The Tragedy of Self-deception

(August/September 2011 – Volume 17, Issue 4)

“The power of the human mind to deceive itself seems infinite”[1] The Greek philosopher Demosthenes said, “Nothing is easier than self-deceit. For what each man wishes, that he also believes to be truth.”[2] In his confessions Augustine wrote, “Man’s love of truth is such that when he loves something which is not the truth, he pretends to himself that what he loves is the truth, and because he hates to be proved wrong, he will not allow himself to be convinced that he is deceiving himself. So he hates the real truth for the sake of what he takes to his heart in its place.”[3]

The fact that we are easily self-deceived should surprise no Christian for, as the inspired prophet Jeremiah wrote centuries ago, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick, who can understand it” (Jere 17:9)? Jeremiah quickly adds, I, the Lord, search the heart and I test the mind, even to give to each man according to his ways, according to the results of his deeds.” (v.10). However, this deceitful heart, which each of us inherits as a result of the fall, leaves us in a bit of a quandary. How are we supposed to function so as to walk authentically before the Lord? If even the best and most sincere can be deceived by their own hearts, then how can we have confidence that any of our actions, thoughts or motives are pure? How can we be sure that we are not deluding ourselves no matter how hard we try to live in integrity?

It must be admitted that there is a sense in which we cannot have absolute assurance that we are living above pretense. I have often pondered a response Paul made to the church at Corinth. As they examined, and apparently criticized, Paul he confessed that “I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord” (1 Cor 4:3b-4). Paul’s conscience was clear. He believed himself living a virtuous life, but the final arbiter was not his conscience nor his personal evaluation but the Lord. This especially referenced his motives which Paul says the Lord will “disclose” when He returns (v. 5). Motives are notoriously tricky to discern and even Paul did not always have a handle on his, so it does not surprise us that he warns his readers not to try to determine the motives of others. As the Lord told the prophet Samuel, “God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). Scripture often calls for the people of God to examine the lives and teachings of men, but heart exams belong to the Lord alone.

We are people with deceitful hearts, and at times incomprehensible motives. How then can any of us hope to live in such a way that we please God? The key is the infallible revelation found in Scripture. James perhaps explains it best when he compares the Word of God to a mirror,

But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does (James 1:22-25).

The only means we have to free ourselves from habitual self-deception is the mirror of the Word of God. The Scriptures reveal God’s objective standards by which we can examine our actions, thoughts and even motives, to determine if they are in compliance with righteousness. It is for this reason that the Lord gives us such a large Bible. If we were to determine our standing before the Lord by feelings and guesses we would be drifting on a sea of subjectivity. God has graciously not abandoned us to such folly but has given us clear detail and understanding in the ways that He would have us live. We are to examine ourselves in the light of God’s mirror and determine if we are living as He desires. And this examination is not just in general but in great detail. Every area of our lives is given careful attention in Scripture so that we might live with assurance before our Lord. Let’s look at some specifics.

Finances: While often not recognized as such, finances are an area in which self-deceit is prevalent, especially in more affluent nations such as the United States. For example, a recent article posted on laments the ruin of America’s middle class as a result of the recent recession.[4] The middle class, it is claimed, lost $7.38 trillion in wealth mostly as a result of the bursting of the housing bubble. The article places blame on the government and claims the rich have recovered but the rest of us have not. The problem stems from the acceleration of the value of houses. As houses gained in value the wealth of the middle class did as well, but 90% of the middle class’s net worth was wrapped up in its homes. As the value of their homes soared many borrowed heavily against their equity to the tune of $2.3 trillion, much of these funds going to purchase cars, boats, vacations and flat-screen televisions, among other things. When the bubble burst millions lost everything because of their debt level. They had purchased houses they could not afford with the hope that the value of real estate would continue to escalate. When values took a nose dive many lost their homes and found they were hopelessly in debt because of the spending spree that they had been on for years.

While I can certainly sympathize with anyone who has gone through such difficulties, I found it interesting that the article placed no blame on those who incurred excessive debt to purchase things they did not need. The underlying assumption was that the middle class, whose income had failed for many years to keep pace with inflation, turned to the one appreciating item in their portfolio (their home) and tapped into its equity to fund their material wants. Plenty of blame can be laid at the feet of bad economic policy within our government and greedy banks, but surely a great deal of blame lies with the individuals who purchased homes beyond their means and accumulated excessive debt to fund their materialism.

The very fact that I used the word materialism, and some of my readers no doubt found it offensive, shows our self-deceit. Few Christians in financial trouble are willing to admit that their budgetary woes spring from overspending because they desire things they neither need nor can afford. There are real exceptions to this statement but after many years of doing financial counseling I have found that money problems stem far more often from outgo than from income. Said another way, it is often not what people make but what they spend that makes the difference in their financial picture. And what people spend many times directly relates to how much they value both money and things. We would be wise to examine carefully what our spending habits tell us about what is really going on in our hearts in relationship to wealth.

Fortunately, the Bible has much to say about money, and those following a biblical financial plan were not as likely to suffer as much during this recent down turn (recognizing, of course, that there are notable exceptions of those who were victims of faulty information, lack of financial understanding or unavoidable circumstances). First, in the context of money, our Lord commanded us not to store up treasures on earth but rather in heaven, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:19-21). This is not a wholesale condemnation of saving or investing or wealth per se, for other Scriptures view all of these things in a positive light when rightly understood. But Jesus wants us to know that our heart’s desires are determined by what we treasure, and when we find ourselves clinging too tightly to “stuff” we can be certain that our hearts are out of tune with God’s.

It should be further recognized that while the Scriptures do not condemn all debt they certainly lay out a conservative and careful financial pattern. For example, they call for systematic saving (“He who gathers money little by little makes it grow,” — Prov 13:12 NIV), rejection of get-rich schemes that seem too good to be true (“He who pursues worthless things lacks sense,” – Prov 12:11), generosity with our resources (“God loves a cheerful giver” – 2 Cor 9:7; see also 1 Tim 6:18), distrusting the uncertainty of riches (1 Tim 6:17), and wisdom about the deceitfulness of riches (Mark 4:19).

It was not many generations ago that mortgages were rare or virtually non-existent in America. Now most people borrow for everything from automobiles to education to vacations to a new wardrobe and think nothing of it. This is self-deception fueled by the “American Dream” and greed. Christians following the biblical paradigm for handling of money will live much differently, give more graciously, enjoy what they have more fully and avoid more financial anxieties than those who follow the crowd and the current attraction to riches (see 1 Tim 6:6-10, 17, 19).

Anger: Scripture never condemns anger per se. As a matter of fact we are given examples of appropriate, godly anger in the life of Jesus and a number of His followers, and we are actually commanded to “be angry” at times (Eph 4:26a). Obviously if God is angry at sin it cannot be wrong for believers to be angry at the same sins. Righteous anger reacts against actual sin, not against inconvenience or violation of personal preference. Righteous anger, instead, is concerned about the Lord and His glory. It is focused on what offends God and injures others, not about what harms the angry person. Righteous anger is self-controlled and concerned for the good of others.

The problem is fallen creatures, such as we are, find it most difficult to be angry to the right degree, over the right issues, for the right amount of time. It is for reasons that the Lord tells us, “Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity” (Eph 4:26-27). Lingering anger morphs into bitterness which poisons the soul. Satan, in some manner not explained in the text, takes prolonged anger and uses it as an opportunity to wreak havoc in the life of believers.

Most would give hearty agreement to the teaching and warning found in this passage and yet many, simultaneously, will harbor various forms of anger against people in their lives. How do they justify such action? Some will define anger in terms of major blow ups or intense hostility yet overlook the fact that strong frustrations, irritabilities, surliness, pouting, and grouchiness are merely other forms of anger. It is because we refuse to recognize such attitudes and actions as sin that we can deceive ourselves into believing we are not angry. We all know Christians who ignore other believers, refusing to talk to them, yet will loudly protest that they are not angry. They will rationalize that because someone is wrong they no longer want anything to do with them. But angry? – not they.

In addition, we tend to justify our anger. We tell ourselves that we have the right to be angry because someone has mistreated us. We claim that we are more than willing to forgive but not until the other person makes the first move. We say that the other person deserves our anger for how they have behaved. Such attitudes reflect a natural way of thinking but not a biblical one. Speaking in the context of wisdom, James tells us that earthly, natural, demonic wisdom is characterized by bitter jealousy and selfish ambition – that is, our thoughts are all about ourselves. But godly wisdom is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering and without hypocrisy” (James 4:13-17). In Ephesians 4:31-32 Paul lays the matter out very clearly, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” Colossians 3:12-14 calls on the chosen and beloved ones of God to “put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.” It is when we examine our lives in the light of Scriptures such as these that we begin to see ourselves clearly. Under such scrutiny our excuses and rationalizations are exposed and we see what is really in our hearts. Unless we do so our sinful anger will often masquerade as virtue leading us progressively into deeper sin. Because of all the reasons, justifications and excuses believers conjure up for continuing in their anger, angry people do not recognize they are angry. They are self-deceived. When faced with the mirror of God’s Word they tend to look away and claim their situation is an exception. Such is the nature of self-deception.

Forgiveness: Closely related to anger is the issue of forgiveness. Prolonged anger is often the result of lack of forgiveness against a perceived sin, real or imagined. When we have been wounded by another the Word suggests two possible courses of action. Often we can simply cover the offense with love. First Peter 4:8 commands, “Keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.”And Colossians 3:12-13 reads,“Put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.The implication is that we don’t have to go to the mat over every issue and offense. We all sin in many ways and, while often the loving thing to do is to confront, sometimes the best course of action is to recognize the weakness of those around us, refuse to be offended by their sin, and bathe them in love. We must be careful that this option is not used as a loophole to avoid the biblical pattern of helping an individual walk in righteousness, for our goal should be the good of the other person. But surely on many occasions the best action to take is to cover his sin with love and refuse to let that sin affect us.

The second course of action may overlap to some degree with the first, but it is broader in scope. Romans 12:14-21 speaks of a situation in which we are facing a true enemy. Someone is sinning against us and has no intention of turning from that sin. As a matter of fact he may rather enjoy the grief he is causing us. What are we to do then? In general, the teaching of Romans 12 is that we are to love our enemies and overcome evil with good. “Bless those who persecute you”, Paul writes, “bless and curse not” (v. 14). There is never a time when we are to be unkind, snub someone, or be bitter toward another. Instead we are, “Never to pay back evil for evil to anyone… We are neverto take our own revenge, but leave room for the wrath of God” (vv. 17, 19), who has promised to repay when injustice has been done. On the positive side, we are to feed our enemy if he is hungry and give him a drink if he is thirsty (v. 20a). Why? Because by doing so, “you will heap burning coals upon his head”(v. 20b). By calling on us not to “be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (v. 21), Paul calls for victory over the sinful activities of others by use of the weapon of good. This is the concept behind Romans 12:20. We are to do good to our enemies; we are to overcome evil with good. Those who are won by our kindness will enjoy the favor of God and reconciliation with us. Those who continue in their mean-spirited activities will face the vengeance of God, apparently in increased intensity because they have continued in their sins even while being treated with goodness.

This passage, however, would have us focus not on the other person and his sins, whatever they might be, but on our actions and ourselves. Whether the one intending our harm responds well or not is beside the point. We are commanded to do right no matter what the other person does. If the offender refuses our kindness, and attempts at reconciliation, we place him in the hands of God. As believers our goal is always reconciliation with a brother or sister (Matt 18:15-20). If reconciliation is impossible because the offender refuses to recognize his sin and repent, we do not have cause to sin in turn. Reconciliation has been our goal and desire, but at this point it has not materialized. Still we treat those who have offended us with a Christ-like attitude. Even when reconciliation is not possible the spirit of forgiveness is. In the light of Scripture, to hold a grudge, treat with contempt, or return evil for evil to those who are harming us, even those who are our “enemies” (Rom 12:20), is wrong. To not live in the spirit of forgiveness is to allow the sins of others to cause us to sin as well. Yet, just as with anger, the unforgiving person can easily deceive themselves into believing they have forgiven when down deep they continue to hold an offense against another. I remember a former elder of our church telling the other elders that he forgave (for an offense that they had not committed by-the-way) but he could not forget. That man left self-deceived.

Gossip: Scripture has a great deal to tell us about our speech and warns, “We all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well… The tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity” (James 3:2, 6). With such an indictment against the tongue we are not surprised that our words are the source of many problems. Proverbs 10:18 says that “he who spreads slander is a fool,” while Proverbs 16:28 warns, “Slander separates intimate friends.” Slander, and its close cousin gossip, is a familiar battle stemming from the hearts of all of us (Matt 15:18). We all know that it is wrong, especially when it is directed toward us. But when we are on the giving end it is most easy to deceive ourselves into thinking that gossip is necessary and justified. After all, we reason, we are only spreading that which is true (at least from our perspective). Or, as someone said to me recently when I confronted them on gossip, “I just wanted to see if others agreed with me before I went to the person I was talking about.” We might even convince ourselves that we are doing good by giving a “heads-up” about a troublesome person.

While there may be a time to warn others, since Jesus told His disciples to be aware of the leaven of the Pharisees, it is all too easy for us to slip into destructive talk that inflicts wounds in the lives of the ones we are talking about and the ones we are talking to. Scripture gives us clear instruction for the use and control of our tongue but before we examine the instructions we need to first identify the real problem – the heart (once again). When we find ourselves tearing down the reputation of others (Prov 10:18; 11:9), spreading tales (Prov 11:13), saying stupid and evil things (Prov 15:2, 28), attempting to manipulate (Prov 7:21), or being contentious (Prov 21:9), we know that the real problem is not with our speech but with our hearts. Jesus said, “The things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders” (Matt 15:18-19). The problem is that the heart wants its own way, wants to look good and important, and wants to protect itself. When threatened the heart comes out swinging. It is for this reason that James informs us that the source of our conflicts is that we desire things we do not have (or need); we are envious of those who have these things and we fight and quarrel because of this dynamic. And even when we ask God for some of these things, the Lord does not provide them because our motives are wrong – we are asking for selfish reasons (James 4:1-3). The real battle in all of this takes place in our hearts. And whatever controls our hearts controls our words. If our own selfish desires control us then we will be angry at anyone who keeps us from getting what we want. And that anger will often come out in words.

Therefore when we find ourselves spreading tales, gossiping or embroiled in verbal conflict we do well to look at what is going on in our hearts. But the Lord does not leave us with a subjective, inward look at the heart. He equips us with specific instruction on dealing with speech related issues. One of the simplest, most straight forward, and easiest is to go to the one with whom we have concerns first. Jesus demands, “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother” (Matt 18:15). It doesn’t get much plainer than that but if we obeyed this injunction much hurt could be avoided. We tend to come up with many excuses as to why we cannot comply with this simple instruction but those who have examined their hearts and want to conform to God’s will must take this very seriously.

In addition Ephesians 4:25-32 provides four principles that are of great help to those who want to resolve conflict rather than create or spread it. These principles are commonly found in the biblical counseling arena, and so are not unique to me in this form. The first is honesty, “Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor” (4:25). A few verses earlier, in a different context, Paul calls on Christians to speak the truth in love (4:15). That is, our goal should be loving communication which seeks the best interest of others. Care should be given not only to what we say but also how we say it. Next, we are to stay current, “Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not give the devil an opportunity” (4:26-27). Many of our problems with people stem from the fact that we have not dealt with issues quickly but rather have allowed them to build up causing deeper and more complicated struggles. Satan, according to the text, somehow takes advantage of these open wounds to throw more obstacles in our way. Before long we are spiraling into deeper anger and bitterness. God’s solution is to keep short accounts. While others may not always make it possible to live in harmony, still, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Rom 12:18).

The third principle gets to the heart of speech problems. It tells us to “attack problems not people” (Eph 4:29). Paul writes, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth.” Unwholesome literally means “rotten” and speaks of tearing someone down with our words. Instead we should say “what is good for edification.” Edification means that which builds up; rather than tear people down with our words we should seek to build them up. This action is further qualified with “according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear.” We should be looking for opportunities to give grace to those around us (i.e. that which is undeserving), not tear them down.

Finally, we are to act rather than react (4:31-32). In these verses Paul supplies a number of sinful choices that we are to put away: bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander and malice. These are to be replaced with kindness, tender-heartedness, and forgiveness in proportion to how the Lord has forgiven us. As we look at our own lives and recognize the infinite love, mercy and forgiveness that the Lord has poured out on us it should be our desire to reflect that love, mercy and forgiveness to others. How obedience to these teachings would radically change the way we speak about and treat others.

When we continue to spread gossip we do so because we have convinced ourselves, even in the face of Scriptures such as these that we have a right to speak about others in this manner. This is self-deceit.

Doctrine: Since most of the Think on These Things articles are devoted to challenging false teaching I will say little here, except to point out that the very best theological deceivers are deceived themselves. Following a long section describing the characteristics of false teachers (2 Tim 3:1-9) Paul says of them, “But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (v. 13, emphasis mine). The punishment from God for being a deceiver is to ultimately believe our own lies. Those lies may have been learned from others and promoted by the father of lies himself, nevertheless because a person has accepted these lies and taught them to others, they will come to believe their own deviant doctrine.

But Paul offers the remedy to such beliefs and lies, and once again the remedy to self-deception is found in the Word of God. He immediately calls on Timothy to “continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of” – things he has learned from Paul himself (v. 14), and from the Scriptures (v. 15). Then the apostle offers that classic section on the inspiration of Scripture telling Timothy that “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (vv. 16-17). We are able to identify false teachers and teaching only by examining what is being taught through the lens of Scripture. Many today are imprisoned in a world of doctrinal self-deceit. And because they believe lies they live lies. God calls us, as He did Timothy, to examine all things in light of His infallible truth.


When I make coffee I usually put coffee grounds in the filter. If I forget to put in grounds I come back to find the carafe filled with plain water, but if I put in grounds I will soon be enjoying a nice cup of coffee. The results depend on what is in the filter. Self-deception works much the same way. If my life is poured through a filter of self-deception I unwittedly live out a lie. But if my thinking, actions and motives are poured through the filter of God’s revelation my life will become real, authentic and genuine. Left to my own devices I live in self-deception. Reliance on God’s Word should ensure that I live as God intended.


[1] Charles Farah as quoted by David Hunt, Beyond Seduction, (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House, 1987), p. 12.

[2] Demosthenes as quoted by Os Guinness, Time for Truth (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), p. 116.

[3] Augustine as quoted by Os Guinness, p. 117.



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