A Lenten Reflection: On Sin and Self-Deception

In thinking about Lenten observance, this season of self-examination, revisited my review of Gregg Ten Elshof's book I Told Me So: Self-Deception and the Christian Life.

We don't talk about self-deception much but the bible does warn about it in many places:
Jeremiah 17.9
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?

Obadiah 1.3
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?'

Galatians 6.3
If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.
In the past warnings regarding self-deception were common. However, in his book Ten Elshof argues that self-deception has faded from our view, particularly in Christian communities. Christians worry about a great many vices but we rarely warn against self-deception.

Which is odd because we know self-deception is everywhere. Ten Elshof cites studies that show how 94% of us think we do a "better than average job" in our places of work or how 100% of us think that we are "better than average" in getting along well with others. Clearly there is some self-deception at work in all this. Think about the people you will encounter today at work. All of these people think they are "better than average" in getting along with their coworkers! Obviously, some of these people are seriously deluded. But I, of course, actually do get along really well with others...

So self-deception is everywhere and it affects our ability to be honest with ourselves. But we have trouble following the advice of the ancients. We have trouble admitting we might be self-deceived. Why is that?

Ten Elshof argues that when vices get promoted in severity we have a more difficult time admitting that we engage in such practices. The more severe the vice the greater the social and emotional cost to recognize its effect upon us. Ten Elshof has us consider the case of racism:
Now a remarkable thing happens when a vice gets a promotion, when it is perceived as having greater negative moral weight than it once had. Consider racism. Many of us, myself included, have a hard time these days admitting that we correlate the significance of a person's existence with the color of his or her skin. This hasn't always been so. There have been times and places--in fact, there are places now--where people would have no trouble at all recognizing they correlate the significance of a person's existence with the color of his of her skin. They may or may not use the word, but they have no trouble with the idea that they are, themselves, racist.

In the recent history of developed western society, though, racism earned a well-deserved promotion in the ordering of vices. This is all to the good. But with that promotion came an increased emotional cost in the recognition, "I am a racist." If racism is worse than we thought, then it's harder than it used to be to admit to yourself that you're a racist. And it is at this point that life offers us the self-deception deal. You can experience the satisfaction that rightly belongs to the person who steers clear of the vice of racism if you can but convince yourself that you're not a racist. Unsurprisingly, a great many people take the deal.
To illustrate this, Ten Elshof has us consider a fictional (but all too real) example:
Consider a person with racist beliefs. Lucille is a dear Christian woman in her eighties. Suppose Lucille is answering a series of True/False questions and comes upon the following:

True or false: People of all ethnicities are equally valuable, equally loved by God, and equally to be respected.

Lucille would circle "true" without hesitation. It would strike her as a truism--something you'd have to be a moral wretch to disagree with. Of course she believes this! Were you to seriously raise this question in conversation, she might well be offended by the mere suggestion that it should be treated as an open question. But you need spend only half a day with Lucille to see that she believes no such thing. Her language and behavior exhibit a clear and habitual disdain for African-Americans in her context. She does not believe them to be equally valuable, equally loved by God, and equally to be respected. It's not quite that she's being hypocritical or dishonest. She sincerely thinks that she believes this. But she doesn't.
These observations are, I think, extraordinarily important. Especially during Lent. Self-deception of this sort is rampant within the Christian community. And it's not that people are being hypocritical (although many are). People really do believe they aren't afflicted by a variety of vices, racism included.

But, as we have noted, it is very hard to admit these things about ourselves. Why? It goes back to the promotion of vices. The more severe the vice the greater the cost in its recognition.

Interestingly, Ten Elshof goes on to suggest that self-deception itself has increased in severity in a way similar to racism. This makes it doubly hard to see through the lies we tell ourselves. Before we can admit we have racist attitudes we also have to confront the ways we've deceived ourselves about having racists attitudes. Being doubly convicted in this way--admitting you're self-deceived and racist--is a hard hill to climb.

How did self-deception itself get promoted as a vice?

Ten Elshof argues that we moderns have become increasingly concerned with issues of authenticity or "being real." This shift, he argues, was largely due the rise of existentialism. We have traded in being good for being authentic. And with that shift the sin of self-deception got a promotion. In a culture of authenticity being self-deluded or self-deceived is now one of the greatest sins we can commit. Thus, we just can't admit to ourselves that we might be self-deceived. Ten Elshof on this point:
...beginning with Kierkegaard, the existentialists (including Sartre, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and others) elevated authenticity to a place of primary importance in their understanding of the virtues. Due to the writings of the existentialists and other cultural trends, the "Good Person" was increasingly understood to be the "Authentic Person." Being true to oneself became a--or, in some cases, the--chief good. Self-deception, then, was given a promotion in the ranking of vices. What was once a derivative vice--one whose primary importance was found in its ability to facilitate other, more serious, vices--became itself the most egregious of all sins.
And in the face of this pressure to be "authentic" and "real" we simply cannot admit we are self-deceived and self-deluded. Despite massive and catastrophic evidence to the contrary.

Consequently, if Lent is to be a season of self-examination and repentance then Lent must be increasingly involved in the work of penetrating our self-deception.

Lent must be the hard work of exposing the lies we tell ourselves.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

30 thoughts on “A Lenten Reflection: On Sin and Self-Deception”

  1. I appreciate this post. Self-deception has been something that I have recognized in myself. Especially, when interacting in the comments of many blogs. I comment. Someone calls me out. I then have to look closely at myself. I most cases, these others have seen one of my many 'blind spots.' And, I have needed to reply with an apology and thanks.
    In the time that I spend in contemplative prayer, God exposes things that need the Light to be seen.

  2. On your post The Therapeutic is Political I wrote:

    People make time for things they care about

    And you replied:

    That's way too simplistic a model for human motivation, cognition and emotion. The fact is we care about many, many things, things that often come into conflict.

    My point was for people to proclaim they 'caste' about church but not make time for it when they do make time during some of the busiest and most stressful times of the year for friends and family is a kind of self deception. But you seemed to make the claim that this was over-simplified. But this post seems to make that same point. The women in the example says she believes all people are loved equally bit her actions say otherwise. My point was people say they care about church but their actions say otherwise.

    What am I missing?

  3. I totally agree that people think one thing and do otherwise. I don't think that issue was ever in debate. The issue, as I remember it, was the notion that "people do what is important" to them. My point then, and also drawing from this post, is that there are a variety of systems in the brain that make different things simultaneously "important." Cognitively, it is important for you to not be racist. But emotionally you're racist. Those two things are coming into conflict. Cognitively, you want to be an honest person. But emotionally, it's painful to recognize faults. So those things come into conflict.

    All that to say, "people do what is important to them" misses how there are a variety of important things which are in various degrees of conflict and consciousness. Many things are important to us. Some of these things are conscious and some are unconscious. And all these important things are regularly in conflict.

  4. Am I wrong, though, in seeing that as a form of self deception? It may true in some abstract way that I care about church, but in some other way I clearly don't or it would fare better in the marketplace of things I make room for, yeah?

  5. I think self-deception can be an example. What I remember us talking about in the prior post wasn't about vices but, rather, wanting different things, what psychologists call an approach/approach conflict. Self-deception can be a form of such a conflict but what we were talking about before was just a simple wanting many different things at the same time. It was less a debate about self-deception than "want" as singular versus "wants" as plural.

  6. I feel fortunate b/c do make time or have time to spend any way iI choose. i choose to spend a lot of time writing posts on these blogs abt church. time is & attention are valuable and precious to me.

  7. Ahh, now I see what you are getting at. I think I was trying to get at something more akin to self deception than just competing wants but alas did a poor job. Thanks for clarifying.

  8. Yes, but even if we are talking about self-deception it still makes the point I was trying to get at in the other post. For example, to take the example of racism in this post, do we want to be racist or not? What is reflecting--the conscious mind vs. the unconscious mind--our true desires in this instance? Do I care about racism or not? And if that answer is hard to get at it goes to illustrate my point about how it's more complicated than "people do what they care about." Most often they don't.

  9. I suggest it's cod notions of "authenticity" that are at work in the denial of self-deception. I don't think Schopenhauer or Nietzsche can be accused of such existential disingenuousness -- the former because of his radical pessimism, the latter because of his relentless suspiciousness. As for Kierkegaard, and one should add Heidegger, influenced as they are by Augustine, they certainly are not guilty of such humanistic guff.

    And there's the rub: in my view it's precisely the marginalisation of Augustine that has allowed such Pelagian self-esteemianity to impact (post)modern Christianity, as the church, aping contemporary society, becomes a rather self-absorbed, self-admiring culture for managing empowerment and entitlement, as well as a culture of cheerfulness that denies the irreducibly tragic dimensions of life.

    Perhaps our greatest contemporary teacher here is Rowan Williams, steeped as he is not only in Augutsine but in the desert fathers and mothers. Our inability to pay patient attention to ourselves; our susceptibility to self-dramatising fantasy; our endlessly cunning self-protection rackets; our delusion that we are transparent rather than opaque to ourselves, and that introspection is a form of self-knowledge rather than a kind of madness; the fundamental instability and slippage of the self; the bullshit of sincerity-speak -- "of all the evil suggestions, the most terrible is the prompting to follow your own heart" (Isidore the Priest) [cited in Silence and Honey Cakes] -- these sorts of searing insights, ascertained primarily on his knees, punctuate the oeuvre of Williams and constitute one of his greatest gifts to the chuirch.

  10. That opens a cans of worms I am currently trying to work out - certainly no one wants to be thought of as being a racists, especially by themselves. But isn't what many people really want to avoid is the cultural stigma associated with being a 'racists'? Because their actions show that they want to engage in racists activity? In the example provided there doesn't seem to be a conflict. (This woman could be my aunt or grandmother, both of whom were/are raging racists but whoa to you if you tell them they were/are!)

    I saw Dan Ariely speak about his experiments around cheating. They found that when people were primed to think about morality, by listing the 10 commandments or writing a fictitious honor code, incidents went down sometimes to 0. He surmised this is because no one wants to think of themselves as dishonest. But whether they want to think of themselves as dishonest or not, according to their experiment about 40% of people are (if I remember correctly), unless specifically primed against it. (This reminds me of my favorite quote from Flannery O'Conner's A Good Man is Hard to Find: She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.)

    I tend to see this as one of the underlying causes of the rise of the nones and drop in overall religious affiliation. As the cultural stigma of not being a part of a congregation disappears, people stop going to church. Everyone is wringing their hands trying to figure out why. Did the church fail? Is it doing something different than is used to? Do people really believe less? Or do they just no longer have someone shooting them every minute of their life? When I graduate high school and went away to college, and was no longer immersed in the church community I was raised in that was the center of my social and religious life, I never bothered to get involved with another church community. So was I attending church because I believed and want to or simply because it was the ocean in which I swam?

  11. Interesting and difficult. Reminds me of a quote by Merton in The Seven-Storey Mountain: "I think that if there is one truth that people need to learn in the world, it is this: the intellect is only theoretically independent of desire and appetite in ordinary, actual practice. It is constantly being blinded and perverted by the ends and aims of passion, and the evidence it presents to us with such a show of impartiality and objectivity is fraught with interest and propaganda. We have become marvelous at self-delusion..."

  12. Specific examples of when it's bad to follow your heart would be nice. I feel that for many people who've been made to always doubt themselves, it can be a good thing to encourage them to follow their longings more. Of course discernment is still important; maybe we need to clarify what we mean when we talk about "following our heart."

  13. I really can't talk about Augustine in this context, but I agree that the existentialists are hardly at fault: they were ruthless in examining themselves for what the later ones called bad faith.

    Of course, I think the claim is that the existentialists raised the stakes for consistent behaviour, so it became more difficult once they became popular to admit bad faith. But that would be true of any moral teaching: when teaching on any moral concept becomes popular, it becomes harder for people to admit that they don't follow it. I'm not sure this means we can blame moral teachers for teaching morality!

  14. Interestingly, Williams was discerning reader of Merton, and Merton, in turn, of the desert fathers. Thus in his wonderful little A Silent Action: Engagements with Thomas Merton (2011), Williams begins by saying that "We are in danger of forgetting something utterly fundamental to Merton ... It is the theme of the illusory self." Williams also stresses that Merton was an "utterly attentive" man committed "to the idea of asceticism as 'therapy'".

  15. Yes, discernment -- which only comes with hard, relentless work and prayerful discipline on the self, and also requires spiritual "advisers" (not necessarily formal or official -- they may be just friends who will speak tough truth to you).

    Btw, I love the way people often quote Shakespeare's Polonius' "This above all: to thine own self be true,/ And it must follow, as the night the day,/ Thou canst not then be false to any man" as if it were gospel, forgetting that Polonius is -- a buffoon!

  16. i realise that this is not to the point but I always squirm a little when I hear Augustine lauded. I detest Augustine. Augustine was a monster. In a section of 'The City of God' he writes at length and evident approval about how God will torture forever (in ways that go quite beyond the worst abominations perpetrated at Guantanamo) most of the human race. And we are not here talking simply about 'alienation' from God but real physical torture - Augustine explains that the resurrected body will be made out of some asbestos like material so that the body is never consumed and the agonies never end. At least most of those who praise Heidegger's insights feel the need to condemn and dissociate themselves from his Naziism and acknowledge that he was an evil man, even if he was also, as for all I know he was, a genius. I find it disturbing that even obviously civilised Christians like Kim and his friend Ben Myers can praise Augustine to the skies without expressing, or it would seem, disapproval of Augustine's wickedness. Am I wrong to feel this way? If so, why?

  17. Jordan and Kim:
    I appreciate being able to read your discussion here. Jordan, in particular, your raising "people who've been made to always doubt themselves" and the need for clarifying "what we mean when we talk about 'following our heart' " resonated with me. As does Kim's emphasis on spiritual advisers, especially "friends who will speak tough truth" to us.

    I have nothing to contribute except the following reflections which your discussion prompted:
    - I find myself to be one of the people you reference, Jordan, in that I was raised in an environment where knowing the will/guessing the whims of the authority figure and suppressing the reality of the situation and/or my own thoughts about it were crucial mechanisms;
    - Not surprisingly perhaps, I ended up in (escaping into?) a faith community in which Jeremiah 17:9 was stressed (typically in a one-way manner, i.e. by those "in authority" toward those "in the pews"). As I grew in my own knowledge and experience, I wondered, when was someone going to start quoting to me God's dream in Jeremiah and Hebrews, of a new covenant where, among other things, no one would be saying 'know the Lord' because we would all - least to greatest - know him, etc. Or teach me about 1 John 2, for example, about how being annointed by the Spirit meant I knew the Lord.

    (1 John contains interesting parallels to Richard's post and Kim's first comment on it perhaps, in its discussion about "claiming to be without sin.")

    - My attempts at raising in any form - humble or hurt/insiistent - my view on any number of issues in that faith community (e.g. where is the maturity of members taken into account, the need some have for healing, double standards, which lay people are called upon to help leadership in their walks with God, etc.) were typically dismissed not only via Jeremiah 17:9 but also with categorical labels: navel-gazing, inward focus, rebellion, lack of trust in God, arrogance, worldliness and worldly philosophy, new age mumbo jumbo, worldly philosophy,

  18. Of course there is much to deplore in Augustine, and not only in his theology but in his actions -- as I dare say there is in many, perhaps even most, of the the great "saints" and church fathers, Catholic and Reformed -- which really simply confirms his take on human sin in both thought and agency, Indeed let's invoke the church as such: the crusades, misogyny and witch-hunts, pogroms and the 6 million, race-hatred, homophobia, etc., etc. Still, even broken clocks are correct twice a day -- and Augustine was, I submit, right on quite a few crucially important theological themes. In any case, I'm of the Will Campbell school of thought: “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.”

  19. Hi, I am a longtime reader and lurker who recently stumbled across something that I think would be both topical and thought-provoking in the best of ways. Two news articles about the same topic: http://mic.com/articles/109158/police-used-mugshots-of-black-men-for-target-practice-these-clergy-had-the-best-response and http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/01/25/florida-police-used-mugshots-of-black-men-for-target-practice-clergy-responded-usemeinstead/ (also, my best friend in the US sent me a copy of Unclean for Christmas this year, and I'm really enjoying it!)

  20. The shadow self is very real and very illusive however it is to be dealt with. As Rohr speaks of the shadow boxing we must go through honoring the tried and true for their work in our lives yet dismissing them and standing vulnerable as it were to be able to join the second half of our life.

  21. Good post for the season. It made me think about how while I'm probably very tolerant of most people I really have no interest in any deeper involvement in most of their lives. Is is still love if you only pretend to care? Or do we become what we pretend to be eventually? Or should we simply wait for it to feel authentic and from the heart before we act? That is what came to mind for me at least.

  22. As for Kierkegaard, and one should add Heidegger, influenced as they are
    by Augustine, they certainly are not guilty of such humanistic guff.

    No, one certainly wouldn't accuse a Nazi like Heidegger of "humanistic guff"!

  23. That kind of knee-jerk cynicism about people is both empirically unjustifiable, and deeply damaging.

  24. Actually, Reinhold Niebuhr incisively described "original sin" (which is ultimately what we're talking about here) as the one empirically verifiable Christian doctrine. "Knee jerk" it certainly ain't. Check our what Hegel called the "slaughter bench" of history, as well as (if you dare) the soul "Broken in pieces all asunder" and "guilty of dust and sin" that George Herbert was able to observe with such clarity because he knew that, for all his brokenness and sin, he was an object of the Lord's loving-kindness, and therefore called to be a subject of loving-kindness as well.

    If you really want to see "deeply damaging", the contemporary default cults of self-admiration ("because I'm worth it") and facile optimism ("things can only get better") will do the trick.

  25. I suspect I know at least as much about the "slaughter bench of history" as either you or Hegel. That does not justify the cynical claim that "we're all bastards". None of us are perfect altruists, but that's a different claim; there are many examples of people - of all religions and none - making great sacrifices for others. Nor does your correct statement that self-admiration and facile optimism are harmful do anything whatever to prevent your cynicism being at least equally so.

  26. there are many examples of people - of all religions and none - making great sacrifices for others.

    You don't say.

  27. Yes, there is. Clearly, you were not using "bastards" in its literal sense - people born out of wedlock. Hence the only reasonable conclusion is that you were using it in its colloquial sense, to mean people who are generally selfish, callous, vindictive and not to be trusted. "Bastards" does not mean "Saints who admit to being sinners", or anything like it. Either you do actually believe that all people are generally selfish, callous, vindictive and not to be trusted - the knee-jerk cynicism I objected to - or your claim that "We're all bastards" was insincere, made for rhetorical effect.

  28. The quote come from Will Campbell. You should check him out: a bastard-saint if ever there was one. I can assure you that it was not cited for rhetorical effect, and if it is "cynical", I can equally assure you that the cynicism is not knee-jerk. Mind, I admire the zeal your Pelagian faith in human nature.

  29. When I first started reading the Daily Office morning and evening prayers, I was much comforted by one of the opening sentences -- "I will bless the Lord who gives me counsel; my heart teaches me night after night. I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand I will not fall." It's from one of the Psalms. One can be scrupulous about self-deception as much about anything else -- the fear of being wrong (and not knowing it -- or refusing to know it) is one of the most tyrannical fears in my life.

Leave a Reply