Self-Deception and the Christian Life
by Gregg Ten Elshof
Associate Professor, Philosophy Department, Biola University, La Mirada, California
’m a college professor; I have been for almost a decade. I work reasonably hard at my job, and I think I do it fairly well. In fact, in my honest and solitary moments, when there’s no occasion for false humility, I’d say I’m a better-than-average teacher. I’m in good company. A recent study revealed that 94 percent of the people who do what I do think they’re doing a better-than-average job.
At some level, we’re all acquainted with self-deception. A mother somehow manages not to notice the obvious signs that her son is on drugs. A wife does the same with respect to her husband’s affair. The director of a Christian nonprofit organization manages to find sincerely compelling a perspective from which money donated to the ministry can legitimately be used to pay for an extravagant personal vacation or, perhaps, a private jet.
And Scripture is peppered with talk of the poisonous effects of self-deception. The prophet Jeremiah expressed a kind of amazement at the capacity of the “desperately sick” human heart to deceive itself (17:9–10). The prophet Obadiah (3) explains that it is our pride that often leads us into self-deception. The apostle Paul explains in his letter to the Galatians how self-deception enables people who are nothing to think that they’re something (6:3). And in his rather depressing description of the flight from God in the first chapter of Romans, Paul mentions the amazing ability that we have to suppress truths that are plain to us; he goes on to describe the disaster that results when we do.
But there is remarkably little in the way of sustained focus on this phenomenon in our churches and in contemporary literature on the Christian life. What is selfdeception, exactly? And how do we get away with it? How can I manage to be dishonest with myself without catching myself in the act? Where does this phenomenon tend to show up in Christian circles? And what can we do it about it? These are questions of profound importance for anyone interested in addressing significant obstacles to growth and progress in the way of Jesus.
Consider a few cases:
Not long ago I was visiting a friend who said that he had recently been convicted about the fact that he’d not really “checked into the veracity of his Christian beliefs.” So he had recently made it something of a project to look into the evidence for and against the Christian tradition into which he’d been born and raised. He wanted to take a step back and see whether or not the stuff he’d been raised with was actually true. I asked him what he’d been reading. He pointed me to a collection of about eight to ten books on the evidence for and against Christian belief on his shelf—not bad for a busy professional with a young family. But upon closer examination, I noticed that all of the books had Christian authors.
“These books are all written by Christians,” I pointed out.
“Yep. I’ve been making apologetics a sort of hobby. I especially like the stuff by Craig, Strobel, and Geisler.”
“Do you suppose there are non-Christians writing on this topic?”
“I suppose there probably are.” “Do you know who they are?”
“No. I haven’t really looked for that sort of thing.”
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