Foreword: I Told Me So: Self-Deception and the Christian Life
I Told Me So: Self-Deception and the Christian Life by Gregg A. Ten Elshof, Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009.
In his teachings Jesus Christ picked up on a note struck by the prophet Isaiah: "This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me." (Mark 7:6, Isaiah 29:13) The apostle Paul famously remarked upon the incongruity between what he wanted to do and what he actually did. (Romans 7:15) Jeremiah stood in amazement before the deceitfulness of the human heart. He judged it to be "desperately sick," and inscrutable to the human mind. He as well as the Psalmist could only look to God to penetrate its murky depths. (Jer. 17:9-10, Psalm 139:23-24) Current events easily suggest that not that much has changed since ancient days, and the tenor of the usual Christian landscape seems to match up pretty well with what Jesus and the prophets saw.
There is not much use in getting indignant about this. It is really too important to spend much time attacking it, for attacks do little to help or change the situation. Transformation of disciples into inner and outer Christlikeness has increasingly become a matter of concern for Christians and Christian leaders in recent years, and the dynamics of personal inconsistency, individually and in groups, must be understood and practically mastered if anything like the clear patterns of Christlike living, familiar from the New Testament, are to be realized.
Self-deception is a major part of what defeats spiritual formation in Christ. In self-deception the individual or group refuses to acknowledge factors in their life of which they are dimly conscious, or even know to be the case, but are unprepared to deal with: to openly admit and take steps to change. As a result, those factors continue to govern their actions and shape their thoughts and emotions. The further result is that what they say they believe, intend and want is not borne out in life. The vehement affirmations of Peter and the other disciples, that they would not desert Christ, are peculiarly vivid illustrations of how that works, but the dreary details of daily life constantly confirm that this type of failure is not just for "religious" affairs. It pervades every area of human existence.
One of the worst mistakes we can make in coming to grips with these well-known human failures is to think of them solely in terms of will and "will power." Of course the will is involved, but the will is not what immediately governs the "normal" life. Such a life is controlled by inertia, habit, bent of character: stuff we really don’t pay much attention to, if any at all, and in some cases "stuff" we don’t even recognize or admit is a part of "us." The self that does the deceiving in "self-deception" is this inertial bulk of habit and bent of character, embedded in our body and its social relations, ready to go without thinking or choice. That was what Jesus knew to be the case with Peter and his associates, and it will be the same with us unless we have truly stepped into the light. The will—the ability to initiate change—is of course central to change, and it must change. But it can do that only if it comes to grips with the realities of all else that is in us and finds means and grace to change how we really do think and feel, how we live our social relationships, and what our body is poised to do before we start thinking about it.
Paul the apostle challenges us to "walk as children of light; for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth." (Eph. 5:8-9) And we can do that. It is something for us to do. It will not be done for us or to us—though help will come. We have to understand what self-deception is, how it works its subtle control, and steps that can be taken to defeat it. Here is where this book comes in. Gregg Ten Elshof has done a masterful job of showing how people manage to do the strange and, sometimes, dreadful things they do—often directly contrary to their self-professed thoughts, feelings, and intentions. He makes clear how the realities of mind, body and soul work against conscious and sincere declarations, and how individuals fail themselves through failing to deal honestly with what is in them. That is the nature and the effect of self-deception. And then he guides us into what we can do to defeat self-deception.
Ten Elshof’s discussions are erudite, biblical, searching, and laced with soul restoring wisdom. All of this together means that this book is solidly pastoral. What it brings to us is appropriate to individuals, but it especially belongs in the context of small groups and local congregations that are earnestly set upon growing together in Christ. It is written with a clarity and style that makes its deepest teachings accessible everyone. The aspirations of lovers of Christ to live in the light with him, to be children of light indeed, will find effectual guidance on the pages of this book.