Those of us who tend toward introspection can easily drift into intense soul-searching as the means to finding assurance. What we need to hear is the summons to obedience. Until we start acting on the truth we know, we may not find the assurance for which we are desperately searching, no matter how much reading and heart inspecting we do.
The following is a response to an email I received a while ago. A dear brother contacted me and asked me if I could expand on an entry I had posted. Specifically, he wanted to know if and how the Lord had helped me make progress in dealing with unhealthy introspective tendencies and spiritual depression. Below is the letter with a few slight edits for clarity.
Thank you again for your email. An inclination toward severe introspection and spiritual depression is something that has affected me since early in my Christian life, and I still find myself battling introspective tendencies and spiritual depression.
When I first came to Christ, I noticed immediately that I tended toward a severe examination of my inner life—my motives, my affections for God and for others, my faith in Christ, my holiness. Far from bringing me peace and assurance in my relationship with Christ, this propensity to question every inner-working of my heart instead brought much doubt, confusion and, inevitably, depression.
Yet, I can say that, by God’s grace, I have made significant progress in this area. As I reflect on the past several years, I can see specific means of grace that God has used to help me turn from an unhealthy preoccupation with self and sin—with the depression that inevitably follows—to a growing focus on the gospel and others. The following are several disciplines I have found to be particularly helpful in my fight against what Martin Lloyd Jones calls “morbid introspection” and the resultant spiritual depression.
A few words, first, about the following points. First, it is important to remember that overcoming introspective tendencies does not mean that we are to disregard all forms of self-examination. Sober-minded, thoughtful, doctrinally informed self-examination is required for believers (2 Cor. 13:5), and is, when conducted correctly, a means of real joy and peace.
Second, the following list includes those things I have found to be beneficial to me. It is a personal list. I hope and trust that much of what I offer here is grounded in Scripture. Nevertheless, it will be important for you to not receive this as an infallible map to spiritual health but rather as helpful suggestions as you continue to walk daily with the Lord, learning from his Word and from other counselors. The first point (a robust understanding of the gospel), however, lays the foundation for everything else. Without this important point, our battle against morbid introspection and depression will malfunction at a fundamental level. With those two cautions in mind, let’s turn to considering the following points.
1. We need a robust understanding of the gospel.
I put this first because it is the most important. I have found that my tendency toward severe introspection is compounded to the degree that I am not seeing the gospel in all its beauty and doctrinal fullness. Specifically, this has meant understanding and embracing the important doctrines of justification, sanctification, and indwelling sin.
Justification: Scripture teaches that justification is the act of God by which he declares us wholly forgiven and righteous in his sight and on the basis of Christ’s perfect life and substitutionary death on the cross (Rom. 3:21-26; 5:1; 8:1), not upon any work that we have done or will do (Rom. 4:5; II Tim. 1:9; Tit. 3:4-7). This declaration is based solely on the work of Christ and his righteousness which God credits to our account; it is not based upon the righteousness the Holy Spirit works inside of us once he regenerates our hearts.
Nor is faith our righteousness; faith is only the instrument by which we receive the gift of righteousness—a righteousness wrought by Jesus Christ and him alone. This declaration of justification by God occurs at the moment the sinner puts genuine faith in Christ (Rom. 4:5; 5:1) and cannot be undone (Rom. 8:33-39), since it is a work God planned from all eternity (Rom. 8:29-30).
Sanctification: Sanctification is the gradual work of the Holy Spirit in our lives by which he cleanses our hearts from sin, purifies our affections and desires, and makes us more like Jesus Christ. This aspect of our sanctification is often referred to as progressive sanctification. There are several important truths about sanctification that I have found to be particularly helpful in my battle with unhealthy introspection.
First, whether one currently feels like it or not, when they placed saving faith in Jesus Christ, they died to the dominion of sin in their hearts and lives (Rom. 6:6-11). This is called definitive sanctification. Scripture does not say that we have to die continually to the dominion of sin in our lives; it says we already died to sin’s dominion when we trusted in Christ: sin no longer has dominion over us and it never will. This does not mean that genuine Christians will not sin! True saints can and do sin; sometimes even grievously. But what it does mean is that true Christians are not held sway by sin the same way they once were.
Second, our right standing with God is not based on our level of progressive sanctification; our right standing with God is based only on Christ’s life and work on the cross. This is an important distinction to make. Romans 4:5 tells us that God justifies the ungodly. This means that we are in right standing with God on the basis of Christ’s work on our behalf and our union with him by faith, and not on the progress we have made in sanctification. If we are confused here, we can never have any real confidence in our standing with God.
If we think our right standing with God is based in any way upon the progress we have made in personal holiness, we will despair when we commit sin or when our affections are not where they should be. Justification and sanctification cannot be separated—when justification occurs, sanctification inevitably follows—but they must be kept distinct in our overall understanding of salvation.
Indwelling Sin: Understanding what Scripture teaches about indwelling sin is particularly important for those of us who tend toward intense scrutiny of our hearts. If we think sin has been utterly eradicated at our conversion, the only logical conclusion we can draw when we find sin in our lives is that we have not been converted, a conclusion which typically leads to more despair and depression. On the other hand, if we recognize that sin, although it no longer holds dominion over us, is still powerfully active and pervasive in our hearts and that our responsibility is to kill this indwelling sin by the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:13), then we will not despair when we find sin in our lives—we will do battle against it.