Examen prayer is the Holy Spirit’s application to our lives of scriptural teachings or descriptions of holiness in order to determine where we lack and/or succeed in living a holy life.
Odd though this may sound, freedom is the reason we allow the dark spaces in our souls to be exposed to the light of God’s examination. Instinct argues that while the darkness is terrifying, exposure to the light is painful, risky, and ultimately futile. Martin Luther, however, discovered that when he allowed God to shine the light, it was fear that fled from Luther instead of Luther failing in his attempts to flee from the darkness (John 3:17–21).
Martin Luther (1483–1546) was a typical Catholic of the sixteenth century, except for his acute and debilitating fear of judgment. His anxiety was compounded when, one night as he walked home, a bolt of lightning either struck him or struck close enough to knock him over. He cried out to St. Anne in terror, pledging to become a monk, if only he were saved from the hellfire.
To keep his vow, he joined a strict order of Augustinians, and in spite of his dislike for monastic life, carried out the oath—if for no other reason than to ease his fear. Not only did he submit to his superiors, studying for a doctorate in theology and becoming a priest, he also practiced monastic disciplines excessively. Yet he could find no peace, no sense of assurance concerning his position before the holy Judge.
Then, sometime between 1513 and 1517, as he prepared and taught classes in Psalms, Romans, and Galatians, Paul’s phrase, “the just shall live by faith” (Rom 1:17 KJV; see also Hab 2:4) set him free. He finally understood that God received him because of Christ’s trustworthy work on the cross, and not because of Luther’s own works, worthy or unworthy. His discovery became a foundation for the Reformation.
Luther’s new perspective on God established a new manner of coping with his sin. Instead of the self-flagellation he had rigorously practiced in order to avoid the deceit of self-justification, he trusted the Lord to reveal and reclaim what was not right in his life. As he studied Scripture, he waited on the Spirit to apply the word specifically to him, nudging him in the direction he should turn.
Commenting on this approach to conviction and confession, called “examen,” Luther writes, “There is no better mirror in which to see your need than simply the Ten Commandments, in which you will find what you lack and what you should seek. If, therefore, you find in yourself a weak faith, small hope, and little love toward God, . . . these you shall earnestly lay before God, lament and ask for help, and with all confidence expect help, and believe that you are heard and shall obtain help and mercy.”1
Considering the big picture Jesus painted regarding the possibilities for sin, Luther probably saw the Ten Commandments as more than a simple check-list of ethical dos and don’ts. Matthew 5:21–24 suggests that the command against murder was broken when someone was at fault in a dispute and failed to attempt reconciliation. According to Jesus, a lustful look alone ranked with committing adultery (Matt 5:27–28). The rich young ruler vouched that he had obeyed all ten laws religiously, but Jesus directed the man to care for the poor and to follow the Master if he wanted to practice them as God desired (Matt 19:17–21). Jesus himself “broke” traditional concepts of Sabbath because he understood that true Sabbath-keeping also had to do with healing (Mark 3:1–5; John 5:2–16).
From his days of fear, Luther knew that there was more to obedience than legalistic observance. He had already tried legalism to no avail. He came to believe that God already knew every hidden corner of his life. His new freedom was found by inviting God into those corners to sweep them clean (Ps 139:1, 23–24), instead of trying to tidy them up himself.
Like Luther, we may question whether we have done enough. The inner critic plagues us with our imperfect work. The shoulder devil prods incessantly at our personal failings. Believing in God’s mercy is not the problem; believing in his mercy for me is the difficulty. Practicing the prayer of examen trains believers to hear the Spirit’s gently convicting voice rather than inner PA systems that blare self-condemnation. Granting God the right to root out sin frees us from the struggle to master that which is too big for us to do in the first place (John 8:32).
For other believers, “live free!” may already be our motto. We struggle to focus on the inner darkness and how it leaks out onto other people. Acknowledging complicated consequences of sin and “fallenness” seems to steal our opportunities to play in the light. Even “making amends,” the ninth step in twelve-step recovery programs, smacks of making a big deal. We would rather make people laugh. The prayer of examen grants us a way to follow Jesus into a light that fills our empty places (Job 33:29–30), and it opens the path to a mercy that is sweeter than honey from the rock (Ps 81:16).
1Martin Luther, A Treatise on Good Works Together with the Letter of Dedication (1520), n.p. [cited 19 June 2008]. Online: www.theologywebsite.com/etext/luther_goodworks.shtml.