Abstract:Self-deception is a fundamental experience and the starting point of philosophy since Socrates. This article discusses a few aspects of self-deception as a theological concept. Self-deception is closely related to sin, often creates false assurance of salvation, and is caused by disordered love. Diligent effort to gain self-awareness is vitally important to prevent self-deception. We can counteract self-deception by acknowledging its pervasive and universal presence, opening ourselves to self-examination and questioning, and avowing disavowed engagements. God often uses trials to bring us out of self-deception.
What is self-deception? We use various expressions to describe self-deception: “He keeps telling himself the same old lie,” “She rejects the truth, even though it is clear she recognizes it,” “He intentionally misleads himself,” “He doesn’t know because he doesn’t want to know,” “She deliberately closes her eyes to the evidence,” etc.1 Psychologists consider self-deception as a ubiquitous phenomenon and view virtually all humans as constantly hiding the truth from themselves.2 Because of the universal phenomenon of self-deception in human experience, we do not accept at face value what people say about themselves, not because we think they are insincere, but because we know intuitively that most of us suffer from sincere confusion and delusion when it comes to our self-understanding.3
Self-deception is related to a wide variety of phenomena such as irrationality, wishful thinking, delusions, imperfect memory, ignorance, avoidance, hypocrisy, maintenance of self-respect, and false belief.4 In fact, we commonly encounter self-deception in our lives. One example would be drug and alcohol addiction. Addicts typically deceive themselves into thinking that they are in control.5 They refuse to face the truth about themselves. For this reason, existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre viewed self-deception as the primary means to avoid self-awareness.6 Sartre used the expression “bad faith” to describe self-deception because it is a false belief about oneself.
Self-deception is a fundamental experience and the starting point of philosophy since Socrates.7 Benjamin Franklin once quipped, “who has deceived thee so often as thyself?”8 Socrates declared that the worst of all deceptions is self-deception.9 Theologians throughout history have noticed the significance of self-deception and have paid attention to the impact self-deception has on the Christian life. It has long served as “a key element in the explanation of sin, moral failure, and the avoidance of God.”10
However, in recent years theologians have not given self-deception much attention even though philosophers have been vigorously debating the topic since the 1960s. This lack of scholarship is a dangerous oversight because self-deception, a universal phenomenon caused by the fall, is intimately related to sin and detrimental to our spiritual life if left unchecked. I have a modest goal for this article, which is to discuss a few aspects of self-deception as a theological concept. I will address, first, how self-deception is closely related to sin; second, how it often creates false assurance of salvation; and third, how it is caused by disordered love. Then I will discuss some of the ways the problem of self-deception can be solved. In the process, I will interact with theologians such as Augustine, Pascal, and Jonathan Edwards who have wrestled with the problem of self-deception, and also with the Scriptures that address and warn against the dangers of self-deception.
1. Self-Deception and Sin
In the traditional analytic philosophy, philosophers appeal to self-deception to explain ordinary, counter-evidential believing, and they tend to reduce self-deception to biased, false belief.11 However, in theology, self-deception is considered much more seriously as a willful sin. The unbeliever will not believe the truth because he is a sinner and his judgment is fatally infected by his sin. He is comfortable with his sin and does not want to accept an unflattering account of his life.12 Modern echoes of this description of self-deception are found in various fields:
You refuse the revolution because you suffer from bourgeois false consciousness. You refuse psychoanalytic insight that would cure you because your “resistance” belongs to the repertoire of defense mechanisms that symptomize your neurosis. You refuse the Heideggerian call of Being because you are inauthentic. You will not accept the radical Sartrean implications of your freedom because you are in bad faith.13
False consciousness, defense mechanism, inauthenticity, bad faith are different expressions of self-deception in these various fields.
In Christian tradition, as early as Augustine, self-deception was viewed as a division of the will.14 Our desire to maintain separate, egotistic will apart from God’s will is what alienates us from reality and God.15 After the fall, and denying the reality of the fall, we have lost the ability to perceive and respond appropriately to God’s will and his moral values, and we have become quite capable of deceiving ourselves when we make moral judgments and pursue our selfish will.16 “Having spontaneously imagined a false, but alluring, interpretation of his moral situation, the self-deceiver accepts that interpretation, and reinforces it both internally, with self-talk, and externally, by acting as if it were true.”17 Self-deception leads to framing decisions that either eliminate negative ethical characterizations or distort them into positive ones.18 In this way, self-deception leads to and justifies sin.
God is the ultimate good and the ultimate truth, but sinners lie to themselves about what is good and true. Why do we do so? We do so because we want to maintain that we love truth and goodness even though we repeatedly turn away from them. In other words, we care about truth and goodness just enough to pretend to love them.19 When we love something or someone (like myself) more than we love the truth, we have a motive for self-deception; therefore, it is not surprising that sin is intimately related to self-deception.20 Just as sin turns away from God, self-deception turns away from truth. Wood summarizes Pascal’s view of the connection between self-deception and sin this way:
When viewed theologically, self-deception is more than a kind of epistemic incoherence. By constructing a false self who inhabits an imaginary world, the self-deceiver tries, and necessarily fails, to create a self out of nothing. He thereby parodies God’s creative activity. Seen in this light, self-deception is not just sinful but paradigmatically so. The characteristic aversion of sin, the turn away from God, is isomorphic with the characteristic aversion of self-deception, the turn away from truth. In many forms of self-deception, including moral self-deception, one deceives oneself precisely because one knows and rejects the truth. The self-deceiver recognizes the truth and recoils from it, and intentionally tries to replace it with a lie.21
According to Pascal, then, the greatest threat to the moral life is neither ignorance of the moral law nor moral weakness but self-deception.22 Sin, or moral wrongdoing, is usually a product of self-deceptive moral reasoning in which one recognizes some course of action to be immoral but persuades oneself that it is moral.
If Pascal views self-deception as a leading cause of sin, for Augustine, self-deception results from sinful behavior. For him, “the proper exercise of one’s intellectual capacities depends in part on one’s moral behavior and its resulting dispositions. In short, moral virtue is necessary for intellectual excellence. Sinful actions, on the other hand, not only destroy moral virtue but also undermine one’s ability to understand oneself, God, and the nature of goodness.”23 Augustine believed that our sinful choices will form habits of making decisions on the basis of a distorted view of goodness.24 We may even come to believe we are good because our choices are in accordance with that view. We are all vulnerable to such self-deception since “sinful behavior undermines our ability to judge whether we are unduly influenced by a deficient standard of goodness.”25 Moral blindness results in rational blindness.
Similar connection between sin and self-deception appears throughout the Bible. The author of 1 John views his opponents’ claim to be sinless as originating from their self-deception (e.g., 1 John 1:8 “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us”).26 The very nature of sin is deceptive in that its goal is to obstruct knowledge of itself. In fact, that is one reason why darkness is used as a metaphor for sin (Prov 4:19, “But the way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know what makes them stumble”; cf. Eph 5:8).27
Scriptures attribute both our self-deception and sin to our fallen heart (Jer 17:9).28 Jesus declares that the human heart is what corrupts man, resulting in darkened understanding, a perverse and obstinate will, lustful emotion, and a dysfunctional conscience (Mark 7:20–23). Paul simply says, “In me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing” (Rom 7:18).29 The deceptive nature of sin that stems from the fallen heart runs throughout Scripture from the account of the fall (Gen 3:13) to the final days of human history (2 Thess 2:9–10).30 Romans 7:11 states, “For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death.” The ultimate end of sin, working through self-deception, is death.31
2. Self-Deception in Assurance of Salvation
Self-deception often leads to false assurance of salvation. The Gospel of Matthew addresses those who considered themselves right with God because of self-deception. The hypocrites in Matthew are blind and self-deceived people who will not spell out their true condition to themselves. Though they present themselves as pious and moral, inwardly they are rebellious, ravenous, and unclean. They are self-deceived because the faith they avow is out of line with their disposition.32 The dynamic generating this failure to avow their true condition is the hypocrites’ desire to both be right with God and have life but also have this on their own terms—to have life by taking the broad, easy way (7:13–14). In order to believe that they can have life by taking the easy way, they must convince themselves of the lie that they are right with God. For Matthew, hypocrisy is this failure to see the truth about themselves. Since failure to see themselves as God sees them is true for all sinners, in Matthew, hypocrisy is a term for the human condition and not just a word for a few especially vicious people.33
Jonathan Edwards shows great concern for those who are self-deceived about their salvation. Edwards uses the term “hypocrites” to refer to those who claim to be born-again believers but in reality are not. They are sincere in their professions, and they represent themselves to the world in a way they believe to be accurate.34
Edwards’s Religious Affections was an attempt to protect against the self-deception of the hypocrites.35 Hypocrites have false assurance because they rely on religious experience in the past as their conversion moment and they stop seeking God.36 Experience such as spending much time in religion, praising and glorifying God, and feeling confident that what they experienced came from God may be “nothing more than the common influence of the Spirit of God, joined with the delusions of Satan and a wicked and deceitful heart.”37 Hypocrites are quick to hold on to the false assurance of salvation because they want to believe that they are justified, and it is easy for them to believe that they have become righteous. As Calvin observed, “we are all naturally prone to hypocrisy, any empty semblance of righteousness is quite enough to satisfy us instead of righteousness itself.”38 Unfortunately, self-deception about their righteousness and salvation will keep the hypocrites from coming to the true, saving knowledge of God.39
Self-deception causes a false assurance of salvation, a false sense of righteousness, and results in active rebellion toward God. As Westphal points out, “Both Jesus and the prophets found among the greatest obstacles to their ministry those who used their theological orthodoxy to deceive themselves by directing attention from what would otherwise be clear.”40
James also deals with those who were self-deceived about their salvation in his letter where he extols pure and blameless religion (Jas 1:27), which begins with a pure heart or single-minded allegiance to God.41 Someone who is double-minded (δίψυχος, literally “two-souled”) is someone who wants to have it both ways, to enjoy the blessings of God without obeying his Word (1:8). James calls such people adulteresses and enemies of God (4:4).
Some see the entire epistle of James as dealing with the problem of self-deception.42 James 2 in particular serves as a severe warning against self-deception about one’s salvation—faith that does not accompany works is a self-deception and far more dangerous than unbelief since those who profess such superficial faith do not even know their need for repentance.43
James 1 also warns against the danger of self-deception. For example, verse 22 states, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” Here again James is referring to deceiving oneself about one’s salvation. He is explaining what verse 21 means by receiving the word: it means not simply to hear the word but to do it, and anyone thinking it to be less than that deceive themselves that they have received the word. James later mentions in 2:19 that even demons, who obviously are not saved, possess orthodox belief.44
James 1:26 makes a similar point when it says, “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.” Failure to control the tongue reveals a self-deceived religion.45 Those who fail to control their tongue deceive their heart and are not pure in heart (see James 4:8; cf. Matt. 5:8). Clearly, James considers those who claim to have religion but do not have works as self-deceived.46
In summary, self-deception often leads to false assurance of salvation, and religion can serve as an effective and dangerous mask for unbelief. In fact, “religion is unsurpassed as a means of self-deception. Pseudo-religiosity in the context of the form of the true religion is especially insidious because it effectively insulates the pseudo-believer from the very Word that could provide a solution to his or her predicament.”47
3. Disordered Love as the Root Cause of Self-Deception
In this section I will argue that the root cause of self-deception is disordered love. William Wood’s analysis of Pascal’s view on why we do not view ourselves accurately is worth quoting:
Pascal argues that because our selves are formed in loving interaction with the world, and because our capacity to love and be loved is disordered, the self is inherently false and duplicitous. More precisely, Pascal argues that the self is imaginary, in a two-fold sense. First, it is one’s own imaginative construal of oneself. What I call my self is just the story that I tell to myself about myself, my subjective narrative identity. This subjective self is an imaginary construct that typically does not correspond to the way I really am. Second, the self is doubly imaginary because one always sees oneself through the eyes of other people. My subjective identity is actually the story that I imagine that other people would tell about me.48
At the heart of it all, the entire project of self-deception is rooted in the self-deceiver’s disordered love for oneself. As Joseph Butler describes, self-deception is caused by partiality to oneself: “For if it was not for that partial and fond regard to ourselves, it would certainly be no great difficulty to know our own character, what passes within the bent and bias of our mind; much less would there be any difficulty in judging rightly of our own actions.”49 Or, as Wood puts it, “the rational blindness of self-deception is tied to the moral blindness of false self-love.”50 In short, self-deception stems from inordinate self-love.
We love ourselves improperly when we do not derive our value from its true source—God—but from some other source.51 We deceive ourselves because we know and reject the truth.52 Therefore, to be free from self-deception, we must love the truth, which means we must love God above all things. When our loves are properly ordered toward God, we become our true selves, free from self-deception.53 This is because those with undivided love for God are less likely to be distracted by other desires. And because their minds are not clouded by sinful desires, they will be able to better understand the truth about God and themselves.54
However, those who have idolatrous self-love deny the truth of their sinfulness and creatureliness, and they deny the need for repentance and new life in relationship with God.55 So self-deception can be considered as the handmaiden of pride: the false cover story of self-sufficiency enables one to deny one’s need for God.56 As Paul says, “For if those who are nothing think they are something they deceive themselves” (Gal 6:3). Paul saw close connection between pride and self-deception (cf. 1 Cor 3:18; Jer 49:16; Obad 1:3).
One way self-deception serves pride is through self-serving attributions and comparisons. Such evaluations are often due to an “attributional egotism” whereby we credit ourselves for good outcomes and refuse responsibility for bad ones. Some of the ways we deceive ourselves may seem morally innocuous such as when we consider ourselves to be more intelligent or adept at certain skills than we really are. But we also rationalize unethical behavior, deny our complicity in criminal acts, or minimize our responsibility for others’ suffering. In doing so, we invent a reality in which we are morally blameless.57
In summary, our fallen self-will and distorted self-love distort how we see things and how we handle evidence. Things are true or false according to how we judge them, and when the will likes something, it deflects the mind from considering an evidence against it.58 We can also spin the evidence and convince ourselves that we believe something we do not really believe.59 Furthermore, we are naturally inclined to deceive and credit ourselves for good outcomes and refuse responsibility for bad ones. Thus, Augustinian tradition holds that pride is the archetypal sin, and the prideful sinner loves himself with an immoderate love that ought to be directed to God.60 Pride and inordinate love for self are the results of the fall and the root cause of self-deception. As the turn away from God constitutes sin, the turn away from truth constitutes self-deception, and both are motivated by our fallen, disordered love.61
4. How to Avoid Self-Deception
Recognizing and correcting self-deception is difficult, but we can take the first step by acknowledging its pervasive and universal presence.62 The second step is opening ourselves to self-examination and questioning.63 For at the core of self-deception is the self-deceiver’s failure to achieve self-reflective awareness.64 Believers have the Bible which is the word of truth that God uses to save them from self-deception when they expose themselves to it (Eph 1:13; Col 1:6; Jas 1:17–18; 1 Pet 1:23).
Socrates vigorously defended the examined life to expose self-deceptive beliefs that obscure our moral identity from us.65 We need to question the justifications we concoct to rationalize our actions given the connection between justification and unethical behavior.66 Facing truth is often painful, but in order to avoid self-deception, we must love the truth more than we love ourselves. As Gregg Ten Elshof puts it, “Self-deception occurs whenever we manage our own beliefs without an eye on making progress toward the truth. It is most likely to occur when we have strong emotional attachments to belief on some topic. When we have no attachments, the general desire to believe what’s true is likely to guide our inquiry.”67 Mele argues that we have some control over allowing our emotions and motivation to influence our belief and that such control is a resource for combating self-deception.68
According to Fingarette, to stop self-deception, the disavowed engagement must be avowed. Undeceiving ourselves means accepting responsibility.69 So we need to recognize our tendency to select the evidence that best suits us and commit ourselves to paying attention to all the available evidence in search for the truth, no matter where it leads us. When we want to believe something because it serves our self-interest, we tend to manage our attention and allow into our minds only the things that will support our desired belief.70 If the evidence cannot be avoided, then we direct critical attention to it not to learn from it but to creatively discount it.71 Therefore, in order to avoid self-deception, we must force ourselves to pay attention to unwelcome evidence with the willingness to give up our cherished beliefs no matter how painful it is.
Pain is God’s megaphone to get our attention, as C. S. Lewis has said.72 Unfortunately, typical human response to pain is diversion. Pascal explored the reason why people engage in diversion. Diversion serves to distract our attention from our mortality, finitude, and failures—realities that are difficult to face.73 Pascal exposes diversion as an attempt to escape reality, and an indication of something unstable in the human condition. An obsession with entertainment is, for Pascal, “revelatory of a moral and spiritual malaise begging for an adequate explanation.”74 As Groothius points out, the compulsive search for diversion is often an attempt to escape the wretchedness of life.75
Pain or trials are God-ordained ways to expose self-deception. They are an integral part of the Christian life and the means by which self-deception is thwarted and self-knowledge gained.76 Trials force us to face reality without avoiding it through diversion. Trials also force us to choose between the love of God and the love of self, which reveals the true inclination of the will and thus serve as the test of the genuineness of the professed faith.77 For Edwards, trials are the proper “experiment of the sincerity of professors.”78 Here, Edwards is using the term “experiment” in its scientific sense in that “temptations and trials generated evidence that either confirmed or contradicted an initial hypothesis that justification had occurred.”79 To minimize the possibility of self-deception, a few isolated cases of overcoming trials are not enough; rather, a consistent pattern of successful trials of faith is required to provide true assurance of salvation.80 In short, a life of persevering Christian practice is the only sound foundation on which to build a hope of salvation free from self-deception.81 God uses suffering to draw us out of our self-deception by helping us grow in righteousness and holiness, which in turn allows us to know God and thereby ourselves better (Heb 12:10–11, 14).
Self-deception can have destructive results if it persists during the trials of faith. History has shown what can happen when Christians try to maintain their faith without the willingness to pay the necessary price: “Auschwitz stands as a symbol of one extreme to which our self-deception can lead. For the complicity of Christians with Auschwitz did not begin with their failure to object to the first slightly anti-Semitic laws and actions. It rather began when Christians assumed that they could be the heirs and carriers of the symbols of the faith without sacrifice and suffering.”82
In this article, I discussed how self-deception is closely related to sin, often causes false assurance of salvation, is itself caused by disordered love for self, and how God often uses trials to bring us out of self-deception. Sin hides itself by nature and self-deception is one of its major tools. It averts the truth, and since an aversion to truth is also an aversion to God, self-deception is sinful.83 Sin involves turning away from God just as self-deception involves turning away from truth, and both are motivated by our disordered love, which is the result of the fall.
Diligent effort to gain self-awareness is vitally important to prevent self-deception. Edwards suggests meditation, introspection, prayer, and obedience as means to prevent self-deception in one’s assurance of salvation.84 Pain and trials are God-ordained ways to expose self-deception. Suffering in life is God’s way of drawing us out of our self-centered, immediate concerns towards a God-centered, kingdom-seeking life of faith.85 Suffering also forces us to face the reality of our true identity.
Let me end the article with DeWeese-Boyd’s exhortation towards self-scrutiny to avoid self-deception:
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that the examined life Socrates so vigorously defends is aimed at exposing just these sorts of self-deceptive beliefs—beliefs that obscure our moral identity from us. To avoid this sort of self-scrutiny is to run the risk that one isn’t leading a morally worthy life, even by one’s own standards. Insofar as seeing, acknowledging what is the case, overwhelming as it may be, is necessary if we are ever going to change anything about ourselves or the conditions of the world we live in, such efforts offer us the best hope and are neglected at our peril.86