Essay / Theology

"For One Look at the Self, Take Ten Looks at Christ"

In Adolph Saphir’s classic book The Hidden Life, he passes along a piece of perfect evangelical advice: “for one look at the self, we ought to taken ten looks at Christ.”

Saphir is exactly right: Too much attention to the state of your spiritual life can be poisonous for a Christian. Precisely in examining your own condition, you will see little evidence of anything but damnation and hopelessness.  It is in Christ that salvation can be seen. So look to him constantly, while occasionally looking to your own condition for a quick comparison.

The recommended ratio is ten to one. Gaze at Christ, glance at yourself.

Saphir (1831-1891) attributes this advice to Robert Murray McCheyne (1813-1843), the Scottish pastor who was instrumental in starting missions among the Jews, one of which led directly to the conversion of Saphir and his family. McCheyne (usually spelled M’Cheyne) says this famous line in a letter dated March 20, 1840, published in the Memoirs and Remains of M’Cheyne, edited by Andrew Bonar (1810-1892) (Edinburgh: Oliphant, Anderson, and Ferrier, 1883), p. 239. That letter, later given the title “Looking Out to Christ,” is a classic exposition of the theory and practice of the ten-to-one, gaze-and-glance spirituality.

But in that letter, M’Cheyne puts the sentence in quotes. Who is he quoting?  He doesn’t say. But M’Cheyne’s  mentor, Thomas Chalmers s (1780-1847), quotes the same saying in an 1844 letter, where he introduces it as a quote from Richard Baxter (1615-1691).  I haven’t been able to locate it in Baxter, Mr. “mere Christianity,” who had quite a lot to say about everything. It does sound like the kind of thing Baxter would have said, and the way he would have phrased it.

The sentence may go back further, though. These evangelical stalwarts who have passed it along don’t really care where it came from. It’s just true.

By the time Saphir is quoting it in the late 19th century, although he is in complete agreement with it, he feels the need to urge caution against misinterpreting it. It is possible, Saphir warns, to ignore your spiritual condition, to avoid the awkwardness of personal accountability by changing the subject to Jesus. The ratio of ten-to-one does, in fact, imply that you’re spending a tithe of your time on self-examination. So Saphir cautions:

…let us not deceive ourselves with “objective religion,” or looking away from self. McCheyne said, “that for one look at self we ought to take ten looks at Christ.”  Excellent counsel of a true Israelite, in whom was no guile! But we cannot do without that one look at our heart, at our ways. He who does not come to himselfwill not go to the Father. Can we ever say, “Bless the Lord,” if we have never said, “O my soul”?

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