Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
The confessional part of many orders of worship begins with the words, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” I cannot imagine that any church has many people who would actually come out and say that they have no sin. Self-deception has to be a whole lot more subtle than that. We would not begin to pretend that we are sinless…it’s just that we sin less–less often or less publicly–than someone else does! The Pharisee had his publican and we have our “Pharisees.”
One fellow wrote, “I know a woman who would die in one day on a deserted island–she’d have no one to point her finger at.” Fortunately, he had her for the object of his finger or he might never have lived to write about it! Now, I have written about him.
A line from the famous Desiderata cautions us not to compare ourselves with others at all, because we will either become vain or depressed. St. Paul gave essentially the same advice years earlier in Galatians. Sunday’s Epistle lesson also contains the well-known line: “Be not deceived; God is not mocked.” One translation says, “Make no mistake.” Mistakes can be made without deception. I think the first translation is more enlightening.
Unfortunately, our self-deceptions are not limited to comparisons of ourselves to others. A pastor from Louisiana, who shall remain anonymous, tells an account from his own life. He and his wife went to another state to present a lecture series. They were to stay for several evenings, and found their sleeping accommodations woefully inadequate.
A member of the church board owned the motel, however, so they were reluctant to complain. Instead, every evening, they messed up the bed, threw towels on the bathroom floor and stayed in a nearby Holiday Inn. By sneaking in and out with the car headlights turned off, they thought they had successfully pulled off the deception until the last night. During the final session of the seminar, a man handed something to the host pastor, who, in turn, presented it to his guest speaker from Louisiana.
It was a Holiday Inn key that had been mistakenly turned in at the local motel! It was not just the ultimate discovery that upset that pastor. He was in a miserable state of turmoil throughout the ordeal. He said, “It just worried me to death. I’d get up to preach and all I could see were those two motel rooms. I wouldn’t have felt any worse if I were having an affair with somebody on the side.” A.E. Housman must have had a similar experience. He wrote, “The house of delusions is cheap to build but drafty to live in.”
Around patriotic holidays, I see many quotations from famous American patriots. Even though Independence Day celebrates something that took place long before Abraham Lincoln lived, his quotes are often in evidence near that holiday. According to Dr. Charles Wolfe of Baltimore, Maryland, one of Honest Abe’s most frequently misquoted and under-quoted passages is, “We may deceive all the people sometimes; we may deceive some of the people all the time, but not all the people all the time and not God at any time.” The last six words are usually omitted.
Dr. Wolfe added, “Deception is called the utility sin. Sins are usually distinguished by the end that a person pursues in each case…(sexual gratification, money, power, fame). Deceit, however, is distinct from the other sins in that it pursues no particular end but rather serves whatever end is pursued. Deceit is the strategy of sin rather than the goal of the campaign…. Preceding every sin known to humankind is a deception.” He’s right. We sinners are like drug addicts–pursuing the very thing that enslaves us, thinking it will give us relief and freedom. Wisdom notes: “The Devil has a plausible answer for everything.”
Feddersen’s Fables has the supposedly true story of the storekeeper who was also the local postmaster. Every day, when he closed up shop in order to meet the mail train, he worried about customers going to the competition for their gasoline or groceries. He hit upon a shrewd solution. He posted a sign in bold letters that said, BACK IN 15 MINUTES…ALREADY BEEN GONE 10!
On the other side of the advertising coin is a fellow named Robert Townsend. He hired an agency to come up with a completely honest way to increase his business. After several months of deliberation, they were ready to give up. The studies had revealed only two significant facts about him and his employees: try as they might, they were only the second largest renter of automobiles. Townsend and Avis, as history would show, turned number two and trying harder into one of the great success stories of all time.
Another story of honestly trying to avoid the evils of deceit comes from the hallowed halls of Harvard. Charles W. Eliot was president of the university for 40 years, from 1869 to 1909. His honesty and integrity were legendary, and so were his misgivings about college sports.
At the end of one successful baseball season, he announced that he was thinking of dropping the sport. Surprised and incredulous, people pushed him for an explanation. He said, “Well, this year I’m told the team did well because one pitcher had a fine curve ball. I understand that a curve ball is thrown with a deliberate attempt to deceive. Surely that is not an ability we should want to foster at Harvard.” He was serious!
You will not be surprised to read that I think Dr. Eliot was going a little overboard. At the same time, a host of “allowable” deceptions can pile up in our lives until we are deceived about the evil of deception. The golfer misses the ball on a would-be-tee shot, and decides: “I won’t count that one.” The dieter has an extra helping and decides not to enter it in the day’s calorie count. The drinker has a different tally than the bartender. We don’t count “little white lies.” Words and deeds that are otherwise inexcusable are not counted because we lost our tempers.
Observing a fellow with such poor moral mathematics, William James wrote, “He may not count it, and a kind heaven may not count it, but it’s being counted just the same. Down among his nerve cells and fibers the molecules are counting it, registering it and storing it up as a liability.” Our credibility, integrity and character as a whole are formed as the compilation of all the bits and pieces of our lives- -whether we consciously count them or not.
Eric Hoffer wrote, “The basic test of freedom is perhaps less in what we are free to do than in what we are free not to do.” Jonathan Edwards put it this way, “True liberty consists only in the power of doing what we ought to will and in not being constrained to do what we ought not to will.”
St. Paul recognized that being free to do whatever we want does not enable us to know what it is that we want. The deception of the flesh is such that when we get what we thought we wanted, we discover it is not what we wanted after all.
A little boy was playing indoors on a rainy day. After exhausting his own ideas of fun things to do, he whined the age-old question, “Mommy, what can I do?” She patiently offered several suggestions of toys and games, but none of them held any appeal. Finally, the harried mother exclaimed, “Well then, just do whatever you want to do.” Overwhelmed with his freedom, the boy answered, “I don’t want to do what I want to do!”
Isaiah’s picture of a child nestling at mother’s breast is a reminder that God nourishes us and equips us for the work He gives us. Our Messiah endured capture, torture and execution to set us free. But He did not use death as an excuse to stay away from us. He returned from the dead and sent the Holy Spirit to empower us. He enables us to see through the deceits of sin, to fulfill His mission and to freely walk in His way–the way we truly want.