Search Me, Know Me (Prayer of Examen)
We live in an age of self-assessments, self-awareness, and self-help books. Everywhere we look, we are encouraged to know ourselves and make the improvements we want to see in us. The daily message of “You are good enough to be what you want to be” resounds from afternoon talk shows to YouTube videos. Even popular preachers such as Joel Osteen make a living off of telling us that we have what it takes to live our best lives now.
This message–that we have within us what we need–is in complete antithesis to Scripture. We are foolish to think that God is a means to an end, or that His ultimate goal for us is simply to live a better life. Anyone can make improvements, and they don’t need God or prayer to do it.
If prayer is A) something we have to start as beginners, B) centrally about our relationship with our heavenly Father, and C) one of the means God uses to transform us into the image of Jesus, then one of the prayers we can pray as we seek this transformation is a prayer of God searching us and knowing us, as in Psalm 139.
- Verses 1-6: Yahweh has already searched and knows David. God knows his movements and his thoughts. Even before he speaks, God knows what he will say. David says this kind of knowledge is too wonderful for him, that he cannot attain it. Only God can know us fully.
- Verses 7-12: God’s Spirit is always present with David. He could go into the heavens or down below to the depths and it would not matter.
- Verses 13-18: Even as David was conceived and in his mother’s womb, God knew him and was present with him.
- Verses 19-22: You get the sense that David writes this in the context of knowing those who are anti-God. His words are strong in opposition to them. He wants God to know him so that he would not sin in his opposition to them.
- Verses 23-24: David asks God to do for him once more what God has already done. Even though God knows him fully, David realizes that God’s testing and knowledge of his thoughts and sins is needed if he is to be led in the way everlasting.
This psalm can serve as an example of our desire for God to know us.
Christians have translated David’s desire for God to know Him into a prayer called the prayer of examen. That may look like a funny word. It comes from a Latin word and refers to the weight indicator on a balance scale. It conveys the idea of an accurate assessment of our situation.
This form of prayer originated with Ignatius of Loyola in the late 15th century. He said that the key to growing in Christ was finding God in all things and cooperating with God. Ignatius founded the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits, and suggested that members of this order pray the prayer at noon and at the end of the day.
The prayer of examen has two sides. The first side is asking God to examine our consciousness of His presence with us during our day. This kind of prayer is best prayed at night, before going to bed. The second side is an examination of our conscience, inviting God to search our hearts in a scrutiny of love. God helps us to call the evil in our lives “evil” and the good “good”. We cannot rationalize our actions.
The prayer of examen produces in us the gift of self-knowledge, but not self-knowledge so we can feel at peace or have prosperity. St. Teresa of Avila wrote about self-knowledge, “This path of self-knowledge must never be abandoned, nor is there on this journey a soul so much a giant that it has no need to return often to the stage of an infant and a suckling.” As we practice this type of prayer, we stop hiding from God’s truth about us. We embrace what He has to say and turn to Him.
The prayer of examen has five parts.
- Sit in silence and make yourself aware of God’s presence. We are always in God’s presence—He never leaves us—but as you begin, ask the Holy Spirit to make you aware of Him with you.
- Review your day with gratitude. Give thanks to God for the gifts of your day. Notice what you received and what you gave to others.
- Pay close attention to your emotions. Look for the ways you responded to God’s gifts and love for you during the day. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you look at your emotions and actions clearly, like God does.
- Review your day more thoroughly. Notice the details of how you acted, your motives, your feelings. Where did you fail? Where did you give genuine love? What habits did you practice today that hindered your ability to love? Where could you have accepted God’s grace?
- Reconcile and resolve. Imagine Jesus sitting beside you. Now is the time to confess sin and ask Him to aid you. Feel the sorrow in your heart over sin and gratitude for God’s gentle work in your heart. Ask for God’s help and guidance for the next day.
Give this prayer a shot tonight before you fall asleep.