“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.
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).
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.
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.