Looking One's Soul in the Face
J. R. Miller, 1912
"The human heart is most deceitful and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?" Jeremiah 17:9
"Search me, O 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 everlasting way." Psalm 139:23, 24
It takes courage to pray this prayer, "Search me, O God, and know my heart!" Not all men can do it. Many people fear to look into their own heart. If by some divine revealing, we were made to see ourselves as we are—all the evil that is in us, our face would blanch into deathly paleness. It takes courage to ask God to search one's inner life—and show one one's sins.
It takes honesty, too, to pray this prayer. The poet meant that every wrong thing found in his heart, under the clear light of God's Spirit, he would cast out. Some people do not want to find their own sins—because they do not want to give them up. They do not wish to discover their secret faults, because they love them and desire to keep them. We cannot pray this prayer—if we are not ready and willing and eager to have Christ save us from whatever evil way, whatever sinful habit, feeling, disposition, or temper—we may discover in ourselves. It takes honesty, therefore, and sincerity, to pray God to search us.
The writer asks God to search him. He does not say he will search himself. An ancient maxim was, "Know yourself." But no man can really know himself, in the depths of his being—unless God holds the lamp to shine in the darkness. God is light. Christ is the world's only light. None but God can truly search us—and show us to ourselves. The poet invites divine searching.
Neither does he ask his neighbors to search his ways and thoughts. Men are willing enough, ofttimes, to judge their fellow men, to find and expose their faults, to proclaim their sins. It is easier to confess other people's sins—than one's own. The Pharisee was quite free in searching the publican and declaring his wrongdoings, though he saw no faults and sins in himself! The poet might have found men who would be willing to search him and try him and point out his blemishes and his wicked ways. But this, he did not ask. Men's judgments are imperfect. Sometimes they are uncharitable, even unjust. There are lives that go down under men's condemnation, whom love would have saved. At the best, men are only ignorant or partial judges. They cannot see our motives—and ofttimes they condemn as evil—that which is noble and beautiful, and approved as right and praiseworthy, that which before God is unworthy and sinful. It is not enough for us to ask men to search us and try us, to say to a friend, "Tell me of my faults and blemishes, that I may put them away."
Dr. Stalker tells the story of a young composer whose work was being performed in a great music hall. A throng was listening and applauding. But the young man seemed to be indifferent to all these tokens of approval. All the while his eye was fixed on one man who sat at the center of the hall. This was his old master, and the musician cared more for his opinion—than for that of the thousands of other listeners; and was thrilled more by his faintest look or gesture of approval, than by all the thunderous cheers of the throng.
It matters very little to us what men may say—either in praise or in blame—of our conduct, or our deeds. But there is One who sits at the center of all things, who is perfect in wisdom, love, and righteousness, and whose judgments are unerring. We should want always to know what He thinks of our acts, words, dispositions, and thoughts. Though all the world applauds what we do, if on His face there is no pleasure, if we see there the shadow of disapprobation, what a mockery is men's applause! On the other hand, if the world sneers, condemns, and blames; if men have for us only scorn, reproach, and persecution; and if, meanwhile, turning our eyes toward the heavenly throne, we see in the divine face—the smile of pleasure and approval, what need we care for either the favors or the frowns of men? It is to God we should turn—for the searching of our lives. No other judgment will avail.
It is better and safer always, to fall into the hands of God, than into the hands of men. God is kindlier and juster than men. Nobody understands you—as God does. Nobody knows your infirmities and has such patience with them—as God has. He knows our frame. He remembers that we are dust. He understands our weakness. He knows human life—this blessed Lord of ours—by actual human experience. He knows all the elements that enter into human struggle, and, therefore, is fitted for sympathy. We never need be afraid to open our heart to Him, for He will never be unjust with us. We never need be afraid to ask Him to search us, for if we truly want to give up our sins when we discover them—we shall find Him most merciful and gracious.
It will be worth our while to think seriously of the things in us—that only God can see. There are sins which are hidden from ourselves, of which our conscience is not aware—our unknown errors. The evil in us which lies too deep to be discovered. There is a SELF in us, which even we ourselves do not see. There are depths of our being, into which our own eyes cannot pierce. Even our own knowledge of ourselves, is not final. You may say that you know of no sins, errors, or faults in yourself, and you may be sincere; still this is not evidence that you are sinless.
In one of his epistles Paul says, "I know nothing against myself." He was not living in the practice of any sin, so far as he knew. He did no wrong thing willingly and knowingly. He cherished no secret sin. Every fault he discovered, he put away. He knew nothing against himself. But he added, "Yet am I not hereby justified; but he who judges me is the Lord." The bar of conscience in our own breast, is not the final court. It is not enough to have the approval of our own heart. There are errors and evils in the holiest life on earth—which only God's eye can detect. We must ask God to search us, if we would be made clean. God knows all our past. We do not. There is much that we have forgotten. The memory of many of our deeds has faded out. But God has forgotten nothing. Our forgetting our sins—does not blot them out. The evil things we do not remember, are there yet.
We cannot see our own faults—even as our neighbors can see them. There is wisdom in the wish that we might see ourselves, as others see us—for it would free us from many a blunder and foolish notion. We are prejudiced in our own favor. We are disposed to be charitable toward our own shortcomings. We make all sorts of allowances for our own faults. We are wonderfully patient with our own weaknesses. We are blind to our own blemishes. We look at our good qualities through magnifying glasses; and at our faults and errors with lenses reversed—making them appear very small. We see only the best of ourselves. If you were to meet yourself on the street some morning—that is, the person God sees you to be—you would probably not recognize yourself!
We remember the little story that the prophet Nathan told King David, about a rich man's injustice toward a poor man, and how David's anger flamed up. "This man must die!" cried the king. He did not recognize himself—in the man he so despised, until Nathan quietly said, "You are the man!"
We are all too much like David.
If the true chronicle of your life were written in a book, in the form of a story, and you were to read the chapters over—you probably would not identify the story as your own! We do not know our real self. We do not imagine there is so much about us that is morally ugly and foul, that is positively wicked. But God searches and knows the innermost and hidden things of our heart!
God sees into the future and knows where the subtle tendencies of our life are leading us. We do many things which to our own eyes, appear innocent and harmless—but which have in them a hidden evil tendency which some day will come to ripeness. We indulge ourselves in many things which may not appear sinful—but which leave on our soul a touch of blight, a soiling of purity. We permit ourselves to grow into a hundred little habits, in which we see no danger—but which meanwhile are weaving their fine gossamer threads into a net for our souls, or twisting their invisible filaments into a rope which some day will bind us hand and foot! We spare ourselves little self-denials, thinking there is no reason why we should make them, not aware that we are neglecting God-given duties, and refusing to take up crosses laid at our feet by the Master, thus failing in complete faithfulness. We form friendships which become very dear to us—but which insidiously harm us, weakening our life's purpose or drawing us away from God.
The peril in all these things, lies not so much in the mere acts or indulgences of the hour—as in the things to which they will lead. We have no eyes to see the hidden danger in these "no harms" in our life—but God detects the peril, and sees what the end will be.
A popular writer tells the story of a dream which a man had. He had left his English home and was in India. He had done many things which would have pained his mother's heart, if she had known of them. One night he dreamed that he saw a drunken man enter his room. As the moonlight fell on the man's face, making every feature visible, a terror more terrible than mortal had ever known before seized upon the dreamer. He saw that the face was his own—but marked and scarred with the furrows of disease and much evil-doing—white, drawn, and grown old. It was a glimpse of what he was coming to, if he did not quickly change his wrong course.
There is another kind of hidden faults. There are things in many of us, no doubt, which we regard among our strong points, certainly fair and commendable traits or qualities—which in God's eye are sore blemishes! Good and evil in certain qualities, lie not far apart. It is easy for devotion to principle—a good thing; to take the form of obstinacy—a very unlovely thing. It is not hard for zeal for orthodoxy, to pass into intolerance and bigotry. Self-respect, consciousness of ability, easily degenerate into prideful self-conceit. Gentleness readily becomes weakness.
A man may be giving his life, in the larger sense, to the work of Christ, doing great things for the church—while in his own home, with those nearest to him, he is living like a beast! We see this kind of fault cropping out in our neighbor's character and life, and we say, "What a pity so fine a character is so marred!" Yes, and our neighbour looks at us, and says, "What a pity that with so many excellences, he has these blemishes and faults!" Sin is deceitful.
The substance of all this is, that besides the evil which others see in us, and which we see in ourselves; all of us have undiscovered errors and faults—which only God can see!
We ought never to shrink from learning our faults. He is a coward who does. Moreover, he is making a fearful mistake, who blinds himself to the faults in his own heart and life. He is refusing to see a danger which by and by, may work his ruin! Every true man should be glad always to learn of any hidden fault he has.
Ruskin says, "Count yourself richer—that day you discover a new fault in yourself; not richer because it is there—but richer because it is no longer a hidden fault! And if you have not found all your faults, pray to have them revealed to you, even if the revelation must come in a way that hurts your pride!"
Secret, undiscovered faults—are more perilous than discovered faults. Open sins are enemies in the field, undisguised, recognized as enemies. Hidden faults are enemies concealed, traitors in our camp, passing for friends! No godly, true, and brave man will permit a discovered sin or fault—to stay in his life. He will fight it to the death. But his undiscovered sin or fault, lurks and nests in his heart while he knows it not, and breeds its evil in his very soul! Before he is aware of its presence—it may eat out the very heart of his life—and poison the springs of his being!
A fire broke out in a large storage building in the morning—but it had been smouldering all night, and, undiscovered, eating its way among the bales, so that when discovered the whole interior was a mass of fire, and there was only the shell of the building left. Just so, hidden faults destroy lives, and none but God knows the destruction that is going on—until the fatal ruin is wrought. We ought to pray God continually, to search us, and save us from undiscovered sins.
Hidden faults in us—will hinder our spiritual growth. They also make us unfit for God's work. When Canova, the sculptor, was about to begin his statue of Napoleon, his keen eye saw a tiny reddish tinge in the upper part of the splendid block of marble out of which he was to hew the statue. The stone had been brought at great expense from Paris. Common eyes saw no flaw in the stone—but the sculptor saw it, and the stone was rejected.
May it not be so ofttimes, with lives which face great opportunities? God's eye detects in them some undiscovered flaw, or fault, some tiny tinge of marring color. God desires truth in the inward parts. The life must be pure and white throughout. He who cherishes a secret sin—is balking God's purpose in himself. God cannot use him for the noble task or service. Because of the secret sin—he is rejected.
Are we ready to make the prayer for divine searching? Are we willing to have God search us—and find every secret, hidden sin in us? Are we willing for Him to go down into our heart, among our thoughts and affections and desires, and find and reveal to us every way of wickedness He discovers? Then are we willing to give up, tear out, and cast away forever from us, everything that God finds that is not holy?
"Search me, O 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 everlasting way!"