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 put 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.