Thursday, June 12, 2008

Powlison on the Dangers of Introspection

Over the course of the past two days, I have been listening to a message given by David Powlison at a 2007 Sovereign Grace leadership conference entitled, In the Last Analysis: Look Out for Introspection. As a student of biblical counseling (and therefore of Dr. Powlison), I benefited greatly from listening to this message. In it Powlison highlights the dangers of introspection when we "make self-analysis an end in itself instead of a doorway into grace, obedience, repentance, purpose, joy..." I am guilty of this. More than I would like to admit.

Further, he says, "It's like little children being given matches. We can use this most powerful gift [self-knowledge] in a way that ultimately can turn self-destructive and others-destructive, wholly contrary to the intention in which it was given."

Again, guilty.

We tend to think, Powlison notes, that "If I could only get to the bottom of why I do what I do I would be different." Rather, we must remember that "analysis itself changes nothing and mere analysis is not the goal."

When we fall prey to merely analysing ourselves, we "curve in upon ourselves" as the church fathers put it. Powlison explains this in-curving saying, "We are a vortex into ourselves, and our sins are about ourselves, so what could be a more fascinating way to look at myself than to try and figure out my sins... the world models that you're supposed to be about yourself, the flesh loves being about itself and can't imagine anything different, and Satan the liar who is himself utterly self-absorbed and full of pride and godlessness has a huge stake in lying to us, tempting us, reinforcing that self-centeredness... there's this huge inertia that pulls me down into me (emphasis mine)."

About halfway through the message I found myself asking the question (which you may now be asking): So is all self-introspection bad? In answer to this, Powlison reminds his listeners that "biblical self-knowledge is meant to take us out of ourselves. Accurate self-knowledge is a very good thing... the Bible is about self-knowledge... but it locates that process of knowing yourself in a much wider and deeper context."

For those of you who are familiar with biblical counseling, and specifically the ministry of CCEF, this movement away from introspection and "heart idolatry hunting" might seem strange and even unhelpful, especially from the lips of CCEF's own David Powlison. I had these thoughts. I mean, I can remember how enlightened I was upon first being introduced to the concept of heart idolatry and the depth of my sin. It was as if a light came on, while at the same time darkness swept over me as I saw a glimpse of the tip of the enormous iceberg of my sin. However, at the same time, I have not always used this self-knowledge and awareness of sin for good. Rather than be moved to prayer and repentance, I have become morbidly fascinated with my sin leading to, as Powlison describes, "paralysis of faith, of action, of obedience - because unless I understand everything I can't pray, I can't repent, I can't change, I can't love..." When this happens, introspection has become dangerous and is leading me down a path of sinful self-pity and fearful paralysis.

"Self-analysis is meant to be a doorway of grace. The problem is excessive introspection."

With every look inward, I pray I will also look to the cross and rejoice in Romans 8:1, praising God that "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." Amen.


The Santos Family said...

My husband, a natural counselor, is incredibly introspective so I've become aware of some of the struggles he has (similar to those mentioned here). And yet, he's also a HUGE fan of CCEF and it's great leaders: Powlison, Lane, Tripp, etc. I'll let him know about that message if he hasn't heard it already. Great thoughts.

Maggie Ainsworth said...


I too am a big fan of CCEF and all their guys, so I found this message especially helpful coming from Powlison. He was very honest about how easy it is to misinterpret and misuse the message of self-knowledge, while at the same time acknowledging its benefits for the Christian. It was really balanced, although I don't really expect anything else from Powlison.
Thanks for your thoughts. I hope James finds this message helpful as well.