Saul, David, and Solomon, the first three kings of Israel, had more in common than their positions on the throne. Each of them lied, and they did so in a manner that was incomparable with other lies. Their lies also exacted a high cost, while serving as exemplars of how not to lead.
How did they lie? Through self-deception. These leaders came to a point where they staked false beliefs about themselves, especially the abuse of their limited authority under the ultimate authority of the sovereign God. They convinced themselves that their authority, at least in certain situations, superseded God’s authority. This rationalization gave them permission to disobey God. Saul sacrificed a burnt offering and did not completely destroy the Amalekites. David ordered Uriah to the front lines of battle, committed adultery with his wife, Bathsheba, and then took her as his own. Solomon married women from pagan nations and began to worship their gods.
Self-deception, says psychologist Leonard Goleman, is the keeping out of awareness painful items and redirecting attention to more pleasant items about ourselves. We behave this way even though the pleasantries are not true. Self-deception often starts small and is indiscernible. Like a seed in fertile soil, it germinates and sprouts up. Leaders are especially vulnerable to self-deception. They may start out walking humbly before God. In their human sovereignties, however, no one has more authority. As their influence increases, so does their temptation to think of themselves more highly than they ought to think. This lying is insidious.
Self-deception operates like a Ponzi scheme—it is a cover up that leads to betrayal and distrust. Sometimes people completely lose sight of who they really are, covering up one lie after another about themselves. With such a slew of other lies, their unwillingness to acknowledge their personal behaviors, attitudes, and motives makes them big liars. Leaders who get stuck on this path dishonor God. They lose credibility with people who have integrity. And they pave the way for destructive outcomes.
No better example of self-deception can be found than in King Saul (II Samuels 15: 10-23). Saul convinced himself that he was obedient to God. “I have carried out the Lord’s command” (vs. 13). “But I did obey the Lord,” Saul insisted. “I carried out the mission he gave me. I brought back King Agag, but I destroyed everyone else” (vs. 20). In reality, Saul was disobedient. It is instructive that the High Priest Samuel challenged Saul’s perception of himself in verse 17 and then specifically pointed out how Saul’s behavior was inconsistent with God’s instructions. God instructed him to completely destroy the Amalekites. Instead, Saul opted for pleasantry in his view of himself (“I obeyed God”) over the painful truth (“I disobeyed God”).
Unfortunately, self-deception among leaders occurs much too often. God grant leaders the courage of conviction to tell the truth about themselves. Consider a few helpful suggestions.
- Ask God to search your heart and help you to see your motives. (Psalms 139: 23)
- Surround yourself with Godly leaders who can hold you accountable.
- Embrace constructive feedback, even when it is painful.
- Continually dwell on God’s word and measure your behavior against biblical principles.
- Seek professional help if your self-deception has spiraled out of control.