As the title suggests I believe that Satan’s greatest ambition and sole purpose is deception, of himself and men. From beginning to end this appears to be his number one objective and activity. However, simply asserted, my position seems to be more of a means than an end in itself, but I hope to show in this post that for Satan, deception is the end as much as it is the means to the end. In order to accomplish this we must (I) understand something of the phenomenon known as self-deception and (II) how this is phenomenon is related to Satan and his ambitions, to finally (III) see how the church could better protect herself of the risk of succumbing to Satan’s great ambition.
I. THE REALITY OF SELF-DECEPTION
A. Self-Deception in Modern Psychology
The phenomenon of self-deception occurs when a person holds to two contradictory beliefs in their mind. In formal terms it follows this formula: It is the case that (P) and it is also the case that (not-P) at the same time in the same sense. In more recent times various schools of philosophy and cognitive psychology are recognizing and attempting to explain this concept; a concept that the word of God has identified and exposed for over 6000 years. Interestingly, studying the concept of self-deception has created two theorizing camps, each taking a slightly different approach to the problem. One group, known as intentionalists, maintain that because the issue under consideration is one’s beliefs and how he or she holds them, the action of believing must then be an act of the subject’s rationale or cognitive faculties alone. Nevertheless, such a conclusion forces one to either, utterly deny the phenomenon, as it is impossible to think rationally about any logical contradiction (e.g. like thinking about a square circle, or the color of the letter P) or to embrace an unbearable paradox. But, there are still those who hold that self-deception can occur only in the mind and are pressing on to demonstrate their thesis.
There is also another camp; these are called the non-intentionalist. The hypothesis that this group offers is, I believe, the closest to the biblical diagnosis. They contend that the act of self-deception involves more than mere cerebral activity, but also involves the volitional actions of the person’s will as well, thus, escaping the paradox of the intentionalists by positing the conflict as a hierarchical struggle between the person’s will and their reason. Secular studies and their conclusions in this matter are of little interest to me; however, showing the distinction between these two camps I feel helps to clear the following remarks of any objections to the concept, having qualified the intentionalist view and its problems; problems not shared by the biblical understanding of the phenomenon. Hence, the biblical view could be classified as “non-intentionalist” if such a category was desired, but I would as soon call it “the biblical view.”
B. Self-Deception in Biblical Terms
We can find self-deception expressed in a number of texts scattered throughout the Bible, but there is one in particular that is especially helpful, it is Ps 14:1a. Here the Psalmist says that “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” First notice where it is that the fool says that there is no God, it is in his “heart” (Heb. lêb) not his head or reasoning faculties (Heb. ra’yôn). This is classic example of self-deception and I believe the very foundation of all other forms of it. By virtue of man being an image bearer of God and living in a world created to reflect the nature and glory of God the fool cannot turn to his rational faculties and deny God’s existence, because the mind of every man knows that God does exist and that he himself is a dependant creation of this God and subject to his holiness, covenantal demands and judgments. But, as sinners, man wills not to think such thoughts, so it is his “heart” or will (not to the preclusion of the intellect) that marshals a new belief into his mind; one which conflicts and seeks to override the natural, true belief that God does in fact exist. In other words, he holds to a second, willed, false belief (i.e. “that there is no God’) about his original and true belief (i.e. “there is a God”).
In a nearly parallel text Paul describes this activity as “exchanging the truth of God for a lie” or “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom 1:18ff). Hence, the act of deceiving oneself is not merely an intellectual work, but rather, a moral and psychological action of a deceitful nature. Therefore, the phenomenon of self-deception is a reality expressed in the scriptures, one in which a person, in his sinful rebellion, wills, in spite of his right reason, a second order false belief that is meant to override a deeper first order true belief. This action is not a mere miscalculation or reasoning error, but a highly unethical act of a corrupted volition. The will is then seeking to falsely cover (or, suppress) the unbearable emotional pain of the true belief, not by means of reason, but through the stubborn drive of a rebelling action of volition against and upon one’s better reason.
(For scriptural warnings against self-deception see: I Cor 3:18; Gal 6:3—7; Jas 1:26; II Tim 3:13 etc).
II. THE RELATIONSHIP OF SATAN AND SELF-DECEPTION
A. Of Satan
When we approach Satan and the concept of self-deception it behooves us to first remind ourselves of a few seldom thought of factors about Satan himself. As Christians, we should be ever aware of the temptation to consider Satan to be little more than the personification of the principle of evil. This is how the world would have us to think about our Adversary, as principles are scarcely dangerous in and of themselves. Yet, the biblical Christian cannot be so soft minded.
Reality, as God has created and interpreted it for us, has within it three kinds of personal beings: 1) God; 2) angelic; and 3) man. And while there is a gamut of differences existing between these various kinds of being there is one tie that binds all three, they are all personal beings. Thus, we must keep the fact that Satan is a personality at the fore front of our minds.
As a personality, Satan has the necessary psychological, intellectual and emotional qualities that compose personhood. Satan, therefore, possesses all the necessary ingredients of full fledged self-deception and this at a supernatural level. I believe that back of what is commonly referred to as Satan’s pride is nothing less than his own self-deception. Let me illustrate this with one passage from the OT.
There are few commentators who would contest that Is14:13—14 has a meaning that points beyond the king of Babylon and indirectly to Satan. The language is too great to apply to a mere mortal and Jesus’ allusion in Lk 10:18 would further bolster this understanding of the text. It is Satan who is ultimately uttering the “I will(s).” As with Ps 14:1, my concern now is not so much what he said, but more so with where he said it.
As the fool, so too with Satan...”But you said in your heart” (lê-bab, Is 14:13a). It would be naïve to think of Satan as being some sort of imbecile. Satan is highly intelligent, far more intelligent than men and far too intelligent to “think” that he “will make himself like the Most High” (v. 14b). Also like “the fool” Satan is self-deceived; he has willed a false belief about a deeper belief he knows to be true about God Almighty. He has deluded the true knowledge he has about God’s sovereign omnipotence and authority and his own derived dependant creaturely-ness. He knows that he cannot usurp God from his throne of cosmic rule; however, he has deceived his mind into believing a false proposition—that someday he will do just that. I will now show how this relates to his great ambition.
B. Of Man
From the beginning (Gen 3:13; cf. II Cor 11:3; I Tim 2:14) to the end (Rev 20:8) of time Satan’s number one task is deceiving mankind. Satan knows that man is created a reflective being, created to image God. And having set himself up as a god (II Cor 4:4), his greatest ambition is to get man to reflect and image him; to become a self-deceived being as he is. Commenting on the passage in Is 14, Grogan agrees, speaking of Satan’s “I wills” he says, “[Satan’s] endeavor to be like God takes us back to Gen 3. Here Satan first sought to reproduce in human life his own aspirations for equal status with God.” So, from Eve in the garden to globally with the “nations,” this is Satan’s driving goal: developing and reflecting in mankind his own self-deception, thus, having captives that reflect his own image. In this capacity and this alone he succeeds to make himself like God; having other personal volitional creatures reflecting his nature and character.
If Adam and Eve were able to become deceived in the sinless state, how much more would man in sin be susceptible? Today, Satan has to do very little to convince man that he (man) “can be like God,” for this is the natural propensity of every fallen human heart.
III. THE BIBLE’S PRESCRIBED PROTECTION FROM DECEPTION
A. The Fertile Soil of Self-Deception
One lie that sinful man has believed is that he can divide his being into separate categories (i.e. mind, volition/will, emotions, morality, etc), compartmentalizing the various facets of his person and giving priority to some over others, whether consciously or not, he does this. The Bible will not allow such a domestication of man; God views man as a whole person, whether is Eden or in sin; man is always a whole person. When we fail to recognize the fact that we are a whole and that our persons are a unit that works properly only when it treated as such, Satan is given ample opportunity to divide and conquer by working his deception through the medium of our emotions and appetites to our will then into our mind, thus we become self-deceived. This is precisely the pattern Satan used on Eve in the garden (Gen 3:1—6). Ultimately, Satan deceived Eve (and Adam) into believing that they could think and procure absolute knowledge in spite of their relationship to the Creator and his words to the contrary. After having achieved this knowledge (falsely called so: I Tim 6:20), like Satan, man was self-deceived that he would attain equality with God, and such is the history of sinful man since.
If there is one area that the church suffers in today more than any other time in her history it is the suppression of the intellectual aspect of the Christian life. This era of church history is the most anti-intellectual there has ever been. If the church is suffering it is as always, from a lack of knowledge (Hos 4:6a). Yet, this is not the knowledge that puffs up or knowledge for knowledge’s sake; it is rather, a deeply devoted knowledge of the Word of God (v. 6b; cf. Deut 6:4—9). Less than 300 years ago the children of the congregations in this country under the leadership of Jonathon Edwards and other Puritans were expected to know the answers to questions such as: “How many kings of Egypt have we an account of who were not called Pharaoh? In what tribe was Libnah? Lachish?”. Today there are probably few that are called “Bible scholars” who could give answer to these types of questions without first researching a bit and in those day’s it was children’s Sunday school material.
If the greatest and foremost commandment is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mk 12:30, etc), then is stands to reason that the greatest sin would be to not “love the Lord your God with all your mind...” However, little attention is given today to the scripture’s emphasis on the role of the mind in both one’s conversion and sanctification (Rom 12:2; Eph 4:23, etc). The result is a community of believers that cannot “act right” because it is not “thinking right”! Thus, the great command not only exposes this problem, but also offers the solution for it.
B. The Prescription for Protection
In his reiteration of the great command (from the Shema, Deut 6:5), Jesus is not teaching that man has four separate parts which may operate independently of one another; but rather, that man is a whole and his devotion and love for God cannot be ghetto-ized and domesticated to the areas of mere emotions, volition etc. To experience true spirituality as God has prescribed it and protect ourselves from Satan and our sinful self’s deceptive tactics believers must begin by taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ and his authoritative word (II Cor 10:5).
Our falling prey to the allurement of deception is not at all different than our parent’s experience in the garden. In the Fall, God’s authoritative word was maligned and tampered with in every verse that records it; by both Satan and Eve. Suffering deception is an intellectual dilemma at root and its only cure is to foster and nurture the life of the mind under the Lordship of Christ and his word, hence, keeping our thought life tapped into the One in whom is hidden all knowledge and wisdom (Col 2:3). Proper reasoning is the antidote to deception, the mind will not succumb to deception when it is functioning properly and the only way it functions properly is when it is pursuing excellence in utter devotion and love for the Wisdom of God—Jesus Christ (I Cor 1:24).
As believers, we have the mind of Christ (I Cor 2:16) and Satan and self’s deceptive ambitions are powerless against us, but only when this reality is first recognized and then nurtured.
I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4
St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4