How Christians Deceive Themselves and Others

Lying lips are abomination to the LORD: but they that deal truly are his delight.- Proverbs 12:22

But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. – James 1:22

“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” – Mark Twain/ Benjamin Disraeli

Oxford Definition of Self-Deception

The action or practice of allowing oneself to believe that a false or unvalidated feeling, idea, or situation is true.

Christians and Self-Deception

Christians lie. That’s something that you’ll find out if you haven’t already. When we’re new believers we naively think that Christians are redeemed and will be fair, honest, and righteous. But after we’ve been around other Christians for awhile, we learn that they can sometimes be as treacherous as unbelievers. The worst thing ever done to me was done by another believer. And they lied about it. One only has to look at the life of David to see that Christians can be malevolent: David committed adultery with Bathsheba, and to hide his sin when she became pregnant by him he had her husband Uriah the Hittite sent to the front line in battle, knowing that he would likely be killed.

When we are spiritually reborn the veil that Satan has on the mind is removed and we are able to see the truth of Christ. As we learn more about God we learn that His very nature is truth. But humans have the capacity to deceive themselves that isn’t suddenly changed when one becomes spiritually reborn and self-deception practiced by Christians has the potential to severely harm.

We attended a strict church, which we later left because it was legalistic. The pastor was a good teacher but we learned how Christians deceive themselves. During service he effusively praised a church member, going on about what a tremendous job that Mr. Judd (not his real name) did on his family. Of course Mr. Judd sat there looking prideful and self-satisfied at this public pat on the back.

Then we went to bible study and the bible teacher expressed annoyance: “The Pastor shouldn’t have stood up there praising Mr. Judd about what a great job he did on his children when the Ewings (not their real name) were sitting right there in the congregation and he never mentioned them!” (The bible teacher didn’t realize how ridiculous she sounded saying that to us. WE were in the congregation too! She was criticizing the pastor when she was just as guilty.)

I don’t believe that the public praising of Mr. Judd was appropriate, nor do I believe that the pastor’s motivations were entirely pure for bestowing praise. There were a number of families in church (including ours) so the pastor’s praise of one man was awkward for the rest of the congregation forced to sit there and listen to it. But what was apparent to the discerning eye was that the pastor was engaging in self-deception. It was obvious to us that he was apple-polishing. Mr. Judd was a long time church member, a stodgy and rigid man, given to making judgmental remarks about the state of another’s spiritual condition. Mr. Judd held authority in the church and it was in the pastor’s self-interest to curry favor with him. I believe that the pastor sinned as he violated what we’re told in the book of James:

But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors. – James 2:1

This is just one of many experiences of self-deception that we experienced in a church. The pastor was self-deceived and because he was deceiving himself by heaping praise on an influential member of the church, he was harming the rest of the church and the cause of truth. Had Mr. Judd really done a good job on his family? What measure did the pastor use to judge Mr. Judd’s family as one so worthy as to be singled out and praised? Let’s consider how the pastor’s possible assessment lines up with God’s assessment of Mr. Judd’s family. This is a rudimentary chart but shows the basics.

But the LORD said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart.- 1 Samuel 16:7

Here are some rudimentary principles of outward appearance vs the state of one’s heart.

Outward Appearance

His family dutifully attends church every Sunday and bible study on weekdays.
His family has good manners and are respectful to elders
They sing in the church choir
They give to the church every week
They accept the praise lavished on them from adulating pastors

The Heart

His family treats non-influential church members well
They don’t engage in gossip
They sit with new people at church, not just their friends
They do good when no one is looking
They’re humble and know everyone has worth

It appeared that the pastor and Mr. Judd behaved like the scribes, which love to “go in long clothing, love salutations in the marketplaces, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and the uppermost rooms at feasts.” The fact that the pastor praised Mr. Judd in front of the entire congregation, and Mr. Judd himself sat there self-righteously accepting it, shows just how blinding self-deception can be.

It may have been helpful if the pastor had known that the congregation had ill thoughts about what he did, and that he wasn’t fooling anybody. What kinds of thoughts might the rest of the congregation had thought?

“The pastor is kissing-up to Judd because he wants his salary raised.”

“My family is just as good as the Judd’s! How dare he!”

“Mr. Judd is full of himself! He didn’t vote for me to be a deacon! He’s no saint. The pastor has rocks in his head.”

These are all probably real thoughts that the congregation thought that day – and some may have been worse. When Christians practice self-deception it creates pain. And if a member of the congregation had confronted the pastor he probably would have effusively denied that he was deceiving himself.

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. – 1 John 1:8

And Jesus answered and said, while he taught in the temple, How say the scribes that Christ is the Son of David? For David himself said by the Holy Ghost, The LORD said to my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool. David therefore himself calleth him Lord; and whence is he then his son? And the common people heard him gladly. And he said unto them in his doctrine, Beware of the scribes, which love to go in long clothing, and love salutations in the marketplaces, And the chief seats in the synagogues, and the uppermost rooms at feasts: Which devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayers: these shall receive greater damnation. And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing. And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living. – Mark 12:38-44

Psychology Experiment on Self-Deception

Quattrone & Tversky conducted a fascinating psychology experiment published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. They recruited 38 students, deceptively telling them that they were going to take part in a study about the “psychological and medical aspects of athletics” when in reality it was a research study to test self-deception. They tricked the students into thinking that the length of time that they held their arm immersed in cold water was indicative of their health status.

The Experiment

1: Students were told to immerse their arms in very cold water for as long as they could stand it. Most could manage only 30 to 40 seconds.

2: The students were given a lecture and told the following:

-Type I heart: is associated with poorer health, shorter life expectancy and heart disease.

-Type II heart: is associated with better health, longer life expectancy and low risk of heart disease.

3: Half the students were told that people with type I hearts had decreased tolerance to cold water after exercise. The other half were told that people with type II hearts had increased tolerance to cold water after exercise.

4: The students were give some other tasks to do, such as riding a bike, to make them think that they were involved in a study about athletics.

5: The students were asked to immerse their arms in very cold water again.

Observations: Quattrone and Tversky observed that when the students thought that it was a sign of a healthy heart to hold their arms underwater for longer, did so. At first they averaged at 35 seconds but during the second attempt, they lasted longer than 45 seconds. Those who believed that cold tolerance is unhealthy, reduced the amount of time and felt that they couldn’t tolerate the cold any longer.

The students were then asked whether they had intentionally changed the amount of time they held their arm underwater. 29 students denied it and 9 confessed, albeit indirectly. Many of the 9 claimed that the water had changed temperature, but it hadn’t; it was a way for people to justify their behaviour without directly facing their self-deception.

The above experiment shows that people will lie to themselves if they have a reason to do so.
Christians Deceive Themselves

I believe that self-deception is the type of lying that is most often practiced by Christians.

According to psychologist Dr. Cortney Warren, self-deception is a type of dishonesty that is far harder to detect and admit. Based on her book, “Lies We Tell Ourselves: The Psychology of Self-Deception” she argues that “we are master liars—not just to others, but to ourselves. Our pervasive self-deception serves an important function—it protects us from realities that we do not want to admit. ”It is the kind of lying that comes from not being psychologically strong enough to be honest with ourselves.”

Dr. Warren states in her article “The Truth About Self-Deception”: Although normative and commonplace, self-deception comes with profound costs because we live our truth whether we are honest about it or not. Self-deception is exemplified in our thinking patterns, beliefs, behaviors, emotional reactions, and relationships. Anytime our lives are driven by something outside of our awareness, it is dangerous to us and everyone around us.

To summarize Dr. Warren’s article:

The cost of self-deception is high: we hurt ourselves and those that we love the most.
Another primary cost of self-deception is that we can contribute to large-scale acts of cruelty by believing our lies and spreading them to others. Although most of us deny that we are capable of deliberately harming others, history and a great deal of social psychology research suggest that we are all capable of extreme acts of cruelty when put in the right environment
A third major cost of self-deception is that it can leave us with massive amounts of regret. We may have made choices with harmful consequences to avoid being honest.
Have you been victimized by the self-deception of another believer? Have you seen self-deception in yourself? This is an interesting study that I’m going to look at more in depth as there is a lot we can all learn.

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