First, embed this truth
Step three in the process of breaking bad habits is to memorize Scripture and then recite it over and over again. One of the first passages you can use is Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”
This verse makes a good starting point because it introduces the important concept of self-deception. Anyone involved in the sinful habit is likely to be in a state of denial. “It’s not that bad. I can quit anytime I want. I have the power to overcome this on my own without any help.” If you are saying this to yourself about your bad habit, you are probably rationalize your behavior instead of facing it.
What’s the context?
We keep this in mind: “A text taken out of context becomes a pretext.” Because it is so easy to pull a passage out of context, let us consider the verses surrounding Jeremiah 17:9.
In the prophets, a good marker for the beginning of the context are the words we found in Jeremiah 17:5: “This is what the Lord says.” Scholars call these words an introductory formula, because they regularly introduce a prophetic oracle.
What follows these words are two paragraphs that seem to echo Psalm one. First comes a curse on the wicked person, followed by an extended description (Jeremiah 17:5-6). What is this person like? He or she trusts in other people and depends on their strength. By doing this, they are turning their hearts away from the Lord. The Lord compares such a person to “a bush in the wastelands.” They will not experience prosperity when it comes to others. They will live in the desert – desolate and deserted.
What a contrast between such a person and one who trusts in the Lord and depends on Him (Jeremiah 17:7-8)! They will not just be like a tree instead of a bush; it is a special tree, a tree planted right side the water of a river. It sends out its roots into the ground soaked by the flowing stream. The prospect of heat does not make it afraid. Its leaves stay green throughout the year and even in a drought it has no worries. It never fails to produce fruit.
Our target verse is the very next one: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” The preceding context connects the word ‘heart’ with the ‘heart’ of verse five. In trusting other people and turning your back on the Lord, you may think you are on your way to success. You may think your partner is completely trustworthy and would rather clause the collapse of their empire rather than stab you in the back. But you are deceiving yourself.
Context that follows
The verse that follows our target verse (Jeremiah 17:10) continues the thought: “I the Lord search the heart and examined the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct according to what his deeds deserve.” In other words, you may not be able to perceive reality clearly, but the Lord is different. Not only is he able to see what is in your heart, but he also searches it out. This suggests that he easily gets beyond all attempts to hide from him who we are and what we have done.
Examples from Scripture
Three biblical examples follow.
1) In Genesis 3:9, when the voice of God called out to the man in the Garden of Eden, “Where are you?” Was God trying to find out information? Or was the One who had already examined what was in Adam’s heart wanting Adam to see it too?
2) In 1 Kings 14:1 and following, when Jeroboam’s wife went in disguise to consult the blind prophet Ahijah, was she able to fool the prophet of God? His blindness was not enough of a barrier, nor was her disguise. 1 Kings 14:6 says: “When Ahijah heard the sound of her footsteps of the door, he said, ‘come in, wife of Jeroboam. Why this pretense?’”
3) Jesus sternly rebukes the church of Thyatira in Revelation 2:18-29. His main complaint is that they are tolerating a woman in their congregation he calls “Jezebel.” Revelation 2:20 says: “By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food offered to idols.”
The Christians of Thyatira do not see this woman as Jezebel, the Princess of Sidon who married King Ahab and led almost the entire nation of Israel into the worship of the false god Baal (1 Kings 17:31-33). Probably they are proud to have such a good teacher in their church. “Here is one,” they may have said in their hearts, “who will help us get along with our neighbors and avoid any trouble. We can attend trade-guild party down at the pagan temple without compromising our faith.”
But Jesus knows better. He says in Revelation 2:21: “I have given her time to repent, but she is unwilling.” Jesus goes on to summarize what will happen: she will suffer, along with those who commit adultery with her, and Jesus will strike dead her children. (These last two groups seem to be Christians who go along with what she recommends and converts she has gained as a result of her policy.) Jesus then says, “Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds” (Revelation 2:23).
We need help
We must always remember how easily we can deceive ourselves and look to the Lord, asking His help to see ourselves as we really are. Sin is a powerful taskmaster, and it wants to enslave us. In Christ we have been set free from its power. Paul assures us, “Sin shall not be your master, for you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). But we can only maintain this freedom with God’s help and with the help of our brothers and sisters; we cannot overcome sin on our own.
Memorize and recite to yourself Jeremiah 17:9 again and again and again.
Want to dive deeper?
What does the New Testament say about deceiving yourself?
Here are a few passages:
Galatians 6:7 – Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. You reap what you sow. The one who sows to please his flash, from that flesh will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will lead eternal life.
1 Corinthians 6:9-11 – Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
James 1:16 – Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
1 Corinthians 15:33-34 – Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.” Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning; for there are some who are ignorant of God—I say this to your shame.
All of these seem to be circumstances in which we can deceive ourselves. What do they have in common? Why are the biblical writers so urgent in these cases?
For further reading:
Jennifer Crow – Perfect Lies: Overcoming Nine Hidden Beliefs That Stand between You and a Healthy, Joy-Filled Life. Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale House, 2012.
From the publisher: Jennifer seemed to have everything—yet she was constantly fighting secret fears that churned in her mind. Then a major health crisis revealed that her negative thoughts were literally crippling her! Here she walks you through her miraculous recovery, helps you identify the lies you believe, and shares practical techniques for finding true freedom. 256 pages, softcover from Tyndale.