Self deception plagues us all to one degree or another but in its severe forms it can be the undoing of ministry leaders and cause significant pain to others.
How would one define self deception? It "is a process of denying or rationalizing away the relevance, significance, or importance of opposing evidence and logical argument. Self-deception involves convincing oneself of a truth (or lack of truth) so that one does not reveal any self-knowledge of the deception" (Wikipedia). The Skeptic's Dictionary puts it this way: "Self-deception is that process or fact of misleading ourselves to accept claims about ourselves as true or valid when they are false or invalid. Self-deception, in short, is a way we justify false beliefs about ourselves to ourselves."
The inherent problem with self deception is that because we have deceived ourselves, we are unable to spot it in our own lives. A friend of mine told a colleague of his that he was self deceived in some critical areas. The colleague pushed back and said absolutely not! Well, how would you know if you were inquired my friend? He went on to point out that the only way for us to be made aware of significant self-deception is for others to point it out. It is something others see but we do not see it. David was self deceived over Bathsheba and it took an outsider, Nathan, to confront him and for David to realize his deception.
This means that the more accessible I am to others, the more likely it is that others can point out self deception in our lives. It also follows that the more isolated we are, or the more resistant to the observations of others, the more likely I will continue down a path of deception until an event is triggered where I am forced to face my issues. The latter is sad because it brings with it far more pain than would have been necessary had we faced our deception early on.
Satan loves to deceive and he is a master at helping to deceive us. In its most deadly form, deception allows us to break ethical and moral boundaries and to fully justify it to ourselves. Thus, we justify an affair, or stealing, or the way we treat those who work for us. After all, we are doing important things and we start to believe that the end justifies the means. Such justification is at the root of many harmful behaviors to ourselves and to others.
Self deception can come in many forms. I may believe that I am a better leader than I am, or may be blind to behaviors toward others that are hurtful. I know of many leaders who have lost their jobs in ministry because they were self deceived about how their staff saw them. They assumed they were leading well and paying attention to the needs of staff while staff were feeling abandoned and micromanaged. I have also seen leaders deceived about their relationship to their boards until one day it all comes apart.
Because all of us have areas of self deception which are a threat to our leadership or followership, what can we do to minimize the potential damage?
One: We need to be constantly aware of the potential that we are deceived and evaluate our lives carefully and honestly.
Two: We need to have others around us who have permission to speak to us in the event they see blind spots or areas of deception. Wise leaders actually ask the question of those whom they trust around them because they are committed to personal health. Unwise leaders don’t ask and are not open to feedback. I once had someone accuse me of being responsible for issues in his life because I didn’t confront him with what I saw. What he did not realize is that he never asked and he sent very strong signals that he was not open to feedback. In fact, I had already had prior reason to push in on issues that he subsequently ignored. Eventually his world fell apart. He simply was not open to feedback.
Three: It is never a happy day to be confronted by a Nathan. We need to be willing, however, to seriously consider what others see in our lives, evaluate it carefully and respond non-defensively. Defensiveness pushes away feedback while transparency and non-defensiveness invites it.
Four: Invite the Holy Spirit to show you areas of deception. This was David’s plea in Psalm 139: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
Five: Read Leadership and self-deception. It will challenge you deeply.
Don’t be deceived over your own self deception!