The sinister and terrifying reality of self-deception, fueled by presumption, is a present danger for all of us in these polarized days. Since faith and presumption have similar qualities and self-deception is notoriously hard to recognize, how can we know if we’re living with genuine faith instead of presumption?
In Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful novel, Jack, the main character, who the book is named after, poses a striking dilemma during a conversation with a pastor named Hutchins. As a pastor’s son, Jack has a deep knowledge of the Christian faith, but he wrestles with the relationship between grace and punishment and good and evil. When discussing those issues with Pastor Hutchins, Jack says, “I’ve never even understood the difference between faith and presumption. Never.”[i]
Hutchins replies that he has a meeting in three minutes, so he’ll have to answer the question next week if Jack returns to church. Jack promises to think on it. He does return to the church and has several more conversations with the pastor throughout the novel, but they never address this dilemma of faith and presumption. It’s a question that each of us should ponder. Do I have genuine faith, or am I wrongly presuming that my faith is genuine? Bottom line, how do we answer Jack’s question? What is the difference between faith and presumption?
Presumption and Self-Deception
To live presumptuously is to take something for granted, to assume a reality that doesn’t exist. Amazingly, as the presumptuous man lives in a fantasy world of his making, he often lives with boldness and unshakeable confidence. He knows what he knows, and no one can convince him otherwise. In biblical terms, we would call this self-deception.
Jesus addresses those whose lives are marked by presumption and self-deception at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. In one of the most sobering texts in the entire Bible He warns, “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name? And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness (Matthew 7:22-23).’”
There’s a reason John MacArthur began his pulpit ministry at Grace Community Church by reading this text. Those who are self-deceived, by definition, are not aware of their status. In verse 22 the self-deceived argue with God, explaining that they should be granted access to the kingdom because of their works. Jesus warns that the judgment seat will be a place where presumption is exposed, where the blinders of self-deception will be ripped away so the penetrating light of truth can illuminate the true character of one’s life and works.
Beyond these words in Matthew 7, the Bible is filled with warnings against self-deception, which is perhaps the most prominent result of presumption. In Hebrews 3:12-13 we are told to “take care” to avoid an evil and unbelieving heart. According to verse 13, the heart grows corrupt because of the deceitfulness of sin. Sin distorts reality and our corrupt hearts grow accustomed to the misperception.