Self-deception is truly an interesting psychological phenomenon. I mean, whenever it occurs in your life, that means that you are the one lied to, and you are the liar, and you buy it. “Seems reasonable,” you mutter to yourself, reaching for another cookie.
Now at one level, Scripture teaches that all forms of sin, disobedience or unbelief are forms of self-deception. You are living in the world that God made, with all of His self-disclosure operating all around you all the time, and yet you are steadfastly telling yourself that the world isn’t really like that. In Him we live, move, and have our being (Acts 17:28), and we are being willfully delusional whenever we act as though this is not the case.
“The way of a fool is right in his own eyes: But he that hearkeneth unto counsel is wise” (Proverbs 12:15). “There is a generation that are pure in their own eyes, and yet is not washed from their filthiness” (Proverbs 30:12). Sin is the refusal to see your relationship to God and His world for what it actually is, and so at one level it is always a form of self-deception.
“He feedeth on ashes: A deceived heart hath turned him aside, that he cannot deliver his soul, nor say, Is there not a lie in my right hand?” (Isaiah 44:20).
Summary of the Text
Isaiah is speaking about the plain stupidity that cuts down a tree (v. 14), and which uses a portion of the wood to keep the cutter warm, and to cook the cutter’s food, on the one hand (v. 15), when from the rest of the wood he carves an object of adoration (vv. 15, 17, 19).
A deceived heart is turned aside, meaning that a deceived heart is both deceived and deceiving. The end result is that the idol he has fashioned to deliver him will be unable to deliver him. He should have known this already because he was the one carved his savior out of a piece of wood that he cut down himself. Profound cases of self-deception are therefore frequently profound cases of idolatrous self-will.
Four Kinds of Self-Deception
We have already noted that all sins are self-deception at some level, but there are certain forms of it that might be called “high-profile” instances of self-deception.
Forgetful neglect of application: “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was . . . 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” (James 1:22-24, 26). The deception here occurs in between the sermon and the moment that afternoon when application is called for.
Assumption of innocence: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Everyone here is encased in a first-person-singular narrative. And everyone here has a strong impulse to trust the narrator, which is always a bad idea.
Neglect of holiness: “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. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness. And again, The Lord knoweth the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain” (1 Corinthians 3:18–20). We are very prone to self-deception when it comes to the moral demands of the free grace gospel. “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9–10). There is a man who thinks he can get on the bus to Heaven, and read his pornographic magazines all the way there. Imagine his shock and dismay when he discovers that he got on the wrong bus—but remember, this is self-deception, so he knew all along which bus it was.
Self-serving flattery: “For if a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself” (Gal. 6:3). Every man wants to be the hero in his own story, and casting yourself in that role is the very worst way of accomplishing this. There is wisdom in Romans 12:3 for such a person.
“For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.”
Romans 12:3 (KJV)
A Bad Marriage or a Bad Attitude?
With this as the foundation, let’s turn to consider how this sin functions in marriage.
Not all Christian marriages are successful. Some really thrive, most are pretty okay, some struggle along, and a handful are what we would call “bad marriages.” If you would put yourself in that last category, I want to suggest one more division that I hope you might find helpful.
One kind of bad marriage is the result of a real mismatch of persons. The conflicts and difficulties arise out of the clashes between very different perspectives. They communicate poorly and problems result. They assume too much in opposite directions and problems result. This does happen, and a lot of good pastoral help is available—in Scripture, with counselors, with good literature. Men and women are different, and personalities are different, and this is an essential part of the challenge.
But the intractable problems are, in my experience, not strictly speaking bad marriages at all. The marriage is just the location where a different kind of badness is manifesting itself. What would you think of someone who gave a restaurant a savage one-star review on Yelp, and if you asked him why he did that, the response was that while he was eating at that restaurant he got the worst toothache of his life? You should say, yeah, that wasn’t a bad restaurant experience. It was a bad experience in a restaurant.
Intractable marriage problems are often intractable problems in a married location, not the result of the marriage.
Pride, the Great Enemy
When a self-deceived person marries, they are moving into a room absolutely crammed with ready-made excuses. Opportunities for misdirection and blame-shifting abound. Remember that the heart is deceitful above all things (Jer. 17:9). The thing that deceives such a person is the pride of his heart (Oba. 3), and remember that pride goes before destruction (Prov. 16:18). The self-deceived husband compares himself to himself, and the wife measures herself with herself (2 Cor. 10:12). These are not wise. Instead of asking God for the wisdom to look at their sin with scriptural eyes, they instead decide to look at the Scriptures (and their spouse) with their sinful eyes. They don’t look at their sin; they look with their sin.
I am talking about (and to) the husband who is sullen, grouchy, and angry all the time. He tells himself is not angry all the time because he is not yelling all the time, which tells us how much he knows about it. I am talking about (and to) the wife who is a lazy and undisciplined, and if any real work threatens to intrude in her life, she is sure to develop a serious malady with plenty of ambiguous symptoms. These two examples are stand-ins for countless others. The problem, the central problem, is self-deception.
I am talking about (and to) the husband who is nothing but a walking disapproval frown. The last time he praised anything of note was about fifteen years ago, and that was an accident. He tells himself that he has “high standards.” Not for himself, he doesn’t. I am talking about (and to) the wife who thinks she is submissive because she cries whenever she and her husband try to talk about it. And whenever she cries—he hates it when she cries—he eventually agrees to provide a second character witness to help reinforce her self-deception. The problem, the central problem, is self-deception.
The Mirror of Christ
The only remedy for all such self-deception is to see yourself accurately, and this can only be done by looking into the perfect law of liberty (Jas. 1:5). But this should not be understood as a detached list of rules. Christ is the end (telos) of the law (Rom. 10:4). Your identity is in Christ. Christ is the perfect law of liberty. Christ is the mirror of Christian freedom.
This is why, if you look at yourself there, in the mirror of Christ, you do not just see Christ. You also see yourself, and perhaps for the very first time.