Self Deception

Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise.” 1 Corinthians 3:18. This is a curious concept. How can you be guilty of self deception ? Other people deceive us by withholding or giving wrong information to us. But how can you withhold information from yourself? I do not think that is possible. What about giving yourself wrong information? That is possible.

The will is stronger than both the imagination and memory. This may seem mysterious, but consider this situation. You have done something, about which you are not happy. As you remember the circumstances, you wish you had done differently. You think, “Well, this would have been a better way. If I had done this or if I had said this, it would have been much better.” Reconstructing the situation up to the point that you can be prepared for another situation of the same kind, and planning to handle it more skillfully the next time is okay. But do not go too far with this because if you keep remembering the better way, you may, after a while, persuade yourself that you actually have done it that way. That is extremely dangerous. James writes about that in James 1:26, “If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain.” You can deceive your own heart.

Examples of Self Deception

It is a curious thing to notice that the Jewish leaders who rejected Christ, and Korah, Dathan, and Abiram who led the revolt against the directorship of Moses, thought themselves doing right. You could say they were sincere if you were not too particular how you define the word sincerity.

Speaking of the priests and rulers of Christ’s time, Ellen White writes in Desire of Ages, 541, “Satan told them that in order to maintain their authority, they must put Jesus to death. Yet such was their deception that they were well pleased with themselves. They regarded themselves as patriots, who were seeking the nation’s salvation.” This is a fearful self-deception.

Ellen White, says of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram in Patriarchs and Prophets, 397, “They ventured still further, and at last they really believed themselves to be actuated by zeal for God.” They were planning revolt against Moses and developed a plan far enough that they were ready to kill Moses, yet thought they were led by the Lord.

How does self deception happen? Does sincerity not provide an excuse? Are people judged and held guilty if they are sincere?

The process of self deception is slow. It takes, sometimes, quite a little time. And it can happen to anybody. The Jews had the Scriptures and were looking right at the Messiah in person, watching His miracles, and hearing His marvelous teachings, but they were not immune from self deception. Korah, Dathan, and Abiram had been in the mountain with Moses when God spoke to Moses personally on the mountaintop. Surely they would be immune from making such a mistake and getting into self deception. But that is not the case.

It begins with something small. The devil does not come out at once and urge you to murder somebody. He did not come at once at the very beginning to urge the Jewish leaders to murder Christ; or Korah, Dathan, and Abiram to murder Moses. Probably all of them would have rejected such a thought. Satan has to start with something smaller.

The Process of Self Deception

With Korah, self deception started with self pity. Patriarchs and Prophets, 395, tells us that Korah was part of the family of Levi. He was in some sense related to the tribe of Levi, but he was not chosen to be among the priesthood, which he resented. Self-pity, we are told, is a very pernicious emotion in the human heart. What starts with self-pity eventually comes to murder. It was this way with the Jewish priests. They had been upset over the fact that shepherds had heard the angels singing. Why had not the angels sung to the rabbis? When the shepherds came, why did they not come to the rabbis? They felt slighted, passed by, and that is where it began with them.

“Often the process is gradual, and almost imperceptible. Light comes to the soul . . . by the direct agency of His Spirit; but when one ray of light is disregarded, there is a partial benumbing of the spiritual perceptions, and the second revealing of light is less clearly discerned. So the darkness increases, until it is night in the soul.” Desire of Ages, 322

“A temptation, slight at first, had been harbored, and had strengthened as it was encouraged, until their minds were controlled by Satan.”Patriarchs and Prophets, 396. The mind can go completely under the control of Satan. Starting with a small temptation, there is no telling where it will lead. From a small temptation comes a redefining of events in a person’s thinking, “that’s the way it actually happened. I wish it would have happened like this.” As it becomes reinforced repeatedly, a person actually begins to think it did happen like that. Korah, Dathan, and Abiram thought over the unhappy experiences of their deliverance from Egypt. Passing by the happy thoughts, they thought about going back to the wilderness by the command of God. They thought about the various hardships and trials the people had had and reconstructed it in their minds until they came to believe it was Moses’ fault. Moses had done his best and had offered to sacrifice his life. But when the mind starts reconstructing the past, it can come to believe what did not happen at all.

Starting with a small temptation, you reconstruct things in the mind, wishing that it had been like this instead of the way it actually was, until you actually begin to believe events were according to your reconstruction. Now you are believing your lies and are literally deceiving yourself. The will, which wants it to be that way, is stronger than the memory of how it actually was. When the will and memory come into conflict, the will is going to win if the conflict lasts very long. The memory cannot resist the power of the will. When a person believes his own lies, he is what they call a pathological liar. He is in desperate shape.

“It is by sinful indulgence that men give Satan access to their minds, and they go from one stage of wickedness to another. The rejection of light darkens the mind and hardens the heart, so that it is easier for them to take the next step in sin and to reject still clearer light, until at last their habits of wrongdoing become fixed. Sin ceases to appear sinful to them.” Patriarchs and Prophets, 404

We are not excusable, if we walk in darkness when the light is available to us. We are responsible for everything we know of the will of God and for everything that He gives us opportunity to know. The Jews who rejected Jesus and the people who rebelled against Moses had ample opportunity to have things straight. They had enough experience to know. Jesus has given us all the information that we need about our situation. It is very dangerous to indulge in self-pity or an apparently tiny sin. It is very dangerous to indulge in self-justification, to disregard a small ray of light, or to utter doubts.

Zedekiah’s Mistake

Another outstanding Bible example of self deception is Zedekiah, the last king of Judah.

Zedekiah could not bring himself to stand for truth. Three Hebrews—Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—refused to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s image on the Plain of Dura. You know that famous story by heart, but did you know that those three Israelites were not the only Israelites who were there that day? Zedekiah also went to Babylon. Why?

“Nebuchadnezzar the king made an image of gold, whose height was threescore cubits, and the breadth thereof six cubits: he set it up in the plain of Dura, in the province of Babylon.

Nebuchadnezzar the king sent to gather together [notice] the princes, the governors, and the captains, the judges, the treasurers, the counsellors, the sheriffs, and all the rulers of the provinces, to come to the dedication of the image which Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up.” Daniel 3:1-3. The Babylonians considered Israel a province and they called it the Province Beyond the River with Zedekiah as the governor of the province. In Israel, of course, he was called king; but he knew he was no king. What was he doing in Babylon? He was there to stand on the Plain of Dura, and, if he obeyed the king’s command, he was to bow before that golden image.

Imagine Zedekiah anxiously looking around. He was aware there were other Israelites there. He probably saw the other three standing tall and wondered for a moment if he should stand tall too, but then his courage failed. He had had a lot of time to think about this.

It is a long, long journey from Babylon back to Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzar, while prince of Babylon, had made a very fast journey across that Arabian desert. He had taken an army and had gone up the Euphrates River in the slow and normal manner and down the sea coast, planning to invade Egypt way down south. But when he was nearing Egypt a messenger came to him with the news that his father, the king of Babylon, had died. Nebuchadnezzar was prince of Babylon at this time. Because he naturally feared that somebody else might try to take the kingdom before he got back to assert his right to the throne, he left most of his army to fend for themselves, and took a few specially chosen men, and went straight across the desert toward Babylon. It took him three weeks even at that.

Zedekiah had three weeks of going that way to think about what he had done and to persuade himself that he had done the right thing. You know, he was reconstructing his memory, putting all of it together, convincing himself, persuading himself that he had done the right thing in bowing before that image on the Plain of Dura despite the fact he saw the deliverance that came.

He elected to follow the princes of the church instead of the prophet of the church. So then Jerusalem was besieged, burned, and the temple was destroyed. Thousands were slain. Zedekiah and some of his family tried to escape , but they were caught, and taken to Ribla, where Zedekiah was forced to watch while his sons were slaughtered. Then his eyes were put out and he himself was taken to Babylon to die. He died miserably. Can you imagine another six weeks going again to Babylon, his sightless eyes staring forever at the last thing they had seen, the slaughter of his sons?

Process Decisions

How do these things come to us? I call them process decisions. Very few people decide they are going to be lost. But people make process decisions. By a little rejection of light here, a little embracing of sin there, little by little people finally come to a place where they cannot turn back.

If we are to examine ourselves in the light of this biblical material, we ought to recognize the danger of the process decisions that are about us. We can make process decisions by deciding that it is perfectly all right for us to associate with sinners. Proverbs 1:10 says, “My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not.” We have the experiences of Samson and Solomon. We have the experience of all Israel, and we have the experience of modern Israel seeking the embrace of the daughters of Babylon. A decision to fellowship and build a relationship with sinners, other than a saving relationship, can be a process decision. The one who decides to marry one who does not follow God needs to remember this counsel. If you would not have a home where the shadows are never lifted, do not unite your life with one who is an enemy of God.

A decision to seek the pleasures of the world can be a process decision—”it will not mean anything to go to the theater a few times. It will not hurt to just watch some fictional programs on television. It will not hurt to go to a few dances.” This can end with the destruction of your own life.

A decision to seek wealth instead of service, to serve yourself in this world instead of serving the Lord can be a process decision that is extremely dangerous. The Scriptures warn us in Ecclesiastes 5:10, “He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he that loveth abundance with increase; this is also vanity.” A decision to ignore missionary responsibilities, a decision to procrastinate, a decision to just wait a little longer may end in destruction. “God’s people cannot with safety enter into intimate associations with those who know the truth, but do not practice it.” Messages to Young People, 390. Inasmuch as there are ever more persons among us now who know the truth, but are not practicing it, we need to think about this as well.

The Effect of Our Words

The words are an indication of what is in the heart. “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaketh.” But the words are more than an indication of character, they have power to react upon the character. Did you follow that? The words are more than an indication of character. Words tell what kind of person you are. But also, they react on the character. You can talk yourself into things. You can say things that are not true until you believe them. “Men are influenced by their own words. Often under a momentary impulse, prompted by Satan, they give utterance to jealousy or evil surmising, expressing that which they do not really believe; but the expression reacts upon the thoughts. They are deceived by their words, and come to believe that true which was spoken at Satan’s instigation. Having once expressed an opinion or decision, they are often too proud to retract it and try to prove themselves in the right, until they come to believe that they are.” Desire of Ages, 323. This is how a person can become a pathological liar and become so self deceived that he loses contact with reality and believes his own imaginations to be true.

We are in a period of time in which we need to watch very, very carefully that we do not practice self deception upon ourselves. A time that we need to take very great care that we do not let anybody else practice deception on us. May the Lord bless us and help us to carry these words from His sacred word and from His inspired counsels into all of our thoughts and life practices.

The End