How good of a driver do you think you are? Top 50%? Top 90%? I don’t know where the stat came from, but years ago I read that 90% of Americans think they’re in the top 50% of drivers. That means that the majority of our bad drivers actually think they’re good drivers.
I came across this fairly recent poll of Europeans, comparing themselves against other European countries. I found it interesting that they pretty much agreed that Germans are the most trustworthy, but their perceptions of themselves and others falls apart after that. When it comes to who they think is the most arrogant, Europeans point to either France or Germany. But when it comes to who is the least arrogant, every country polled pointed to itself. And when it comes to which country is the most compassionate, again, every country pointed to itself. Each has an over-inflated view of its compassion and an under-inflated view of its arrogance.
We like to think better of ourselves than is actually true. And we like to minimize our negatives, seeing ourselves as better than we really are.
So, is this a bad thing?
Yes, any form of self-deception is a bad thing.
I’ve watched athletes be crushed when they didn’t make a team they were trying out for. Some of those athletes were right on the edge of making it. Others had no business even trying out, they were so far from making it — their skills were so far from par and yet they deceived themselves into thinking they were as good as the rest.
I’ve watched a group of elementary school moms get into a tangle of emotions and accusations because of the manipulations of one of them, a situation that school authorities had to step into. And while everyone agreed that this one parent had caused all of the trouble, she maintained that she was completely innocent and demanded apologies from everyone else. The complete lack of self-awareness was mind-boggling.
You get the point. Self-deception is often harmful to one’s self and is often harmful to others as well.
And yet, there are times when a refusal to focus on the negatives and to see the positives (even if they are the smaller of the two) is essential to move in a positive direction. We love stories of people who defy the odds, overcoming personal limitations in order to achieve something no one else thought possible. I’m a sucker for movies with that stuff in them, wiping away tears as the challenge is overcome.
This isn’t a positive form of self-deception so much as it’s a tenacious pursuit of a goal despite limitations. Those who overcome significant personal limitations do so because they have taken those limitations so seriously that they have discovered ways to go around them or push through them or even use them to their advantage.
Following Jesus includes a move from self-deception to self-knowledge that takes personal sinfulness seriously. We’re sinners. We’re not how we would like to be, now how we like to think of ourselves. We’re bad off. But that’s not all. Following Jesus also includes taking God’s love and faithfulness and power seriously. God loves us deeply and is absolutely faithful in his commitment to us. Not only that, but he is powerful, able to do incredible things through us despite our sins and limitations.
When Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians in the Bible, he was imprisoned and facing possible execution by the Romans. But he found that those severe limitations didn’t limit what was most important to him. Since he was chained to guards all day long, he discovered that the gospel he preached wasn’t “chained”because he was able to talk about it with the guards who were stuck with him. He was able to receive guests. And he was able to write letters like the one to the Philippians. Despite limitations which would put most of us into despair, he was able to write this to his Philippian friends: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). Those “all things” obviously doesn’t refer to sprouting wings and flying away or any other absurd thing. Those “all things” refer to the things that God had called him to do. His limitations were strong, but his God was even stronger.
Paul didn’t succeed through self-deception, through thinking better of himself than was true. He succeeded by honest self-knowledge combined with a knowledge of his loving, powerful God.