The Art of Self-Deception

Part 14 in the Series:

The Bezalel Blueprint

By Don Enevoldsen

A story was told by the Greek historian, Herodotus, of Croesus, the king of Lydia. Considered the richest man in the world at the time, everything he touched turned to gold. Threatened with an invasion by Cyrus, king of Persia, he sought advice from the world-renowned oracle of Delphi, believing that if he could understand not only the plans of his enemies but more importantly, the will of the gods, he could launch himself into even greater success and glory.

The oracle told him that if he attacked the Persians, he would destroy a great empire.

In 547 B.C., Croesus crossed the River Halys with his army—and was decisively defeated. In his arrogance, he did not consider that the empire he would destroy would be his own.

Artists should take this story as a warning. Too often, as artists become successful and begin to gain recognition for their talent, they forget where their talent came from. And their failure to discern the difference between wisdom and arrogance undermines their success.

They became successful because they had wisdom, understanding and knowledge. However, wisdom, understanding and knowledge without honesty and humility might accomplish nothing more than self-deception.

Consider the process by which Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, became a believer in the god of Israel. The first four chapters of Daniel present an overview of the steps from pagan to believer. Two characteristics of Nebuchadnezzar’s personality are demonstrated, one in an obvious way and the other by implication.

First, the obvious. Nebuchadnezzar was arrogant. Aside from the fact that he stated as much himself (Daniel 4:37), the tone is evident in the way he demanded not only subservience, but worship. “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” he mused to himself. (Daniel 4:28) His attitude reflected the spirit of the nation, described elsewhere as “guilty people, whose own strength is their god.” (Habakkuk 1:11)

The second characteristic was a kind of thoughtful reflection and desire for truth. As so often happens with people who think of themselves as God, Nebuchadnezzar ran head on into something he couldn’t control. At first it was only a dream that caused him deep anxiety.

He called his spiritual advisers in to help, a collection of magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers. Rather than merely asking for an interpretation of the dream, however, Nebuchadnezzar demonstrated that he was suspicious of the reality of his advisers’ abilities. He had thought about things long enough and honestly enough to recognize that they could really tell him anything and he would have no way of really knowing if they had any real connection to spiritual power and insight. So he proposed a test. If the wise men of the kingdom could tell him what the dream was before they interpreted it, then they clearly heard from the gods. If not, then they would be assumed to be frauds.

“This is what I have firmly decided: If you do not tell me what my dream was and interpret it, I will have you cut into pieces and your houses turned into piles of rubble. But if you tell me the dream and explain it, you will receive from me gifts and rewards and great honor. So tell me the dream and interpret it for me.” (Daniel 2:5-6)

Lurking behind this demand was a desire for truth, a dissatisfaction with what we could today call playing church. He didn’t want religious dogma, he wanted spiritual substance, even if it meant destroying the framework of his religion to do it. Nebuchadnezzar was ready for a change.

So God introduced himself through Daniel. Just as the magicians and astrologers were about to be executed—with Daniel among them—God showed Daniel the dream and gave the explanation.

The dream was of a giant statue representing a succession of kingdoms, beginning with a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron and feet of iron and clay. (Daniel 2:31-33) While he watched, a rock struck the statue on its feet and brought it tumbling down. Then Daniel identified Nebuchadnezzar in the image.

“Your Majesty, you are the king of kings. The God of heaven has given you dominion and power and might and glory; in your hands he has placed all mankind and the beasts of the field and the birds in the sky. Wherever they live, he has made you ruler over them all. You are that head of gold.” (Daniel 2:36-38)

Of course, the goal was to introduce to Nebuchadnezzar the idea that his kingdom would fall to another, which would fall to a third, which would fall to yet another, which would be replaced eternally by God’s kingdom. If he had looked at the big picture, he would have been humbled to the point of submission to the God of Israel.

And he did at least acknowledge that Daniel’s god was indeed powerful. He fell at Daniel’s feet and said, “Surely your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings and a revealer of mysteries, for you were able to reveal this mystery.” (Daniel 2:47)

But his reverence stopped short of actual submission. In fact, his next action indicates that he didn’t see very far beyond that fact that He was the head of gold, with dominion and power and might and glory. He turned that image of gold into a gold statue and demanded that everyone worship it. (Daniel 3) His pride in what he had accomplished resulted in a failure of perception—that is, a lack of the very qualities of wisdom, understanding and knowledge, the hallmark of a godly artist. Failure of perception resulted in self-deception.

The incident with the gold statue is better known as the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and their miraculous deliverance from the fiery furnace. It also brought God back into Nebuchadnezzar’s field of vision. He even recognized that God had great power beyond anything he had ever seen. “For no other god can save in this way,” he proclaimed.

Not long after, Nebuchadnezzar had another dream and Daniel again brought the interpretation. Reluctantly Daniel revealed that the king was about to be humbled.

“You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the ox and be drenched with the dew of heaven. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.” (Daniel 4:25)

Several miraculous encounters with God and a dire warning still did not drive pride and arrogance out of Nebuchadnezzar. As he stood one day surveying his kingdom, he reflected on how great was his own achievement. (Daniel 4:29-30)

And at that point, he lost his mind. For seven years, he crawled around on his hands and knees like an animal, eating grass like an ox. His hair became matted and thick and his fingernails grew out until they were like claws. And so he remained until the day he was willing to let go of his pride and acknowledge that God’s “dominion is an eternal dominion; his kingdom endures from generation to generation.” (Daniel 4:34) We know that Nebuchadnezzar got the message because of his own confession:

“At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored.” (Daniel 4:34)

The story of Nebuchadnezzar might seem out of place in a series about artists, however, I have seen this story play itself out many times, especially in Hollywood. Too many artists enter the entertainment profession without dealing with their own flaws. They suddenly find success and they forget all about God. And the next thing you know, they are engaged in a self-destructive lifestyle, proud of their position, talking down to those around them, and very, very proud of how much they have achieved.

Part of wisdom, understanding and knowledge in an artist is honest personal evaluation. It means finding a healthy balance between confidence in the talent God gave and humility in the exercise of that talent. Pride destroys artists more than any other characteristic.

Next, Part 15: The Real Thing

Go to the beginning of the series, The Bezalel Blueprint:  Part 1, The Artist Bezalel

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