The only means we have to free ourselves from habitual self-deception is the mirror of the Word of God.
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.
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” (12:17). We are never to “take [our] own revenge, but…leave room for the wrath of God” (12:19), 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”(12:20b). By calling on us not to “be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (12:21), 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.
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.
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.
Four principles against gossip
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.
Fourth, 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.
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.
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.