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Family, Marriage, Counsel
Deceitful Heart Syndrome
by Ed Vasicek

One of my favorite childhood jokes is this one. The teacher asks for a volunteer: "Who would like to make up a sentence that includes the word 'beans?'"

One boy raises his hand and responds, "We are all human beans."

No, this article is not about the speaking habits of some people who omit "ing" endings. It is about understanding an important dynamic about human beings, one I call, "Deceitful Heart Syndrome."

You have an argument with your spouse. You know you are not perfect, but you believe your spouse is more to blame than you are. It somehow always seems this way.

Come to think of it, the same thing happens at work or with the neighbor. Somehow, although imperfect, you are always less to blame. If the statistical likelihood of all this has you wondering, bingo: you are ready to discover "Deceitful Heart Syndrome."

Larry Crabb has done some fine work exposing this problem, though he labels it, "Justified Self-Centeredness." But my term, "Deceitful Heart Syndrome" is preferable for two reasons: 1) it is closely aligned to the Scriptures (especially Jeremiah 17:9) and 2) although it includes self-centeredness, it encompasses more.

Jeremiah 17:9 reads, "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?"

Ecclesiastes 9:3b reads, "Furthermore, the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil, and insanity is in their hearts throughout their lives..."

Proverbs 28:26 reads, "He who trusts in his own heart is a fool..."

How Does Deceitful Heart Syndrome Show Itself?

What do these verses imply? That we lie to ourselves in very sophisticated and disguised ways; our own hearts deceive us. Deceitful heart syndrome shows itself in the following ways:

  1. Selective Memory We forget about 99% of the things we do wrong.* Yet we remember very well the way our spouse or others wrong us. This gives us a very distorted picture or relational realities. So when your spouse says, "You did this or that," his or her memory of your wrongdoings is a lot more accurate than your own! (*Kennedy, D. James, Evangelism Explosion, 1970, (Tyndale), p. 36).

  2. Rearranging Reality Not only do we conveniently forget, we revise reality. We are like Aaron, who justified his crafting an idol by telling Moses that he merely melted the gold in a pot and the golden calf just "came out" (Exodus 32:24). Sometimes we consciously rewrite the past, but often this reinterpretation of reality takes places subconsciously, which is even more insidious. We sincerely think we are accurate in our recollections because that is what our heart tells us.

  3. Understandability Our sin (sometimes a sinful response to a wrong done to us) is excusable or understandable in light of how we have been treated. Crabb writes, "...we stubbornly regard our interpersonal failures not as inexcusably selfish choices, but as understandable mistakes. The things our spouses do to us seem more like the former; the things we do seem more like the latter..." (Men and Women, Enjoying the Difference, p. 69)

    If your apologies are more like, "If I did anything wrong, I'm sorry" rather than, "I should not have called you a name, I was wrong, please forgive me," you are evidencing this mentality.

    In marriage, it shows itself in thought patterns like these: a) I'm not as bad as my spouse; he/she is the real culprit, and my wrongs are provoked by my mate or b) I'm better than my mom (or dad) was, so why doesn't my spouse treat me at least as well as my mom (or dad) did? I can't be that selfish, manipulative, or sinful.

  4. Sabotage Secular studies have confirmed the prevalence of Deceitful Heart Syndrome. In the monumental work, Losing Control: How and Why People Fail at Self Regulation, Roy Baumeister (and others) inform us that people actually sabotage themselves. They put up a feeble attempt to resist some temptation, but orchestrate events to guarantee failure. It's all a big game; we want to look like we sincerely tried and failed; in reality, we planned and wanted to fail.

    A woman is bored with her marriage. She has determined to leave her husband (perhaps she has her eye on someone else), but she makes an appointment with a counselor to feign an attempt at saving the marriage. She wants the marriage to end, and she will sabotage things to assure that it does; yet she claims otherwise. She will also try to convince her own conscience that she made a genuine effort to preserve the marriage. But she didn't really put her heart into it. It was all an elaborate game.



Secular Studies Have Confirmed Jeremiah 17:9

We now have physical evidence for the reality of Deceitful Heart Syndrome. Dr. Richard Restak is a neurologist and neuropsychiatrist at George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, and considered one of the world's top authorities on the brain. In his book, The New Brain, he refers to research done by Dean Shibata of the University of Washington (Seattle). Note what Restak writes:

"Shibata finds that making decisions that affect you personally enhances activity in part of your frontal lobes.  As a rule, you do not activate that area when thinking about events that do not involve you personally. When people make decisions that affect their own lives, they will utilize emotional parts of the brain, even though the task itself may not seem emotional," says Shibata.

Restak continues, "But keeping our reasoning power uncontaminated by our emotions isn't as easily accomplished as we have been led to believe. Many times the influence of our emotions on our reasoning impedes self-knowledge."  In other words, our hearts (minds) ARE deceitful, and because of this, we do not face ugly realities about ourselves.

The implications of this research are profound. It explains why people who give good advice often do not practice what they preach. It also argues for the importance of having close friends and being social; others will challenge our corruptions of reality.

Overcoming Deceitful Heart Syndrome

The most effective way to address this problem is for a believer to die and go to heaven or to be raptured. But while we are here on earth, we will struggle with this. The best treatment, in one word, is humility.

To control this syndrome, I must get good counsel from others, realize my own propensity to deceive myself, and believe what trusted friends say about me (or the past), sometimes despite my better instincts. I could call this, "humility in practice." This trust of others means a surrendering of pride. And I must face that my recollection of conflicts, etc., is undependable, that my ability to think unemotionally when decisions involve me or my loved ones is diminished, and must refuse to believe that lop-sided interpretation of reality that always labels me as right -- or at least the "less wrong."

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