By Shawn McMullen
An online reference (thefreedictionary.com) defines it this way: “I do not know. You can search my clothing and my person, but you won’t find the answer to your question anywhere near me.” The phrase has also been described as “a verbal shrug of ignorance.”
I’ve used it often in this context. I’m guessing you have too.
There is another way to understand the phrase, and I’m guessing many of us have used it in this context as well. It can be traced to the psalms where David prayed, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23, 24).
David wasn’t pleading ignorance. In fact, he was pleading for knowledge, asking God to search the deepest recesses of his heart, expose any sin that lurked there, and lead him to repentance and restoration.
David understood how God works in the process of self-examination. As we look into our hearts and examine our actions, we ask God to show us what we’re missing. Some sins are obvious. Others are more subtle and obscure. Often we’re not wise enough to discern where we’ve fallen prey to pride or jealousy or impurity. We need God’s help to see our sins more clearly.
He helps us through the written Word. The writer of Hebrews reminds us, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). When we read God’s Word with a submissive spirit, the truth of Scripture exposes our motives and brings our sins to the surface.
Like the apostle Paul who confessed, “I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law” (Romans 7:7), we know that the Word of God defines and reveals sin in our lives.
He helps us through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does what his name suggests: He leads us into holiness. As the Word reveals sin to us, and as we humble ourselves before God, asking him to show us our sins and set us on the right path, God’s Holy Spirit evokes in us a conviction that leads to change.
He helps us through the counsel of Christian friends. “As iron sharpens iron,” Solomon observed, “so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). While self-examination is largely a personal endeavor, and while the Word and the Spirit are our primary sources of help, we can also look to wise and experienced believers to help us confirm our convictions. The mature believers who know us best often can help us see our sins more clearly and come alongside us in our pursuit of holiness.
Few things must delight the heart of God more than watching his children grow into his likeness. That’s why it’s vital that we frequently, seriously, and submissively pray, “Search me, God.”