If you only know where to look, self-deception is all around us. It’s in old 80s songs. John Waite sang about lying to himself that he ain’t missing you. It’s in literature. One of my favourite examples is from C.S. Lewis. The Magician’s Nephew is the first of the Chronicles of Narnia. Narnia has just been created by Aslan. The animals are meeting with Aslan and at a certain point Aslan begins singing. All of this was observed by Uncle Andrew. This is what Lewis wrote next:
When the great moment came and the Beasts spoke, he missed the whole point; for a rather interesting reason. When the Lion had first begun singing, long ago when it was still quite dark, he had realized that the noise was a song. And he had disliked the song very much. It made him think and feel things he did not want to think and feel. Then, when the sun rose and he saw that the singer was a lion (‘only a lion,’ as he said to himself) he tried his hardest to make himself believe that that it wasn’t singing and never had been singing – only roaring as any lion might in a zoo in our own world. ‘Of course it can’t really have been singing,’ he thought, ‘I must have imagined it. I’ve been letting my nerves get out of order. Who ever heard of a lion singing?’ And the longer and more beautifully the Lion sang, the harder Uncle Andrew tried to make himself believe that he could hear nothing but roaring. Now the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed. Uncle Andrew did. He soon did hear nothing but roaring in Aslan’s song. Soon he couldn’t have heard anything else even if he had wanted to.
That’s a classic example of self-deception.
The Bible speaks about this phenomenon, especially in relation to people and their knowledge of God. Nowhere is this more direct than Romans 1. Romans 1 says that all people know, at some level, that the true God exists. However, not all people acknowledge his existence. There’s a crucial difference between knowing something and acknowledging something. Romans 1:18 says that unbelievers “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” about God. That’s telling us that unbelief isn’t an intellectual failure. Instead, it’s a profound moral problem. Unbelievers make the moral choice to pretend the true God isn’t there. This is an evil choice for which they’re fully responsible. Romans 1:20 says that they’re “without excuse.” They have no ground to stand on before God’s judgment. They’re going to be held accountable for their choice to know about the true God and yet refuse to acknowledge him.
The truth is every person knows deep within them that they’ve broken God’s law. Moreover, they know they’ll stand in judgment for that. Romans 1:32 speaks the truth, “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.” What keeps an unbeliever from openly acknowledging this? It’s simply the most irrational thing in the universe: sin. As it says in Romans 1:21, sin leads to futile thinking and darkened hearts.
What’s the way out of this profound self-deception with regards to the true God? Regeneration by the Holy Spirit. Only the Holy Spirit can bring light to the darkened heart. Only the Holy Spirit can bring purpose and meaning to our thinking. Only he can lead us to acknowledge God and, even more, trust in him. But it’s important to remember that the Holy Spirit uses means. He uses people who speak the truth of God’s Word to challenge the foolishness of self-deception (1 Pet. 1:23-25). What the self-deceived need more than anything is someone to come along with the truth, to pull the façade down, to rip off the mask, and show the way things really are. When we do that with the requisite love and humility of our Saviour, God can use that to work regeneration and faith.