Self-Deception and the Christian Life
Have you deceived yourself? How would you know if you had? And once self-deceived, how would you correct the problem? Gregg Ten Elshof’s new book, I Told Me So: Self Deception and the Christian Life (Eerdmans, 2009), is a small but powerful book exposing the dynamics of self-deception. The very concept of self-deception implies some level of knowledge of the truth, otherwise it would simply be ignorance. Self-deception, then, is in some way a knowing or intentional lying to oneself. And we are all in danger of deceiving ourselves, both individually and when in a group. An examination of this phenomenon should make us wiser to its ways.
Jean-Paul Sartre characterized self-deception as the avoidance of rational standards of evidence whenever it suits our purposes. Ten Elshof explains that in self-deception, “I am both the deceived and the deceiver. I am deceiving myself if I’m managing my beliefs with no regard for the truth. I’m trying to manage my beliefs, but I’m not trying to move myself along toward true belief” (p. 25). We’ve all seen this in action. A mother doesn’t want to believe that her son is addicted to drugs, even though there is plenty of evidence available, and the conclusion is obvious to others. A pastor considers himself to be a loving husband and good father, even when his wife voices her feelings of loneliness, and his children leave home and church never to return as soon as they graduate from high school. The key here is that truth is replaced with feeling good, diminishing guilt, or some other adopted strategy that parades as a pursuit of truth, but is in fact not so.
How does self-deception happen? Dallas Willard suggests this occurs when an individual or group “refuses to acknowledge factors in their life of which they are dimly conscious, or even know to be the case, but are unprepared to deal with: to openly admit and take steps to change.” The result is “that what they say they believe, intend, and want is not borne out in life” (p. x). Part of self-deception, then, is the ignoring of avenues of truth, whether it is the counsel of others or evidence that one does not want to face.
Strategies that foster self-deception
Ten Elshof proceeds to describe five strategies to which we resort that lead to self-deception.
First, we practice attention management in which we selectively focus positive attention on that evidence that confirms the beliefs that we favor, and negative attention on evidence against our views in order to discredit it.
Second, we procrastinate when the truth confronts us, for if we can delay our response for just a little while, the urgency begins to fade. Kierkegaard likens this to removing a boiling pot from the heat. Within seconds it stops boiling and the urgency is gone. The truth that confronts us is like a tyrant who will not be resisted or challenged, but can be pacified by the promise of deferred obedience. “If we promise him obedience later, he’ll often take the bait. And if we put him off long enough, he might just go away” (p. 41). We have all experienced the procrastination effect when we have been convicted of sin, promise to deal with it later, and then never get around to it.
Third, we practice perspective switching when we adopt the opinions of others that please us, even if we know they are not true. Sartre again “calls attention to the amazing capacity that we have to disregard our own view of ourselves when the view of others better serves us and to disregard the view of others when our own view is more attractive” (p. 51). Ten Elshof notes that perspective switching is an especially accessible form of self-deception for those in public ministry. “Those who pastor, teach, disciple, or counsel others have readily available to them whatever perspective has been generated in those they serve, and the temptation will be strong to avail themselves of that perspective whenever their own perspective delivers uncomfortable views” (p. 52). A pastor may know that he is not very godly, but may choose to adopt the naïve and fawning idolization of a new believer because it makes him feel good about himself.
Fourth, we rationalize our actions as justifiable, even when we know they are not. “When we rationalize a behavior, for example, we locate reasons that would justify the behavior, were they operational. We then present these reasons to ourselves and others as explaining our actual behavior. But the reasons are mere fiction. They play no causal role in the production of the behavior” (p. 54-5).
Finally, we practice what Friedrich Nietzsche called ressentiment. Nietzsche invented this term to describe what he considered the reordering of values in order to make oneself feel better. Nietzsche despised Christian values such as compassion and humility, and believed they arose out an attempt by the slave religion (as he called Christianity) to cope with its servitude by exalting to a virtue those character traits they could not escape. Thus, Christians considered humility a virtue and pride and ambition sins, because they were oppressed and could not exercise pride and ambition. Nietzsche was wrong, of course, at least about Christian virtues. He may have stumbled upon a significant insight about human nature, however. Ten Elshof says that “we adjust our affections, sentiments and value judgments in order to avoid severe disappointment or self-censure” (p. 64). Rather than facing the truth of our situation when it causes us pain, we adjust our value system so we can tune out negative feelings. This is the reaction of the fox in Aesop’s classic “sour grapes” fable.
It is relatively easy to identify the problems in individual self-deception. A self-deceived person, as long as he can resist the exhortation and counsel of others, can remain deceived for a lifetime. One would think, then, that groups of people could not be self-deceived because of the collective wisdom available to them. Surprisingly, the exact opposite is the case. Sometimes a group can deceive itself more quickly and thoroughly than can an individual. “As it turns out, the people with whom we surround ourselves are often complicit in our self-deceptive strategies. In fact, there are heights of self-deception only reachable with the help of others” (p. 76). Collective self-deception, or “groupthink” is the topic of the second half of this essay.