Thursday, November 10, 2022

Bedsheets, Breeches and Bema

“The unexamined life,” said Socrates, “is not worth living.”

Well, he didn’t actually use those precise words, but that’s how it’s been quoted since — in books, on coffee mugs and t-shirts, and in the common memory. The essence of his words has remained, even if the particulars are a bit sketchy.

How seriously ought we to take that? True, he’s called the Father of Philosophy, and he was notoriously smart. But the guy wore bedsheets, and died a long while ago. How seriously can you take a guy dressed in bedsheets?

Not Worth Living

He said those words at the end of his life, just before he was obliged by the State to drink a cup laced with hemlock (poison). His disciple Aristotle would advise us that is the very best time to summarize a man’s life. And maybe that’s right: to this day, the last words of the dying retain a special dignity in court. So maybe we can take the old Athenian at his word after all.

The unexamined life is not worth living. Why not? Because the unexamined life is a life that you do not understand. You may be happy or you may be sad. You may have riches or poverty. You may be loved by millions or ignored by everyone. You may pass on as the father of a nation or as barren as a stick. But if you don’t know who you are and why you’re doing what you’re doing, you’re living on autopilot. Your choices are not really your own; they are impulsive, habitual, reactive, conformist. You are not really in control. You are a null entity in your own life.

And if that’s how it is, then why are you here at all?

Beastie Boys

“What is man,” asked Hamlet, “if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.” And Shakespeare was pretty smart too … even if he didn’t wear bedsheets.

Actually, I think he wore breeches.

See, what these old guys knew is that life’s got to be about real stuff. And that just doesn’t happen by accident. We human creatures are all too prone to carry on life by way of habit or ritual, and to let our minds settle into “bestial oblivion”. It happens that way because routines and habits are easier than thinking: we just go on autopilot all the time, and save the grey matter for something we really care about. And that means it takes a real effort of discipline, of the will, to awaken ourselves from our usual patterns so as to step back and evaluate them accurately.

On the Hook

Now, when I really need to examine myself I go fishing. Why not? It’s what the disciples did. I find it a great way to calm my mind and review my life. I’ve got enough in hand that I don’t get bored, but I’ve also got little enough to do that I can think. So I can review life, ask myself the tough questions, and with the Lord’s help, process my life so as to sort things out.

I’m sure I don’t always get it right; and sometimes I come back from the river with more questions than answers. But that time of reflection and self-examination is precious to my spiritual development. Now, you may prefer golf (though only the Lord knows why), or camping, or just an hour or two sitting on your back porch. But if you’ve got the courage to do it, I’ll bet you can find some time and the right situation to examine your own life. And maybe, just maybe, that will help you make it more “worth living”.

When was the last time you put yourself “on the hook” to answer for your own life?

Thinking Too Much

Now, I know what you’re going to say. You’ll say, “Yeah, but doesn’t Paul say, ‘I do not even examine myself … but the one who examines me is the Lord’?”

Nicely clipped! You forgot the context. Paul’s talking about other people examining him, for the express purpose of telling him whether his life is ultimately worthy. He was just saying, “Your assessment doesn’t settle that, and even my assessment doesn’t settle that; only God’s does.” But he was not saying that there is some secret spiritual virtue in living your life thoughtlessly … far less that he himself ever did that.

Read again. Paul tells us we must examine our lives. “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith,” he writes. To the Thessalonians he writes, “test everything” (especially doctrine) in order to “hold fast what is good.” To Galatia, “Each [of you] must examine his own work.” And finally, to Corinth, “If we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged [by God].” The upshot, then, is that while we will never be able to pass our own judgment on how our lives stack up in terms of their real value to God (for only God knows how sincerely or righteously we actually did whatever we did), Christians ought to examine their own lives continually. We have to do that in order to make sure we are obeying, thinking straight, and living in the way God intends for us. We ought to be taking full moral responsibility for what we believe, say and do … and doing that all the time.

The Flawed and Faithful

Yet I wonder how many Christians today are on autopilot. I don’t mean those that have wandered into obvious sin; I mean those who go to church every week, perform all the expected rituals, participate in the program, and maybe even keep up a routine of Bible reading and prayer at home … and yet never even think to ask themselves the tough questions: Why do I do this? Where am I now? How pure is my heart? How sacrificial is my life? How much do I really know Christ? And how am I really doing in my walk with him?

How many of these have a church that has an unimpeachable routine, but one that has kind of “gone dead”: not so much through being wrong as by becoming stale and habitual? And to how many of these congregations would the Lord say, “I know your deeds … but … you have abandoned the love you had at first”? To these he also says, “Remember.” But how can you remember if you don’t think about what you used to be? Even worse, how can you remember when all you really knew about your church’s practices was inherited from others and learned by rote?

You can only remember, then, if you examine yourself, looking to see if your heart is really in things, if you believe what you say you do, and if your real life and church practices are alive and sincere or dead and insincere — because they might very well be exactly the same practices!


You heard me.

You might be doing all the right things — rather like the church at Ephesus — and still be way, way off track in your personal Christian life or in the spiritual life of your congregation. Getting the details of doctrine technically correct will not save you from hard-heartedness.

Now, needless to say, getting them wrong will help you even less. But theoretical accuracy and passion for the Lord are two different issues. One can obey out of habit or one can obey out of heart; the Lord prizes the latter. Getting the facts right is how we figure out what obedience is; but our love for the Lord is the only reason we have even to bother to get the facts right. So which comes first?

I would even argue that being in a church that was in many ways flawed, perhaps populated only with immature and ill-informed Christians, but which was possessed of a heart tender to the Lord’s word, such that they would respond to everything they learned, would be far better than sitting in a congregation rigid to the truth of scripture in every explicit particular, but dead in heart and too hard to learn anything anymore. I think I know which congregation the Lord would choose.

Now or Later?

Now, why is all this pressing? It’s pressing because one day we’re all going stand before the judgment seat of Christ (in Greek the word is bema) to give our account to the Lord, with our own mouths. That’s right: we’re all going to stand alone, face to face with the Lord, and say exactly what we did, and when, and why.

I don’t know if that prospect fills you with confidence, but it doesn’t do that for me. I’ve got plenty to answer for, as, I suspect, do many of us; and we’d rather not have to answer for it at all. But we will.

Now, when that happens, I’m going to have plenty of anxiety … mostly out of shame for how often I failed a God who has been so very kind and gracious to me, and for how often I forgot to love him and cherish his beloved people as I ought. But fortunately for me, I find some consolation in scripture. It comes from a verse I’ve already quoted above. It reads, “If we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged.”

I don’t want to be judged. But I can get out of it. All I have to do is to get my head straight about things now. We used to call this “repenting”: not just a change of direction, but a change of mind (that also issues in a change of practical direction). Repenting is not just a one-time thing we need when we get saved: it’s a lifetime practice. From time to time, I need to pull myself up short, assess my life, looking for ways in which I’ve been unfaithful or living on autopilot, recover a true heart for God, then go and bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance; that means reforming my life and practices continuously, so I cannot become a phony again.

But this will not happen if I will not take a look at myself. My unexamined life will bring me to judgment as an unfaithful servant. I can’t afford that.

Can you?

You might be better than me. Probably you are. But are you good enough that the way you’re living needs no further reform? Are you content to play out the hand of cards you’ve dealt yourself, and then wander off to the Judgment Seat with only that in hand?

Or do you need a second … and then a third … and a fourth look at yourself.

It’s Time

Time to take stock.

Time for reflection.

Time for refreshed obedience, both in our personal lives and in church.

Like the Word says,

“Examine yourselves”.

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