A National Geographic documentary television show called “Brain Games” delves into the human brain and its capacity to be easily manipulated. A test is conducted on the streets of America in which a random person is asked to view a photo image. The image is the famous picture of a Chinese student protestor standing in front of a looming line of tanks in Tiananmen Square. The Square is lined with protestors holding signs and banners facing the courageous man and the Chinese tanks.
The random street subject is asked to recall the events of that day and describe them based on what they remember in the news. Each subject remembered that the students were protesting against an abusive Chinese government and, how the student confronting the Chinese tank was very brave, and that everyone in the square was supportive and cheering for the Chinese man. The random street subject was then shown a second and similar photo image, but with a stark difference.
The first image was doctored. In the true image, there were no other student protestors waving signs and cheering for the lone man standing before the tanks. Yet, each person specifically remembered something different based on what they saw in the first image. What is the explanation for this phenomenon?
The television show goes on to describe how the human brain works. The brain stores similar information together so that it can quickly recall and relate to information for similar and related stimuli. This is a very efficient system but can be easily manipulated if something deceptive is introduced. The brain can be tricked into remembering something that did not actually happen as long as it is similar to something that did happen, or even more important, could have happened. Basically, the brain is capable of creating a false memory.
The show also revealed that emotions can affect how we remember events. A normal person tends to mute negative life experiences but vividly remember happier events. However, the person who is in a state of depression mutes specific memories altogether and replaces them with cloudy memories of disappointment and worthlessness. Someone who is negative in his outlook tends to remember only negative aspects of what would normally be a positive experience.
How does any of this relate to the Bible? These scientific studies give a little insight into the Bible’s warning about trusting the human heart and mind. The Bible states, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it” (Jer. 17:9)? When the Proverb says, “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not on your own understanding,” there is good reason (Prov. 3:5). Man has the capacity to distort and twist facts and knowledge so that he corrupts the truth, leading to his own destruction (II Peter 3:16). Several Old Testament accounts lend themselves as good examples.
The account of King Saul reveals a sad deterioration of a man’s mental state as he progressively turned away from God. His jealousy of David caused him to misrepresent David’s intentions, leading him to do the unthinkable. In I Samuel, Chapter 21 and 22, we read the account in which David went to Nob to Ahimelech the priest and obtained food and a weapon for himself and his men. He gave an explanation to the priest which seemed plausible but did not reveal to the priest that he was actually fleeing from Saul. When it came to Saul’s knowledge that Ahimelech had helped David, Saul said to Ahimelech, “Why have ye conspired against me, thou and the son of Jesse, in that thou hast given him bread, and a sword, and hast inquired of God for him, that he should rise against me, to lie in wait, as at this day?” (I Sam.22:13)
Ahimelech the priest was alarmed at the accusation. He defended his honest intentions by stating to Saul, “And who is faithful among all thy servants as David, which is the king’s son-in-law, and goeth at thy bidding, and is honourable in thine house?” (I Sam. 22:14) He had no reason to distrust David.
The priest went on to defend his own actions saying, “Did I then begin to inquire of God for him? be it far from me: let not the king impute any thing unto his servant, nor to all the house of my father: for thy servant knew nothing of all this, less or more” (I Sam. 22:15).
Saul’s irrational state of mind blinded him to Ahimelech’s reasonable defence. Doeg, the Edomite, gave his witnessed account of David’s visit to the priest, and Saul made his conclusion based on the account of one witness. Doeg seemed to know all the facts of David’s visit (I Sam. 22:9) but did not defend the priest in having no knowledge of David’s flight from Saul. Furthermore, it is possible that Doeg either lied, or assumed that Ahimelech the priest inquired of the Lord for David, when he actually did not. There is no account of Ahimelech doing so when interacting with David, and the priest denies it in I Samuel 22:15. Doeg likely inserted a deception which incriminated the priest, because he knew that it was what Saul wanted to hear.
Between Saul’s jealousy and Doeg’s probable deceit, what Saul believed to be fact was far from the truth. Without fear of God, Saul gave the order to “slay the priests of the Lord….” (I Sam. 22:17). Doeg, at the order of King Saul, slew 85 innocent persons of the priestly family.
Another example may be found in the book of Numbers, Chapter 22. Balaam the prophet had been offered great reward by the Moabites if he would curse the children of Israel. Balaam’s desire for the reward caused him to covet, and his coveting caused him to pervert his way before the Lord (Num. 22:32). When one perverts his way before the Lord, his mental outlook becomes unsound.
As Balaam went with the princes of Moab, the Lord stood in the way with a sword, revealing Himself only to the donkey. We read, “And when the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff. And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times? And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee” (Num. 22:27-29).
In Balaam’s view, his goals were being impeded by his dumb donkey. Along with his covetousness, Balaam’s frustration and anger temporarily distorted his perception of reality, allowing him to address the talking donkey as though it was nothing unusual. In II Peter 2:16, Peter writes that “the dumb ass speaking with man’s voice forbad the madness of the prophet.” Unguided human emotion will lead man away from God and a sound mind.
We may also recall the transgression of Uzziah, king of Judah. The Bible states that “…he did that which was right in the sight of the Lord . . . and as long as he sought the Lord, God made him to prosper” (II Chron. 26:4-5). Uzziah became very strong so that “…his name spread far abroad; for he was marvelously helped, till he was strong” (II Chron. 26:15).
We then read verse 16 of II Chronicles, Chapter 26, “But when he was strong, his heart was lifted up to his destruction: for he transgressed against the Lord his God, and went into the temple of the Lord to burn incense upon the altar of incense.” The responsibility of offering incense belonged only to the priestly family. Regardless of Uzziah’s God given success and approval, he still had his limitations. His heart and mind had forgotten these limitations, being lifted up in self-righteousness, a form of self idolatry.
Trusting in one’s own righteousness creates a self assurance that allows one to believe that anything which comes to his or her mind is right. This is a dangerous pitfall for the people of God. God speaks saying, “When I shall say to the righteous, that he shall surely live; if he trust to his own righteousness, and commit iniquity, all his righteousness shall not be remembered; but for his iniquity that he hath committed, he shall die for it” (Ezek. 33:13). We are never made pure, or just, by being impressed by our own spiritual achievements.
The previous three examples, Saul, Balaam, and Uzziah, were all men who started out in good standing with God, but made a turn for the worse. Something went wrong in their thinking and they failed to obey God. God gave us examples in the Old Testament that we might learn from them and avoid the same mistakes (I Cor. 10:11). Regular self examination in which we measure our attitude with the examples recorded in the Bible can keep us from going astray. However, an honest self examination requires the soundest of minds.
How can we avoid falling victim to a deceptive mind?
There are many cognitive processes that interfere with our obedience towards God. These proceed from the carnal heart and mind and are self destructive (Rom. 8:7-8). The only defense against a deceptive heart and mind is to have the mind of Christ and dearly hold on to it (Rom. 8:9). This requires doing what Jesus taught. Jesus said, “If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him” (John 14:23). We must love God and continually maintain His Spirit by keeping in contact with Him. This is accomplished through regular heartfelt prayer, earnest study, and humble fasting. If we do not keep in contact with God, we may drift away. God’s Holy Spirit is a gift which should not be taken for granted or neglected.
Paul admonished Timothy saying, “Stir up the gift of God… For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (II Tim. 1:6-7). A sound mind is one of the rewards for those who are able to stir up the Spirit of God. As we draw near to the return of Christ, we are told that deception will increase. Satan’s effort will be to deceive even God’s elect (Matt. 24:24). A close relationship with God and Christ is our only defense.