The Tragedy of Self Deception: Finances

Posted by permission of Think on These Things and Voice.

“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” (Jer 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 Yahoo.com 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).

Notes

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.

4 http://finance.yahoo.com/banking-budgeting/article/113086/bubble-destroyed-middle-class-marketwatch

Gary Gilley Bio


Gary Gilley has served as Senior Pastor of Southern View Chapel in Springfield, Illinois since 1975. He has authored several books and is the book review editor for the Journal of Dispensational Theology. He received his BA from Moody Bible Institute. He and his wife Marsha have two adult sons and six grandchildren.

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There are 15 Comments

Bert Perry's picture

Amen.  I've personally gotten into trouble by teaching on the perils of covetousness in Sunday School.  Was not completely well received when I pointed out that if you've got a barn full of "treasures" just rotting out there--or a storage space or whatever--God will hold you to account per James 5:1-6.  

For that matter, I've helped relatively poor people move, and have been stunned by the amount of stuff they have.   Well, at least "poor" by U.S. standards, but in sheer volume, far more stuff than I've got, which is (alas) saying something.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Jim's picture

Education and borrowing:

  • Most times borrowing is unnecessary for an undergraduate education
  • Students who borrow frequently do not have the maturity to understand the consequences of borrowing
  • And often times there is confusion about who will  pay (if the parents have co-signed on the loan)

When borrowing makes very good sense:

  • A graduate degree in a very high-paying field, eg medical doctor
  • A graduate degree from a premier school - eg MIT with the promise of future high income

When borrowing makes absolutely no sense at all:

  • A seminary education - why. The future income will not likely enable a quick payoff

On parents co-signing on student loans. Article

Bert Perry's picture

Jim wrote:

Education and borrowing:

  • <snip>

When borrowing makes very good sense:

  • A graduate degree in a very high-paying field, eg medical doctor
  • A graduate degree from a premier school - eg MIT with the promise of future high income

One exception I'd draw to borrowing for education for a well paying career (law, medicine, MBA, etc..) is that even if one has the skills to become a brain surgeon or something like that, one ought to consider what one's life goals are.  I know a few young ladies (OK, middle aged now, but don't tell 'em I said that) who have gotten such degrees and find that a hundred grand or more in debt really puts the kibosh on the possibility of having children and a robust family life.  For that matter, it's not always wise for a young man with such skills to do this.  Again, even if your income is strongly into six figures, high debt and low assets can and will change your decisions.

But well said about seminary and other lower paying professions.  I remember being rather incredulous at my brother's graduation from Harvard (you can tell a Harvard man, but you can't tell him much) when the education and theology graduates were introduced.  Now granted, Ivy graduates do have the inside lane towards administrative and bishop's jobs, but...seriously?  A quarter million in tuition and fees to become a teacher or pastor?  We are talking about some serious Mark Daytons, to put it mildly.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Jim's picture

Saturday night we entertained a Christian couple to celebrate the husband's retirement from the financial institution for whom we work. We had never met the wife and Kathee only had an acquaintance with the husband. The wife works for an insurance company in Saint Paul. We had 3 couples and one single. 5 work in IT, one in accounting, and one guy already retired.

At the pre-meal hors d'oeuvre time, my wife and another woman were working in the kitchen. Two guys were talking accounting and IRS stuff (pretty boring party huh!?). The guy's wife who works for the insurance company was on my left and we were chatting about family, her job  and her upbringing. She was raised in the home of a Nazarene pastor. She related this anecdote:

She attended a Nazarene college for about a month. The college president told her that the role of the school was to help the girls get an MRS degree. She left, went to the U of Minn (where she met her husband) and graduated with a IT related degree (way back when there were not IT degrees ... people majored in something else like math or engineering and then ended up in an IT field)

I reflect that many of our Bible colleges seem to have that same agenda for "girls' .... you're here to get a MRS degree.

As the father of three - two boys and a girl, my fatherly aspiration is that they would all graduate with job-producing degrees in a field of their choice. One chose accounting, another mechanical engineering, and the third finance. (Re the engineering major ... frankly I never thought he had the mental horsepower or discipline for this but he struggled through and graduated. I think his discipline and hard work made up for some of our family's averageness)

My wife's major was math at Florida State. She is very smart and graduated with a 4.0. She managed to work a bit .. then get married and work a bit more and then have children. She was a stay at home Mom for a number of years. When I broke my neck in 1987 she was not working. It was probable that I would not work any more because of my paralysis. She was plan B  for income for our family. As it turned out she did not have to go back to work at that time but along the way after all of our kids were in school she did go back to work in the IT field.

Her working provided  benefits not afforded me as a pastor - for example dental insurance, retirement, and 401K with company match.

With young adults and the marriage crisis (young people not marrying early), it is wise for a young woman to get a decent education and be able to provide for herself!

Bert Perry's picture

Just to clarify, my point is not that women ought not get an education, or that young people of either gender ought not get a graduate degree.  My point is simply that if one chooses to get that degree, one ought to realize that it does bound their choices.  Go into six figures of debt to get that bar or medical license?  Fine by me, but some prospective spouses are going to run the other way as they consider the time demands of making partner or residency, or the likelihood that their house will not be filled with children because of the demands of work to pay off that debt.    And some will sign up for that, too.  Just know what you're getting into.

Another reality--one my step-brother saw--is what happens when you've got an unethical employer, and your doctor tells you "you can either quit your job, or we can put you on medications."  If you're deeply in debt, especially school debt, Prozac/etc. is already chosen for you.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Amen.  I've personally gotten into trouble by teaching on the perils of covetousness in Sunday School.  Was not completely well received when I pointed out that if you've got a barn full of "treasures" just rotting out there--or a storage space or whatever--God will hold you to account per James 5:1-6. 

Biblically the problem isn't the amount of stuff, even if there is a pile of it collecting dust in storage. Rather, Scripture uses affectional language like "set your affection on..." (or not on), "trust" and "don't be anxious about" (sermon on the mt.) and of course "covetousness."

It doesn't have all that much to do w/the actual quantity of possessions. In the Sermon on the Mt. for example, Jesus warns hearers who really had very little for their worries about what they would eat or wear.  So they struggled w/what we call "materialism" even though they barely had enough of basic things like food and clothing.

The warning in James is definitely aimed a particular set of rich folks who also had heart problems. We see evidence for this in Paul's words to the rich in 1 Tim. 6 (or maybe 2 Tim. 6... not sure which at the moment)

Edit: It's 1 Tim. 6:17-18 etc.

Vincent E.'s picture

What I find interesting is that most recognize that personal finance has, by and large, been a ball and chain to twenty-first century American Christians, but rarely do we examine the parallel trend on how we "do church."  We've deceived ourselves into thinking that we must have large sacred buildings (and mortgaged beyond reason in many cases), a plethora of ministries, a salaried full-time pastor and staff, and then a budget to keep the corporate machine going.  It's not uncommon for a ministry to spend 80-85% of resources on the building, maintenance and staff alone.  Could this be the same "deception" on a corporate level?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

What would churches with beautiful and well-maintained facilities and well paid staff be believing that is untrue? In other words, I'm not seeing where the deception is.

(It might be relevant to point out that when God commissioned a place of worship in Exodus, He spared no expense... and it was far, far, more beautiful than mere utility required)

Bert Perry's picture

Aaron

I'd agree that the first problem the "rich" of James 5 have is covetousness and trusting in riches, and the same with the man in the parable who was planning to build new barns but died in the planning in Luke 12.  That said, however, what is our motivation in holding possessions to rot in our barns and storage spaces?  And as Vincent notes, what is the motivation of churches which engage huge mortgages to build edifices they otherwise could not afford?

In other words, by noting the other problems of the rich of James 5 and elsewhere, I think we're begging the question of what our own motivations are.  And quite frankly, speaking as the owner of a pickup that gets invited to moving parties from time to time, it's quite frankly rare that an extreme surplus of stuff, especially stuff just sitting there and rotting, does not speak to a motivation of "trusting in stuff".  

It's what we would expect if we find people spending thousands of dollars a year to store it, no?

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Lee's picture

Decision making on the basis of finances is generally a bad, and unscriptural, idea. Lots of principles and precedents in Scripture point that out.  That doesn't negate sound financial practice/management. Just keeps it in perspective.

Good decision making: discern your spiritual gift--that is your calling.  Then scripturally determine how to fulfill that calling, including the finances. 

From my observations in churches and families the American habit in the evangelical community is very little differed from the population at large--figure out how to live "comfortably", which admittedly varies greatly from person to person, and fit in their ministry, calling (which may very well be a career), family, etc., around that comfortable premise. 

 

 

Lee

Chip Van Emmerik's picture

Lee, I wouldn't agree. Wisdom dictates that finances would certainly be included in counting the cost of various decisions. I would agree if you said it should not be the final or most important consideration, but I think you go to far to claim considering finances in the decision-making process is altogether (or even generally) unscriptural.

Why is it that my voice always seems to be loudest when I am saying the dumbest things?

Bert Perry's picture

Lee, if making decisions based on finances is a bad idea, why does Christ use exactly that word picture in Luke 14?  Why does Romans 13 note that no debt should remain outstanding except the continual one to love one another?  Why does Proverbs spend a fair amount of time discussing stewardship, and why does Christ use investing as an example in the parable of the talents?  Why does Moses warn us about covetousness in Exodus 20?

Sorry, but Scripture has quite a bit to say about the practical application of finances.  We may get it wrong in application from time to time, but that does not negate what God has said about the matter.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Lee's picture

Chip Van Emmerik wrote:

Lee, I wouldn't agree. Wisdom dictates that finances would certainly be included in counting the cost of various decisions. I would agree if you said it should not be the final or most important consideration, but I think you go to far to claim considering finances in the decision-making process is altogether (or even generally) unscriptural.

You're reading too much into what I said.  Counting the cost is a very biblical concept--in the correct context.  But it doesn't change the order of application: spiritual gift = calling; finances do not determine that calling, and may or may not confirm it. You are to be obedient to your gift/calling, part of which is to folllow scripture in your finances.

The norm, however, from my limited perspective for those of us in the good old USA, is to allow finances to determine our calling, which is foreign to Scripture.

Lee

Bert Perry's picture

Lee, would like to see you flesh out the idea you're getting at here.  I can understand 1 Corinthians 12 and the spiritual gifts, and I can agree that one who has a gift--help, administration, prophecy (OK we mostly believe that one's replaced by preaching), etc..--is called to find a way to use it.    The rub for me comes in that Paul does not appear to "flesh out" things with reference to finances--there is no clue whether the man gifted in teaching ought to go to seminary or start teaching Sunday School, for example.

Plus, what I've seen is generally not that people refuse to use their spiritual gifts because of finances, but rather out of laziness.  Really most of the best ministries don't require as much money as they do love and time, don't ya think?  Things like visiting the sick, etc..?

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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