Category Archives: self-deception

Are perpetrators of abuse “other”?

I write, teach, and provide professional care about matters pertaining to child sexual abuse. I sit on a board of a fantastic organization designed to help christian organizations prevent child abuse and respond well when allegations arise. From these experiences I can tell you that victims of abuse struggle the most when they finally get the courage to speak up but then aren’t believed–whether by other family members or those within their community. Since most abuse happens in secret places and since most of us live with happy public facades, it is easy to disbelieve the victim. In fact, the temptation is great since believing the victim means we must alter our perceptions of the perpetrator and the system that supports them. And that alteration disrupts our own lives, threatens our own comfort zone. Since some reports could be, have been false, maybe this one is too…

The first problem in stopping child abuse is the failure to believe victim stories of abuse. Victims know their information will destroy life as it was before the revelation. Believing that they will be singly responsible for damage done by revealing their abuse, they keep silent. Silence always enables further abuse.

But there is another problem, a second problem faced in stopping child abuse: treating abusers as “other,” some sort of monster that is so unlike the rest of us, we can’t imagine being in their presence. Think about these words. Perpetrator. Pedophile. What garish images come to your mind? Or, do you imagine someone with virtue along with their obvious and destructive vices? Do you imagine the image of a victim in that same person?

“Does it make sense to discard an entire oeuvre of work? Or does it simply reflect an inability to live with messiness and ambiguity? To chalk it up as nothing more than the work of a monster, to cast it out of the village, is to senselessly re-affirm the same basic strategy of denial and dehumanization that, ultimately, allows abuse to continue.”

If you are interested in considering the complexities of the person of the perpetrator, I highly recommend this essay where I found the previous quote. It is written by a victim of abuse perpetrated by his father. How do we account for the virtues, the generosities, the humanness, the victim experiences found in individuals who choose to perpetrate against others? Like the author of this essay, I suggest that doing so is absolutely necessary if we are going to make any dent in the incidence of child abuse.

“Most of us would sooner discard all parties who have been tainted by this event than we would look at how tenuous the sanctity of children really is, how commonplace abuse is, or see the capacity for the mostly good to do periodic evil. We live in the same universe as those who abuse kids. We walk among them. If we want to end the sexual abuse of children, it will begin with the recognition that we are simply not that different from them.” (emphasis mine)

Won’t humanizing perpetrators harm victims?

Humanizing perpetrators of abuse does not minimize the need for justice for victims. It does not decrease the place for restitution or incarceration. Naming humanity in perpetrators does not lead to excuse-making (we do that for other reasons!) nor demand explanations for abusive behavior (though sometimes this can be helpful, most would rather have acknowledgement of abuse done). It need not change our triage policy to prioritize victim recovery over all else.

But when we recognize that perpetrators of abuse suffer from the human condition plaguing us all (self-deception, self as the center of the universe, seeing others as objects for self-comfort, choosing fig-leaves rather than truth in response to shame), we have the opportunity to name these conditions wherever they show up in our lives. Naming them early and often hinders the development of the “split-self” where we live publicly one way but privately nurse other shame-inducing habits. And when we are more able to identify these features in ourselves, we may also find that we can identify them in others as well. While we are not responsible for the abuse perpetrated by others, complicity with abusive behavior (failing to respond to evidence of abusive behavior, allowing cover-ups, etc.) does stand as judgment on us.

Let us acknowledge that we are not so different, that “treatment” must start first in our own hearts so that we can help others before abuse takes place.


Filed under Abuse, christian psychology, news, Psychology, self-deception

The Wonderful False World of Conferences

I’ve just returned from four plus days of conferencing with the American Association of Christian Counselors. I am told about 7500 of us were there. I had the good pleasure of presenting, listening, discussing, learning, and debating. I renewed old acquaintances and made new ones that I hope to keep up with long after the conference. As one who loves learning and debating, conferences are nearly required activities. Sure, I get my continuing education credits (CEs) met but even more so, I get to try on new ideas and debate old ones. It is 4 days of stimulation of thoughts, ideas, and feelings.

But it is also false.

At conference hotels, someone makes all your meals, cleans up after you, makes your bed, refreshes your towel and makes you feel important when the concierge asks, “anything else I can do for you.” During and after sessions where I am the presenter, I have all sorts of folks who want to solicit my opinions and wisdom. They seem to like me and some even want to emulate me. They ask me for coffee and my business card so they can connect more later. Conferences also include plenty of socializing. Everyone is happy to be there, wears their good clothes, has interesting things to say, and seems to be the most reasonable people on the planet. No one seems to have much emotional or relational baggage at these conferences. There are no kids to reprimand, fights with spouses, and conflicts to navigate.

Oh, and when the main speakers appeal to our work as “kingdom critical”, I am reminded that I am indeed important to God and the world. Without me, the world as we know it would not exist.

You see the falseness when conferences scratch that itch for intellectual and relational stimulation and tempt us to believe that this is how life should be. My wife and children don’t hang on my every word, aren’t interested in being my concierge, and no one freshens up my room for me when I leave for the day.

Don’t get me wrong. I love conferences. Ideas flow afresh. Collaborative arrangements solidify. My mind and heart are filled. But, I also need to remember that I and the rest of the attendees aren’t really as special as we imagine. This is a Sabbath from the real work and not where life is really lived.

It was probably good that one of my presentations was on the topic of narcissism. I might need to re-read my notes again.


Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, self-deception

Help and Hope For Porn Addiction: 2 Questions

Recently, I made a presentation to a group of men about the problem of porn use/addiction. It proved to be a lively conversation and I didn’t get an opportunity to get through all of the content. Below are 2 questions I was asked. Consider these answers:

  • What is wrong with watching porn with my wife? We both enjoy it and it spices up our sex life?

Besides the clear command to avoid all sexual immorality and to not lust after another? Supposing you want more than that here are some additional thoughts. God has given us imagination as a tool to be used for our good and our pleasure. Therefore, it stands to reason that imagination is highly important in the bedroom. However, it should be used as a tool to honor each other and to promote oneness. As soon as our eyes our off our spouse (whether in a literal sense or a figurative sense), we are seeking to use another for our sexual pleasure. Porn necessarily brings images of others into your bedroom thus moving away from reality and oneness. The images porn uses are not accurate or real and only encourages disappointment in the real thing.

And may I note that I have only heard this question from men. Given my experience of hearing so many wives who have been hurt by their husband’s interest in bringing porn into their own lovemaking, I am suspicious that the wife enjoys it as much as might be thought. At the end of your lovemaking and/or porn use, does she feel special? Does she feel honored? Does she feel she cannot measure up to what is not the screen?

Despite the injunction against porn use by Christians, do not take this to mean that the sex life of Christians must be boring. Seeking to satisfy the pleasures of your spouse gives ample room for creative fun in the bedroom.

  •  How long can I enjoy looking at [name of well-known female star]  and not begin to lust? Is it always wrong to enjoy female beauty?

Of course there is no specific answer that can be given as to how many nano-seconds are pure and at what point the look ogle turns lustful.  Is it possible to enjoy beauty in a person not your spouse? Yes. I would suggest that it is impossible not to notice beauty when you see it. However, I would quickly add that some forms of beauty are more likely to turn lustful in a split second. Noticing Beyoncé’s lovely singing voice probably won’t turn to lust. Noticing her Super Bowl attire…that is another matter.

Here’s what I would like you to consider. The question you are asking, “how long can I look before sinning” may reveal a dangerous motive. It seems that you might be asking, how close can I get to the cliff without falling over? Is it okay to have one foot on solid ground but lean over the edge? Can you see the danger in this thinking? Instead, we ought to humbly recognize that it is easy for us to move from momentary admiration to fantasy. It is good to accept that we will notice beauty and that we must guard our very next thought.

One more thought for you. While noticing beauty is part of who God has made you, is it possible that you have well-trained yourself to search for beauty? Is your head on a swivel? Have you long practiced taking the second and third look? If so, then you are likely not merely noticing beauty but actively looking for images you can use for your own fantasy.  


Filed under addiction, pornography, self-deception, Sex, sexuality, Uncategorized

Truth or Lie? Sandusky interview answers and the questions they raise

Did you catch the Bob Costas/Sandusky telephone interview last night as it aired on NBC? I did not but heard a rebroadcast on the radio this morning. If you didn’t hear it and you want to read it, follow this link.

Now, before I begin some exegetical questions, let me say that I am not a forensic psychologist and I don’t play one on TV. I have had graduate coursework on the topic, attended trainings, been supervised in juvenile and adult forensic cases by experts and benefited from the works of Anna Salter.

I also believe that how people answer may sometimes reveal clues to the truth. In other words, people can tell more truth than they intend as they try to lie. I am not saying that I know where Sandusky is lying. I do not. And TV shows that illustrate that “experts” can uncover lies in 30 minutes or less are fun but not particularly factual.

Disclaimers aside…check out some of these interesting exegetical problems (from the website above):

BOB COSTAS: Mr. Sandusky, there’s a 40-count indictment. The grand jury report contains specific detail. There are multiple accusers, multiple eyewitnesses to various aspects of the abuse. A reasonable person says where there’s this much smoke, there must be plenty of fire. What do you say?

JERRY SANDUSKY: I say that I am innocent of those charges.

BOB COSTAS: Innocent? Completely innocent and falsely accused in every aspect?

JERRY SANDUSKY: Well I could say that, you know, I have done some of those things. I have horsed around with kids. I have showered after workouts.  I have hugged them and I have touched their leg.  Without intent of sexual contact. But — so if you look at it that way – there are things that wouldn’t — you know, would be accurate.       

“I could say that”? “So if you could look at it that way…”? These suggest that there are some creative ways to look at the facts and that Sandusky is trying to view them from some of these creative ways. Wouldn’t you expect that he would be very straight forward on what did happen. For him, there should be no two ways to view something.

Here’s the next pause I had:

BOB COSTAS: What about Mike McQueary, the grad assistant who in 2002 walked into the shower where he says in specific detail that you were forcibly raping a boy who appeared to be 10 or 11 years old? That his hands were up against the shower wall and he heard rhythmic slap, slap, slapping sounds and he described that as a rape?

JERRY SANDUSKY: I would say that that’s false.

Maybe I’m being picky but, “I would say,” sounds like he is shaping a response. Either it is true or it is false. Wouldn’t you want to shout, THAT IS A COMPLETE LIE, if someone made this false allegation about you? He seems to be saying more than just a denial of McQueary’s allegation. It sure sounds that he is shaping his own reality.

Later he is asked by Costas if he feels guilty for what is happening to all at Penn State. In fact, Costas asks him, he says he doesn’t know what Costas is asking. Costas clarifies with this:

BOB COSTAS: Do you feel guilty? Do you feel as if it’s your fault?


Does he still not get the question? Answering questions with questions is one way that some deflect. It takes a 3rd attempt before he can answer with a “no.”

Later there is this exchange with the same style, using a question to answer a question:

BOB COSTAS: Are you sexually attracted to young boys, to underage boys?

JERRY SANDUSKY: Am I sexually attracted to underage boys?


JERRY SANDUSKY: Sexually attracted, you know, I enjoy young people. I love to be around them. But no I’m not sexually attracted to young boys.

Again. Why would one even waffle here for a second. Did he not understand the question that he needed to repeat it? If he is not sexually attracted to boys then he can answer an emphatic NO. Other forms of attraction (filial, ministerial empathy) wouldn’t even come to mind as you deny the allegation.

One of the ways that people lie is that they spend far too much time parsing questions in order to answer truthfully one portion and to ignore another portion so they can comfort themselves with the feeling they are telling the truth.

Now, to be fair to Sandusky. I do not know if his answers reveal that he is lying or that he is just tense and having a hard time with the questions. All I do know is that he answers in a manner similar to those who are known to be lying. Repeat the question; “I would say”; “If you look at it that way”

Bottom line. When we lie, sometimes we tell on ourselves.

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Filed under Abuse, self-deception

Some thoughts on the roots/shoots of genocide

Been thinking about the topic of genocide lately due to a possible symposium talk in near future. If you are like me it is hard to wrap your mind around such a horrific human/group behavior. Just how does one get to the point of being willing to massacre 10 people much less 1,000? How does one become “okay” with mass killing?

I think most would like to believe it is something different from normal human behavior–something in a different category from the rest of humanity. Maybe it comforts us to think of it as a massive work of Satan (it likely is) or a secret political conspiracy that the general population knows nothing of til afterwards.

I suspect, however, that genocidal behavior develops out of some rather basic, even mundane, human tendencies. Here’s the recipe for mass murder, abuse of power, and even use of porn in the privacy of one’s bedroom while acting righteous in public. Duplicity, abuse of power, or any willful sin starts with,

  1. The seed of a perceived problem or threat/loss, and then
  2. Sprouts in the soil of self-focus and deafness or complacency to the needs of others, and then
  3. Bears fruit in warm glow of deception of self and other fertilized by propaganda

Here’s my question to you. What else might I be missing in this “recipe”?


Filed under Abuse, Christianity, cultural apologetics, deception, self-deception

Psychological mystery recommendation: White Lies

Just finished Anna Salter’s novel, White Lies. The book was published 10 years ago, so you may have already come across this great read. If not, Dr. Salter is a forensic psychologist with expertise in the area of sex offending. I highly recommend the book if you want to see how a psychologist goes about gathering data on a perpetrator so as to recommend treatment or predict future re-offending.

What I found most interesting was her use of sentence analysis (written and spoken) to highlight how we tend to deceive self and others. Lying comes in what we say and don’t say. At one point, the offender (a doctor) states that he started his residency at such-and-such a place but never mentions where he finishes it. She evaluates the sentence and tells the reader that the offender has told more of the truth than he planned. No one would say they started it somewhere unless they didn’t finish it there. Instead, you would say, “I did my residence at…”

Her work reminds me of some training I got from Eric Ostrov as an intern at a juvenile jail facility. Dr. Ostrov told us that people generally want to confess their sins–or at least a more acceptable version of them. They make themselves passive in an event, they confess a sin they wished they committed (e.g., crossing sexual lines with a client who seduced them) rather than the sin they did commit (inviting and manipulating a client into a sexual situation).

Long ago I had aspirations of becoming a forensic psychologist. In fact, I did some training and practice in my pre and post doc and had a job offer lined up. I ended up choosing to come to Biblical Seminary. While I don’t regret that choice, the work of exploring self and other deception still interests me.

Anybody out there read her other two novels: Fault Lines or Shiny Water?

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Filed under Abuse, counseling and the law, counseling science, Good Books, self-deception

The burden of a secret

I once ran across a website posting short video clips of individuals revealing some deep secret. Some of these secrets were funny (developing a fake friend on a social networking site to make an ex girlfriend jealous), some were eye-brow raising (eating contents of nose), and some were downright painful (revealing affairs, addictions, sexual abuse and the like).

Keeping a secret (your own or someone else’s) requires that you carry a burden. You know something and can’t share it. You can’t talk about it. You might like to, but the consequences seem dire if you share it. You might lose a friend. You might lose your reputation. You might lose your security.

As someone who listens to secrets for a living I’ve a few observations about the secrets people hold:

1. Even in the confidential setting of counseling, it is near impossible to lay down the burden of some secrets. These secrets are covered in shame. Sexual abuse; Unwanted sexual thoughts and feelings; addictions.

2. Secrets shape our identity in some powerful ways–maybe even more than known truths.

3. The longer a secret is kept, the harder it is to tell, or the harder it is to tell truthfully. Time has a way of distorting facts and feelings in some cases. Similarly, we make lots of excuses for why we keep secrets. Some excuses are cover for shame (e.g., “It would hurt her to know that I…”).

4. When someone has a guilty secret (e.g., an affair), they often tell it to finally throw off the burden of guilt. So, when they tell their spouse, they often feel better right away. Unfortunately, the spouse does NOT feel better. In these cases I find the guilty spouse has a hard time relating to the new burden they’ve just loaded on to their mate. They feel free and wish their spouse would now also feel free too. It is always good for the guilty spouse to question why they wish to confess. Is it to promote truth and long-term possibility of healing? Then, they should tell (carefully). If it is to just be relieved of their guilt, then such a confession may not lead to repentance and healing.

5. Even little secrets kept from a loved one can hurt when revealed. If you lie to me about how many Easter eggs you ate on Sunday, maybe you are lying to me about more weighty matters.


Filed under counseling, deception, Psychology, self-deception

Pastoral sexual abuse a conspiracy?

Heard a radio personality discussing the Pope’s letter to Irish Catholics. He was unhappy with the content of the letter, specifically the Pope’s failure to accept responsibility for abuse by Irish priests. He commented that given the sexual abuse scandal around the world in the Church, there had to be a specific conspiracy, going to the top, to keep covering these matters up; to keep transferring offender priests to new locations.

Given the authority lines in the Catholic church, a planned conspiracy is possible. But, what do we make of these same problems in Protestant churches? Especially in independent churches where there is no authority beyond the local body? Sadly, we see the same cover-up, the same attempts to move someone on without blowing the whistle.

Why? Is it a conspiracy? Yes, but not like the radio host was thinking.

The most obvious answer to the why question has to do with the fact that all, since Adam, are inclined to hide sin; to cover up and deny the truth. SO, it stands to reason that we see this as a universal phenomenon. People, especially those with power, want to look good and deny problems. Even more so when the truth might remove them from power.

But there are some other reasons as well. Worries about defaming Christ, causing “unnecessary” anxiety, “wasting” a gifted person’s ministry just because of one problem. These kinds of reasons are secondary. They make it easier to swallow the denial and deception. Like the parable of the talents, we find excuse for why we bury things. But they are not the primary reason.

I think the radio host wanted to be able to accuse the leadership of the Catholic church. Popes had to know and agree with these cover-ups that allowed abuse to continue. They may well have. But, a far more insidious conspiracy lies in each of our hearts; one that will destroy us if we turn a blind eye to it.

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Filed under Abuse, Biblical Reflection, Christianity, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, church and culture, deception, self-deception

How to fail after hitting it big

Had an interesting talk with my boys about how money and fame does not protect from one’s sins being found out–whether in this life or the next. We were talking about faithfulness and keeping promises and how it feels when someone violates that covenant, and how much more it hurts when that violation goes public.

Right after that, my friend Doug forwarded me a Christianity Today article on the recipe for failing. It is written by Gordon McDonald and is directed at church leaders, especially those who lead big churches. But, you could apply it to your own life. Read the story here, but in short, here is recipe:

1. “Hubris, born of success.” It is interesting how we allow success to lead to pride. Moses told the Israelites that when they got into the promised land and received houses and gardens they didn’t build, they should not become arrogant and say, “look at what I have” and thus forget the Lord.

2. “Undisciplined pursuit of more.” Whether we have little or lots, we always want more. And we find all sorts of creative ways to make our pursuit right and good.

3. “Denial of risk and peril.” The more we succeed the more temptation to give in to brazenness.

4. “Grasping for salvation.” I think this works for successful people as well as those who feel desperate to succeed (after all, you can never rest on your laurels). We look for the silver bullet, the hail Mary, the lotto ticket to the next level of fame.

5. “Capitulation to irrelevance or death.” Once you go too far, you know you can’t recover so you just keep going. Why is it that we find it so hard to repent, to admit, to acknowledge our sins? Because we cannot give up our pride. We sometimes choose character death rather than admit, to stop. I think this is also why people commit hid and runs. We know we will get caught but we keep trying to run because admitting seems like death (when it often contains redemption possibilities).

Notice that the real recipe needs only one ingredient–deception of self and other.

Lord, save us from our prideful, self-deceiving selves.

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Filed under adultery, Christianity, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, church and culture, deception, Repentance, self-deception

Just don’t blow it

Having spoken last week on the topics of trauma and pastoral sexual abuse (and the resulting conversations with attendees at both sessions), I keep thinking this thought: Just don’t blow it.

Let me explain. Both sessions are filled with examples of Christian leaders abusing vulnerable people. It is common that attendees want to come up and chat with me about something similar that has happened to them or a loved one. During my trauma session, an individual commented to the whole group about a recent serious (and very public) allegation about a camp counselor and a decade of abuse to young boys. What would I tell these boys who were (allegedly) abused by someone they should have trusted?

Even when the problem is not abuse but moral failings, I note the massive, rippling fallout (fear, anger, anxiety, crushing heartbreak) in those in the know.

After the second session I got to go have a wonderful dinner with my wife. During it I was having double consciousness. I was with her and enjoying her company but having intruding thoughts about my own capacity to fail her, my kids, my parents, my colleagues, my students, etc. These vignettes I heard of “blowing it” can’t be all stupid of course. They too must have known how much destruction their choices would bring. I cannot rest on the fact that since I’m in the know, it won’t happen to me. Why? Because we are all prone to forget.

So, I spoke to myself, Just don’t blow it Phil. Remember that glowing face of your wife in the dinner light.

I’ll need a bit more than that I suppose…regular reminders and lots of prayer! It is easy to be ensnared and deceived by desires for comfort, glory, etc.

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Filed under Abuse, adultery, christian counseling, Christianity, self-deception