Self-Deception

Preaching and Worship Resources about Self-Deception

Self-deception is a shadowy phenomenon in which we pull the wool over some part of our own psyche. We put a move on ourselves. We become our own dupes. Self-swindlers have an advantage: their victim is, when conscious, always available and usually willing. But self-deception has discouraging outcomes.

In Scripture

Examples “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked . . .” (Gen. 3:6-7). “On your skirts is found the lifeblood of the innocent poor, though you did not catch them breaking in. Yet in spite of all these things you say, ‘I am innocent’” (Jer. 2:34-35) “An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule as the prophets direct; my people love to have it so, but what will you do when the end comes?” (Jer. 5:30-31). “Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in their hearts; there is no fear of God before their eyes. For they flatter themselves in their own eyes that their iniquity cannot be found out and hated” (Ps. 36:1, 2). “You say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17).

Warnings “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers’” (Matt. 7:21-23). “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean” (Matt. 23:24-26). “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like” (James 1:22-24); “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

Points to Ponder

Easy to spot in others We all know there is such a thing as self-deception because we can spot it in other people. Once in a while, particularly when we have been jolted in some way, we can spot it in ourselves. The lies we tell ourselves are sometimes sad, sometimes funny, and often downright scary.

Addiction, hypocrisy Self-deception is almost always an ingredient in addiction and hypocrisy.

Alaramingly common Why do alcoholics and other drug-abusers typically go through years of denial? Why do some spouses miss all the signs of infidelity in their partner? How do their unfaithful partners manage to sleep at night? How do the men who beat up women get themselves to believe that the women had it coming? Why do some of the women believe it too?

Hard to spot in ourselves Self-deception is hard to spot in ourselves because it covers its own tracks. As Lewis Smedes put it, “first we deceive ourselves, and then we convince ourselves that we are not deceiving ourselves.” But there are verbal cues. Suppose you’ve done something that’s borderline and find yourself saying things like this: “I'm only human.” “Everybody does it.” “You have to sell what people are buying.” “I did what I had to do” “If I don't do it, somebody else will.” “Nobody is hurt by what I do.” “I was only following orders.” “Nobody's perfect.” These expressions are small alarms going off. They tell us it's later than we think. They tell us it's probably time for confession of sin.

Dangerous The scary thing about self-deception is not just that it warps our thinking and puts the best face on our sins and miseries. The scary thing about self-deception is that it can insulate us against Jesus Christ. When our achievements secure us, when our reputation precedes us, when our pride defends us and pumps us up whenever we lose pressure—that is, when we become our own creators, our own law-givers, our own centers of meaning and power—then the thought that we need a Savior starts to sound quaint. It sounds uninteresting.


Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.