By Christina Fox on May 5, 2017
A certain amount of self-evaluation can be good. We should have insight into ourselves, our motives, our choices, and our actions. But sometimes we can go too far. When self-evaluation ends with ourselves instead of pointing us beyond ourselves, there’s a problem.
I am a thinker. I ponder, muse, speculate, evaluate, and explore everything. In truth, I overthink. If it were possible, I could think things to death.
I consider things I should have said and should have done. I relive discussions and circumstances I’ve had. I dwell on mistakes and analyze them in great detail. I recall the sorrows and heartaches of my past like a broken record. I think thoughts like if only, what if, or I should have.
Unfortunately, the more I think, the more I despair.
A certain amount of self-evaluation can be good. We should have insight into ourselves, our motives, our choices, and our actions. We should keep aware of the ways we minimize our sin. We ought to know the idols that reign in our heart. We need to know the temptations we’re prone to give in to.
The apostle Paul encouraged such evaluation before taking Communion (1 Corinthians 11:28). He also encouraged the same Corinthian church to test themselves to see if they were indeed in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5). The prophet in Lamentations wrote, “Let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord!” (Lamentations 3:40). Self-evaluation is good, especially when it helps us see the sin in our heart — when it helps us see the truth that we are fallen. Good self-evaluation will remind us of our need for a Savior and point us to the gospel of grace.
Down into Despair
But sometimes we can go too far. When self-evaluation ends with ourselves instead of pointing us beyond ourselves, there’s a problem. Bad self-evaluation keeps us focused on ourselves and the things we should have done, ought to do, and will do. We dwell on our guilt over sin, shame over sins done to us, and regrets over what we wish had happened.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote that overthinking and self-evaluation can actually encourage and contribute to spiritual depression.
There is a type of person who tends to be always analyzing himself, analyzing everything he does, and worrying about the possible effects of his actions, always harking back, always full of vain regrets. (Spiritual Depression, 17)
He explained that there is a difference between self-examination, which is something we should do, and introspection, which is when self-examination becomes something we always do.
We are meant to examine ourselves periodically, but if we are always doing it, always, as it were, putting our soul on a plate and dissecting it, that is introspection. (17)
When introspection pulls us down into despair, it’s no longer self-examination, but what Martyn Lloyd-Jones calls morbidity. This morbidity makes us focus all our energies on ourselves, making us self-centered — the opposite of what Christ called us to do when he taught us to put others before ourselves. As Christians, we are to be self-forgetful. We are to put our energies into loving and serving others, just like Jesus did for us (Philippians 2:3–8).
Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote that because overthinkers can be prone to spiritual depression, we should know our strengths and weaknesses. If we tend toward overthinking and too much self-evaluation, we need to be cautious of that tendency and be on the lookout for it. There is great wisdom in knowing our tendencies, being mindful of them, and resisting them.
Take Your Thoughts Captive
For those of us who tend toward too much self-evaluation, what should we do when we find ourselves overthinking things?
We don’t have to listen to ourselves. Instead, we can talk back to ourselves. We can take our thoughts captive. We can speak the truth of God’s word to our hearts, for the word has the power to change and transform us. “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). Lies lose their power in the face of truth. We need to know God’s word by heart so that it is always on the tip of our tongue, ready for us to fire at the lies we hear around us — especially those within our own hearts.
The gospel isn’t something we respond to once in our life at the moment of salvation. Rather, it’s something we respond to and apply to our life each and every day. We need to preach the gospel to ourselves, remembering all that we have in Christ. We need to remember what Christ did for us in his perfect life, sacrificial death, and triumphant resurrection. We cling to the precious reality that God, who didn’t spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will certainly give us everything we need (Romans 8:32). When it comes to our overthinking, we need to rebuke and correct ourselves with the truths of what Jesus has done, what he is doing, and what he will do.
God’s Grace Toward Us
Even when our thoughts betray us, and we find ourselves consumed with should haves and what ifs, the amazing thing is that God knows us. He examines the thoughts and intentions of our hearts.
Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! (Psalm 139:23)
Before a word is on our tongue, he knows it. He knows more about our hearts than we do; he knows the truth of who we are deep down inside. But what amazing grace! God looks at us and sees our Savior. He hears our thoughts and accepts Christ’s perfect thoughts in our place.
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. (1 John 2:1)
When our thoughts turn inward and we fail to remember God’s grace, he continues to give more grace. In fact, God’s grace doesn’t depend on our thoughts about God, but his thoughts toward us.
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” (Isaiah 43:1)
It’s good to evaluate ourselves. We should have insight into our thoughts and actions. But we cross the line when it becomes all we think about. If you tend toward overthinking, know yourself, know your tendencies, but most of all, know the truth: Jesus died for your what if anxieties, and he won’t let you fall into despair when you cling to his precious promises.