When I lie to my boss or am cruel to my wife, it doesn’t take much deep inner searching to know I’ve wronged God, others and myself. Through the Holy Spirit, my conscience sends an immediate twang of guilt, and I know I must come clean by telling the truth and making an apology.
A pastor once taught me that the five most important words we can say to one another are “I’m sorry, I was wrong.”
But sometimes I overlook my wrongs. Perhaps I think my sin is OK because I only did it in response to someone else’s thoughtlessness. True enough, all people sin, but does that really excuse the sin of what I think and do just because it was in response to someone else’s bad actions?
Jesus taught us that before I can help someone remove a splinter from his eye, I must first remove the log in my own. And even though I still seem to clearly see other people’s sins, for some reason, my own sins are invisible to me. I have this way of thinking that my sin is OK because I was harmed first. If I never do an honest examination of myself, I can lead a life of spiritual blindness.
And every time I bump into a wall, I just blame the one who built it. Why should I care about any damage I’ve done to the wall? It was the builder’s fault for putting it there.
When I rationalize my sin – also known as rational lies – I silence the voice of the Holy Spirit’s conviction and simply sweep my sins under the rug. Over time, the pain of guilt will just disappear. I can justify my wrong behavior to such an extreme that I’m convinced even God would agree with my position – that this or that sin is OK for me because I have some special circumstance in my life, or because I think any harm I may have caused is really pretty minor. In such a state, I don’t even notice some of my sins anymore.
But I sure get sore when someone sins against me. As they say, people who are deluded don’t know they are deluded. That’s what makes them delusional.
Thankfully, I can eliminate this self-delusion if I am willing to examine my ways and test them and return to the Lord.
In Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus focuses our attention on much more than our sinful actions. Some folks call these the “in your heart” sins because according to Jesus, our thoughts and feelings convict us even before we act out in sin. Jesus points us to the root of the problem: our hearts and minds.
A fellowship passed on to me an effective way to approach self-examination. This simple method helps me to look at what is going on in my heart and to check my motives before I act out in sin. And when I do sin, this method helps me to uncover it and deal with it before God and those I harm.
First, I pray; then I make a list.
Next, I reflect on the times I’ve been upset or felt hurt. What incidents am I rethinking or reliving when I try to go to sleep? What did or didn’t I do? Who was involved? I ask if I played a part in causing the situation or making it worse. And I write what happened to remind myself about each of these incidents.
For each item on the list, I ask myself how I was affected. Did some part of me feel threatened or afraid? Did it involve a threat to my economic security? Was I afraid my social status at home or in the workplace was at risk? Was my love life or marriage not meeting my expectations?
You’ll probably start to see fear as a common denominator as you look down your list. Almost all our sins are behaviors we use to protect our self-interest. I have some need that I am afraid will not be met, and so I act out in a negative way to protect myself and my interests.
Finally, I take each of these fears to God and ask him to remove them. Instead of my fear-based sin strategy, I ask God to help me trust him to meet my needs for security. Am I afraid that I am not loved or respected enough? I ask God to remove that fear and help me to rest in his love for me. I repeat that for each item on my list.
This type of inventory can help us examine our ways and discover some of the causes for our sin. It can help us return to the Lord when we surrender all our needs and fears into his care. It can help us find the courage to say to one another, “I’m sorry, I was wrong.”
The Rev. Robert Hedges is executive director of Resurrection Power of Washington. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.