A growing understanding of the gospel is the most important component in our battle with unhealthy introspection. We need to understand what God has done for us in Christ, so that we will look to Christ and his completed work for us, instead of constantly looking to ourselves.
The following is a response to an email I received a while ago. A dear brother contacted me and asked me if I could expand on an entry I had posted. Specifically, he wanted to know if and how the Lord had helped me make progress in dealing with unhealthy introspective tendencies and spiritual depression. Below is the letter with a few slight edits for clarity.
Thank you again for your email. An inclination toward severe introspection and spiritual depression is something that has affected me since early in my Christian life, and I still find myself battling introspective tendencies and spiritual depression.
When I first came to Christ, I noticed immediately that I tended toward a severe examination of my inner life—my motives, my affections for God and for others, my faith in Christ, my holiness. Far from bringing me peace and assurance in my relationship with Christ, this propensity to question every inner-working of my heart instead brought much doubt, confusion and, inevitably, depression.
Yet, I can say that, by God’s grace, I have made significant progress in this area. As I reflect on the past several years, I can see specific means of grace that God has used to help me turn from an unhealthy preoccupation with self and sin—with the depression that inevitably follows—to a growing focus on the gospel and others. The following are several disciplines I have found to be particularly helpful in my fight against what Martin Lloyd Jones calls “morbid introspection” and the resultant spiritual depression.
A few words, first, about the following points. First, it is important to remember that overcoming introspective tendencies does not mean that we are to disregard all forms of self-examination. Sober-minded, thoughtful, doctrinally informed self-examination is required for believers (2 Cor. 13:5), and is, when conducted correctly, a means of real joy and peace.
Second, the following list includes those things I have found to be beneficial to me. It is a personal list. I hope and trust that much of what I offer here is grounded in Scripture. Nevertheless, it will be important for you to not receive this as an infallible map to spiritual health but rather as helpful suggestions as you continue to walk daily with the Lord, learning from his Word and from other counselors.
The first point (a robust understanding of the gospel), however, lays the foundation for everything else. Without this important point, our battle against morbid introspection and depression will malfunction at a fundamental level. With those two cautions in mind, let’s turn to considering the following points.
1. We need a robust understanding of the gospel.
I put this first because it is the most important. I have found that my tendency toward severe introspection is compounded to the degree that I am not seeing the gospel in all its beauty and doctrinal fullness. Specifically, this has meant understanding and embracing the important doctrines of justification, sanctification, and indwelling sin.
Justification: Scripture teaches that justification is the act of God by which he declares us wholly forgiven and righteous in his sight and on the basis of Christ’s perfect life and substitutionary death on the cross (Rom. 3:21-26; 5:1; 8:1), not upon any work that we have done or will do (Rom. 4:5; II Tim. 1:9; Tit. 3:4-7).