Elder Hales & Elder Kearon: Agency and Self-Deception

Two talks at the most recent GC raised important questions concerning agency.  Consequently I want to consider those questions through the work of Walter Brueggeman.  Elder Patrick Kearon used an analogy based on scorpions and flip-flops to illustrate how people can act in ways that cause pain to themselves through rebelliousness or laziness.  In addition Elder Robert D. Hales spoke on the significance of agency and the central place that choosing God has in our spiritual progression.  Moreover Elder Hales rightly calls us to turn toward God again.  The question I want to explore, in light of these talks, is the act of choosing to do things that cause pain when we are aware of the potential consequences.  For example, I do not think that these two categories of rebelliousness and laziness are wholly adequate to explain why Elder Kearon wore flip-flops rather than shoes during his exploring.  Rather it seems essential that we refer to the process of self-deception.

Walter Brueggeman, in his treatise on the art of preaching, notes that people have a tendency to bury their sins so that they can get on with their lives [1].  For Kierkegaard, people try to cover or obliterate their dissatisfaction, their guilt or their alienation by various kinds of activity [2].  This may take a demonic insatiability or it may be found in the respectable life of the involved Church member or citizen.  Yet, this alienation has powerful and destructive implications, for our guilt can linger unnoticed or at least suppressed.  In covering our sins both in the moment and in the weeks, months and years after, we engage in a form of self-deception which enables us to act in ways which cause hurt but which also allow us to bury the subsequent pain of such actions.

Alienation is grounded in the interpersonal pain that resides within us; the pain inhibits our ability to be reconciled with those around us and with our God.  For Brueggeman, separation is enacted by inability to respond to the voice or call of God and of other people.  This is symbolised by our capacity for ‘conversation’.  More than the dialogic revelation discussed by Givens (HT: Brad Kramer), Brueggeman observes that ‘conversation shows that lives impinge on each other.  The impingement is mutual, for in the process of speaking and hearing, both parties are transformed.  We are… to act and to be acted upon’ [3].  This is not a simple expression of revealed truth in dialogic form rather it is the very act of redemption.  God is changed through our suffering as we are changed through his.

Too easily, it seems, we allow God’s love to be that covering for our sin and in so doing we make him a co-conspirator in our self-deception.  God’s omniscience nor his omnipotence [4] do not protect him from such pain and we would do well to more readily admit the pain our actions cause Him.  Moreover, there are times when we are willing to seek forgiveness without being reconciled to the people our actions (however well-intentioned) have hurt.  Too often we live our lives between two distinct poles: either we consistently harangue ourselves regarding our sins (as a supposed mode of repentance) or we feel too little of the pain that comes to us.  Neither is part of the divine relationship, according to Brueggeman.  Reconciliation requires restitution and openness not quiet resignation or numbness.

Too often we harden our hearts; refusing to feel the pain of our sins and using that shell as a covering for them.  That shell serves as a protection to our sense of self and is ultimately alienating.  To break our hearts, it seems to me, is a willingness to feel the full weight of our sins and to openly acknowledgement that pain in our lives and the lives of those significant others.  Christ set a model for this type of pain.  He did not shrink from that suffering and he willingly struggled with those who suffered even though he was innocent?  Our ‘innocence’ therefore does not seem to adequately justify our failure to avoid such pain when it occurs in the lives of others.  In this view, perhaps the fall should also be focussed upon both Adam and Eve’s attempt to shift the blame for their sins onto others, to harden their hearts, rather than to openly acknowledge their sin and to honestly seek to heal the breach in their fledgling relationships.

Elder Hales said: ‘For those who find themselves captive to past unrighteous choices, stuck in a dark corner, without all the blessings available by the righteous exercise of agency, we love you. Come back! Come out of the dark corner and into the light.’

Elder Kearon taught: ‘Our Savior is the Prince of Peace, the Great Healer, the only One who can truly cleanse us from the sting of sin and the poison of pride and change our rebellious hearts into converted, covenant hearts’.

Laziness and rebelliousness are part of the reason we sin, though I believe that self-deception is more often at the root of such actions.  God calls us to break our hearts and we must respond; but to do so will require more than cursory attempts to live our religion.  Moreover, as Levinas points out, the life of Other also calls us to break our hearts.  At conference I felt inspired to seek out that divine and redemptive dialogue that will bring such change to my life.  I was moved by both Elder Kearon’s and Elder Hales’ attempts to help me break my heart in response to God and other people.  I want to choose to remove the barriers of self-deception that are rooted in my egoistic paradigm and, instead, choose God.


  1. Walter Brueggeman, Finally come the poet: Daring speech for proclamation, Fortress Press, 1989.
  2. Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, Princeton University Press, 1959.
  3. Brueggeman, ibid., p. 76.
  4. I think both of these terms need to be carefully qualified but they are adequate to serve their rhetorical purpose here.


  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post Aaron. I agree that self-deception frequently shields us from the full experience that would be consequential to our actions. Yet, do you not then think that Elder Kearon’s (and others) focus on images of protection and safety will give the message that avoidance of the sharp ‘sting’ (or, for that matter, pleasureable ‘excess’) of experience is proper? That those who are buttressed against all the waves of life are truly ‘blessed’?

    I’m mindful of the scripture in D&C that promises that those who become gods will inherit ‘all heights and depths’… exaltation does not promise the ‘lukewarm’: and thus, I don’t know why I would want to sacrifice the feel of the earth on the soles of my feet (to take the analogy one step further), in order to avoid a possible scorpion sting. ‘Stings’, I would suggest, are less fatal than the numbness of experiential shielding, or protective self-deception.

  2. Thanks Aaron. I actually think self-deception is often a result of laziness. We are too lazy to rigourously analyze our desires and motivations and so we deceive ourselves into thinking they are purer or nobler than they really are. Which is just really an excuse to share one of my favourite quotes by Enzio Busche:

    “But before we can [pray] with focus, we have to become aware of a multitude of defined or undefined, conscious or subconscious desires. We have to learn to bring them to our awareness, to analyze them, to categorize them, and to bring them in to order according to priorities. When we do not do this, we will be condemned to remain, in our prayers, on a superficial level, or even on the level of formality, where there are no answers or there are only imagined answers. But there are always hundreds of different desires fighting for supremacy within us. The act of categorizing them is a very painful, but needful act to become, in the eyes of God, a mature person and to be taken seriously.”

    On the rare occasions I have attempted to do this I have found the experience painful, even heart-breaking. But those too few times have also led to genuine changes in attitude and/or behaviour.

  3. I have nothing to add at this point, but want to thank you for the insightful and thought provoking post, Aaron.

  4. “This is not a simple expression of revealed truth in dialogic form rather it is the very act of redemption. God is changed through our suffering as we are changed through his.”

    In the context of GC and the church I think that the most important word above is dialogic I read your statement as implying that GC talks can be described as dialogic in structure. As you know Bruegggemann spends time drawing the distinction between dialogue and monologue both in preaching and in terms of our possible relationships with the divine and each other. So if I’m reading the implication of your language correctly, could you elaborate on the idea that revealed truth as it occurs in the LDS tradition is dialogic? I would say its a perfect example of the kind of monologue that Brueggemann is so critical of, and I think it would do us some good to apply that criticism to the church, but if you see it as dialogic then I would like to know more about the how and why.

    “Laziness and rebelliousness are part of the reason we sin . . .”
    Maybe, but the context matters here. As we know, standard Mormon dogma is that the individual is always at fault. People leave the church because they WANT to sin. People sin because they ARE lazy or rebellious, people don’t follow church leaders because they are PROUD, and so on. The discourse (monologue) always begins from the starting place that assumes a specific kind of fault is at work, a specific kind of blame needs to be placed. Doing this is always an attempt to mute the voice of the other. (As an aside, this is what made Packer’s talk so painful, his legalism and his willingness to speak for, and in place of the Other. Monologue in the place of a response to the Other.)

    I think what you are working through in this post is a step in the right direction as you are describing something that is more emotionally and spiritually honest than the common rhetoric. And I should note that you are doing it in the England mode by pointing to those (brief) moments when statements of LDS leaders have resonance with progressive theology.

    One more question, you left out rage. Alienation and rage are coupled in Brueggemann, but you didn’t mention rage here. Is there anything behind that?

    “Moreover, as Levinas points out, the life of Other also calls us to break our hearts”

    Yes, yes but take it further. elaborate on how this and your seeking of redemptive dialogue plays out in relation to the totally Other of the divine and the Other of human relations. You are pointing directly at the art of religion so keep going if you are willing to do so. I think your post could benefit if you were bold enough to provide a personal example.

  5. “Self-deception”, applied to free will, is for me more often the rational avoidance of the pain of unnecessarily early resolving cognitive dissonance when there is no payoff. Open but locked doors should not be closed until the key has been found.

    For example, a gay Mormon can believe with all his mind that the Prophet speaks for God. He can also believe with all his heart that his homosexuality is perfectly natural and that God accepts him as he is. What he cannot do is believe these simultaneously, and the logical result is a context-dependent belief system, a revolving closet door. This “self deception” is as natural as an unobserved mixed quantum state, and just as powerful, especially when if forced to choose he would side with his heart over his mind.

  6. Very thoughtful post, Aaron.

    #5 – “What he cannot do is believe these simultaneously”

    Yes, he can – without self-deception. I don’t want to nit pick, but the wording needs to be changed to be in line with what the Church’s current published statements say.

    The exact argument you used, Dan, could apply to straight, unmarried members of the Church, as well (with the appropriate word changes necessary to make it work with that change) – and it would be wrong, as well.

    Now, if you said, “a gay Mormon who is sexually active . . . God accepts his actions . . .” – I couldn’t argue at all with that.

  7. Wonderful post Aaron! Sounds like you’ve been reading Warner too.

  8. Steve Evans says:

    Dan, your #5 is articulate, but does not accurately describe the dynamic between the leadership of the church and its members. The reality is both more interesting and more difficult than that.

  9. Sounds like you’ve been reading Warner too.

    Arbinger’s Anatomy of Peace should be required reading for all human beings, imo.

    Sounds like I should read me some Walter Brueggeman.

    Thanks for this post.

  10. Ray and Steve, thanks for the correction. The second paragraph was actually meant merely to illustrate the first paragraph, which I consider the more important.

    I would happily go with an alternate example: a returned missionary proposes to his high school girlfriend. She hesitates and he, sensing a No which would be difficult to take back, stops her and asks her to delay giving her answer.

    Self-deception is the act of suppressing deeply-held truth in embracing a shallow implausible lie. In contrast, repressing a deeply-held lie by clinging to a shallow truth is an invitation to await the benefit of hindsight. I believe  that no agency is truly free that cannot after sufficient reflection distinguish the two.

  11. Dan,
    While by your comments may be examples of deceving oneself, that isn’t ‘self-deception’. Self deception is when you deny the truth about who you are and your actions (and the motives for your actions and their consequences.), not what you don’t want to hear from others, though it may involve that.

    Self-deception is a well established theory, it isn’t something Aaron is using in place of congnitive dissonance.

  12. Self deception can be the only defense against total ego disintegration. If you are raised to believe black is very, very bad and white is good (or purple and green, this isn’t intended as racial remarks) and suspect that you yourself are actually black, then allowing yourself to believe you are only pale gray may be the only thing that enables you to function. Yes it isolates you, but you expect that if people knew the real you, they wouldn’t hang around anyway. The question would be: is God’s approval of you, which can be gained only by accepting the blackness and repenting of it, more important to you than your approval of yourself. That requires you to believe that God truly loves you, and very very black people don’t believe anyone can love them.

  13. #10 – Dan, that’s also not self-deception. It’s avoidance of embarrassment and pain, and it might be correct or incorrect (since she might be pausing only to gather her emotions or offer an acceptable alternative timing), but it’s not self-deception. It actually shows quite a bit of awareness of multiple possible responses and merely attempts to eliminate the more unacceptable ones.

    Also, fwiw, all of us have our blind spots that have been created by our own rationalization. The problem is that we are blind to them while not being blind to those of others. Having these blind spots is not a bad thing, in and of itself. It’s natural and unavoidable. As Aaron said so eloquently, it’s how we handle them when we finally see them that matters.

    I would add only that we can’t handle them until we are ready to see them in a way that will allow us to handle them properly. Sometimes pointing them out in others helps, but sometimes it hurts. Too often, eliminating self-deception in others is addressed as if we were operating with a hammer and a butter knife, when we all want our own self-deception to be removed carefully and surgically by a skilled physician with a precise instrument. Ideally, we do it ourselves, as we become that physician – or in tandem as we work consciously and intentionally hand-in-hand with that physician.

  14. Sorry all for the prior presumption. There is clearly no wisdom I could add to such well-established theory, especially if it depends on how much I quote others or well i anlies what they have written. Let me substitute in its place something much more modest, a half-baked hypothesis which I call “elfsay-eceptionday”, or EE for short.

    I used to accept the definition that EE is “The act of fooling oneself, of willfully not accepting the obvious.”

    This sounded tidy enough: “The act” of an Executive, “oneself” a Judiciary, and the definite artical “the [obvious]” invokes the prior expectations (or “ormsnay”) of a Legislature. A free agent has all three roles to herself. A less-free agent does not.

    The remaining words though are mere vacuous adornment: “Fooling”, “willful”, “obvious” rest on quicksand, it is far harder to define these terms than to use them.

    So what is EE? It is the violence done to oneself by attempting to reconcile the loud ooth-trays of others over the faint eye-lays of one’s own, when the two repeatedly conflict. It matters little why you want (or don’t want) to do this: only that you do. [And please do not ask me what ooth-trays and eye-lays mean: one such as I suffering from EE cannot reliably distinguish the two anyway.]

    The word “eceptionday” actually comes from the Pig French “éceptiondé” which means “disappointment”. Disappointment, rather than say the feeling of being led astray, is the true source of despair that underlies the condition of EE. Our inner psyche repeatedly promises us it doesn’t have to be this way. Our outer psyche resigns itself to that fact that it does.

  15. #14 – Well said, Dan – especially the last two sentences. That is why I wrote what I did at the end of #6, fwiw.

  16. Steve Evans says:

    EE ftw. Dan, really love your participation here.

  17. I really enjoyed this post, it has given me much to think about. I’ll continue to think about this, although I have a couple of initial thoughts about it.

    Whilst I agree that a broken heart & willingness to confess all sins are essential, however I’m not sure if the actual act of confessing every sin is necessary..

    From your post I’m reminded of “the Miracle of Forgiveness” I feel the burden not only to search my past for any unrepentant sin and additionally I now need to search for any self deception.

    Perhaps I don’t appreciate the scale of self deception in my own life or in society, but in my mind the Atonement cleanses the soul of the willing, there are many past sins I’ve committed that I have no knowledge of, or have forgotten about or have “deceived” myself to the point that I can’t recall it.

    I’m interested in the theory that self deception leads to a loss of conversation or connectivity between man and God. The pattern of self deception, loss of conversation followed by more self deception is devastating, what is the solution for the man who continues to deceives himself to the point that he feels he is in good standing with God but has little to no real conversation with him.

  18. I think there is no need to look for unrepented past sin: it will surely find you again soon enough, Santayana-style.

    It is impossible to shut off conversation with God, so you need not fear this happening either. God is the small voice that keeps nagging at you, (usually) gentle but persistent. You can turn down the volume, but you still hear it in quiet moments. I consider my conscience a benign form of schizophrenia.

  19. Dan #18

    I agree that God will strive to communicate with us, however I think the point of those whom deceive themselves is that they have a form of communication with there own “god”, rather than being benign there conscience becomes malignant.

    I humbly await my unrepentant sins as an 11 year old to find me. My point is that due to a broken heart & a contrite spirit all unrepentant sins are covered & cleansed through the blood of the Atonement. Likewise rather than focusing on “am I deceiving myself” the emphasis is on arriving at a point in which you are accepting the Atonement of Christ into your life. I’m opposed to us placing hurdles in our way especially when Christ removed the Law.

    I appreciate that my two opinions on this subject are in complete opposition to one another, on the one hand I admit it is easy to deceive ourselves and this deception could be so deep that we get stuck in a destructive feed back loop of self conversation, but on the other I’m against the idea of routing out every past sin and conducting an autopsy to see if we truly repented of it or did we mealy deceive our selves.

  20. I know I am late to conversation and so I won’t respond to all the comments, but I have enjoyed them all.

    MrQ&A, I did not mean to express the idea that we somehow need to confess all of our sins but rather that we should approach life and our relationships generally with this broken heart.

    Douglas Hunter, your right to suggest that I am attempting to read into the texts of our leaders and I certainly do not think that our current preaching is a model of the dialogic engagement Brueggeman calls for; however I do believe that this is possible in our wards and with our God.

    Andy M, my concern with your position is that some sin or pain can cripple our capacity to experience all heights and depths. I am certainly using those metaphors that most closely represent the view I am espousing here and I think other examples used in their talks would requires further discussion and elaboration.

    Gomez, great point. It is possible, I believe, to see these situations as an aporia (the slippage between laziness & self-deception is perhaps irresolvable) and my attempt, therefore. was to illuminate the side that I felt was neglected in their remarks.

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