“Before the truth sets you free, it tends to make you miserable.”Richard Rohr
I talk a lot about contemplative prayer and how solitude is the key to a solid spiritual life.
But one uncomfortable (but essential) piece of spiritual growth: Self-examination and self-awareness.
Even with meditation and prayer, we can still do and say things that hurt others. We can still do things out of selfishness, pride, jealousy, anger, frustration, pettiness, insecurity, and stress. We can still be passive aggressive, self-sabotaging, manipulative, overly critical, and more.
Looking back, there are many times at work and home where I snapped at others, acted out of selfishness, and regretted my behavior. I also used to be much more manipulative with people. I was good with words and fairly charismatic, so I knew how to say things to get my way.
At some point, I had to get honest with myself about those behaviors.
Regularly examining yourself is a key part of transforming our character so we stop hurting others.
Spirituality without character formation is escapism
Spiritual people sometimes get a bad rep for not being grounded in reality. It’s that person that practices yoga, meditates often, maybe wears prayer beads, but is just out of touch.
At best they don’t confront the harsh and negative realities of life. At worst, they don’t confront their own selfish or negative behavior toward others.
Yes, many spiritual practitioners are more kind, patient, and a slew of other positive qualities. But they may not be able to see if they’re manipulative, selfish, and more.
I have a tattoo on arm that says “There can be no peace without truth.” We cannot truly be at peace with ourselves or the world, if we don’t confront the truth within ourselves.
Any spiritual peace without truth and examination, is a false peace.
True spiritual growth consists not only of transcendence (through meditation and prayer), but also examination. Or else we’re not actually growing as a human – just really good at escaping reality.
On the plus side, spirituality does make us more open and humble so we can examine ourselves and change. Prayer and meditation create the soft soil so that we can put aside our ego and get honest with ourselves.
We just have to be willing to go there.
Our thoughts create our life
Be at peace with your own soul, then heaven and earth will be at peace with you. Eagerly enter into the treasure house that is within you, and so you will see the things that are in heaven; for there is but one single entry to them both. The ladder that leads to the Kingdom is hidden within your soul.Saint Isaac the Syrian
It is said that “As water reflects the face, so one’s life reflects the heart”. It is a hard pillow to swallow sometimes, but our character and inner weather has a significant impact on our results in life.
“First keep peace with yourself, then you can also bring peace to others.Thomas à Kempis
If you are bitter, you will get bitterness back. If you are hateful, you will get hate back. But if you treat others with respect, you get respect back. If you care for others, you will be cared for. If you live with integrity, you will be trusted.
That’s one thing I wish fast food workers and other lower-wage workers would realize. If you do the absolute best you can with what you have, with good character and attitude, you will be given more.
It’s basic stewardship.
It took me too long to learn this as a young adult in his early 20’s. I wanted more in life. My ambitions were big, so I thought any job was below me – below what I was capable of. So I had a bad attitude, poor character, and sabotaged myself.
As soon as I started giving more than what was expected of me, and with a good attitude, I started succeeding in life.
If we examine our heart and let God chisel our character and behavior, we will succeed. Our life reflects our heart.
“We are not at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God”Thomas Merton
A dangerous stumbling block for “mature” Christians
Spiritual pride could be the most dangerous hurdle for Christians to actually become like Jesus.
I grew up seeing mature Christians being totally unwilling to acknowledge when they hurt people. I could count on less than one hand how many times they would apologize for something, much less work on changing so they don’t hurt people.
That was actually a pivotal observation for me as a kid and teenager – I didn’t want to become another prideful Christian that couldn’t say sorry. I wanted to be someone that would stop at nothing to make sure they are not hurting others, intentionally or not. I wanted to be truly fruitful – Loving, kind, and patient.
I’d encourage you to do the same. So many people spend their lives dedicated to this goal or that goal, to making a certain amount of money, or becoming the “greatest” at something. And that’s fine.
But what if we had that same dedication to becoming a better human, transforming our character, not hurting others, and actually loving people like Jesus did?
We don’t magically become perfect and holy 5, 10, or 50 years into our Christian life. That takes constant, brutal examination of our hearts. And even then, we will never be perfect.
Once we stop examining our hearts, we’ve already become prideful and are probably hurting others in ways we’re not willing to see.
As we pray in silence and examine ourselves, it becomes easier to get honest with ourselves about our shortcomings or how we hurt others. That makes it easier to swallow our pride and apologize. If we accept our own humanity in private, it’s easier to admit our mistakes to others.
“Be willing to tolerate the discomfort necessary for growth.”Peter Scazzero
“All great spirituality teaches about letting go of what you don’t need and who you are not.”Richard Rohr
The foundation of the spiritual life is letting go of what doesn’t need to be there. That includes bad thought patterns and behaviors.
The cool part is, it becomes much easier to let go of what doesn’t need to be there when we’re contemplating God.
When contemplating God:
- His joy overcomes our bitterness
- His love overcomes our jealousy, hatred, and resentment
- His wisdom overcomes our self-sabotage and foolishness
- His patience overcomes our impatience and frustration
- His kindness overcomes our critical spirit
When we contemplate Him in prayer, we let go of our ourselves and He chisels us into His likeness.
“Most of us were taught that God would love us if and when we change. In fact, God loves you so that you can change. What empowers change, what makes you desirous of change is the experience of love. It is that inherent experience of love that becomes the engine of change.”Richard Rohr
Self-awareness is an ingredient in the world’s most successful people
“Wisdom tends to grow in proportion to one’s awareness of one’s ignorance.”Anthony de Mello
According to a study by Cornell in 2010, self-awareness was found to be the strongest predictor of overall success of leaders.
Here’s a few reasons why:
- Awareness of our strengths and challenges enables us to work with others who have different strengths than us
- We are also more able to accept the idea that someone else may have better ideas or abilities than us, which we can benefit from
- A lack of self-awareness can alienate others because we don’t understand how our actions impact others
Difficulties are a great catalyst for change
“God will bring people and events into our lives, and whatever we may think about them, they are designed for the evolution of His life in us.”Thomas Keating
There is nothing like hitting rock bottom, failing, or hurting others that can motivate us examine our hearts.
Sometimes it’s us deciding that we’re tired of the results that we’re getting in life, to motivate us to examine ourselves and change.
Look at the results you’re getting in your life. Are you frustrated with them? Embrace that frustration and let it drive you to examine yourself.
Sitting with our “noise”
“We need to find God and God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature—trees and flowers and grass—grow in silence. See the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence. The more we receive in silent prayer, the more we can give in our active life.”Mother Teresa
One difficult thing holding us back from examining our hearts is our noise – Our mental chatter and the noise of life.
When we try to slow down to really get in touch with our heart and soul, it’s uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable to sit with your noise long enough to get centered and really listen to what your heart is telling you.
In short, this takes patience. Dedicate yourself to sitting with your noise, stay silent, maybe put on some relaxing music, and seek God. As thoughts and feelings emerge, acknowledge them and let them go. Little by little, let your noise go and keep seeking God. Eventually, you will become still and calm enough to examine your heart and create change.
How to examine your heart and transform your character
The core skills of examining your heart and transforming your character are:
- Critical thinking
The only way to learn these two skills is to practice. Start with these journal prompts:
- What happened today?
- How did I behave?
- What did I feel?
- Were there any behaviors or feelings that didn’t need to be there?
- Why did I think or act that way?
- What underlying belief is causing me to think or act that way?
- How can I do better next time?
Identifying your underlying beliefs is a key to examining your heart and transforming your character. There is a belief for everything that we do. If we discover the belief, we can change that belief, and drive different behavior.