In studying the seven churches of Revelation 2-3, we have found that all have one thing in common: the need to overcome. Some eras receive more chastening and harsher criticism than others do, yet Christ admonishes even the "best" or least criticized to overcome. This suggests that all these churches fall short of God's standard of holiness. All lack faith, hope, love, obedience, dedication, and responsiveness, among other aspects of character. All still produce the works of the flesh, man's carnal nature and selfishness.
Since our Savior directly instructs all the churches to overcome, this series of Bible studies will address this vital matter. We will first look into the various impediments to overcoming—the sinful attitudes and conditions that hold us back. To begin, we need to see what part self-deception plays in concealing our true spiritual condition from us. If we hide our sins even from ourselves, we will never work to overcome them!
1. How can members of God's church be completely deceived about their true standing with God? Ezekiel 28:14-18; Revelation 12:9; II John 7; Jeremiah 2:21-23; 17:9; James 1:22-24.
Comment: The answer begins with Satan's—the great deceiver's—influence, aided and abetted by his ministers, who appear as angels of light (II Corinthians 11:13-15). As Paul says, the Devil's ministers even infiltrate the church of God! To this we must add the utter deceitfulness of human nature—our perverted desire to see ourselves as we wish to be rather than as we really are. This is a recipe for self-deceit. Even when we look into the mirror of God's Word, we often deny the differences between His standard and our conduct.
2. Can we blame our failure to recognize our sins on the Devil or someone else, or is human nature at its core? Do we deceive ourselves? Mark 7:20-23; Jeremiah 9:5-6; I John 1:8; Proverbs 12:20; Galatians 6:3-7.
Comment: Self-deceit is an inherent part of man's emotional, mental and spiritual makeup. We have a hard time seeing it in ourselves because we are experts in hiding reality from ourselves and trying to hide it from others. However, we fool ourselves if we think we can hide our true nature from God.
3. Is self-deceit tied to pride and ego? Isaiah 65:5; 66:2; Daniel 4:37; Matthew 23:12; Romans 12:3; Philippians 2:3.
Comment: Our nature seeks to exalt itself above others, to esteem itself "holier than thou." We see this in those who esteem themselves as Philadelphian, while deeming all those around and not part of their group as "beneath" them and Laodicean. God will abase those who seek to exalt themselves, for He does not pay attention to the spiritually proud but to the contrite and humble.
4. Does self-deceit end with the individual or can large groups of people also deceive themselves? Isaiah 3:16-26; Jeremiah 5:25-31; Revelation 3:1, 17.
Comment: The Old Testament prophecies broaden the scope of this problem. In type, we find both Isaiah and Jeremiah castigating the end-time church for deceitfully dressing itself up to appear more spiritually beautiful than it is, competing as the "fairest in the land" through an artificial, untrue depiction of itself. Isaiah uses the imagery of individual women to stress this point. Christ indicts at least two churches, Sardis and Laodicea, for group self-deception.
5. We cannot overcome sin we cannot identify. How can we detect self-deceit in ourselves? James 1:22-27.
Comment: Only by careful study of God's Word, the ultimate standard of thought, speech and conduct, can we know what is right and wrong. We must follow our study with honest and truthful comparison of those words with our own lives. If we read the words of God and walk away, forgetting what we saw, we deceive ourselves. None of us compares favorably with what we read in Scripture, so we must make changes. James says our religion—our practice of God's way of life—is vain if we omit either the positive instructions (visiting widows and orphans) or the negative ones (removing the spots from our character).
6. Do we have a responsibility to others? Can we just be an island, overcoming our own faults and ignoring others, and still receive God's favor? Hebrews 3:12-19.
Comment: James spells out our commission to care for the needs of others as a true test of our real—as opposed to our self-perceived—righteousness. Hebrews teaches us to exhort one another frequently to avoid becoming hardened by sin's deceitfulness and jeopardizing our salvation, just as so many Israelites failed to reach the Promised Land, their carcasses falling in the desert.
Deceiving ourselves about our own spirituality and running from the truth we see in God's Word are serious impediments to overcoming. If we remove our self-imposed blinders from our eyes, however, we will have taken the first step toward overcoming—and toward God's promise of eternal life in His Kingdom!