Evangelical Christians are an introspective bunch. One of the key elements of our spirituality is our tendency to look prayerfully at our lives to see how we’re doing in our walk with God. We read David’s words from the end of Psalm 139 and take them to heart: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

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Non-evangelicals, even non-Christians, notice this habit of ours. A number of years ago I read an article in a major secular entertainment magazine about contemporary Christian music, and one of its main points was the introspective element in that music, an element they tied to the evangelical culture as a whole. With that kind of reinforcement in so much of our popular Christian music, it’s no surprise that we learn this habit very quickly.

Introspection has its benefits. Asking the hard questions can lead to a proper focus in prayer on those aspects of ourselves that still need to be brought under the Lordship of Christ. Self-assessment of this sort can be our best guard against that common charge our unbelieving friends make of hypocrisy among Christians.

But self-examination has its downside too. What starts out looking like a sign of real commitment and desire to follow the Lord can have harmful side-effects. We can find ourselves questioning our own worthiness—as if our worthiness were more important than the grace of God. We can begin to doubt our standing with God, finally throwing ourselves back on our own merit rather than the saving death and resurrection of Jesus. This leads to doubt and anxiety, and not a whole lot of freedom or joy. Worst of all, if prayer is about looking inward all the time, and if faithfulness is about examining our own hearts, it’s easy to lose sight of the things Jesus said were most important: loving God and loving our neighbour (Matthew 22:27-40). All the time we spend looking inwards can hinder us from looking either upwards to God or outwards to our God-given opportunities to love and serve our neighbours.

It’s not that we don’t need to know the truth about ourselves. We most certainly do. And the truth about ourselves is that we are sinners. But if we have accepted Christ’s gift for us, then we are more than mere sinners: we are forgiven sinners, reconciled and brought into a relationship with God and given gifts to share with others. We are people who have been redefined and remade by what Jesus did for us on the cross and what the Holy Spirit is now doing in and through us. Yes, we should look at ourselves with honesty, but we shouldn’t keep on looking there endlessly as if our inner lives were the end of the story. The most helpful habit for the spiritual life is “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:2).

One of the best ways to move from looking inwards to looking upwards comes when we spend time reading the Bible not to discover the truth about ourselves but to hear the truth about God. Does our Bible reading always have to give us a piece of practical advice or an inspiring thought? Probably not, despite our hunger for those things. The Bible is a book about God, and what he has done for the world in Christ and by the Spirit. We are encouraged by Scripture’s own testimony to “thirst for God, for the living God” (Psalm 42:2).

Certain key passages in the New Testament (Ephesians 1:3-14, Philippians 2:5-11, Colossians 1:15-20, John 1:1-18, to give just a few examples) may look a bit dense at first, but they have the great advantage of helping us to fix our eyes on Jesus. Absorbing such passages through rereading and even memorization is a good step as we try to turn our gaze away from ourselves and toward our God. As we discover him through his Word, we will always be reminded of the truth about ourselves as sinners, but at the same time we will find our inadequacy completely overwhelmed and overcome by the powerful light of his glory.

When our thoughts are filled with God’s love for us in Christ, we discover a new freedom to be joyful in living and serving today in whatever ways God presents to us. Freed from anxiety about ourselves, we can start to see others as gifts to celebrate, friends to love, and neighbours to lend a hand.

Looking inward is a part of the story, but it’s certainly not the biggest part. Looking upwards to our great and gracious God gives us a new freedom to look outwards with true joy.