by César De León Ph.D LMFT, Ministerial Director for the North Pacific Union Conference
We have been dialoguing about an all too common and often imperceptible phenomenon of self-deception. Jeremiah described it vibrantly: “Deceitful is the heart above anything else and desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9). If you have been following this dialogue, you may recall I introduced the SOP thought that reads: “ . . . ministers are in danger of losing their own souls. Some who preached to others will themselves be cast away because they have not perfected a Christian character. In their labor, they do not save souls, and fail even to save their own.” (Pastoral Ministry 24-25). Over the next few issues, I will cover three biblical scenarios where self-deception is unveiled.
Scenario # 1 The Rich Young Ruler
Do you remember the story of the rich young ruler? It’s an evangelistic encounter gone wrong!
There are several things that impress me about this young prince. He is curious; he has good desires; and he acts on his curiosity. Some of us may experience curiosity or good desires, but may fail to move into an intentional action. He did. He came and inquired: “What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life”.
From the get go, his question reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about salvation. “What can I do?” The straightforward answer is “NOTHING”! However, Jesus is more concerned about his heart condition than giving a theologically correct answer and cannot send him away without challenging his deepest heart motives. The young man has crossed a line of no return, he has approached the Redeemer, who, unbeknownst to him, is able to send him away that evening with an untethered heart.
Jesus tells him: “If you want to enter into life. . . Keep the commandments” (Matt.19:17). A seemingly benign response skillfully spoken to illicit a response that would unveil the hidden priorities of his heart. The young ruler, relieved Jesus’ answer was less complex than he had feared, asked: “Which ones. . .?” Jesus answered: “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, honor your father and your mother. . .” (Matt.19:18,19). He responded: “All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?” (Matt. 19:20). The gospels of Matthew and Luke reflect the Master’s unexpected response: “You still lack something. One thing you still lack”. A sterile, legalistic religion founded on law keeping will always result in a meaningless, futile life.
He claimed he kept all the commandments which gave him a false sense of security. But, was he safe? Mark tells us that Jesus looked at him and loved him (Mark10:21). Jesus feels for him; he is moved to compassion for this young ruler. Why? He was self-deluded. Self-deceived. A dictionary defines deluded as: “to impose a misleading belief upon (someone); deceive; fool”. And self-dilution: “The action of deluding oneself; failure to recognize reality.”
The young ruler claims he has kept the commandments, yet position and possession are the undisclosed idols that reveal the first and second commandments are being broken. James of course reminds us there is an intrinsic interplay between all the commandments: “Whoever keeps the whole law yet breaks one, is guilty of all” (James 2:10).
“Ministers are in danger of losing their own souls. . .”
We are in close proximity with holy matters. We deal with the sacred day in and day out. We handle the Scriptures in Bible study, before groups and entire congregations. We are expected to act holy because our calling demands it. Thus, to deliver what is expected of us, we create a holy facade, a mask, a pseudo-self.
Facade: “a figurative or outward appearance that is maintained to conceal a less pleasant or creditable reality”. We learn to function with our facade. We work with it, hang out with colleagues with it, to the point that we come to believe our facade is indeed who we are. This is how self-deception happens. It becomes a necessity for ministerial survival. It becomes part of the armor we put on to do “spiritual battle”.
May the Lord’s compassionate mercy through the aide of His Spirit fill us with the humility and transparency to daily examine the condition of our hearts and behaviors that we might review our motives to stay in touch with who we really are and feel the daily demand to become something better through the transforming grace of Jesus Christ.