How many people set their alarm clocks 15 minutes ahead in hopes that when the alarm goes off, they'll be terrified of being late and jump out of bed? How many justify questionable decisions by rallying friends and family for support? How many focus their attention away from gross financial inequality, sexual slavery, or racial discrimination in their own lives?
Whether in minor or major ways, self-deception plays a part in everyone's life. As Gregg A. Ten Elshof notes in I Told Me So: The Role of Self-Deception in Christian Living (Eerdmans) , what's puzzling is that the deception works.
Where do we find self-deception? To answer this question, Ten Elshof, chair of the philosophy department at Biola University, effectively uses philosophical, literary, hypothetical, and personal examples ranging from the ancient Greeks to Flannery O'Connor. For example, he admits that he considers himself a better-than-average professor, but notes that so do 94 percent of all professors. How can this be? Ten Elshof says that it's more satisfying to believe good things about oneself than to face the truth. In these situations, life cuts you a deal: believe the truth or deceive yourself ("It's not so bad"; "I'm still a good person"; "I didn't really want that"). And on it goes.
For self-deception to work, people need to see themselves from the perspective of someone who doesn't know how they fail. If this "perspective switching" doesn't work, then people might try rationalizing their behavior: "I need to lie on these financial forms so that I can feed my family." Or, people can avoid a difficult decision altogether by procrastinating: "Sure, I'll contribute to your cause, but only after I check with my spouse, accountant, and bank."
Already a CT subscriber? Log in for full digital access.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 60+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more