As we flee from the truth about ourselves, the shortest distance between two points is a labyrinth.
During the 1930s in England, criticism of the Third Reich could ruin a person’s name. Warnings of Nazi aggression were called “hysterical.” Those who warned were called “alarmist.” William Manchester in The Last Lion (vol. 2) tells us how for years before 1939, in speech after speech, one newspaper article after another, Winston Churchill hammered away at his own leaders, trying to dent their self-deception.
It seems that the good people in government could not get themselves to believe that the great nation of Germany was in the hands of criminals. Why not? Because if they let themselves believe that, then the possibility of war began to gleam. And almost nobody in England could think realistically of war. Desperate, crimson memories from World War I were too fresh.
Fifty years later we know some of the cost of that self-deception.
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
(1 John 1:8)
Self-deception is a shadowy phenomenon in which the same person is deceiver and deceived. We become our own dupes.
The phenomenon is familiar to most of us. We know folks who deceive themselves about aging. Using the latest slang, fashions, or even surgical techniques, they cling to their image of a youthful self.
For the last ten years, insurance companies have published people’s accounts of their auto accidents. People offer explanations like this: “The telephone pole was approaching. I was attempting to swerve out of its way when it struck my front end.” Or this, “As I approached the intersection, a hedge sprang up, obscuring my vision.” Try this: “I was driving along when suddenly a cow went under my car without once signaling its intentions. I’ve since heard that the unfortunate creature was slow-witted.”
We deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But in his letter, John is not talking so much about the little self-deceptions of vanity or self-preservation. John is talking about sin. He is talking about vital lies at the heart of human life and human households and human relationships. He is talking about vital lies at the heart of our relationship to God.
Why do some spouses miss all the signs of infidelity in their partners? Why do alcoholics and other drug abusers typically go through years of denying there is a problem? Why is the revelation of incest an astonishment to people who are living right in the middle of it?
People cannot face the terrible truth of self-deception. The pain and guilt are too great. The implications are too frightening. The need for a new life is too plain. So they take to their hearts one reassuring lie after another.
But why do we keep saying “they”? Why deceive ourselves? This text has our own names folded into it. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
We stand in a long and notorious tradition. Self-deception is as old as the Fall. Adam and Eve knew God as the luminous provider. They had walked with God and leaned on God and tapped deeply into God as the source of all joy. But then the great deceiver goes to work. And Adam and Eve begin to believe a vital lie. God is not a loving father but a jealous tyrant. God is perversely and selfishly trying to keep the top job in the universe for himself.
Off it goes, down the ages—the history of self-deception in a cast of thousands. Aaron cannot imagine how the golden calf popped right into existence. David is indignant that a rich man should seize a poor man’s lamb. Peter is outraged at the suggestion that he is capable of denying our Lord.
And so it is with us. We tell ourselves that our bad temper is righteous indignation, that our spouse cannot handle the same levels of freedom we reserve for ourselves. We convince ourselves that it is others who are privileged and we who are deprived. Our radar detectors are there to remind us to slow down to a safe speed. Our happy-hour gossip is an information service.
What is scary about self-deception is not just that it colors who we are and how we think, nor even that it puts the best face on our sins. What is scary about self-deception is that it can insulate us against Jesus Christ. When we are larded over with lies about our self-sufficiency, when we are buttressed with such sure defenses as repression and denial and pride—when these things defend us and rescue us and pump up our self-image whenever it loses pressure, then the thought that we need Jesus our Savior is impertinent. It is unnecessary. It is entirely uninteresting.
That is why in 1 Corinthians Paul tells us to examine ourselves, feeling for lumps in our hearts, testing for mixed motives and double-mindedness. What is the real reason my career hasn’t turned out as I had hoped? What is the real reason people don’t always trust me? Why do I so often feel spiritually dowdy and vaguely depressed? Why do I withhold the word of praise from loved ones who hunger for it? Why am I bored or irritated by calls for social justice? Why do all my romances have starry-eyed beginnings and tearful endings? What accounts for my trouble on the job? Is it really because my boss is too demanding?
Most of all, why does the gospel so often seem alien to me, and why is Jesus Christ so much a stranger?
None of us knows the whole truth in these matters. Surely none of us knows the heart of another. We don’t even know the maze in our own hearts. But we do know this: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
Hence, the call to self-examination. Of course, constant self-examination is neurotic. But periodically it has to be done. We do self-examination in prayer. We do it in reading the lives of saints and making fearful comparisons. We do it with trusted spouses and friends. We examine ourselves before Holy Communion. With focused honesty and tender openness we must do it. We will say things like this: “O God, I sometimes finesse the truth because I want to seem more competent than I am.”
No, that’s not quite right.
“O God, I sometimes tell lies in order to shore up my pride.” “O Lord, I neglect unhappy persons because I love comfort more than compassion.” “O God, I’m a weak and selfish person whose main desire is to be untroubled.”
But if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Searching, honest confession of sin is one antidote to self-deception. That is because eyes that can spot self-deception are usually those that have been cleansed by tears.
“If we confess our sins …” But how do we know we have nailed them all? How do we know we are not deceiving ourselves all over again? How do we know our shifty psyches are not printing out a short list instead of the full account?
We don’t know. Our capacity for self-deception is almost fathomless. There are secret sins hidden even from the most experienced explorers. But all of us who are veteran sinners know a few of the clues. We know the signs that our divided heart has begun to pump out whitewash again. We say to ourselves things like this: “I’m only human.” “Everybody does it.” “I was provoked.” “I did what I had to do.” “I say this for your own good.” “Nobody is hurt by what I do.” “I was only following orders.” “Nobody’s perfect.”
These little red flags tell us it is later than we think. They tell us it is probably time for confession of sin.
One of the strange facts of the universe is that God will never tolerate sin, but he will forgive it. And when we are forgiven, when God forgives and cleanses, it is as if our dark and moldy house has just had all its windows flung open to the cool June breeze. Corners are swept, old grease is scoured away, stairs and sashes are properly repaired. The terrible truth of self-deception is exposed to the light of the world. And we begin to come clean in ways that are full of pain and full of wonder.
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