Overcoming Deception

Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test? (2 Corinthians 13:5)

THERE IS A FUNNY LITTLE story about a man who went to the doctor for a checkup. After the doctor did a very thorough examination on him, the doctor asked the nurse to send in the man’s wife so that he could talk to her. The wife said, “Well, doctor, how is he?” And he replied, “I’m afraid it’s bad news. He might pass away, but I think there is a way we might be able to save him.” She looked hopeful and said, “Well, what can we do?” The doctor said, “You need to fix him three meals a day for the next three months and take care of all his needs—whatever that may be.” When the wife and her husband got in the car, her husband looked at her and said, “Well, what did the doctor say?” His wife looked at him with a straight face and said, “Honey, you’re going to die.”

Deception. Duplicity. Double-dealing. Fraud. Cheating. Trickery. Underhandedness. Lying. Pretense. Artifice. Slyness. Cunning. Deviousness. Bluffing.

Psychology Today published a recent article on Deception. In answer to the critical but important question What is deception, the article refers to any act—big or small, cruel or kind—that causes someone to believe something that is untrue. Even the most honest people practice deception. Some studies indicate that the average person lies several times a day. Some lies are big (“No, I have not been drinking!”), but more often they are so-called little white lies (“That dress looks fine.”) we use to avoid uncomfortable situations or spare someone’s feelings. I had an addictions counselor tell me (in group therapy) that the main reason we lie is to hide something we’ve done or how we feel about a situation.

Lying is a common human trait. Essentially, it is making an untrue statement with intent to deceive. Deception, however, isn’t always a bold-faced lie. There are also the lies people (including me) tell themselves for reasons ranging from fear to self-esteem issues. Some people lie due to serious delusions beyond their control. Researchers have long searched for methods of effectively detecting when a person is not telling the truth. An example would be the polygraph test. The good old “lie detector.” Not surprisingly, certain psychiatric disorders, such as depression, borderline personality disorder, substance use disorder, and antisocial personality disorder, feature deception.

Pathological lying is a contentious topic. This habit is characterized by a long history of frequent and repeated lying for which no apparent psychological motive or external benefit can be discerned. Pathological lying must be differentiated from other psychiatric orders associated with deception. Differential diagnosis can be tricky given that lying behaviors often mimic pathological lying in certain personality disorders. While ordinary lies are goal-directed and are told to obtain external benefit or to avoid punishment, pathological lies often appear purposeless. In some cases, they might be self-incriminating or damaging, which makes the behavior even more incomprehensible.

Do you practice deception?

Paul tells us in Galatians 5:21, “…envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (NASB) [italics mine]. The phrase in the King James Version is “…that they which do such things…” The Greek word used for “do” is prasso, a primary verb, meaning “to practice,” i.e. “perform repeatedly or habitually.”  According to the Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible, “do” in this instance means “to do, make, [or] perform in general, expressing an action as continued or not yet completed, what one does repeatedly, continually, habitually, like poieo, which we find in John 3:20 (‘everyone who does evil,’ NIV)” [italics mine].

The Dake Annotated Reference Bible notes that Galatians 5:21 is the “…first N.T. prophecy… no man who commits these sins will ever inherit the kingdom of God unless he confesses and puts them out of his life… lest any man claim that he can be saved and yet live in these sins and the judgment will decide whether he or Paul is right.” Relative to verse 21, to practice deception means to habitually deceive others. We can only get at the root of this type of persistent lying by examining ourselves. Paul is fairly blunt about this, saying we can only know if we’re in the faith by looking at our behavior. Not sure about you, but I don’t generally like examining myself. One of the worst walls I smacked up against during recovery from addiction was the dreaded Fourth Step: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. Indeed, it takes a great deal of courage to honestly examine our behavior and our motives.

“Examine,” in the Greek, means “to prove or test under fire.”
What about me?

My father called me a “pathological liar” many times during my life. He said, “You lie so well you believe your own lies.” As we saw above, pathological lying is more accurately a psychological disorder and typically involves lying about everything; even things you don’t need to lie about. It is, essentially, a compulsion. Someone with the diagnosis cannot help but lie. About whatever. Thus, the label “pathological liar” was inaccurate. I will admit, however, that I (unfortunately) became an “accomplished” liar. I chose to use deception as a form of manipulation. I was basically adapting or changing the truth about a circumstance, person, or situation, and (at times) even facts and figures, to suit my purpose or advantage. Even if it was at the expense of someone’s feelings.

How do we overcome deception?

For me, the first step in overcoming deception is dealing with my poor self-image and a nearly chronic sense of fear—especially fear of rejection. The most likely underlying factor is pride. Whenever I “need help” from someone, even a family member, I typically hide the need or, worse, shoot from the hip and do whatever it takes to get out of the situation. I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, It’s easier to apologize later than seek permission now. This has been a mantra of mine for decades. Trust me, it is not something to be proud of. As you might imagine, however, it is quite difficult to rewire your modus operandi. Like any habit, such deep-seated behaviors become rote.

Recent events in my life have allowed me to fully acknowledge my tendency to fib rather than fess up. This is not an easy confession. I’m a Christian in recovery who has been through numerous bouts of counseling—for addiction, emotional turmoil, and spiritual growth. I just completed my undergraduate degree in Psychology at Colorado Christian University in December, and I’m currently enrolled in their master’s degree in Biblical Studies and Theology. I found the undergraduate curriculum to be exceptional, and I expect nothing less from their graduate program. The emphasis was always on Christian worldview and doctrine—which was incorporated into every course whether it be psychology, statistics, ethics, church history, or mathematics. My academic work as an undergraduate at a Christian college has literally changed me. It’s made me a better man, and a better Christian.

About the Apostle Paul

It is fascinating to me that we can want to do good, yet fail to do so. In Romans 7:15-20, Paul says, “

What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God’s command is necessary. But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time (MSG).

I respond most strongly to the comment, “I obviously need help!” I realize that, like Paul, I don’t have what it takes. These words came from Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, who wrote thirteen books of the New Testament. The Dake Annotated Study Bible states in a footnote that verse 15 could be interpreted as Paul saying, “I do not approve of my slavery to sin.” Looking back to the sixth chapter of Romans, Paul writes, “When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life” (6:20-22, NIV).

So now what?

There is only one answer to this dilemma. Whatever the habit, no matter the attitude, without any regard to the seriousness of the sin, we cannot stop being a slave to sin simply because we recited a prayer, joined a church, or underwent water baptism. Our freedom from the practice of sin comes only by going beyond Jesus the Messiah; we must recognize the Lordship of Jesus. Paul speaks of the Christian life as one of slavery. He notes that before we accepted Christ we were slaves to sin and the flesh. We had no truly effective “cure” for sinful behavior. It is, despite what atheists and humanists and pluralists say, impossible to change your character—your innate, sinful tendency—without becoming a slave to the righteousness of Christ. The claims of most atheists and humanists nothwithstanding, mankind does not possess the necessary tools to override the powerful lure of sin and the flesh.

Fortunately, at some point, maybe years later, you might make the decision to truly dedicate your life to Christ. That’s when things “get serious.” It involves recognizing Jesus as Lord of your life. At last, you finally submit your life to Him and only then become His slave. It’s simply a second work of grace; a new level of commitment to Jesus Christ. The moment you are converted to Christ, you are released from one slavery (sin and the flesh) and immediately transformed into a new slavery (that of being the slave of Jesus Christ and His Righteousness). When looking at Romans 6, verses 20 and 21 describe the slaves we once were, whereas verse 22 looks at our new life in Christ.

Looking once again at the concept of “examining ourselves,” (which in the Greek means “to prove or to test under fire”), we cannot shy away from the difficult questions. Our examination must be fearless and complete. We need to scrutinize our relationship with Jesus. Are we really close to Him? Are we growing spiritually? Do we still wrestle with habitual sin? How much time to we spend in the Scriptures? How is our prayer life? Whose interest do we serve first?  Paul tells us, “But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:31, NIV).

Indeed, we must examine everything by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Why Do Christians Still Sin?

If we really knew God, our behavior would change radically and instantly.

Many Christians are living under half a Gospel. Christ died for our sins. When we pray to receive Him, believing in our heart that He is the Messiah, we die with Him, and are buried with Him. If we leave it there, where is our resurrection? If we do not repent from continual, deliberate sin, do we not act as if His death and resurrection was a worthless gesture? Think of it this way. If you came across a dead man lying along a road and you had the power to save him, what would you do? Give him life? If that is all you did, then he would merely die again one day. You would have to cure the disease that caused him to die in the first place.

The True Definition of a Christian

Regardless of how overused the word Christian has become, the biblical definition of a Christian is one who is a follower of Christ; a disciple of Jesus (see Acts 11:26). A Christian is not merely someone who has ascribed to a particular set of religious beliefs or practices, joined a church, said a penitent prayer, or participated in certain sacraments or rituals. A Christian is a person who has responded to the conviction of the Holy Spirit and has put his or her whole faith in the finished work of the cross of Christ for salvation. Christians have repented of their sin and have made Jesus Lord of their lives. Romans 10:9-10 says, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (NIV).

We Can’t Deny We Still Sin

The Bible says, “For the wages of sin is death… (Romans 6:23a, NIV). Jesus went to the cross and died for our sins. Is the whole Gospel simply curing the disease that caused us to die? Not at all. Finish reading the verse: “…but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v. 23b). When we forget the entire Gospel, we remain fleshly. We are forgiven yet not redeemed. Sounds strange, right? Almost counter-intuitive. Surely, we’ve been ransomed from the wages of sin by the death of Christ. However, full redemption provides a number of benefits we need in order to live righteously. Redemption provides us with eternal life; forgiveness of sins; a right relationship with God; guidance from the Holy Spirit; adoption into God’s Holy family. When we’re redeemed, we become different people. We are truly alive in Christ. We are now free to choose to live in the Spirit and not in the flesh.

The First Epistle of John was written to Christians. We’re told in 1:8-10, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us” (NIV). God tells us not to deny that we sin, saying if we do, we’re actually calling Him a liar. Verse 9 indicates what we’re to do when—not if—we sin. He promises to forgive us and cleanse us of the unrighteousness associated with our sin.

1 John 3:9 says, “No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God” (NIV) [Italics mine]. These types of seeming contradictions confuse new Christians and drive agnostics and atheists crazy. This, however, is not a contradiction. John’s idea of committing sin on a permanent, habitual basis is further explained in 3 John 1:11: “Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good. Anyone who does what is good is from God. Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God” (NIV).

In 1 John 3:6-9, the apostle is examining the question of whether a person “born of God” can commit sin. In verse 6, he writes, “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning.” In verse 9, he emphatically shares, “No one who is born of God will continue to sin.” John seems to say it is not possible for those who are really  born again to continue to sin. If that were true, there would not be many genuine Christians. This is not what John means. Remember, every believer still possesses a fallen, sin nature, as well as the indwelling Holy Spirit. This reminds me of the old Cherokee saying that we all possess two wolves inside us. One is evil—he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, and ego. The other is good—he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, truth, compassion, and faith. Which wolf will win the fight? The one you feed.

The correct translation of 1 John 3:8 should be, “The one who practices sin.”

What Does It Mean to “Practice Sin?”

Hebrews 10:26-27 says, “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God” (NIV). The Greek word for committing sin (poieo) means to be seen sinning, or to display a sinful behavior. Certainly, this will present a poor witness, making the Christian appear hypocritical. I’ve been there, my friends. Far too many times. I’ve often said, “If I don’t start behaving better in public—stop raging at stupid tailgaters, for example—I’m going to take the Jesus First plate off the front of my car.” The Greek word for practicing sin (prasso) means to perform repeatedly or habitually, and hints of deeds, acts, or using arts. Notice the plurality and repetition here.

In Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible, we read the following regarding Hebrews 10:26-31:

The sin here mentioned is a total and final falling away, when men, with a full and fixed will and resolution, despise and reject Christ, the only Saviour; despise and resist the Spirit, the only Sanctifier; and despise and renounce the gospel, the only way of salvation, and the words of eternal life… all this does not in the least mean than any souls who sorrow for sin will be shut out from mercy, or that any will be refused the benefit of Christ’s sacrifice, who are willing to accept these blessings. Him that cometh unto Christ, he will in no wise cast out” (pp. 1212-1213).

The Nature of the Problem

The Bible teaches we are dead in our “trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1) and “were by nature children of wrath” (2:3) [Emphasis added]. In other words, we were born physically alive but spiritually dead. We had no access to God’s presence in our lives, nor knowledge of His ways. We simply lived our lives devoid of God, unless and until someone introduced us to the Gospel. Paul plainly explained, “For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want” (NIV).

The flesh can be described as existence apart from God—a life dominated by sin or a drive opposed to God. Obviously, the flesh considers itself self-reliant rather than God-dependent; it is self-centered rather than Christ-centered. Mankind, accordingly, is sinful by nature and spiritually dead. But, at the moment of salvation, God transfers us from the domain of sin and darkness to the Kingdom of His beloved Son (see Colossians 1:13). Additionally, sin’s dominion through the flesh has been broken. As believers, we are no longer in the flesh—we are in Christ. We have to believe that our new identity is in the life of Christ and commit ourselves accordingly.

If you are a new creation in Christ, have you ever wondered why you still think and feel at times the same way you did before? Because everything you learned before you knew Christ is still programmed into your memory. Unfortunately, there is no mental delete button. Surely, this is why Paul says, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2, NIV) [Emphasis mine]. We have to renew how we think, not delete our old way of thinking.

Concluding Remarks

God’s work of atonement changes us from sinners to saints. No doubt this is a hard concept to comprehend as a new Christian. The radical change—aptly called regeneration—is effected at the moment of salvation. The ongoing change in the believer’s daily walk continues throughout life. The progressive work of sanctification, however, is only fully effective when the radical, inner transformation by regeneration is recognized, accepted, and appropriated by faith.

New believers are dominated by the flesh and deceived by the devil. It takes time and practice to renew the mind and overcome the patterns of the flesh. We have to believe we have a new nature. Our “new self” is oriented toward God. Being a child of God and being free in Christ is positional truth and the birthright of every believer. However, because of a lack of repentance and ignorance of the truth, many believers are not living like liberated children of God. Our freedom from sin’s domination hinges on knowledge of the truth.

Hmm. In other words, the truth will set us free. Where have I heard that before?