It was some 2,500 years ago that the Greek philosopher Socrates is believed to have said, “The unexamined life is not worth living”, as recorded in Plato’s The Apology.
A hundred years before Socrates, a Jewish prophet by the name of Haggai came to Jerusalem with a message from God. The city’s dwellers were returnees from their captivity in Babylon. The city was significantly destroyed by the Babylonians and languished in ruins for several decades. Many Jews were brought to Babylon as captives. But keeping His promise, God rearranged the geopolitics of the day and made it possible for the Jews to be released seven decades later.
Upon arrival in their holy city, the Jews set out to rebuild the temple by laying the foundation. But due to opposition and threats from their enemies, the Jews stopped their project and the old temple remained in ruins. God then sent Haggai to challenge the people and get them to restore the temple project.
Haggai’s key message was “Consider your ways” (Hag 1:5,7) and “Consider from this day onward” (2:15, 18). Eugene Peterson paraphrases these as “Take a good, hard look at your life. Think it over” (The Message). God’s Word urges us to examine how we are living.
Haggai helped the people to consider carefully:
How come your output does not match your input? “You looked for much, and behold, it came to little.”(1:9) “You have sown much, and harvested little.”(1:6)
How come you are never really satisfied? “You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm.”(1:6)
How come what you have slips away so easily? “And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes.”(1:6) They had a ‘holey’ purse!
In other words, Haggai encouraged the people to think of how, while they eagerly sought happiness, it was so elusive in their life?
Through His prophet, God provided a clear answer – it was because His house, the temple, remained in ruins (1:4,9). The people had neglected the most important reality in their lives, for the temple was at the heart of their worship of God. To neglect it was to neglect their relationship with God.
Their many distractions are listed in the prophet’s message:
They were deceived by falsehood. They said to each other that it was not yet the right time to rebuild the temple (1:2). It was an excuse for their inaction. The more they repeated the “fake news” the more they believed it.
They were daunted by fear. In Ezra 4, we read of how the enemies of the Jews misinformed the Persian king who sent a “Stop Work” order. As a result, the temple project “stopped, and it ceased” (v 24).
They were distracted by fashion. While the temple project had halted, they gave attention to their “paneled houses” (1:4). They were into elaborate renovation of their houses.
They were devoted to frenzy. Each “busies himself with his own house” (1:9). But whatever they brought home, God blew away to make them think of the futility of their ways.
Haggai’s message was similar to that of Socrates: The unexamined life is not worth living. The prophet’s focus was God and the people’s relationship to Him. The people were living distracted lives and had strayed from what God wanted them to be and what He had asked them to do. But as they gave heed to Haggai’s message, they changed their ways and began to work on the house of the Lord, after 16 years of neglect (1:14-15). The temple was completed four years later.
We are similarly urged to pause our frantic busyness and take time to examine our lives. We live in the age of dizzying speed, where the emphasis is on efficiency and productivity. We are trained to order our lives according to the dictates of the clock, but we have forgotten how to read the compass of life. While being obsessed with speed, we have tended to neglect the direction of our lives.
We are trained to order our lives according to the dictates of the clock, but we have forgotten how to read the compass of life. While being obsessed with speed, we have tended to neglect the direction of our lives.
What are some of the things we should examine?
First, we should examine our ultimate destiny. The Lord Jesus told the parable of the rich fool (Lk 12:16-21). A man had a great harvest because his land was blessed. He then went about making plans for expansion (bigger barns, storage of excess grain) and a happy retirement (“Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry”).
Then God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”
Jesus also asked His listeners, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mk 8:36). We are to examine the foundations of our lives – what are we building on and what will last?
Second, we should assess our interior life. What sins lurk there, and what virtues are growing by God’s grace? The psalmist’s prayer, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Ps 139:23-24) is an invitation to reveal to us what is within us, so that we can let Him shape and save us. We need to grow in godliness.
We should assess our interior life. What sins lurk there, and what virtues are growing by God’s grace? The psalmist’s prayer, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Ps 139:23-24)
It is easy to examine others but not ourselves. In God in the Dock, C S Lewis saliently observed, “Those who do not think about their own sins make up for it by thinking incessantly about the sins of others. It is healthier to think of one's own.” He was paraphrasing what Jesus said about the folly and hypocrisy of the man who tries to remove the speck of dust from another’s eye while a log was sticking out of his own (Mt 7:5)!
Third, we are to watch what we believe and how we behave. Paul wrote to Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” (1 Tim 4:16). It is easy to slip and stray from our calling and lose our grip on our doctrine and discipleship. We need to make sure that we are still walking in the truth and in God’s love (2 Jn 4, 6). We can examine our spiritual progress in the light of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) and whether we are keeping in step with the Spirit (v. 25).
Fourth, we must watch how we follow Christ through the practice of spiritual disciplines. How do we read the Bible and obey God? How do we watch and pray? (Lk 21:36). How burdened are we to share the gospel (1 Cor 9:16)? How are we worshipping the Lord with heart, soul, and mind (Jn 4:23-24, Mk 12:30)? How do we attend to the plight of the poor and needy (Mt 25:34-40)?
John Wesley and a group of earnest young men formed a small group at Oxford University in the 18th century to pray, study the Bible, and practise holiness. They had a list of 22 questions to examine themselves daily – a practice Wesley continued for the rest of his life. We may not be as thorough as Wesley, but we should be inspired to examine ourselves regularly. “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves” (2 Cor 13:5).
Self-examination is to be done in God’s presence. If not, it would not bring us anywhere worth going. We are invited to examine our hearts, minds, relationships, resources, ambitions, agendas, temptations, thoughts, words, actions, reactions, values, and habits in the presence of God as we read God’s Word and allow the Holy Spirit to search us. As we do so, we must remember who Christ is – our Saviour who saved us on the cross and rose from death to give us eternal life. We must learn to keep our eyes fixed on Him as we run the race of life (Heb 12:1-3).
Any other kind of life is, ultimately, not worth living.
Bishop Emeritus Dr Robert Solomon is retired but still active in the ministry of preaching, teaching and writing. He is the doting grandfather of four grandchildren. His many interests include biographical histories connected to World War II.