Coming Free of the Introspective Loop

Barbara Byers cropped


by Barbara Byers

“We come to know even ourselves, not through turning inward to study and analyze, but by turning outward to love all that is real and other than ourselves” (Leanne Payne, The Healing Presence, p. 193).

“For in Him we live and move and have our being.” Acts 17:28

How glorious it is to come free of introspection, to simply be alive and fully present, indwelt by Christ! As a recovered, and still recovering “introspector,” I found there is a clear path to freedom, albeit often slow and at times battle-wearying. My analytical self-inspecting had certainly occupied significant mental real estate, and for years I had even assumed it was a good and natural functioning of the soul. After all, wasn’t I “working out my salvation?” Far from it! I was protectively engaged in self-management, disqualifying my true heart and quenching creativity. Worse yet, I was stilling the voice of God by my own loud musings, and the essential thing I most needed – to hear from Him that objective word of truth in every situation – went missing. I was, as C. S. Lewis noted in Perelandra, “walking alongside” myself. I habitually practiced diseased attitudes toward myself, trying to handle shame, fear, anxiety and internal pain so that I could present a better self.

These introspective thoughts, what Leanne Payne called “the turning inward to analyze,” are inexorably linked to self-deprecating, self-loathing thoughts. Even as we engage in introspection to try and justify or redeem ourselves, we inevitably either sink downward into self-disqualification and shame or elevate ourselves into prideful self-justification. Sometimes we alternate between the two, but neither is holy and wholesome within our souls, both only feeding increasing loops of introspection.

As I began to understand this dark practice and its demands, I was greatly helped by the Lord to image a closed looping movement opposing, and in contrast to, the open movement of a soul reaching Godward. C. S. Lewis in The Collected Letters Vol. 1 (p. 924) described this self-enclosed movement well:  “…your thoughts merely go round and round a wearisome circle, now hopeful, now despondent, then hopeful again—that way madness lies.” Introspection is a form of madness! Leanne Payne echoed this in The Healing Presence (p. 186) when she wrote of introspection as “agonizingly painful and circular,” the closed narcissistic movement of the soul down and inward toward the self, isolating us from others, from God, from our true selves.

So we see a movement of the soul that is really a closed circuit. It is a system powered by the false self and directed by the light of its own meager understanding. A closed system allows its energy to flow only around its own circuit, from one end to the other, uninterrupted and constantly recirculating. This illustrates the problem with introspection, for we desperately need interruption from our dark, stale, isolated, self-focused thoughts! We need to be free of that wearisome circuit that directs us toward “madness.” We are called into a healthy, transforming movement of the soul that directs us up towards God and out toward others and toward the good and beautiful around us. Rather than engaging in a closed loop, moving downward, incurved into the false self, we can choose to look up and out in openness of soul toward God and others.

When we place these two movements in juxtaposition, we see the contrast. One is closed, unable to receive only its own subjective reality, while the other is open and permeable to truth. When God speaks, permeating into our souls, we hear; when nature radiates its beauty, we can take it in with wonder; and when others engage us, we can receive and respond with real conversation.

So what are we do when we find ourselves mired in this subjective habit of introspection? What are we to do when we realize how much healing we need and are then tempted to sink into hopelessness? We must repent with all our heart from idolatry toward the old self, from pride, from self-loathing, and from self-sufficiency, and turn again to Christ as the source of all our joy and truth. We then invite the Holy Spirit to be the lamp of the Lord who searches our inward self. We resign from that search!

Brother Lawrence, in The Practice of the Presence, wrote: “In God we will see more clearly what we lack, than we could in ourselves by all our introspection. In reality, introspection is but the remnant of unexpelled self-love.” Christ alone knows the real motives of our hearts, the real brokenness that lies within us. And He can illumine each area of darkness, pinpoint each lie and sinful root, and renew our hearts again. We can then enter the battle to overcome, heeding the words of Paul: “…fitting every loose thought and emotion and impulse into the structure of life shaped by Christ…clearing the ground of every obstruction and building lives of obedience into maturity (2 Cor. 10:5-6 MSG).”

When I am now tempted to regress into the old inward loop, “taking counsel in my own soul” (Ps. 13:2), I find it helpful to remember Lewis’s admonition: “That way madness lies!” True health of soul comes when we turn up and out toward Christ, renewing our minds in His love and truth. Coming free of this habit is worth every collaborative effort on our part, conjoined with his ever-present grace, to forsake our old way and receive the indwelling Christ. So let up press on to know the Lord. Only in knowing and trusting Him will we find our true selves reaching out in movements of joy toward Him, toward others, toward truth and beauty. That is freedom indeed!