At this moment, in the Church, there are large groups of people who are cripplingly, trenchantly, blindingly deceived. This must be the case, because groups who both claim to be Christian claim mutually contradictory positions to be true. Is Jesus the only way to salvation, or are there equally valid alternatives? Does Christ come to make us healthy and wealthy, or is suffering part of his plan for humans? Does our increase in knowledge mean that our approach to sexual ethics must change as well? Does God bless homosexual unions or not? Abraham Lincoln, reflecting on the divided morality of the Civil War, had this to say: “The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.” Either Jesus is the only way or he is not, either health and wealth is true or it is not, and either God blesses homosexuality or He does not. There can be no middle ground between them.
As I see it, however, the really troubling factor sits deeper than a disagreement about doctrine (although doctrine does indeed matter). The real question—the real nugget of the problem—is that both sides in each debate claim to be following God’s Spirit. Both sides claim to have the same religiously derived affirmation, the same spiritual sense that they are right. Both sides are reading the same Bible, claim to pray to the same Being, and experience religious feelings that validate their positions accordingly. If God is not a contradiction, then one side must necessarily be deceived.
Last month I read a chapter of Jeremiah each morning and night. I was struck, again and again and again at Jeremiah’s uncompromising rejection of falsehood—false prophets, false teachers, those who mislead Israel. His words, speaking for God in Jeremiah 23:31-32, stood out as a particularly clear example,
31 “Behold, I am against the prophets,” declares the Lord, “who use their tongues and declare, ‘The Lord declares.’ 32 Behold, I am against those who have prophesied false dreams,” declares the Lord, “and related them and led My people astray by their falsehoods and reckless boasting; yet I did not send them or command them, nor do they furnish this people the slightest benefit,” declares the Lord.
How can I know that I’m not deceived? If two sides both appeal to the same sets of feelings and data to bolster our mutually contradictory positions, how can we navigate between them? And rather than asking how I can know I’m right, what factors can give me confidence that I’m not a false prophet operating against the Lord?
The place to begin, if we would have clarity on the issue of deception, is through diagnosing deception itself. In this, I think there might be four components which contribute to deception. The first is that deception is rooted in the corrupted heart. Jeremiah 17:9 states it clearly and simply, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; Who can understand it?” Every thought, motive, and action of the human heart is to some degree corrupted by a layer of deception. No human has ever had a perfectly pure motive in his or her life. Even our best motives—to acts of generosity or love or sacrifice—are flavored however momentarily by the lurking desire for rewards and recognition. How much more our middling or base desires? We are sneaky and self-deceiving creatures, eager to make ourselves look good, eager to gloss over our misdeeds and elevate the goods we perceive of ourselves. Solzhenitsyn, writing in his Gulag Archipelago, famously said that “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” G.K. Chesterton, responding to a newspaper inquiry on the topic of “What’s Wrong with the World,” responded, briefly and poignantly: “Dear Sirs,” he wrote, “I am. Yours, G.K. Chesterton.”
Because the heart is deceived, this means that our feelings about whether or not we are right are also deceived. The heart is deceitful above all else, therefore the ratifications of my heart are also subject to this overarching deceptive power. This means that the feeling that I am right about something is in itself insufficient. A couple of examples might clarify this further.
Preachers (like me) often describe a certain sensation while preaching—it is a strong sense of feeling that rushes to enlarge the preacher and his rhetoric with a sense of divine power. We might call this the “preacher’s spirit,” a rising feeling of being “in the spirit” that comes over us. But the trouble with this feeling is that while I might feel it, and feel that I am really preaching the true gospel, I can listen to another preacher who is also feeling it but preaching the opposite of the gospel! There are very bad preachers—bad in doctrine, bad in rhetorical technique—who nevertheless feel the same rush of the preacher’s spirit. We can only conclude that the preacher’s spirit is an unreliable measure of the teacher’s validity.
Another area of confusion is related to the conscience. Many people appeal to their conscience as indication of their religious orthodoxy—what conscience permits, and doesn’t permit, is considered to be a good indicator of right and wrong. Many Christians even claim that their conscience is virtually the same as the Holy Spirit. The problem is that the conscience, although a genuine moral indicator, is deeply culturally formed. I work in an Asian context, and for my many Asian peers it is unthinkable—indeed unconscionable—to walk into a person’s house wearing your shoes. But this is clearly a trained behaviour, and not a divine mandate. On the opposite side of the matter, there are many things to which my conscience registers no opposition whatsoever, but which the Spirit of God interjects His insistent voice (an unkind thought, an improper look, and so forth). Many Christians have simply neglected the training of the conscience, and in the process have come to believe that they have a relationship with the Holy Spirit when in fact they simply have a relationship with their conscience.
The overarching point remains the same, that our feelings—religious, conscientious, or otherwise—are unreliable guides to truth because of our deceptive heart.
This brings us to the second component, which is that deception originates in the corrupted will. Here I think we can helpfully revisit Eve’s decision in Genesis 3:6, “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 desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate.” Eve’s choice was a choice against God’s plan—a choice for personal desire, a choice that placed the human will in priority over God’s. It was, in essence, the choice to cling to God’s gifts—the garden, the fruit—but in a way that rejected God as the giver of gifts. Eve confused the gift with the giver, and that act of self-deception was the inaugurating moment for all our subsequent self-deceptions.
The act of placing desire in priority over obedience birthed a confusion that continues to plague us at almost every valence of human life. We are confused beings, often incapable of making moral choices because our inflamed desires war against our capacity to will rightly. One particular expression of this corruption in our faulty reasoning is in the way that we regularly conclude that possession of a gift is license to use the gift. We see this expressed vividly in life itself, sex, and the spiritual gifts. God gives us life—it is a gift—but in giving it we are not licensed to use it however we please. God gives us sex—it is His great and good idea!—and yet He does not license us to use it how we please, but specifically limits and proscribes its use. And God gives us spiritual gifts as well—preaching, teaching, prophecy, and so forth—but the presence of the gift is not therefore license to use it. The gifts must be used under the permission of God and in accordance with His will. When we assume that God’s gifts are ours to use apart from His permission—when we assume that the presence of the gift is itself permission—then we repeat the sin of Eve.
A third component in diagnosing deception is to recognize that deception thrives in a validating community. In Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 15:33, “Bad company corrupts good character.” In time, such company, uncritically evaluated, can lead the believer astray on a vector angled far from God. The reason for this is because communities—especially the self-elected community of friendship—give us power and permission for our desires. We all have friends to whom we turn when feeling sad, or friends to whom we look when we want to have fun. But in the same way we are also aware of times we have turned to certain friends because in their company we experience a kind of permission for bad behaviour—friends with whom we can get drunk, or cause trouble, or gossip, or whatever. In this way, good communities bolster good behaviours, but bad communities reinforce bad behaviours. This is more than simply an echo-chamber effect, it is the magnification of the will’s corruption through companionship giving license to the illicit.
Bad company, like bad conditions, kills life.
I am reminded here of the chilling words from 1 Kings 22:19-23, when King Ahab, knowing that many of his own prophets were unreliable, demanded that Micaiah, a known prophet of the Lord, speak the truth to him.
19 Micaiah said, “Therefore, hear the word of the Lord. I saw the Lord sitting on His throne, and all the host of heaven standing by Him on His right and on His left. 20 The Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab to go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said this while another said that. 21 Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord and said, ‘I will entice him.’ 22 The Lord said to him, ‘How?’ And he said, ‘I will go out and be a deceiving spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ Then He said, ‘You are to entice him and also prevail. Go and do so.’ 23 Now therefore, behold, the Lord has put a deceiving spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; and the Lord has proclaimed disaster against you.”
Not only was a deceptive spirit at work, but the community of prophets created a validating community which ensured that the deception would remain unexamined and unchecked.
These three factors, then, show the origins of deception—that I choose the thing I want, then validate it with both my emotions and in community. The result of this spiral of deception is the fourth factor in deception—deception bears fruit by redefining God. Psalm 50:21 powerfully describes this attitude, when God says “These things you have done and I kept silence; You thought that I was just like you.” When we give priority to our deceptive hearts, then the end result is that we attempt to form God into our own image, into our own likeness. We shape our theology, our ideas of God, and our interpretations of experiences so that we favor our deceived perspective. We choose our theology over God’s reality, create golden calves to worship and call them Yahweh. Instead of being formed after His likeness, we turn Him into a vile projection of our own wicked desires. He becomes the licensing agent of our own perversions, servant of our lusts, sanctifier of human dissolution and decay.
To some degree, we each have traveled down all of these deceptive paths—we have listened to our deceptive hearts, we have chosen God’s gifts over God Himself, we have appealed to validating communities to give permission to our choices, and we have redefined God to an image that favors us in the process. Clearly, the first step in preventing self-deception must be to acknowledge my propensity towards deception.
What can be done, then, to prevent further self-deception? Above all else I will require something from outside myself, an outside help. If deception is rooted in the heart, then I require something external to help straighten things out. I am reminded, then, of Jesus’ words in the sixth beatitude, that “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” This is, of course, an impossibility—how can I ever have a pure heart so that I can see God? I cannot—but perhaps the inverse is then true, that those who look to God will be purified in heart. The implication would be that a sustained gaze at God is necessary to purify our sight, our hearts, and our minds—that under the illumination of the vision of God our self-deceptions are in time consumed.
This looking to God is an iconoclasm that takes two forms, and these two forms are two treatments for deception represented in two commitments. The first is a commitment to pursue God as He really is, and not as I want Him to be. This is an attitude of submission to God which permits Him always to define Himself to us, to startle us, to make Himself Lord and master of our perceptions of Him. In this, we reject all our ideas of God in favor of God Himself, all our best thoughts about God are submitted to Him for His own personal review. I am reminded of what C.S. Lewis writes in A Grief Observed. Grieving the loss of his wife, Lewis had become frustrated with the fake images of her embedded in his mind. He didn’t want the image of Joy, he wanted Joy; He didn’t want his idea of God, but God. Not our silly and haphazard constructs of divine ideas, wood and paper and tape and paint—but the real thing.
In this, the Christian who would be undeceived must maintain a sustained gaze at God, seeking Him and nothing less than Him, craving, longing, desperate to see the fullness of His glory, majesty, presence, and being. This will require a commitment to God’s self-revelation in Scripture. After all, if my heart is deceived, then my heart’s idea of God is also likely to be deceived. I need an idea from outside my heart, and that idea is found in Scripture. How God has revealed Himself in time is of greatest importance when we are filtering out our own, broken ideas of who God is. Such a commitment to the whole of God will also mean not choosing one section of Scripture over another, not putting God in a war with God by placing love in contrast with judgment, or holiness in contrast with mercy. Such a commitment over time means that the more we look at God, the more we permit Him to shape our affections, emotions, wants, and desires.
The second form of this iconoclasm is a commitment to pursue reality as it really is, and not as I want it to be. This is a rejection of subjectivism, of projecting on the world my own desires, of permitting reality itself to be iconoclastic. Proverbs 12:22 says that “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who deal faithfully are His delight.” God considers deliberate falsehood an abomination—it is even enshrined in the ninth commandment that we shall not bear false witness. To act as a false witness, in a court of law, is to contribute to the murder of an innocent person. When we bear false witness toward the world, we commit a kind of murder against the truth. It is a lie where we read the world as we want it to be, and not as it really is. It is, again, an extension of the lie of Eve, who chose God’s creation over God’s will, who chose her version of the world over God’s revealed version of the world.
Again, the Christian who would be undeceived must choose a fundamentally iconoclastic posture of approach to the world. In epistemological humility I must refuse to map my own perceptions onto the world, I must reject subjectivism, I must suffer reality to veto and break my initial judgments and perceptions. Against the choice of Eve, I commit to rejecting all gifts in exchange for the giver. St. Augustine’s famous prayer is illuminating here as well, “O Lord, The house of my soul is narrow; enlarge it that you may enter in.” Break down my old understanding, my own weak and foolish constructs, and reveal to me the magnificence and fullness of who You really are.
In the early Church, during the era in which the Nicene Creed was being composed, the Church was very nearly overrun by a grand deception. Followers of Arius argued that Jesus was not actually God, but merely the best of God’s creatures. For a time, it looked as if the Arians would win the day—they had the support of a majority of the Christian world and of the Emperor as well. But by grace Arianism was defeated, made subject in the end to the revealed truth of who God is, and especially to Who He is in Christ. We may face similar deceptions today, and they may sweep across the highest echelons of the Church so that even the elect are deceived and the entire ship of the Church appears to all to be off course. And yet through it all God Himself will never be deceived, cannot be deceived. The truth remains unchanged by human fickleness. In the meantime, both sides may be wrong, and one most certainly is! May God strengthen His people to seek to be undeceived, to settle for nothing less than the fullness of Him and Him alone.