I Told Me So

by Gregg Ten Elshof ’92
Associate Professor of Philosophy, Biola University
An edited excerpt of his October 2010 talk at Westmont

My topic is self-deception, sadly, perhaps an all-too-familiar topic for many of us. Scripture, as it turns out, is peppered with talk of the poisonous effects of self-deception. The prophet Jeremiah expressed the kind of amazement at the capacity of the desperately sick heart to deceive itself. The prophet Obadiah explains that it’s our pride that often leads us into self-deception. The apostle Paul explains in his letter to the Galatians how self-deception enables folks who are really nothing to convince themselves that they’re something.

And it’s a rather depressing description of the flight from God. In the first chapter of Romans, Paul mentions the amazing capacity that we have to suppress truths that are plain and obvious to us. And goes on to describe a disaster that happens when we do. And finally, John explains how self-deception helps us to flee from repentance, from the sins that plague us when repentance is what is really called for.

So, we have good reason to believe that self-deception is alive and well in our midst. But what is it exactly? What does it look like? How does it work? Where does it tend to show up in our experience? What can we do about it?

First, what is it? Here are a few recognizable cases. There’s the father whose son is smoking pot. Everybody knows it. The evidence is obvious except, of course, to the father who seems unable to see the evidence which is so obvious to everybody. Or the same thing for the husband whose wife is cheating. Everybody can see it. It’s obvious to everyone except, of course, the poor husband. Or perhaps, somebody who would swear that she believes that people of all ethnicities are equally worthy of love and respect. She would swear that she believes this, but you spend half a day with her and it’s clear she doesn’t believe any such thing. She’s convinced herself that she believes something she doesn’t.

I’m a college professor. I have been for about 10 years. I have worked reasonably hard at what I do. In my honest and sort of solitary moments, when there’s no reason to be falsely humble, I’d say I’m a better-than-average teacher. Turns out I’m in good company. A recent and depressing study revealed that 94 percent of people who do what I do think they’re doing a better-than-average job. So, clearly, quite a few of us are sadly and obviously mistaken.

More seriously, I work at Biola. It’s a Christian university, and it has a fairly detailed statement of faith that faculty have to sign as a condition of their employment each year.

I have a home in Southern California and a mortgage. My wife, Laurel, put her career on pause when we had kids seven or eight years ago. She’s a full-time mom. Mine is the only source of income that we have. Jobs in philosophy are extremely difficult to get. So each year I’m presented with this contract and this statement and the question, “Do you still believe all this stuff?” Guess what the answer is: “Of course!” Imagine the stomach it would take to admit to myself that I didn’t believe it if in fact I didn’t. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with having statements of faith. I’m for this. I’m glad there are institutions that define themselves around statements of faith. I really do believe all that stuff. But we should go into this kind of arrangement with our eyes open to the kind of pressure generated by the situation.

A fair bit of the way we feel about ourselves at any given time depends on what we believe. How you feel about your kids. How you feel about your spouse. How you feel about your faith. I believe that I’m in a vibrant and growing marriage with someone who’s been faithful to me, and continues to be faithful to me. I have some friendships that are deeper and richer than your average friendships. I’m relatively free of the nasty kind of racial bias. I’ve successfully come over from being a non-Christian to being a Christian. These are things I believe about myself. God’s not presently calling me to missionary work in Africa, and that if he did call me, if it was very clear, I’d go — or at least I’d consider it seriously.

Each of these beliefs offers me a certain kind of satisfaction. If I discovered that I was wrong about any of these things it would be pretty upsetting. What would it say about me if I wasn’t ready to go to Africa if God called me to go? Or if I wasn’t able to honestly sign the doctrinal statement that I have to sign in order to work where I work? It’s in situations like these that life offers us the possibility of self-deception. Notice that none of these beliefs I have have to be true to give me the satisfaction they give me. It’s just that I have to believe them. As long as I believe them, they’ll give me the satisfaction.

One of the incredible things about the human condition is that we’re able to manage our beliefs so that we can experience these satisfactions even if the beliefs are false. Self-deception happens whenever we manage our beliefs. We try to believe this or try not to believe that, not for the sake of the pursuit of truth, but for some other reason. When I talk about self-deception, that’s what I mean: the management of belief for some reason other than the pursuit of truth.

How do we do it? How do you lie to yourself? How do you get yourself believing something that’s false? If you’re going to lie to yourself then you’re both the deceiver and the deceived. You might wonder, how am I going to manage that without catching myself in the act? There’s this puzzle about self-deception.
But on one level it’s not as hard as you might think. I’m not a morning person.

Over the years I’ve tried different kinds of strategies to get myself out of bed and doing the things I need to do in the morning — one of the most effective has been self-deception. The night before you take your alarm clock and set it ahead 13 minutes. It has to be a weird number, not five or 10 minutes, in order to make the math harder in the morning. You fall asleep, you wake up to the sound of the alarm, you look at the clock, you form the belief that it’s the time the alarm says it is, you panic, you get out of bed, and you’re on your way. Two minutes later you remember what you’ve done, so the lie only works for a small period of time. But by that time you’re up and going, and it’s done what it’s needed to do.

At one level it’s not all that mysterious. But what if you wanted to lie to yourself over the long haul about a significant matter and keep yourself from catching yourself over a long period of time? You’re probably going to need some more subtle strategies, something a little less direct. Here are some more nuanced strategies for successfully deceiving yourself over the long haul.

Attention Management

Perhaps most prominently, there is a strategy called attention management. If you want to deceive yourself over the long haul, attention management would be a good tool for you. William James says somewhere that, “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” You can manage your beliefs indirectly by making choices on where you direct your attention. Because where you direct your attention will affect the beliefs you take on.

I have a friend who decided to consider if the Christian beliefs he had been raised with were true. He thought, “It’s about time I take a step back from all this and have an objective look at the evidence to see whether or not what I believed all this time has been true.” I, as a Christian philosopher, applauded the project. I said, “This is wonderful, and I’d love to be a conversation partner with you in this.” He said he was already a little ways down the road. I asked him what he was reading. He took me to his bookshelf and there were eight, 10, 12 books at the top of his shelf. I thought, “This is great” and began to look at the books. I noticed they were all books on the evidence for and against Christian belief written by Christian authors. I pointed this out, and he said, “Yeah, I’ve sort of taken up apologetics as a hobby.” I said, “Do you suppose there are any non-Christian authors writing on your topic?” He thought about it a moment and said, “I suppose there probably are.” I said, “Do you know who any of them are?” and he said, “Well, no I haven’t really looked into that sort of thing.” Attention management.

I don’t mean to suggest that what my friend was doing is a bad idea. There’s nothing wrong with trying to shore up your faith with evidence. There’s a wealth of very good material out there on the rationality of Christian belief, and Christians do well to get acquainted with it. This is all a good thing. But to think of this as a genuine, checking-in-to-the-truth of Christian belief, stepping back and taking an objective look, is a bit of a stretch.

The belief that Christianity is well-supported by the evidence is, for me, a source of great comfort. It’s also a source of great comfort for me to believe that I’ve taken a careful and objective look at the evidence for and against Christian claims. I like that picture of myself better, instead of the one in which I blindly followed the faith of my parents. But an honest-to-goodness look at the evidence for and against Christian belief is hard. The material out there is really tricky, not to mention scary and risky. If it turned out that Christianity were irrational, I’d be faced with a pretty tough choice. Either I could settle into a faith that was irrational and just decide I’m game for that, or I’d have to abandon my Christian faith and suffer considerable social, financial and all other kinds of consequences. Life offers me a deal and gives me the opportunity to attend to the evidence for and against Christian belief in a way that more or less guarantees a certain outcome: that Christian faith is going to come out reasonable. Through the careful direction of my attention I can indirectly manage my beliefs over the long haul.


A second very different kind of strategy is called ressentiment, which involves a reordering or renaming of our sentiments or our affections. Our emotions sometimes strike us as unacceptable or inappropriate or inconvenient or otherwise undesirable. Think, for example, the feelings you might have of anger, envy, spite or vindictiveness. I don’t like the thought of myself having any of these feelings, but indeed I do have them. Sometimes by renaming these sentiments I can make myself a little bit easier to live with.

I don’t know if this is the place to talk about this, but I’m a little angry with Jim. I have been for awhile. I’m feeling a little vindictive toward him. We were at a conference a year and a half ago, and he snubbed me for the purpose of talking to more important philosophers at the meeting, and I’ve been a little angry ever since. I’d like nothing more than to find some of our common friends and say all kinds of nasty things about Jim because of my vindictive spirit toward him. But I would never do that, right? I would never out of anger just gather around a bunch of our common friends and talk bad about Jim. That’s slander, and I’m not a slanderer.

How about this instead? I’m not angry with him. I’m concerned about Jim. I’m sad for Jim because of the sorry state of his soul. I’ll come to the prayer meeting and spend 45 minutes explaining in painful detail all his bad behavior, all his false beliefs, and everything he’s doing wrong because I’m concerned for him and we need to pray for Jim. Someone might ask, “How did that affect you? How did you feel when he snubbed you at the conference?” And I’ll say, “Well, I was angry of course. Who wouldn’t be? But I’ve forgiven Jim and now I’m just sad for him.” Someone might finally suggest that we pray for Jim, so we’ll spend five minutes presenting a summary version of Jim’s failings to God as evidence of his need for rescue. When you rename your sentiments you make yourself a little easier to live with.

My friend, Brian, has a brand-new flat screen TV that a common friend of ours gave to him and not to me. I’m not jealous about that. I was at first, just a bit, but not anymore. I’m over that. Now I’m mostly worried about Brian and his family. With that new TV in the house, they’re going to do nothing but watch TV and become couch potatoes. I wish for his sake that he’d never been given the nasty thing.

Group Think

One more very important strategy is called group think. We need to say something about group think. There are, as it turns out, heights of self-deception that are only possible with the help of other people. You could never manage it on your own, but sometimes things are so glaringly obvious that the only way to avoid them is with the help of other people who are equally committed to ignoring them. Nietzsche put it nicely. He said, “Madness is rare in individuals, but in groups it’s the rule.” There’s a kind of madness that can set in when groups collaborate in their self-deceptive efforts.

Orange County where I live is one of the richest regions in the history of human existence. I spend most of my days with people who have wealth beyond the wildest imagination of the vast majority of people who ever walked the planet.

Let me say as clearly as I can, I’m among them. These people struggle with the discontent of the material possessions they still don’t have. Isn’t that remarkable? For me it’s a phone. It turns out, they have phones where each and every letter of the alphabet has its very own button, but not on my phone. On my phone, if you want an “L” you have to hit the “5” three times. And then keep going. I would just love to have one of these phones where each and every letter of the alphabet has its very own button. My life would be so much better if I had one of those.

The Bible is clear, it seems to me, that this kind of materialism is a crippling barrier to the way of Jesus. Jesus taught, at the very least, that it’s extremely difficult to have treasure without growing attached to it in your heart in a way that precludes full participation in His way. Some people thought He taught something much stronger, that you simply can’t be a Christian and have wealth or be in His way and have wealth. But at the very least, He taught that it’s extremely difficult.

You might think it reasonable to suspect that materialism would be among the chief barriers to Christ-following in Orange County. But I rarely hear explicit exhortation of the churches I attend that deals head-on with materialism. We hear about other sins, but we are rarely called to the carpet for our materialism. If you want to ruffle feathers in an Orange County church, just raise the question whether or not buying a new BMW can be justified in our world economy. You don’t even have to present an answer. You don’t have to say what you think about that, just raising the question violates a little game we’re playing with one another that we won’t bring things like that up in a direct way. Yet if you plop me down in just about any other social context in the history of the world, the opportunity costs measured in terms of shareable basic necessities associated with buying a new BMW would raise questions impossible to ignore.

Or think of a sillier example: the amount of money spent in the United States in a year on not smelling bad. Then compare it to the average household expenditure on alleviating world hunger or preventable disease. It’s a little depressing once you raise the question. How can we ignore the opportunity costs? They’re so obvious. It’s only in a world of presumably other BMW owners and people committed to not smelling bad that we can ignore these obvious questions.

This is why the lifestyle in the next stratum up from wherever you are will look like it’s teetering on the edge of exorbitance and gross materialism — but it won’t look so to those situated there. We surround ourselves with folks looking to ignore these questions with respect to our particular standard of living and make possible a kind of blindness not otherwise possible to the grip of materialism. Somebody said once, “The last thing a rich man wants to do is to accuse his rich neighbor of being too rich.”

Attention management, ressentiment and group think are important strategies for the project of self-deception. It’s a bleak picture so far. Is there anything we can do? I think there is, and I want to make a few comments about one: the kind of community building I think can forestall some of the negative effects of self-deception.

We know from having looked at group think that simply surrounding yourself with other people who are willing to be honest with you as best they can is not guaranteed to help since they might be caught up in the same kind of self-deception you are. They might make things worse. But I think we can make some progress by seeking membership in communities that are united by nothing more than discipleship to Jesus. Groups, that is, that are not unified by socioeconomic standing. They’re not unified by a certain political perspective. They’re not unified by fine-grained theological distinctives or by loyalty to a particular Christian teacher or movement.

This isn’t to say that we should set aside our differences in order to come into community with one another. That to me is ecumenicism gone bad. We shouldn’t set aside our differences. Rather, when communities are formed under the banner of discipleship to Jesus and socio-political and theological differences are preserved there’s real hope of meaningful dialogue and progress together toward the truth.

So try to come together with a diverse group of people retaining your differences. But these communities will be impossible if their members draw their primary identity from these socio-political or theological associations such as Calvinist or Republican. Then the risk of discovering error will be extremely high. You can’t come together with intelligent people who are going to question those things because if it turns out they’re right, your whole self is in trouble. These communities have to be places where the grace, love, and forgiveness of Christ flows so freely between members that finding out you’re wrong is a cause for celebration and not for defense. You all are wrong about whole bunch of stuff. I’m wrong about a whole bunch of stuff. To find out that you’re wrong about something is a cause for celebration; I get to not be wrong anymore.

Gregg Ten Elshof, a philosophy professor at Biola, wrote the book “I Told Me So: Self-Deception and the Christian Life” (Eerdmans, 2009).

But it won’t be an occasion for celebration but an occasion for digging in your heels if your belonging to the community is at risk, if finding out that you’re wrong means you’re going to be excluded from your community. Groups without group think invite, pursue and celebrate diversity and disagreement not because of some vague commitment to political correctness but because of a desire to make heartfelt progress toward the truth. The occasion to have a safe and thoughtful conversation with somebody who loves you, somebody you can leave your kids with, but who disagrees with you passionately is a gift. It’s a rare gift, and we ought to embrace it as such. We tend to think that disagreement is a problem. We have to somehow solve this problem of disagreement. But within the right context it’s not a problem, it’s an opportunity to make progress together toward the truth.

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One Response to I Told Me So

  1. scott mcferran says:

    Excellent article.

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