On Honesty and Self-deception: ‘You Are the Man’

by Lloyd H. Steffen

Lloyd H. Steffen is associate professor of philosophy and religion and chaplain at Northland college in Ashland, Wisconsin.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 29, 1987, p. 403. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Where are the Nathans who will speak to us, even at personal risk, about our failures to be honest with ourselves? Nathan reminds us of who we are before God.

Once when Frederick II, an 18th-century king of Prussia, went on an inspection tour of a Berlin prison, he was greeted with the cries of prisoners, who fell on their knees and protested their unjust imprisonment. While listening to these pleas of innocence, Frederick’s eye was caught by a solitary figure in the corner, a prisoner seemingly unconcerned with all the commotion.

"Why are you here?" Frederick asked him.

"Armed robbery, Your Majesty."

"Were you guilty?" the king asked.

"Oh yes, indeed, Your Majesty. I entirely deserve my punishment." At that Frederick summoned the jailer. "Release this guilty man at once," he said. "I will not have him kept in this prison where he will corrupt all the fine innocent people who occupy it."

Why is this story amusing? Perhaps because it is deliciously ironic? Or is it because we have become dreadfully cynical? For many of us, the idea that an imprisoned person would concede the justice of his punishment seems highly unlikely. That explains our amusement. But the story can, if we think about it, disturb us as well, for it is about a value all of us would admit is important -- honesty -- and it portrays that fundamental constituent of the moral life as something uncommon. We understand why the king reacts as he does. We, too, know how infrequently honesty is found in the common life, how rare it is to meet a person whom we would spontaneously characterize as, above all else, "honest." To meet such a person might bewilder and amaze us, too.

Honesty is not praised much these days. We pay it some lip service, of course, and we tell our children to be honest in their dealings and with their feelings. But many of us would rather have our children be shrewd than honest. We want them to learn how to be suspicious, how to protect themselves, how to ward off fast-talking people and nicely packaged, well-advertised distortions of reality. "Chumps," as I once heard the term defined, are "people who go out of their way to be taken advantage of" -- and we don’t want ourselves or our children to be chumps. Therefore we hesitate to praise honesty too much, or to encourage it at the expense of common sense, or expediency or the pressures of practicality and the "real world." Even experts in interpersonal relations tell us that too much honesty can destroy a relationship. Honesty now looks like a dubious virtue if not an actual vice. It is studied and examined as a stratagem rather than as a hallmark of character.

Despite our contemporary discomfort with too much honesty, the quality remains central to our moral codes and counsels. Deceptions subvert the moral life, and destroy the foundations of our social arrangements. Whatever basis for humane communion is to be found in either principles of respect for persons or faith in God is eroded by our failures to treat each other as persons worthy of being told the truth.

Yet honesty is not a problem only in the sphere of our social engagements. Honesty is also important psychologically, as regards our feelings about ourselves. Here the important question is: Can I be honest with myself?

We exhibit an amazing agility in avoiding the truth about who we are and what we do. Our failures in being honest with ourselves are instances of self-deception. And all of us are, have been, or could be self-deceivers. We are prone to it, capable of it, and never more likely to be in its grip than in those moments when we are sure we are not. As people of faith, we are called to be honest in our dealings with God, with others and with ourselves. Self-deception can disrupt all of those relations. It is therefore appropriate to consider what self-deception is and how our faith tradition has attempted to edify us, to "build us up," so that we might be able to respond to its threat.

Self-deception occurs when people who are committed to certain values act against those values while convincing themselves that what they are doing does not in fact violate those values. The disciple Peter, for example, told himself (and others) that he was strong and would never desert his master. He desired to be a person faithful unto death. Yet he was not that person. He valued something else more: his own skin. Until his moment of truth, until he faced the fact that not only could he not live up to his ideal of faithfulness but that he did not want to, he was self-deceived. Self-deception is thus like a narrative that finally fails to do justice to the facts.

We notice instances of self-deception when the gap between behavior and interpretation is clear. We detect instances of self-deception when people interpret to us the meaning of their behavior in ways that seem farfetched or skewed. Self-deception lurks in denials, double-mindedness, rationalizations, cover-ups and cover stories, elaborate and almost convincing justifications, excuses, attributions of blame and evasions of responsibility. We observe it in the person who exhibits an eating disorder and denies that there is a problem; in the person who exhibits a dependency on alcohol yet says drinking is just a way of relaxing from the stresses of the office; in the minister who continually blames his congregation, not his preaching, when members doze in the pews; in the person who refuses to acknowledge a potentially life-threatening illness.

Samuel Johnson once noted the kinds of moves self-deceivers make: they congratulate themselves on a single act of generosity, telling themselves that they are generous people; or they dwell on the faults of others; or they avoid people who know what they are like, preferring the company of those who will not expose them to themselves. Self-deceivers, Johnson said, avoid "self-communion." If the loss of honesty undermines communal life, the loss of self-honesty undermines the inner life -- after awhile one cannot trust oneself.

Scripture recognizes the danger that self-deception poses for the life of faith, and no biblical story illustrates the phenomenon of self-deception better than that of King David and Nathan the prophet.

As the story is recorded in II Samuel 11, David is strolling on his terrace when he happens to spy a beautiful woman, Bathesheba, bathing. He arranges a romantic tryst with her, as a result of which she becomes pregnant. Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, is a loyal soldier in David’s army, and is off fighting David’s battles. Not delighted at the prospect of being identified as the father of Bathsheba’s baby, David plots to avert any suspicion

that the child is his. He orders Uriah to return home in the hope that his reunion with Bathsheba will so transpire that Uriah will assume he is the father of the child.

But Uriah fails to cooperate. Ever the loyal servant, wishing to be pure in his service to the king, he sleeps at David’s door rather than returning to his own bed. David finally decides that more serious measures will have to be taken: he orders Uriah to the front lines, where he is killed. As soon as Bathsheba’s period of mourning is over, David takes her as his wife and she gives birth to a son. The story rivals any contemporary soap opera.

At this point Nathan, the trusted prophet, appears on the scene and tells David a story about two men, one a poor man who loves a special ewe -- it ate with the man’s children and was "unto him as a daughter" -- and the other a rich man with many flocks and herds. A traveler visits the rich man, and when the dinner hour approaches, rather than using one of his own lambs, the rich man kills the poor man’s lamb for the feast. Nathan waits for David’s reaction. David, outraged at the rich man’s arrogance and abusiveness, responds that the man who has done this wickedness deserves to die. Nathan then delivers his wonderfully brief message to David: "You are the man."

A rabbi once told me that this story about David was included in the Scriptures to make the point that even the most moral of persons can fall, the most powerful people have weaknesses, and no one, not even David, is perfect. It is, indeed, a story about a great and powerful king’s wrongdoing and weak will. But it is also a story about a good man’s self-deception. We know that David has acted abominably, but do we know that David is self-deceived? We do, for one simple reason: David does not feel guilty about what he has done.

The nature of David’s dishonesty can be made clearer if we imagine him making the moves that self-deceivers make. Perhaps, in order to persist in thinking of himself as a good and decent man, an upright king and an honorable servant of God, he told himself that as king he had special privileges regarding affairs of the heart. Or maybe he used some modern rationalizations: "I love Bathsheba so much that it doesn’t matter what the rules say"; or "Our love is different, holy and pure in itself"; or "My love for Bathsheba hasn’t violated her marriage because the marriage was already dead. Why else would she have consented to the affair?" Perhaps he persuaded himself that as king he had every right to send any soldier to any place to do anything he bids. "This is not a democracy after all, but a monarchy, and I am engaged in battle; and soldiers -- all of my soldiers -- are at my disposal. How could ordering Uriah to the front lines be murder?" A few moves like these and David could appear to himself as a good man, whom a few might criticize, but only because they do not have David’s version of the facts.

Scripture records that David does what all self-deceivers who would be free of self-deception must do -- he confesses his wrongdoing: "I have sinned against the Lord," he says. Once the self-deception is overcome, remorse sets in, and broken relations are mended. David can once again enter the common life. We should suspect, however, that David’s self-understanding has changed; he now knows about his weaknesses and about his capacity for arrogance, abusiveness and self-deception.

There are many lessons to be learned from this story about Nathan and David, but let us not overlook the obvious one: if a person as good and decent as David is can succumb to evil and fall prey to self-deception, we can as well. And we do. But where are our Nathans? Where are the friends of truth who will not allow us to enjoy our little illusions? Where are the Nathans who will speak to us, even at personal risk, about our failures to be honest with ourselves? Nathan risked his life in approaching the king as he did. Where are the people who love truth so much that they are willing to risk losing a friendship -- to risk hearing the words, "No friend of mine would talk to me that way"?

The more important question, however, is, Could I be a Nathan? Could I care so much for another’s welfare that I would risk what Nathan risked? Could I serve the truth as faithfully as he did? Could I muster the courage to get involved in helping to straighten the tangles of confusion, denial and rationalization that cast out happiness from those who fall victim to self-deception? Nathan penetrated a great king’s self-deception, and is remembered as the one who provoked David into being honest with himself. If David is great, it is because he listened to Nathan.

As a people of faith, we believe that before God there can be no illusion, no pretense, no lies. God, as Karl Barth once said, cannot be lied to. Our self deception is, theologically speaking, an attempt to deceive God. Whenever we believe that we are something we are not, whenever we convince ourselves that we have done all that God requires, we settle for a comfortable self-image at the expense of that deeper self-communion in which the presence of God resides with the voice of conscience.

Nathan reminds us of who we are before God. He demonstrates how a friend of truth approaches the self-deceived. He speaks as if the dignity of the person were of more consequence than the honor due a king. He urges the self-deceiver to reconsider the meaning of his deeds. He assumes an attitude of humility rather than of arrogance, for it is God who is in a position to point the finger. Nathan shows us what it means to value honesty with oneself, and he does more than demonstrate a technique for confronting self-deceivers; he shows us what we ought to be as servants of truth and friends of God.