Sin is the great deceiver: “For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me” (Rom. 7:11). The reason people sin is because they are deceived. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, people believe lies. But in order to believe the big lies, we have to tell and believe a number of smaller but no less insidious lies. We have to deceive ourselves in order to be deceived.
This self-deception often occurs more easily when we can distract ourselves with truth. It sounds funny, but some of the greatest atrocities carried out in the history of the world were done by men busy professing their love for their common man, pity for the underprivileged, justice for the oppressed. Jesus said that when we do our good deeds, we ought not to let our right hand know what our left hand is doing. The point was to not draw attention to the good deeds. Don’t announce your piety on Facebook. Don’t obsess over your righteousness. But there’s a perverse inversion of this principle that occurs when our right hand is helping the poor and our left hand is holding a brother by the neck demanding payment.
And this is where self-deception comes in. We are tempted to allow an act of mercy or justice or truth-telling to become the only lens by which we see ourselves. We are the friends of the poor, we tell ourselves. We love the underdog. We live to lift up the downtrodden, and meanwhile your wife gets the dregs of your energy. Your kids are oppressed by the fact that they always annoy you. Your reputation at church is cheerful and servant-hearted, but your neighbors know you’ve got an anger problem because they can hear you yelling across the street.
But if somebody were to bring it up, you would be completely dumbfounded. You can’t imagine yourself being that guy. You help set up on Sunday mornings. You gave extra to missions that one time. You volunteered at the pro-life rally. You lead a Bible study. You even told the truth one time when it would have been really easy to lie. You can only see what your right hand is doing, and you stubbornly refuse to look at your left hand. And when somebody asks you about it, you immediately pull out your right hand full of justice and mercy and truth. The whole thing is a sham, but you have become blind to the truth. You can’t see the lie. You can’t see what you’re doing.
The terrifying thing is that self-deception works because we believe our own lies. We believe them. We are sincere in our self-deception. We build our lies with bomb shelter materials so that when we are asked, we can *honestly* search our hearts and come up empty. Sometimes our work is so thorough that we can’t even get an honest opinion from the ones we most need it from. You turn to your wife and ask if you have an anger problem, but she’d never dream of saying that you do because then she would face the consequences in some form. You might not blow up, but your feelings would be hurt, and she’d feel the cold, static distance for a while. And if you wait long enough she’ll come back to you and apologize for being disrespectful and unsubmissive and grumpy — but anybody who had the security tapes in your home would see in a second who the oppressive one really is. And maybe she’s bought the lie. She’d defend your angry outbursts, your occasional porn habit, your financial corner-cutting because she sees how you volunteer, how you try to help folks out, how you try really hard to be good — she’s built the bomb shelter with you, and if the pastor asks how things are going, she smiles and says you work really hard and she’s so proud of you.
So often the deceptions are thoroughly laced with Bible verses: “But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (Js. 1:22). We think because we read the Bible, because we can quote verses, because we liked the sermon — we think we’ve actually obeyed. We’re like Bilbo trying to give up the ring, and we think because we’ve heard the instructions we’ve actually complied.
“Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap” (Gal. 6:7). One of the lessons here is the fear of the Lord. If there is a God in heaven who knows all and sees all and rewards all men according their works, then we ought to be people who cry out to God for mercy and grace because who can know his own heart? Who can sort out all the fears and lies and shame? The Spirit searches the hearts of men, and the Spirit is our comfort and assurance. The Spirit sorts us out.
Finally, confession of sin is the jackhammer of the Spirit. “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn. 1:8). When you confess your sins boldly, taking responsibility for your particular words, actions, and thoughts — when you own them thoroughly without flinching, without ducking, without explaining, without excuses, without trying to avoid any of the force of the blow, you are allowing the Spirit access to your soul. That’s a terrifying place to be, but it’s also a wonderful place to be. Because this is no faceless Spirit. This is the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of our merciful High Priest who sympathizes with us in our weakness, whose blood makes the foulest clean. He knows our frames, and He is more gracious than we imagine.
“Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139:22-23).