Agency and Self-Deception in the Writings of James and 1 John

Terrance D. Olson

Terrance D. Olson, “Agency and Self-Deception in the Writings of James and 1 John,” in Go Ye into All the World: Messages of the New Testament Apostles, 31st Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002), 290–304.

Terrance D. Olson was a professor of marriage, family, and human development at Brigham Young University when this was published.

“Therefore, to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not . . .” (James 4:17).

Think of the last time you felt it was right to do something and you refused to do it. Perhaps it was a little thing like reading a bedtime story to your five-year-old or visiting your brother in the hospital. It could have been an act that required more time, such as driving to your niece’s wedding in a neighboring state or giving a Saturday of service cleaning up after girls’ camp. No matter what the example, each consists of something you sense is right to do. But you are a moral agent—capable of living true or false to your sense of what is right. If you act favorably and willingly on your feeling regarding what is right, you proceed to read the book, make the visit, drive to the wedding, or help with girls’ camp. You do these things without a second thought, and probably without moral fanfare. As examples or stories of moral or ethical conduct, there is little to tell about these incidents except to recall the memories.

However, if we do not do these good things or we do them resentfully, there is a story to tell. Suddenly, an otherwise straightforward and perhaps even mundane event becomes significant. Now the story is a moral tale, for the heart of the story is in our refusal to do as we believe. Had we been true to our sense of what was right, it would not occur to us to have to explain ourselves. But when we are false to our beliefs, there is much to explain.

When my response to my five-year-old is to go against what I believe is right, I might say to myself, I am really tired tonight, or He wasn’t very well-behaved at dinner, or I have a big report due tomorrow. When these kinds of comments are delivered by someone who knoweth to do good but doeth it not, they become rationalizations of wrongdoing. They become attempts to make the wrong we are doing appear to be right, or at least not wrong. [1] They are symptoms of a problem being experienced by someone who is no longer living the truth in relationships with others. These symptoms are evidence of more than mere ignorance and more than being blinded by the demands or pressures of life. They are signs of self-deception.

In everyday life and in our attempts to explain ourselves to each other, it seems we have neglected the idea and implications of being self-deceived. Yet the scriptures indicate that when responsible agents engage in self-deception, they engage in sinful activity. Evidently, self-deception is more than an abstract term that describes someone who does not see the truth. It is a concept that accounts for how it is possible to be blind to the truth. By definition, to be self-deceived is to participate in an act that produces a false view of one’s circumstances. To be self-deceived is to be blind to the truth of a situation. This blindness includes at least two features: (1) seeing the truth falsely—as untruth, and (2) being blind to the fact that one’s own act has produced the false view.

Given this kind of blindness, it seems that if I am self-deceived I cannot access the knowledge that would set me free, so I cannot escape. Also, since I do not know I am deceived and do not know I have produced the deception, I will even reject the attempts of observers to enlighten me. I will see such efforts as evidence that they are meddlers, prejudiced, or irrational. Clearly, to take the idea of self-deception seriously might seem impossible to the self-deceived.

The epistles of James and John address the problem of self-deception more fully than any other place in the scriptures, and both of them ground the problem as a symptom of wrongdoing.

James on Double-Mindedness

James understood the link between knowing the truth and living the truth, and described the instability in life that comes when we are “double minded” (James 1:8) and willfully refuse to live that which we know:

“Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.

“For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass:

“For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was” (James 1:22–24).

The complete rendition of James 4:17 is “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” Thus, sin and self-deception are inextricably linked.

Sin is not a popular explanation of what our culture has come to see as mere imperfection or inescapable human failings. To deny sin as a source of some mortal troubles can itself be a symptom of being self-deceived. After all, if I can attribute my sins to things I can’t help—imperfections—I have nothing to repent of, and the best I can do, even with those failings, is cope. Besides, if James is going to lay blame at my feet for something that is just human nature, then it creates guilt. I certainly do not need guilt as an additional stumbling block! But perhaps there is a better answer. Perhaps we can actually be free of certain recurring attitudes and feelings that seem inescapable. Perhaps James takes seriously an idea our culture too readily dismisses. Perhaps dismissing James’s testimony is already an act of self-deception, and that dismissal leaves us blind and trapped in a self-deceived world.

John on Self-Deception

John sustains James’s witness regarding wrongdoing and blindness. The book of 1 John is a testimony of Jesus Christ and a call to obedience. In almost every chapter, the author contrasts the condition of the obedient with that of the disobedient. In testifying of the fellowship the Saints can experience with the Father and the Son, John unequivocally declares:

“This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.

“If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth:

“But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:5–8).

So a contrast is established immediately between walking in light and walking in darkness. Walking in darkness is characterized by our doing not the truth; by the truth not being in us. This is significant commentary, because it suggests that those who are self-deceived no longer see, experience, or understand the truth. This blindness to the truth is not due to ignorance but to a refusal to walk in the light. But that refusal is something we are doing (“and do not the truth”), and that kind of doing makes the truth inaccessible to us (“the truth is not in us”).

In 1 John 2, the author continues the theme:

“He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. . . .

“He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him.

“But he that hateth his brother is in darkness, and walketh in darkness, and knoweth not whither he goeth, because that darkness hath blinded his eyes” (1 John 2:4, 10–11).

And in a final example from chapter 4:

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love. . . .

“If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (1 John 4:18–20).

Perhaps the reason obedience is the first law of heaven is that without obedience, we do not see clearly the possibility or reality of heaven. We do not see that the Savior is the light of the world. We are in darkness, we stumble, we “forget” what manner of person we are. But we can not attribute these problems to sources outside ourselves. We are blind because of our own refusal to see. As Jacob, the son of Lehi, noted, “Wo unto the blind that will not see; for they shall perish” (2 Nephi 9:32; emphasis added). It is likely that the first casualty of refusing to see is a loss of an understanding of the truth, because “that darkness hath blinded his eyes” (1 John 2:11).

It is evident, then, that it is in our response to the gospel—how we act upon it, and not how it acts upon us—that reveals who and what we see; who and what we are, in any given moment. Our disobedience changes our world—what we see and what we understand, and how we relate to others. Being blind to the truth is the condition of those who refuse to live by the truth they have been offered.

Since our blindness is produced by walking in darkness, and since we are “free” to walk in darkness, our blindness to the truth is self-inflicted. Or, regarding the stumbling metaphor used by James, we do not stumble at all spiritually when the hallmark of our life is love for our brother. It is our refusal to love that creates our spiritual problems, and those problems cause us to stumble.

The Blindness of Self-Deception

Thus far we know that self-deception is produced by disobedience, which is, by definition, sin. So what? Either this is a conclusion so obvious that it need not take up too much of our time or we have failed to see its significance in our everyday lives—especially for those who generally seek to take the gospel seriously. Seemingly, the counsel to those self-deceived is to repent—end of story. But since to be self-deceived is to be blind to the truth, including the truths that others might tell us about our being in sin, how does a person who is self-deceived respond to the truth telling of others? If self-deception is produced by a refusal to walk in the light, self-deceived persons will resist light offered them about their sin.

This act of refusal is evidence of humans as moral agents, for if the act of refusal were not voluntary—freely chosen—the individual could not be held accountable for the act. As affirmed by Samuel the Lamanite in the Book of Mormon:

“And now remember, remember, my brethren, that whosoever perisheth, perisheth unto himself; and whosoever doeth iniquity, doeth it unto himself; for behold, ye are free; ye are permitted to act for yourselves; for behold, God hath given unto you a knowledge and he hath made you free.

“He hath given unto you that ye might know good from evil, and he hath given unto you that ye might choose life or death; and ye can do good and be restored unto that which is good, or have that which is good restored unto you; or ye can do evil, and have that which is evil restored unto you” (Helaman 14:30–31).

When we have a sense of what is right to do and we do not do it, we create a false way of seeing—and a false way of being—to which we are blind. We are as blind to the solutions to these types of problems as we are to our role in creating them in the first place. My own experience affirms this possibility.

When I was irritated about how one of the neighbor’s children had stomped through my newly planted garden, I confess that there was no room in my heart, during my irritation, for forgiveness. Nor, if you had asked me at the time why I was troubled, would I have thought I had any need for repentance. Yet, at that moment, I was neither forgiving nor repentant. Rather, I was consumed with how my gardening efforts had been ruined by a thoughtless child. And make no mistake, in my irritation, that child had become my enemy. No other way of seeing the situation made sense to me.

On another occasion, I found myself delayed at an intersection where I was waiting with my signal flashing to turn left. I had to wait because of one—only one—oncoming and amazingly slow-moving car. It seemed that I had been waiting for an eternity for this creeping mass of metal to get by me. Then as the car entered the intersection, it turned left without warning. Had I known earlier of the driver’s intention, my path would have been clear. Because the driver hadn’t exercised the same courtesy I had—using the left turn signal as automakers and the state driving manual had intended—I had waited unnecessarily. That wait must have cost me at least 20 seconds—all because some other driver was so frivolous and discourteous as to not use a simple turn signal. My car’s tires squealed as I made my long awaited left turn. I’m sure I muttered something about what kind of people they let drive these days. I don’t recall the phrase “Do unto others,” or “Love thy neighbor” coming into my mind as I drove the final few blocks to my house. Such ideas would have seemed so unrealistic in that situation anyway.

I also remember once speaking in a public meeting where I was being critical of the practices of one of my child’s teachers. I didn’t name the teacher, but my wife was pulling on my sleeve. I successfully ignored her until I realized the teacher about whom I was complaining was in the audience. It was not enough that the audience didn’t know who I was speaking of. The teacher knew. I knew. I felt, fleetingly, that it was a shame someone’s incompetence had to be publicly displayed like that. Unfortunately, the idea of conducting myself with meekness and lowliness of heart was foreign to me in that meeting.

These are everyday incidents, I know. Some would even claim that they are merely mundane evidences that we are imperfect or that we lose control, or that all of us are trying to learn to cope better with the challenges of life. Those who see the garden or turn-signal incident as trivial might even say that there are so many much-greater things to worry about in life, that we should bite our collective tongues over the little things and worry about coping with the big things.

I believe that these so-called everyday incidents—these so-called “little things”—have much to do with the quality of our lives, and are the foundation of the quality of our marriage, family, business, and Church relationships, not only in the present moment, but in the kingdoms we look forward to inheriting after this life. In each of these incidents, the person telling the stories—me—is self-deceived. That means in the moment I am living these stories, I am more than merely ignorant. It means I am doing more than denying the truth of the situation. The truth of the situation is that I don’t even see the truth. If, during my irritation with the child, or during my impatience with the driver, or during my public criticism of the teacher, someone had told me I was hard-hearted, unforgiving, or unrepentant, I would have met the charge with what I would have considered to be justified disbelief. I would have been blind to the need for my compassion for the child (I would have seen such a notion as mere indulgence), for the driver of the other car (who didn’t deserve to be rewarded for being inconsiderate), or for the teacher. In fact, instead of considering my attitude, my actions, as being a problem in these situations, I would have considered myself as being victimized by the other people. They are causing the problem. They are responsible for disrupting my world. They are the source of my difficulties. Preach to them, I might say to anyone challenging my responses. Moreover, I would have seen even those challenging my responses as stumbling blocks.

These responses are more than human failings that we can’t help doing, or merely denials of the truth. They are expressions of having refused to see and live by the truth. Such refusals are symptoms of disobedience, of a refusal to walk in the light, if you will. As James and John testify, such disobedience means we begin to deceive ourselves about the truth. I know this because these are my stories. I know now what I didn’t know during those incidents: that while I was being uncompassionate, hard-hearted and so on, I was absolutely blind to the truth. Only when I later quit refusing to live the truth, did I see the truth I had been refusing to live. I began living obediently to all that I knew about how I am to treat my neighbors (and let’s see—who is my neighbor?). The truth was now a blessing to me, whereas in my refusal, I found the truth unrealistic and a burden. It may be that only moral agents can become self-deceived.

Once I gave up my sin, John’s testimony made perfect sense to me, and his phrases began echoing in my soul. I was saying I had no sin. I was deceiving myself. The truth was not in me (see 1 John 1:8). John’s description of the reality of self-deception and of the cause—my refusal to admit to sin when I was, in fact, sinful—was either lost on me or an irritant. But once I repented and returned to the light, the idea of self-deception made perfect sense and became a relatively important feature of my understanding the human condition. After all, if through disobedience, I become blind to the truth—the truth is not in me—how am I to understand the truth of myself and my condition at all? In such a condition, all my explanations of my actions will also be self-deceived.

It is not the truth that the reason I did not read the book to my child was because he or I were tired or that he had misbehaved or that I had a report looming. Those explanations only occurred to me after I had become self-deceived. I became self-deceived when I became disobedient. In my disobedience, my “explanations” became justifications or rationalizations for wrongdoing, rather than straightforward descriptions of an honest, moral choice. Similarly, I was walking in darkness in my attitude toward the oncoming car, and my irritation over their lack of use of a turn signal was just self-righteousness. My complaints against the teacher in a public meeting were not “honest criticism” but dishonest resentment. All those meanings eventually changed for me, not because any of those people changed, but because I did. I have wondered how my change came about.

Other Symptoms of Self-Deception

James and John identify additional symptoms of how we are when self-deceived. They see the consequences fully. James links many specific acts of disobedience to rationalizations born of blindness. One example is, “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God; . . . neither tempteth [God] any man” (James 1:13). Do we see ourselves as victims of God when in temptation? This is a deceived view compared to the truth: “But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed” (James 1:14). This is an example of being a hearer of the word and not a doer, and thus “deceiving your own selves” (James 1:22). Also, “If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain” (James 1:26). To seem to be religious stands in contrast to being religious, and is an expression of being self-deceived. Think for a moment. The last time your tongue was unbridled, did you feel justified? What was your rationalization?

Similarly, John notes that to be self-deceived is to be a liar. Yet, in sin, we not only lie about the truth, but believe the lie that we tell. Terry Warner calls this more than telling a lie—it is living a lie. [2] A simple example is that one who uses tobacco while ignorant of the spiritual law against it may suffer health problems but does not perish spiritually over it unless he refuses to obey the law once it is received by him. In other words, the prices we pay for our ignorance do not include the cost to us of knowing to do good and doing it not. Self-deception is resistance to light and truth, while ignorance is lack of knowledge of light and truth. [3] As described by John, “the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:4); or, “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (1 John 4:20). The idea of simultaneously loving God and hating a brother is conceptually and practically impossible. But those immersed in hate, those who are self-deceived by their own sin of a refusal to love, are blind to the truth of that statement.

The common threads of how self-deceived persons see themselves and their circumstances include, not surprisingly, a sense of being helpless in the face of what others are doing to them, and a defensiveness that looks absolutely necessary to them. This view swallows up any sense of personal responsibility for creating or perpetuating the problem and obliterates the possibility that they are participating in any way in a willful refusal to walk in the light. Nor would it occur to the self-deceived that they are engaging in a freely chosen walk in darkness. But these are the fruits of self-deception consistent with how self-deception is described in James and 1 John. When we’re in that darkness, born of our refusal to do the good that we know, we do not see our way out. After all, we now don’t see how we played any role in getting ourselves in (to self-deception). Moreover, no sense of being personally responsible for the helplessness is experienced either. I f so, the individual would not be deceived about their role in producing the problem. This illustrates the reality of “the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

At a more general level, being self-deceived is to find the gospel to be a burden. This is not because the Lord’s commandments are burdensome, but because, when we fail to respond to them in humility and meekness, we deceive ourselves about their meaning. Seeing the commandments as a burden is a perfect way to rationalize and justify our refusal to respond to them in humility. When we “do not the truth,” we are “doing” a lie. That lie includes the self-deceived view that our refusal to give our best and call upon the atonement is someone else’s fault—perhaps even God’s fault. The self-deceived see their own imperfections, the gospel, and often life itself, as a burden instead of a blessing.

The Avenue of Escape

Escaping self-deception begins with a willingness to admit that we are, after all, moral agents. The crucial point about being moral agents is not in the mere matter of choice, but in our free, unrestricted opportunity and obligation to choose the right. Lehi’s witness about moral agency matches the position of Samuel the Lamanite, cited earlier. Lehi affirms that when we do not choose the right, we choose consequences that we can not escape: “men are free according to the flesh. . . . Free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death” (2 Nephi 2:27).

Remember, John, in his discourse on living the truth, identified the problem of self-deception and also declared the avenue of escape: “if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).

Giving up a self-deceived view of others reveals that we have not only become free of our resentments toward them, but often, that they had never sinned against us in the first place. When we do not the truth, the truth of the motives, attitudes, and actions of others is unavailable to us, and our fellowship with one another can range from being shallow to hypocritical.

In a way, the difference between doing the truth and doing self-deception is the difference described by King Benjamin of the mighty change of heart: “because of the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent, which has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually” (Mosiah 5:2). Essentially, we have awakened from the evil, resistant, alternative way of living described elsewhere as being in a deep sleep as to the things of God (see Alma 5:7).

The attitudes and even emotions of the two worlds (doing self-deception versus doing the truth) are incompatible. A disposition to do evil, or walking in darkness, cannot simultaneously be an expression of having lost that disposition, and be walking in the light. So the world of sin and self-deception are absolutely distinguishable from the alternative world of obedience. Once a person is living (or doing) qualities associated with obedience, the alternative disobedient qualities are not “in us.” Examples of these incompatibilities from James and John include:

1. Be swift to hear rather than slow (James 1:19).

2. Be slow to wrath rather than quick-tempered (James 1:19).

3. Be doers of the word, not hearers only (James 1:22).

4. Bridleth his tongue, versus unbridled—and thus “deceiveth his own heart” (James 1:26).

5. Visit the fatherless and widows, versus neglecting them (James 1:27).

6. Faith without works, versus faith “by my works” (JST James 2:15).

7. Knoweth to do good, versus doeth it not (James 4:17).

None of the categories of being obedient can coexist with the categories of a refusal to be obedient. And in that refusal comes our self-deceived understanding of what we have done.

Consider this—if self-deception is produced by a free act, then escaping it must be a free act also. If being self-deceived is a refusal to live the truth, then giving up that refusal is the heart of being restored to an understanding—even a vision—of the truth. Thus, the problem is not a matter of ignorance or lack of skill or even lack of practice in some behavior. Being free of self-deception begins in willingness, not ability. If being free of self-deception requires a change of heart, then only a moral agent willing to be true to the light can experience the fellowship with Christ promised those who walk in the light. The change necessary to be free of self-deception is a matter of obedience. Yet all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (see Romans 3:23) so all of us are imperfect; thus all of us have participated in self-deception.

A harsh term for our condition is hypocrisy, and many Christians whose failings are all too visible have been subjected to such an accusation. Also, other hearers of the word who fail to be doers sometimes report they feel guilty—so guilty that they are burdened by the commandments, ever fearful that since they can never be perfect, they are doomed to guilty despair. This presents a curious situation. The gospel is a gospel of hope, not despair, and James and John are issuing a call to obedience meant to nourish the idea that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

An honest rendition of gospel principles reveals there is no need for would-be Saints to experience burdensome, paralyzing guilt when they read passages such as James 4:17: “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin.” Rather, they are free to see it as merely “guilt unto repentance” and an invitation to give up their burdened world of experience. At the least, we can propose that those whose response to the call of the gospel is to despair, are somehow deceived about the spirit and meaning of the call in the first place. And, according to James and John, seeing the truth falsely is evidence of self-deception. The truth is “not in” those who are offended by the truth or burdened by the light, precisely because they are “do[ing] not the truth” (1 John 1:6).

Specifically, we can offer hope for people like me who, although disobedient (hard-hearted) in past moments, can, in the present moment, give it all up and be left with compassion for neighbor children, fellow drivers, and imperfect teachers. I neither need to indulge others when they are engaged in wrongdoing by excusing them or by pretending they have not sinned, nor will I feel to harshly condemn others as a way of justifying my own hostility. I will tell the truth in love and sorrow. I f I must testify to an officer regarding how a car weaving in traffic startled a girl whose car then rolled three times, I will do so in sorrow, not in arrogance or in a self-promoting way. In brief, I will love others, pray for them in humility, sorrow when they sin, and nourish them in their concern for others. Only by walking in the light myself, and repenting of the times I do not, will I likely be able to invite others to live a life of love and sacrifice and commitment and humility. Others will either take offense (Terry Warner’s term for becoming hard-hearted or in sin) at my self-deceptive way of being—or even at my humility; or they will see me honestly. If, in their honesty, they see I am being hard-hearted, they will sorrow. If they see a person of compassion and humility, we will resonate. Their response to me reveals whether they have joined me in my world of self-deception or have remained true to the faith, being an example to me to repent. Either way, it is always possible for us to continue to offer responses in the light, even if others begin or continue to walk in darkness.

The world others live in may include rejecting our honest offerings, but we need not join them in darkness. To consider ourselves above or below them are examples of dark responses. We must continue in love and humility and boldness as our concern for them and the Spirit prompts us. To give up self-deception is to be realistic, honest, full of hope and to experience all the “symptoms” of walking in the light.

Self-deception, then, is an inescapable consequence of wrongdoing. Giving up self-deception is only possible in the act of obedience, that act that comes from within. It is that act moral agents are capable of. It is an affirmation of our love of God to love our brother. The Savior’s call to us who labor and are heavy laden to come unto Him is absolutely realistic and absolutely the source of hope and healing.


[1] C. Terry Warner, and Terrance D. Olson, “Another View of Family Conflict and Family Wholeness,” Family Relations 39 (October 1981): 493–503.

[2] C. Terry Warner, Bonds That Make Us Free: Healing Our Relationships, Coming To Ourselves (Salt Lake City: Shadow Mountain, 2001).

[3] To be ignorant of a law, including the law of the gospel, may mean we suffer the practical, temporal consequences of our ignorance. But we can not be accountable for that law to which we have not been exposed. This is important, for the solution to our ignorance of spiritual things is in being introduced to or confronted by them. I f we have not been given the law, then as Jacob, from the Book of Mormon, reminds us:

“Wherefore, he has given a law; and where there is no law given there is no punishment; and where there is no punishment there is no condemnation; and where there is no condemnation the mercies of the Holy One of Israel have claim upon them, because of the atonement; for they are delivered by the power of him.

“But wo unto him that has the law given, yea, that has all the commandments of God, like unto us, and that transgresseth them” (2 Nephi 9:25, 27).