Worst advice possible…telling Christians to look within themselves

woman hugging herselfWhile scrolling through my Facebook feed not too long ago, this statement assaulted me;

The wizard [of Oz] says look inside yourself and find self. God says look inside yourself and find [the Holy Spirit]. The first will get you to Kansas. The latter will get you to heaven. Take your pick.

Well, based on the title of the post it’s pretty obvious that I think this is this worst advice to Christians. Sadly, this came from a pastor who is telling his congregation this. I hate to say it, but it is actually sub-Christian that unfortunately has gained solid footing within Christianity. Aside from the fact that nowhere does God tell us in Scripture to look inside ourselves to find the Holy Spirit, this is problematic because it puts emphasis on the wrong person -us.

Considering the role of the Spirit, the 3rd person testifies to the Son (John 15:26) and provides the seal of regeneration for those who believe by the will of the Father (see Eph 1:3-14). It is to Christ that we look. The Holy Spirit within enables us to do this (see 1 Cor. 12:3). Consider the book of Hebrews. These Jewish Christians were tempted to go back to Judiasm because they missed the glory of the temple and prominence of their status as God’s elect. Instead of telling the troubled Christians to look within themselves, the writer instead points them to the Son. “Consider Christ.” This is the theme of the book. This is the theme of Christianity.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb. 12:1-2 ESV)

Look at what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3 where Paul is contrasting the Old and New Covenant, he highlights where the veil imposed by the law is lifted in Christ;

Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord. (2 Cor. 3:16-18 ESV)

Even though the Spirit dwells within, Paul is saying the Lord affects us when we turn to Christ, not within ourselves. This is why even relying on subjective “inward” impressions can be misleading. Yes, the Holy Spirit is at work within us. But the foundation of the Christian faith is looking to what the Father has done through the Son and what that means for our interaction with life. We need an objective measure by which to judge our thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb. 4:12). That means for growth and assurance, we must look outside of ourselves, to God and his word.

Now Scripture does command that we look inward to test whether we are actually in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5). We don’t look inward for the Holy Spirit but to see if our affections truly line up with one who has been regenerated by the Holy Spirit. Are we being honest about sin in our lives? As James states, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14). What are those lusts? Where do our affections lie, really? In this regard, I believe there is warrant to examine our motives to get behind our justification, projection and self-protection smokescreens we use to keep from dealing with the real lusts in our own hearts that is pushing those sin buttons.  Yes, let’s do some self-examination to see what that’s about but it must be informed by the objective standard of God’s word. Again, we have to look outside of ourselves to get there.

On a related note, I came across this rather compelling article, Loneliness and the Religion of Personal Autonomy. The writer equates personal autonomy that is motivated to look within with the opposite of biblical love;

Why are autonomous selves so lonely? Because the doctrine of personal autonomy is a deathblow to the foundation of genuine relationship and community. Love, the opposite of loneliness, requires the surrender of the self to the good of the other. The key to self-surrender is the seeking of our own happiness in the happiness of others. That is the true fuel of love. The doctrine of the autonomous self teaches us that only by looking inside ourselves and actualizing our felt identities can we be happy. That is the opposite of love. Even if in our quest for self-authentication we behave altruistically or advocate for others, in the end we will only do so in hopes of achieving self-actualization, not the happiness of others.

We were not created for loneliness. At the dawn of the universe’s existence, only one thing was not good: Adam was alone. God’s answer to Adam’s aloneness was not to reinforce his sense of self autonomy; quite the opposite! He created Eve, and in so doing proved that the image bearers of God are meant to live with one another, with the highest relationship being marriage between a man and his wife.  Thousands of years later, Jesus would tell his disciples that whoever would be great among them should serve like the least, and that the love of Jesus’s followers for one another would be the distinguishing mark of their faith. The cure for loneliness is the love of God, expressed in the life of His church. As the Lord said, whoever saves his life loses it, and whoever loses his life will save it.

I think this idea of looking within naturally reinforces the notion of self autonomy. But really, self autonomy is really a self-focused reliance that says we need no dependence on others. This runs contradictory to the work of the Spirit of God at work through his church. We indeed are called to lose our lives and that means laying down our own thoughts and opinions that naturally develop from an inward gazing.


3 thoughts on “Worst advice possible…telling Christians to look within themselves

  1. Dave Mericle July 14, 2019 / 5:44 pm

    Thanks, Lisa for these good words. Looking to Christ and being conformed to Him (Rom. 8:29) requires us to look outwardly to Him, even as the inward Spirit of Christ convicts us of sin.

  2. Mark March 4, 2021 / 11:19 pm

    Um…Jesus says,

    “Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21)

    The kingdom of God is within you. Think about that.

  3. Anthony June 3, 2022 / 12:02 pm

    I believe the expression “look within you” in actually from the Christian point of view is an need to gaze or focus on the inward work of Christ through the Holy Spirit in the believer. The Kingdom we have begins from the inside, the Spirit man. In that, one’s identity is not wrought through any external effect but something within. So He said, Christ in you, the Hope of Glory. The change takes place in the inside then to the outside. 2 Pet. 1 vs 19 speaks of the sure Word of Prophecy which is likened to light that shines in the heart till the morning star breaks.
    Look within with emphasis on the dealings of God toward maturing in Christ.

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