April 25, 2019

Prevalent, Modern Forms of Self-Deception

Deep down, at the core of our being, we all want to live honest lives. By an honest life, I mean a life free of self-deception.  This requires constant examination [1] of our lives to ensure that we are following the straight and narrow road that leads to life, rather than the broad way that leads to destruction. [2] If we did not struggle in life, we would not be human, but we need to be honest about who we are in relation to who God wants us to be.  The world, the flesh, and the devil would have us believing lies about ourselves that prevent us from making progress in holiness and genuine love. [3] These lies are too manifold to discuss comprehensively in this article, but I wish to highlight some common forms of self-deception that detour us from the straight and narrow path that Christ Himself walked, the straight and narrow path that leads to eternal blessedness.

Firstly, a very prevalent and dangerous form of self-deception goes something like this: “I am a good person, and that is really all that matters, being a good person.” At risk of being brutally honest and possibly offending those who hold this view, we would do well to inquire, “according to whom are you a good person, and by what standard are you a good person?”  Upon reflection we see that the statement “I am a good person” is entirely self-referential. The person may as well have said, “I am a good person according to myself based on my own personal standards of goodness.”  In truth, the criterion of good and evil is not determined by myself, you, or anyone other than God alone.  Ultimately, we will all be judged by The Judge of the living and the dead, our Lord Jesus Christ, and He alone being our Creator and Redeemer is qualified to judge our goodness.  If we are not good according to Him, we are simply deluding ourselves by thinking of ourselves as good people.  The insanity of the view that I or anyone else is a good person can be illustrated in two ways.  (1) Jesus Himself, when he was called good, responded, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” [4] In other words, even as God Himself, Jesus did not take credit for being good, but referred all goodness to His Father in heaven.  If then Jesus does not take credit for being good, how much less should we? (2) Furthermore, who can honestly say they are good when they examine their life in light of the 10 Commandments, the Sermon the Mount, the 8 Beatitudes, the Golden Rule, and the Scriptural summons to be perfect in love of God and others.  I know for myself, after 5 minutes of such reflections, I am more convicted than ever of my sinfulness.  Something tells me I am not the only one.

What then is the consequence of believing the lie that I am a good person?  For one thing, it prevents a person from realizing how much they need God to be good, how much they need God to repent, be purified of sin and unhealthy attachments, and so enter into eternal beatitude with the thrice-holy God.  Those who already believe they are good are like those who believe they are not sick. The good and healthy do not need a Physician, says our Lord. [5]  In truth, we are all evil and sick with sin and in desperate need of the Divine Physician. Consequently, the self-deception of believing that you are a good person can exclude you from the mercy of Christ insofar as you refuse to acknowledge your sin.  I for one have no desire to mince words: I am not a good person, I am a sinner, and that is why I desperately need Jesus Christ every moment of the day.  How about you?  If you think you are a good person, it may very well be that you are not going deep enough in your self-examination.  You would do well to remember that Your Judge far excels the angels in holiness and purity. St John tells us plainly, if we believe we have no sin, if we believe we are good, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. [6]

Secondly, another form of self-deception relates to the parenting of children.  In particular, parents encourage their children to grow in the self-deception of pride and vanity.  Pride is a form of self-deception because it is reliance on the self, which is always unreliable given our fallen, sinful nature.  Vanity is a form of self-deception because it is a reliance on the opinions of others, and not God.  It is popular to speak about building a child up in self-esteem, encouraging the child to be confident in themselves. Children often no longer receive awards for achievement because it will cause other children to feel bad about themselves, hurting their self-esteem.  Some parents will flatter their children, telling them how great they are in different ways, believing that such flattery will give their children more confidence.  Oftentimes, children become the center of the family, command almost all of the attention soon as they walk into the room, and are instinctively taught that they are very important.  Now I want to be sensitive here because I recognize that parents who do these things are well meaning and may even be living good Sacramental lives.  In truth, however, such parenting does a disservice to our children.  What the culture labels self-esteem is virtually indistinguishable from pride, and the methods of building up in self-esteem often lead to vanity.  When we esteem ourselves as more important than others, we are being prideful.  When we expect attention from others, we are vain. When we believe that we are better than we actually are at anything, we are being prideful, not humble.  Why would we teach our children to be prideful and vain?  Merely labeling this behavior self-esteem does not change the reality that it is pride under another name.  What children and all of us need is esteem for God, not esteem for the self or an exaggerated esteem for the opinions of others.  The task of educating our children in virtue requires them to understand what we all need to understand: we are merely unprofitable servants utterly and completely dependent on God. [7] By teaching children to pridefully trust in themselves under the guise of self-esteem and to vainly crave the attention of others, parents are unwillingly fostering some of the worst forms of self-deception in their children.

Now some will object that if we do not give a child self-esteem, they will not know their preciousness in the eyes of God.  But upon closer examination, we can see how false this really is.  Where does our self-value come from?  It comes from being loved and loving in return.  By loving our children as God loves them, they will know their inherent worth, but they will also know that they are called to serve humbly in the vineyard of the Lord.  What children need is love, humility, and virtue, not self-esteem which builds them up in pride and exposes them to vanity. When St. Therese was a little girl, her father did not want others to compliment her too much, for he understood that the compliments could easily go to his daughter’ s head and cause her to seek the approval of others.  Therese said herself: No one in my family ever said “a word capable of allowing vanity to enter into my heart.” [8] Now if we want to raise saints, this is how we should think.

A third form of self-deception that is so easy to fall into is finding our value in the opinions of others and even finding our identity in the opinions of others.  This is an exaggerated form of vanity.  We all desperately crave for approval.  We want to be liked and, if we are not careful, this desire to be approved by others will cause us to change our normal behavior in an effort to obtain approval.  At first, this happens in subtle ways, and then more overtly.  We may avoid praying before meals because others will not approve, we may not apply for the job we desire because a friend does not think it will be a good fit.  We may spend extra time decorating the table or sending out invitations because of the expectations of certain family members.  We may say yes to coffee with a friend even though we know in our heart that Jesus is not calling us to develop that friendship.  

Now clearly, if we go through life in this manner, pleasing this person, then that person, then that person, we will wake up one day and realize that the one person we never pleased is Jesus Christ, and His opinion is the one that matters most.  Our value is in being sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters of Christ, and having within ourselves the Holy Spirit. In our relationship with the Holy Trinity is our security, peace, and joy.  The self-deception of finding our value in others leads to slavery, not freedom, because we were made for God and those people He chooses to mediate His love for us. 

Finally, a fourth form of self-deception occurs when we place our security in temporal realities such as wealth.  It is so tempting to believe that extra money in our savings account, an insurance contract, a life insurance policy, a fully paid down house, etc. protects us from hardship.  In truth, God alone keeps us alive moment by moment.  Storing up treasures in earthen vessels where moth and rust consume, and thieves break in and steal, [9] will never bring real security.  This is not to say that we should not have life insurance or health insurance or a nice home or savings in the bank, but we have to remember not to think that we are secure because of such things.  Our security is in doing the will of God by loving in deed and truth. [10]  Period. Otherwise, we risk losing something far more precious than all earthen treasure: our immortal soul.  How many blind guides crave money, but could care less for virtue.  They are like those who pass by gold and spend their lives accumulating mud.  When we disentangle our hearts from the false security of riches, we become free to follow Christ. [11]

In conclusion, let us strive to lead honest lives.  If we notice any of these forms of self-deception at work in our lives, there is still time to turn to Christ and ask for Him to set us free.  There is nothing He would love more than having the opportunity to be our Savior.


[1]For an authentic and illuminating look at self-examination in the form of an examen and discernment of spirits, cf. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius (Tan Classics).

[2]St. Matthew 7:13-14.

[3]Unbound is a form of deliverance prayer and a great way to be free of these lies.  Cf. Neal Lozano, Unbound.

[4]St. Mark 10:18 (Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition).

[5]St. Matthew 9:12.

[6]1 John 1:8.

[7]St. Luke 17:10.

[8]Father Antonio Sicari. O.C.D., Zelie and Louis Martin, Mother and Father of Saint Therese of the Child Jesus of the Holy Face, http://www.louisandzeliemartin.org/sicari.

[9]St. Matthew 6:19.

[10]1 John 3:18-19.

[11]St. Mark 10:21-22.

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Written by
Michael Vacca

MICHAEL ARTHUR VACCA, Esq., is a devout Catholic and passionate about Catholic social teaching. He graduated from Hillsdale College with a B.A. in English and Political Science, holds a J.D. from Ave Maria School of Law, and is a licensed attorney in Michigan. He worked for the Pontifical Council of the Family in Rome, where he advised the Church on pro-life and pro-family issues and advanced Catholic social teaching. Michael is the Managing Editor of the International Center on Law, Life, Faith, and Family, which produces and provides resources on these issues, www.icolf.org. He is a founding board member of Sidewalk Advocates for Life, and currently serves on the board of the Casa Vitae Foundation.

Mr. Vacca is author and co-author of various articles on bioethics and law, including: “A Reexamination of Conscience Protections in Healthcare” and “Best Practices: Laws Protecting Human Life and the Family Around the Globe” (International Law Journal, Ave Maria School of Law). He is also a co-editor of a book entitled, “St. Paul, the Natural Law, and Contemporary Legal Theory” (Lexington Books, 2012).

A regular contributor to the Catholic Journal, more than anything, Michael is grateful to be a practicing Catholic and for his lovely wife Sarah.

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2 comments
  • In the light of recent news events, this article is very timely. We all need reminders of our need for grace and the self awareness of how we can be easily deluded. Reminds me of the line from a hymn…To God be the glory…for the things He has done!… Thank you, Michael.

Written by Michael Vacca