Friday, August 17, 2012

I told me so

I told me so: Self-Deception and the Christian life, Gregg A. Ten Elshof

Have you ever thought about the role of self-deception in the Christian life? Chances are – no. Neither had I until I read this book and realised (as did the author) that there is very little written on the subject.

He starts by addressing the ways we commonly deceive ourselves in everyday life – managing our attention onto other things, procrastination, switching perspective, rationalising, etc. All of these are worth exploring in detail, but I’ll let you read it yourself to do that.

He goes on to address how easily it also occurs in groups – in families, in business groups, in communities. For example, if you live in a wealthy Christian community, chances are everyone silently acknowledges that it’s OK to spend lots of money on a car (for example), as long as no-one in the group ever challenges anyone else about it.

These two sections really just open our eyes to how much of our lives is spent deceiving ourselves. It’s helpful and illustrative.

Then Ten Elshof goes on to address what we do about it.

Firstly, we need to demote it - make it less of a vice (in our human eyes) in order to be willing to acknowledge it. If no-one is willing to own up to self-deception, no-one is going to be honest and work towards changing (I could see strong parallels with how to deal with some sexual sin here).

We need to realise that self-deception has some positive features, in fact God has made us capable of self-deception and it can be a gift. Truth is not all important. Sometimes believing things that are unlikely to be true has benefit (eg. I will be able to quit smoking this time).

Self-deception also allows us to change perspective and understand another viewpoint. We could not enjoy fiction if we were not capable of self-deception. How could I enjoy historical fiction books about time travel and relationships across time, if I were unable to suspend my knowledge of reality while reading them?

One of his most compelling reasons that self-deception is a gift from God is that there are two truths that if faced with them in their barest, most open truth we would not be able to function – 1. The complete fullness of God’s glory, and 2. The complete sinfulness of mankind (including ourselves).

Then Ten Elshof moves towards 3 ways forward and 3 things to beware of, each which are fleshed out. To summarise, however, the ways forward:
First, die. Take concrete steps to put to death those aspects of your character that make self-deception a necessity. Second, find you way into a diverse community of disciples to Jesus. Make sure it’s a group that invites disagreement and critical self-reflection. Third, make a plan to pursue a relationship with the one who knows you more fully that you know yourself. Set aside regular times to approach the Spirit of God, set your heart out as honestly as possible before him, listen for his voice, and reflect on your experience as you do. (p127)
A number of aspects of this book have stayed in my mind for some time, both the risks of self-deception yet how God has enabled us to be able to self-deceive.

It’s a short book and easy to read.  My slight caveat to that is that the author is a philosopher, so I did skim read more of the philosophical sections.

All of us deceive ourselves – a book like this opens our eyes to it and helps us see a way forward as Christians.


Tamie said...

Wendy, am I reading this right that he counts fiction and imagination as self-deception? I understand how it is a suspension of reality but that isn't necessarily deception, is it?

Wendy said...

You are right Tamie – sorry, I jumped a step in his logic. What he says is that fiction and imagination are perspective switching – the ability to suspend reality and also see something from another point of view. These he argues are a gift from God, as it enables us to empathise with people who have experiences that are very different to our own. This helps us, for example, to see how people might be hurt from our actions and forgiveness is needed, etc. At the same time, perspective switching can also be used as a method of self-deception, enabling us to avoid the consequences of our actions, or perhaps prefer a certain view of ourselves than a more truthful one. Hope that clears it up a bit.

Sarah said...

That one's definitely going on my 'to read' list.