In a culture that often prizes authenticity above all else, there is no greater sin than self-deception. Ironically, this facilitates self-deception, because the intensified pressure to be authentic significantly raises the cost of admitting to our ongoing self-deception. So says Dr. Gregg Ten Elshof in his witty, enjoyable, and yet immensely convicting book i told me so: self-deception and the christian life.
In other words: wake up. Self-deception is a major problem in our culture and we are… deceiving ourselves when we ignore and dismiss this important truth.
Dallas Willard commends the book in the foreword, explaining that:
Self-deception is a major part of what defeats spiritual formation in Christ. In self-deception the individual or group refuses to acknowledge factors in their life of which they are dimly conscious, or even know to be the case, but are unprepared to deal with: to openly admit and take steps to change. As a result, those factors continue to govern their actions and shape their thoughts and emotions. The further result is that what they say they believe, intend, and want is not borne out in life (Kindle 19-22).
So this is an important message. I’d like to look at the main points of the book in order and then offer some critical evaluation. Structurally, the book is roughly divided into two sections: first, how we deceive ourselves (“How To”) and second, how we can stop deceiving ourselves (“How Not To”).
In the first part, the “how to” of self-deception, Dr. Ten Elshof provides a clarifying definition of self-deception: “we are self-deceived whenever we manage our own beliefs for the sake of some goal other than the truth” (Kindle 53).
Why would we harm ourselves in this way? Why avoid the truth? Part of me doesn’t want to know! It helps that Dr. Ten Elshof is self-deprecating, humorous, and a bit transparent in his discussion of the many benefits we gain from self-deception. It makes the convicting truths of each chapter a bit easier to digest and accept.
At the root of this problem, Dr. Ten Elshof explains, is that by deceiving ourselves we can, for relatively little work, gain significant emotional satisfaction, feel better about ourselves, and avoid difficult and painful realities. For instance, if you are not good at your job, or hated by your supposed friends, or indulging certain sins, and you know these things to be true, then these are quite depressing, humbling, and difficult truths to live with on a daily basis. But if we just allow ourselves to believe we are performing better than average, well-loved, and distinctively moral, then our personal experience of the same circumstances is greatly improved. So we have considerable practical motivation towards self-deception. When we bend to these pressures, we take “the deal,” deceiving ourselves in order to feel better.
So how do we become so self-deceived? Self-deception is a combination of believing things apart from the truth in the face of considerable emotional pressure to settle for this arrangement. We have many strategies for changing our beliefs in these scenarios. i told me so focuses on six of them in particular, with excellent examples to illustrate each one. The six strategies are:
- Attention management. As Dr. Ten Elshof puts it, this strategy is to “attend exclusively or primarily to the evidence as presented by those sympathetic with the desired belief” (Kindle 414-415). Alternatively, if we do consider contrary evidence, it is often in order to “creatively discount it” (Kindle 447).
- Procrastination. This strategy works because, “often our strongest moral beliefs (beliefs to the effect that we ought to do this or ought not do that) will diminish or even disappear if we procrastinate acting on them. So whenever a moral belief moves in and demands uncomfortable action, life offers us the deal. Agree to act on this moral belief… but not now. Agree with yourself to act upon it later” (Kindle 498-500).
- Perspective switching. “We switch perspectives because no single perspective consistently delivers the view of things that we prefer. Perspective switching is an especially accessible form of self-deception for those in public ministry. Those who pastor, teach, disciple, or counsel others have readily available to them whatever perspective has been generated in those they serve, and the temptation will be strong to avail themselves of that perspective whenever their own perspective delivers uncomfortable views” (Kindle 560-562).
- Rationalization. “To rationalize is to construct a rational justification for a behavior, decision, or belief arrived at in some other way. When we rationalize a behavior, for example, we locate reasons that would justify the behavior were they operational. We then present these reasons to ourselves and others as explaining our actual behavior. But the reasons are mere fictions. They play no causal role in the production of the behavior” (Kindle 585-588).
- Ressentiment. This is a “re-ordering of the sentiments. We adjust our affections, sentiments, and value judgments in order to avoid severe disappointment or self-censure. When we cry sour grapes, we avoid the severe disappointment of not having what we want by convincing ourselves that we don’t really want it after all. Often the ploy for discrediting the desired object is to place inordinate value on something else instead” (Kindle 684-687).
- Groupthink. We resort to groupthink when the self-deception is particularly egregious, for then we need the help of a group to maintain the fiction with us. Together we can justify mistreating others, ignoring contrary evidence, distracting ourselves from difficult questions, celebrating materialism, and other unpleasant actions.
So how can we overcome these many varieties of self-deception? i told me so recommends that, first, we become more deeply acquainted with the strategies of self-deception. Then we need to admit that we have deceived ourselves in many ways. Next, we need to do a truly honest search for what the self-deceptions are and which factors maintain the delusions.
Dr. Ten Elshof suggests that by admitting the commonplace nature of self-deception, it will become easier for us to admit that we are self-deceived. We also need to learn when and where the truth is not the most important thing. This requires that we become wise in navigating life. And he encourages us to sympathetically understand the value of these strategies; perspective switching, for instance, is a primary means for developing empathy and compassion for others.
We’re further helped by realizing that we simply can’t handle all the truth about ourselves. As we grow and mature, and understand more of God’s love, then we can slowly internalize and work through more truth about our sin and shortcomings. But God is gracious to give us this knowledge in pieces, so that we are not crushed by our problems, but are enabled to continue the discipleship process.
Three strategies are particularly commended for overcoming self-deception:
1. Die. In particular, to die to sin. This is hard truth, so we may be tempted to shy away from it. Nevertheless,
If I’m going to be a disciple of Jesus, then, I’m going to be dying. I’m going to be crucified for the sake of being caught up in the glorious life for which I was intended. If I’m not dying, that will be clear over time. But if I’m not dying and I’m going to continue to think of myself as a disciple, I’ll need to be self-deceived either about the call of the disciple to die or about the fact that I’m not dying. Self-deception affords me the opportunity to enjoy the thought of myself as a disciple without all of the painful business of death and dying (Kindle 1172-1175).
Only as we truly die to the sin in our lives are we liberated to no longer deceive ourselves that the sin was okay in the first place.
2. “Groups without Groupthink” (Kindle 1197). As we “form safe, diverse communities of grace united by a common intention to be disciples of Jesus” (Kindle 1243-1244), we experience the relational safety we need to be honest about our self-deception, our blind spots, and our need for grace and transformation.
3. The Holy Spirit. Dr. Ten Elshof cuts straight to the point: “Who better to see through my deceptive techniques, to confront me with the hard truths about myself, to see through my defensive strategies? Who better to love me perfectly even when I disagree, dig in my heels, and defend needlessly? A moment’s thought makes it more or less obvious that community with God through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is, by far, the most important thing I’ve got going for me when it comes to finding my way out of self-deception” (Kindle 1250-1253).
Overall, this short book is filled with perceptive insight. It is immensely practical. It is, in spite of the subject matter, an enjoyable read. The above quotes and outline of the book are just the tip of the iceberg; it is in the more detailed discussion and the concrete examples of each section where you will more clearly see how self-deception manifests itself in your own life – and how, by God’s grace, you can come to know the truth about yourself.
There are three critiques I would make of the book. First, there are a few sections where Dr. Ten Elshof’s take on self-deception is a little too soft. For instance, in the section headed “A Strange Celebration,” he celebrates how self-deception protects us from the full truth, and how this is part of God’s gracious plan to mature us. While I accept his general point, the celebration still feels out of place. We can find a better way to be accepting of ourselves, even as we do not yet understand the full truth about sin, by continuing to turn to the announcement of God’s forgiveness of us through Christ’s work.
Second, I think one of his comments regarding God’s character is a bit one-dimensional. As he writes, “Generally, God will wait patiently until we are ready to move toward him, partake of his life-giving presence, and reflect on our experience as we do” (Kindle 1275-1276). In my experience, I am glad that God does not do this, but that He pursues me and seeks me out and encourages me in many ways to worship and follow Christ. So this section could be more nuanced.
Perhaps most significantly, I wish the book had come with a final chapter that was particularly practical and action-oriented. He could have concluded by writing, ‘Don’t deceive yourself into thinking that by reading this book you have overcome self-deception. No, you will need to plan to take action this week, and you need to write down your plan, and share it with others whom you trust, so that you are less able to procrastinate, manage your attention, and rationalize away your need to grow through the reality of self-deception.’ The following pages could have outlined a practical approach to growing more honest with ourselves and others. By doing so, the book would make it easier for his readers to slowly overcome their various strategies of self-deception.
However, these are small differences. The book is excellent. You are self-deceived. And if you want a reliable guide towards the exit, into the light, you will definitely benefit from reading and putting into practice the wisdom of i told me so.