How many people set their alarm clocks 15 minutes ahead in hopes that when the alarm goes off, they'll be terrified of being late and jump out of bed? How many justify questionable decisions by rallying friends and family for support? How many focus their attention away from gross financial inequality, sexual slavery, or racial discrimination in their own lives?
Whether in minor or major ways, self-deception plays a part in everyone's life. As Gregg A. Ten Elshof notes in I Told Me So: The Role of Self-Deception in Christian Living (Eerdmans) , what's puzzling is that the deception works.
Where do we find self-deception? To answer this question, Ten Elshof, chair of the philosophy department at Biola University, effectively uses philosophical, literary, hypothetical, and personal examples ranging from the ancient Greeks to Flannery O'Connor. For example, he admits that he considers himself a better-than-average professor, but notes that so do 94 percent of all professors. How can this be? Ten Elshof says that it's more satisfying to believe good things about oneself than to face the truth. In these situations, life cuts you a deal: believe the truth or deceive yourself ("It's not so bad"; "I'm still a good person"; "I didn't really want that"). And on it goes.
For self-deception to work, people need to see themselves from the perspective of someone who doesn't know how they fail. If this "perspective switching" doesn't work, then people might try rationalizing their behavior: "I need to lie on these financial forms so that I can feed my family." Or, people can avoid a difficult decision altogether by procrastinating: "Sure, I'll contribute to your cause, but only after I check with my spouse, accountant, and bank."
People may avoid the truth often, but Ten Elshof says it's not always bad—one of the most surprising and refreshing claims in I Told Me So. The practice of perspective switching, for example, also enables empathy toward someone who is suffering. And procrastination can let people take a step back, breathe, and avoid making rash decisions. If I acted on impulse all the time, I would be quite unpleasant to be around.
That's the point: The abilities that contribute to self-deception are not wrong in themselves. People go wrong when they use their deceiving abilities to convince themselves that they are better than they actually are: "If I'm not so bad, I don't have to change."
How does one avoid self-deception's negative effects? Ten Elshof offers several helpful strategies: Recognize that everyone does it, put real plans into action that prevent the need to deceive oneself, welcome honest and diverse feedback, and ultimately, seek the Holy Spirit's guidance to reveal the truth.
Ten Elshof has given us a vulnerably honest yet philosophically savvy gem. Penetrating and readable, Ten Elshof's book exceeded my expectations throughout. And if he teaches like he writes, I would guess that Ten Elshof is a better-than-average professor.
Michael McGowan, a graduate student in theology at Claremont Graduate University, School of Religion, Claremont, California
Copyright © 2009 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
I Told Me So: The Role of Self-Deception in Christian Living is available at ChristianBook.com and other retailers.
Christianity Today also has more book reviews.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.