I Told Me So: Self Deception and the Christian Life

Gregg Ten Elshof’s* recent book I Told Me So, which examines the role self-deception plays in the church and in our lives, suffers from an inherent marketing disadvantage.  Recommending it to friends, colleagues, or other non-anonymous individuals carries with it the risk of creating enormously awkward situations:  “But what precisely did you mean by buying this as my birthday present?”  I suggest, for such occasions, something by Andrew Murray instead.

That disadvantage is a pity, as Ten Elshof’s book fills a wide gap in the recent literature on the spiritual life and so deserves a broad hearing.  It is a model of clear, persuasive prose, but more importantly, I Told Me So is a deeply penetrating and highly convicting explication of a phenomenon that receives far too little attention.  It is in this way a helpful companion to such works as Spirit of the Disciplines and The Lost Virtue of Happiness.

Ten Elshof is at his best, and most provocative, when articulating the relationship between self-deception and the truth.  Writes Ten Elshof:

Knowing the truth is, in general, extremely important.  But knowing the truth is not all-important.  On occasion, we find that something else is more important.  Terminal cancer wards are full of patients who believe things we all know to be radically improbable.  They believe that they will be one of the very, very few who fight back and win-or that they’ll be the recipient of a miracle healing in response to the prayers of friends and family.  It’s not just that they believe that they could get better-that God could perform a miracle on their behalf.  In this they’re surely correct.  No.  They believe they will get better-that God will perform a miracle on their behalf.  Nearly all of them are wrong.  And anyone familiar with the statistics is well situated to see that they are.  But-and this is the most salient part for our discussion-nobody corrects them.  In fact, they are encouraged to persist in these highly improbable beliefs.

The excerpt exposes two fascinating aspects of self-deception that Ten Elshof highlights at various places:  first, self-deception is often a social phenomenon.  By not correcting the patient, those around him enable him to persist in his false belief.  Second, self-deception is, as Ten Elshof puts it, “an unexpected friend in time of need.”  Again, Ten Elshof:

While the truth is often freeing, it is not always so.  The truth can be utterly crippling and life-destroying for the person not positioned to receive it.  Through discipleship to Jesus, we position ourselves over time to be capable of handling the truth-perhaps in time, even the whole truth.  If we are disciples of Jesus, then, we position ourselves to be more and more acquainted with the truth-and to experience the truth as freeing.  In the meantime, though, God has mercifully designed us with the capacity to avoid and resist truths that we can’t handle.

Ten Elshof’s proposal is as freeing as it is unique.  By locating our growth in understanding the truth within the context of our relationship with Jesus, Ten Elshof manages to free us from the weighty responsibility of seeing our own sin.  Ten Elshof isn’t denying introspection–he speaks elsewhere of having a plan for sanctification–but is establishing relational limits on our introspection.  There is an appropriate time and place for our encounter with various truths, and that time and place may not always be of our own choosing.

In this way, Ten Elshof’s book is an important resource for both the non-introspective soul and the overly introspective soul.  And by helping us understand the role self-deception plays in the Christian life (for good and ill), Ten Elshof opens his reader to a deeper understanding of the way grace manifests itself in the life of the Christian. 

* I once had the opportunity to take a class from Ten Elshof, and that my wife maintains semi-regular correspondence with him.  We both regard him as one of the most thoughtful and careful teachers we have ever met.

Cross posted at MereOrthodoxy.com

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Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Anderson is a Perpetual Member of the Torrey Honors Institute. He graduated with honors from Biola University in 2004, and works as a financial planner, writer, and editor. His intellectual interests include questions of embodiment, the relationship between revelation and philosophy, and intellectual and philosophical history.

  • Mr. Incredible

    Elshof says: “While the truth is often freeing, it is not always so.”

    Christ says, Know the Truth and the Truth will set you free.’

    So, who’s correct?

    Elshof says: “Knowing the truth is, in general, extremely important.”

    Christ says it’s critical.

    Elshof says: “But knowing the truth is not all-important.”

    The Devil says that, too.

    Elshof says: “On occasion, we find that something else is more important.”

    The Devil is pleased when we are distracted from the Scriptures.

  • http://www.evangelicaloutpost.com Matthew Lee Anderson

    Mr. Incredible,

    I strongly recommend you read the book. I’ll quote Ten Elshof:

    “But didn’t Jesus teach that the truth will set us free? Well…no, he didn’t. Consider the text from which that teaching is usually extracted, John 8:31-32: “Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in hi8m, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free….’

    There’s a big difference between telling you that I’ll give you twenty dollars if you wash my car and telling you that I’ll give you twenty dollars. The first bit of news is *conditional.* You get the twenty dollars but *only if* you wash my car.

    Notice that the teaching in John 8 is also *conditional.* *If you continue in my word,* you will be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. Jesus promises that the truth will be freeing for the one who is continuing in his word. All bets are off for those who are not continuing in his word.

    Presumably, Jesus knew that the truth can be life-destroying. It is only in the context of discipleship to Jesus that we can become persons increasingly capable of handling the truth. Someday we will see God face to face. No doubt, that will be an immensely freeing experience. But, like Moses, we’re in no condition for that yet. Until that day, God has graciously arranged for us to be kept in the dark with respect to truths that would harm or destroy us.”

    That’s a long quote, but I think you get the point. Ten Elshof is more Biblical, I think, than you give him credit for.


  • http://inchristus.wordpress.com Paul

    Thanks for this brief review. I could not agree more!
    FWIW: I just put up an extensive summary/review at http://inchristus.wordpress.com/2010/04/19/i-told-me-so-self-deception-and-the-christian-life-a-review/