Self-Deception and the Pursuit of the Authentic

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Western culture values the authentic. Of paramount importance to our culture is that a person or thing is accurately portrayed throughout, from top to bottom, from outside to inside. Whatever you see, feel, or experience must be truthful and genuine throughout. For example, when you drink an apple juice, you expect it to be 100% real apple juice. If you purchase something labeled as gold, you expect it to be pure gold. If you buy organic, you expect it to meet your standards of organically grown products. A compromise in any way results in a person feeling cheated.

An article by Steven Poole pointed out the obsession our culture has with pursuing authenticity: 100% is probably the most beloved percentage in the grocery store aisle. Anything labeled 100% receives a healthy markup in price. In 2011 Starbucks began selling salad-based lunchboxes labelled “Real Food.” Coca-Cola uses the slogan, “the Real Thing.” “Even the clothing company Mark & Spencer’s joins in by selling men’s underwear branded “authentic,” posing the nice question of what an inauthentic pair of boxer shorts or trunks would look like.”[i] We will no longer settle for imitation, no matter how good. A product must be authentic.

The pursuit of authentic also applies to people. Society expects, even demands, that a person be themselves. Success is achieved when you have both the courage and the opportunity to be the real you. Such individuals are greatly admired. The following common slogans underscore this: “be yourself”, “be real”, “quit pretending”, “don’t be a poser”, and “find your identity”. Being fake or untrue to you seems like the unforgiveable sin. A politician can lie, cheat, or even commit adultery yet still gain broad support; however, if he is perceived as inauthentic public support vanishes.

In such a society, child education shifts from teaching, training, and disciplining a student, to encouraging and guiding a child to be who they think they should be. Parents are increasingly uncertain about their role in child formation, and worry that their advice or discipline might create internal conflict as the child is taught to be someone they are not.

The pursuit of the authentic has not escaped contemporary Christianity either, and, dare I say, also the Reformed Churches. The manner of dress on Sundays must authentically represent who you are. Words you sing must reflect what you truly feel inside. Pastors who show themselves to be a “real person” on the pulpit are appreciated and admired. Church is seen as a place where church-goers should go to be themselves and participate in authentic worship.

Real/true/honest/genuine/authentic – these are the valued catch-words of our day.

This pursuit of the authentic is, of course, a noble pursuit. We must prize honesty and truthfulness in all we do and say. Truth should be sought and prized wherever possible for “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). However, in this article I hope to inject humility into the pursuit of authenticity. I will do so by introducing and explaining the truth of self-deception, and then show from scripture the sinful heart’s inclination to self-deception. I will then proceed to show how self-deception thwarts the cultural pursuit of authenticity. Finally, I will conclude by explaining how the gospel of Jesus Christ gives us hope for success in this pursuit. This is an expansive topic and in this article we can only touch the surface by introducing the topic.

1.     Introducing Self-Deception

Self-deception is lying to yourself and accepting the lie. While you may know something to be true, for any number of reasons, you cannot or will not embrace that truth. Instead, you weave half-truths or even outright lies to cover the truth – the thicker the web of lies, the easier it is to suppress the truth. Self-deception avoids the truth because it might be embarrassing, uncomfortable, difficult to deal with, or clearly just wrong. You cannot face the full consequences of the truth and instead prefer to embrace the lie. The following examples may help illustrate self-deception.

Young children demonstrate an innate ability to self-deceive. Imagine a two-year-old boy who has recently learned how to take off his own boots, and has repeatedly demonstrated this skill. However, one day, for reasons not even known to himself, he decides that he does not wish to take off his own boots. His mother, busy already, encourages him to take off his own boots. The young boy responds, “I can’t.” This is a lie for clearly he hasn’t all of the sudden lost the ability to take off his boots. Does he believe the lie he has just told? It certainly seems that way. He may even proceed to support this lie with evidence by showing how even though he tries with all his energy, the boots will not come off. He may even become angry when his mother suggests that he is capable of taking off his own boots. This young boy, who once knew how to take off his boots, has deceived himself into thinking that he is now unable.

The ability to self-deceive doesn’t leave as we grow older; we only get better at deceiving ourselves. The teenager, when asked to take out the trash, foregoes the simple and less believable – “I can’t” – to the more believable and acceptable – “I can’t, I have homework.” Adults, with many years of deception practice, refine their excuses to themselves and others with, “I’ll do it tomorrow”, “I just didn’t have any time”, “I can stop whenever I want”, “my personality just doesn’t do well with that”, or “I’m sinful by nature.” These excuses allow a person to cover up the truth of personal failure, weakness, or unwillingness with a socially acceptable reason.

2.     Self-Deception and Scripture

The most well-known text speaking about self-deception is found in Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” Normally when deceit or lying is discussed, there is more than one person involved. To tell a lie you need someone to tell it to. However, Jeremiah does not refer to inter-relational lying between people; he is referring to deception found within a person. A lie told to oneself.

The context shows that self-deception happens when we trust in man (Jeremiah 17:5-6). Such a person is compared to a shrub, tenaciously clutching to the desert rock of the Judean wasteland. When rain comes, this bush never has a chance to absorb the nourishing rainwater. The water rushes right by the shrub on its way down the mountain. Why does the bush continue to cling so tenaciously? Why does man cling so tenaciously to self-trust? Because man thinks he can do better next time. Obadiah 3, “The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rocks and make your home on the heights, you who say to yourself, ‘Who can bring me down to the ground?’” Your pride has deceived you into thinking you are better than you are. You have bought into your self-deception and live within a web of lies of your own creation.

Rather than trusting in God who knows the heart; the sinner trusts in himself, conceited and deceived in his own potential or ability. “An oracle is within my heart concerning the sinfulness of the wicked: There is no fear of God before his eyes. “For in his own eyes he flatters himself too much to detect or hate his sin.” (Psalm 36:1-2). Sinners are self-deceived, buying into a false system of internal rationalization and flattery; a system that covers the truth so that a person cannot even detect his own sin.

The deadliest form of self-deception is described in Romans 1. “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them… For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened… They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.” (Romans 1: 18–19, 21, 25). Notice the two levels of truth and lie. The truth within them is suppressed by their wickedness, and instead of acknowledging and embracing the truth of God’s existence and his claim on their lives, they choose the lie of following other gods. They will not accept the truth.

Men in Scripture were ensnared by self-deception. David lived the lie of adultery with Bathsheba. When the truth threatened to break through, David tried to find some way of getting rid of Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband. Not wanting to face the full weight of his own murderous heart, he used the dangers of war to justify his contracted killing of Uriah (2 Samuel 11:14-15, 25). He lived in his own web of lies, until the Word of God through the prophet Nathan broke the web and revealed the truth of his deceitful, darkened heart. Similarly, the heart of the disciple Peter deceived him into thinking that he would never deny the Christ. He deceived himself into thinking he was more capable of being faithful than he really was. It took the words of God through the mouth of God to reveal the truth of his deceitful, darkened heart.

We too, suffer from rampant self-deception. It often falls into two general areas. Self-deception can minimize and even glorify evil. For example: the countless hours spent on Facebook are necessary to stay in touch; the harsh words, spoken or typed, are necessary to set others straight; the eighty-hour work week away from wife and family is necessary to be a good provider; the habitual alcohol is necessary as a stress-reliever. Self-deception can also malign good. For example: the kind gesture from an enemy must have had ulterior motives; the gracious gift from the church must have come with strings attached; a woman is less valued by God because scripture forbids her ordination. Self-deception can glorify evil and cover-up the depth of our sin and misery; it can also malign good and cover-up the depth of the love of God for us in Jesus Christ.

3.     Self-Deception and Authenticity

Self-deception is pervasive in society and our own lives, but it is rarely acknowledged or discussed. Why? Because we live in a culture that values authenticity, where one of the greatest sins is not being true to yourself. No one can face the truth that they aren’t being honest with themselves. “Who are you to tell me: ‘I’m wrong in thinking this way or that I’m lying to myself? Do you really think you know me, better than I know myself?’” It is hard to admit chronic self-deception, because in doing so you admit failure at the very pursuit society prizes most.

At this point, I hope you are beginning to see the deceitfulness of the sinful heart and the conundrum presented. How can we believe anything about ourselves when our hearts tell us what we want to hear? How can we break free of self-deception when this is the way our hearts tick? Such questions are not just philosophical, but intensely practical. How can I be sure that my vehemence in debate was out of purity of heart and love for God and neighbor? How can I know I wasn’t just being selfish or prideful in my staked-out position? How can I be sure that when I pushed and fought for that specific decision in our home, in Christ’s church, or with my friends – I wasn’t just pushing a personal agenda?  How can I know if I’m looking out for the interest of others instead of just my own self-interest (Phil 2:4)? How can I be sure I see myself as I really am?

Society’s pursuit of the authentic is doomed to failure apart from God. No one could live and function well in this world while authentically showing the darkness of their own heart. The depth of sin and misery would overwhelm and destroy society. No one is willing or able to recognize or adequately respond to the darkness of the heart. Apart from God in Christ, the authentic reality is so vile and ugly no one could stand under it or with it. Thus, in the end, the pursuit of the authentic apart from God only leads to greater skill at deception, ever weaving more intricate and complex webs of lies.

4.     Overcoming Self-Deception

The depth of sin and misery makes the grace of God in Jesus Christ shine magnificently. God knows the depth of the deceitful heart. Knowing the breadth and depth of humanity’s deceit, God sent Jesus Christ to testify to the truth. In Christ, God fully revealed the holiness and purity of life God called us to, for Christ came to fulfill the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17). In Christ, God gave a way to deal honestly with our failure and not be destroyed. He revealed full forgiveness and renewal found in the Saviour. Jesus Christ said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

Christ’s testimony of the truth continues to this day through the Spirit of Truth. “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come” (John 16:13). The pursuit of the authentic comes only through humble submission to the work of the Spirit in our hearts.

As the Spirit works, the authentic sinners can be purified into authentic saints. “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:8–9. We begin to see the depth of our sin and misery, we confess this sin, find shelter in the righteousness of Christ, and seek the purifying work of the Spirit of Truth.

Have you ever wondered why you repeatedly hear the law of God read? Don’t you know it by now? Yes, you know the truth. Each week, the Spirit uses the law to pierce through the self-deception that you have done better at keeping God’s law than you actually have. The law exposes sin as sin. The law of God points to areas in your life that you have covered with a web of lies.  The law clears away the spider web of lies and points to the truth: this thought, word, or deed is sin.  Just as Nathan the prophet spoke truth into David’s life, so the Word of God continues to speak the truth into our lives.

Have you ever wondered why you repeatedly need to hear the basic Gospel of Jesus Christ? So that as the Spirit of Truth exposes the darkness and deceit of your sinful nature, you at the same time embrace the truth that all is not lost. Christ’s perfect life and atoning death is all-sufficient and covers a multitude of sins, even self-deception, even when you do not recognize it. We can pray confidently with the psalmist, “Who can discern his errors? Forgive my hidden faults” (Psalm 19:12) and know that God knows our hearts better than we know them ourselves. Confess your sin, and continue to fix your eyes on Jesus Christ and learn from him.

Yes, you are lying to yourself. I can’t tell you where, how, or why: but I do know there are ways you resort to self-deception. Don’t be surprised, don’t be angered, don’t be discouraged, and don’t lose hope. Exposing self-deception is a painful process, made more so in the culture in which we live. But the Holy Spirit is our comforter that encourages us and says, “This is sin, but don’t be discouraged, God knows and sent Jesus Christ to bring the truth to you, to die for your sin. In him you have hope. Fix your eyes on Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate, the Way, the Truth, and the Life and never shift your gaze. “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31–32).

 

by Rev G Bruintjes (minister of the Bethel Canadian Reformed Church at Toronto).

Originally a Women’s League Day speech, this article was published in Clarion 24/2/2017 and is republished here with the author’s permission.

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[i] Poole, S. “Why are we so obsessed with the pursuit of authenticity?”, http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/culture/2013/03/why-are-we-so-obsessed-pursuit-authenticity