Self-Deception and the Way Back to Reality

In 2017 the Pew Research Center released a survey that showed that a majority of both Republicans and Democrats have “just a few” or no friends in the opposing party. A separate survey by the same organization showed that 40% of respondents from both parties only get news from sources that represent their views.

This data suggests that a large amount of people in the United States live in echo chambers in which they are surrounded exclusively by voices that only affirm what they already believe. If the data is correct, close to half of Americans live their lives without ever having to seriously wrestle with political positions other than their own.

I came across an interesting passage in 2 Peter this past week. Peter wrote this letter to combat false teachers who were advocating a licentious lifestyle by teaching that Christ would not return to judge the world. Basically, they were encouraging their followers to do what they wanted and not to worry about consequences. In 2 Peter 3:5 Peter writes that these false teachers “deliberately overlook” teachings from the Bible that would contradict their teachings.

Peter perceptively identifies what is really going on in the human heart when it comes to what one believes. These false teachers are not honestly searching for the truth. They are “following their own sinful desires” (3:3) and suppressing evidence that would challenge those desires. They are deliberately overlooking sources of truth that would call into question their preferred way of life.

Peter understands what motivates human beings better than many of us do today. We often operate under a rational-centric view of ourselves whereby we see ourselves as unbiased evaluators of facts. Under this view, we coldly weigh the evidence on both sides of an issue and then make a reasoned choice. This view of the human heart says, “You are what you think.”

The Bible paints a very different picture. We are not merely thinking beings; according to Scripture, we are worshipers. We are driven by our desires and affections, and often we form our belief systems around those desires and affections. This accurate portrayal of the human heart says, “You are what you love.”

To illustrate this point, consider a man who grew up in the church and adhered to a Christian belief system from an early age. Married and in his thirties, he meets an attractive young woman. Initially, his belief system keeps him from doing what he knows is wrong, but the young woman’s flattering attention eventually entices him.

Before long, he follows his sinful desires and abandons his wife and family for his new fling. Not ready to abandon his faith, however, he works out a new belief system wherein God approves of his actions. If that does not work, he may abandon God altogether. What he loves—in this case his own sexual desires—is now driving his beliefs. This story is not purely fiction; I know people who have done exactly what I am describing.

Driven by our desires and affections, we often formulate our belief systems, not according to an objective evaluation of the evidence, but according to what will allow us to continue unimpeded in our preferred lifestyles. In order to accomplish this, we formulate strategies of self-deception. That’s Peter’s point. The false teachers are relying on the method of attention management to ensure that their desires never have to be challenged. They are purposefully ignoring the scriptural evidence that would overturn their chosen way of life. They have strategically formed an alternate belief system around their sinful desires.

Just like politically minded Americans, it’s all too easy to live in lifestyle-affirming echo chambers. We need to be aware of the deceitful tendencies of our own hearts. We are not as objective as we like to think we are. Once we have set our hearts on something, we will look for ways to justify our having it.

How do we avoid self-deception? Peter gives us the answer to that. He exhorts the church, first, to remember the Scriptures (3:1-2). The Bible provides the standard for self-deceived hearts. The Bible forces us to face the truth that we are selfish and sinful before turning us toward our Savior who died to save selfish and sinful people.

Peter’s role in the dilemma provides the second clue. Because the Bible can be misused toward selfish ends, we also need other people in our lives—truthtellers. In short, we need the church. We need people who are not afraid to tell us when we are losing touch with reality. We need people, like Peter, who love us enough to exhort us back to the way of Jesus.

Don’t be self-deceived.

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