“Just follow your heart.”
It’s the stuff that Disney movies are made of. It’s about actualizing yourself and your potential; it’s about living your dreams; it’s about living happily ever after. It’s also a terrible piece of advice. That’s because I can’t trust my own heart. And neither can you.
If it’s happened once, it’s happened a thousand times to me. I do something, something (dare I say) good for someone else, and then in retrospect find that I didn’t really do that thing for them, but for myself. It was so that others would see me doing it. It was to garner praise from the person I was helping. It was to impressively display my aptitude or compassion for another. It happens all the time. And every time it happens, I’m reminded of that same fact which is in equal parts true and disturbing:
I cannot trust my own heart.
I, like you probably are, am a master at self-deception. I can trick myself into thinking the best of myself in virtually any situation. The prophet told us the truth, hard though it is might be to accept:
“The heart is more deceitful than anything else, and incurable–who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:6).
If that’s true – that we can very easily talk ourselves into anything – how can we battle this tendency toward self-deception? I’d suggest three ways:
1. Recognize the potential.
The first step is to actually recognize the potential for self-deception inside all of us. This is painful because it means you freely admit that you might be wrong about a given action or thought process. You acknowledge that you might be tainted by ambition or emotion or greed or pride or whatever, and because you are, you might have talked yourself into a stance or course of action that is not nearly as right as you think it is.
Fortunately for us, God knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows how to untangle the complicated emotions and motives in our hearts. And because He does, part of recognizing the potential for self-deception is asking the Lord to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves:
“Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my concerns. See if there is any offensive way in me; lead me in the everlasting way” (Psalm 139:23-24).
2. Look for the signposts.
While we might not be able to truly see what’s inside of us, at least not in its fullness, we are able to look at some signposts that guide our way. Much different than looking into the abyss of our motives and innermost thoughts, there are practical outworkings of our heart that reveal what’s really inside of us. Two specific ones the Bible points us to are our money and our speech:
“Don’t collect for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. But collect for yourselves treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:19-21).
“How can you speak good things when you are evil? For the mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart. A good man produces good things from his storeroom of good, and an evil man produces evil things from his storeroom of evil” (Matt. 12:34-35).
If you want to know where your heart is, just follow your money. And if you want to know where your heart is, take a hard examination of your speech. When you can’t trust your heart, these two indicators will put you on the trail of where it really is.
3. Surround yourself with counselors.
Other Christians are a gift to us for many reasons, but one of them is that they ought to be willing to tell us the truth even when we are loathe to hear it:
Let the righteous one strike me—
it is an act of faithful love;
let him rebuke me—
it is oil for my head;
let me not refuse it (Psalm 141:5).
If we truly recognize the potential for self-deception, then one of the ways the Lord will help us fight it is through the influence of other people. Of course, this is dependent upon the people whom you regularly seek council from. It is further dependent on whether we trust these people enough to listen to what they are saying.
All of these action steps, though, have humility at their root. It is only in humility that we recognize the potential to deceive ourselves, only in humility that we can objectively examine the signposts that lead us to our hearts, and only in humility that we are willing to seek out and listen to the council of others. And in all that, when we come to the point that we realize our motives are twisted up and our hearts have led us astray, we remember again the gospel which reminds us that Jesus looks upon us and loves us, self-deceptive though we are.