you. Instead, King Solomon (and we) should follow his father’s recommendation to “bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits…” (Ps. 103:2). In fact, I’d recommend reading all of Psalm 103 now! Talk about encouragement!
Even as we read Aristotle’s claims that introspection is the beginning of all wisdom, God’s word teaches something markedly different. In fact, Aristotle’s line of thinking is in stark conflict with Proverbs 1:7, which tells us that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” Furthermore, we see that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding.” (Psalm 111:10). It is in practicing a holy reverence for God that makes us wise; therefore, introspection with wrong motives can make us foolish!
While there can be distinct dangers in introspection, especially with the wrong motives, there is a type of soul searching that is beneficial for each of us to practice. Psalm 51 is a great model for introspection from a godly perspective and with a godly purpose, not vanity. Let’s take a look together:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
Here we see King David, when confronted with his sin, get alone with God and practice godly introspection. First, he recognizes and confesses his sin to God. Second, he acknowledges God’s desire for him to come before Him openly and honestly. Third, David asks for forgiveness and restoration to God’s presence in a manner only God can perform so that David can then help others return to Him as well.
Another writer in the Psalms makes a bold request of God:
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting! (Psalm 139:23-24).
You see, asking that God do the introspection for you, to reveal anything that is displeasing to Him, will always lead us back to alignment with His will. It allows us to ask for and to receive forgiveness, restoring us to a right relationship with God. Godly introspection transforms the idea of self-analyzing and striving exhaustedly to fix every past mistake, every missed opportunity, and every failure into an honest partnership of God leading and us following in obedience to discover “his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2b). Unlike searching our own hearts through introspection, allowing God to search our hearts produces joy, centers our thoughts on our Source, reminds us of God’s blessings and benefits, and makes us wise.