Ever had your patience tried by a devout Christian believer convinced they have a special spiritual gift or calling, when there’s no solid evidence that they do? You know the sort of thing: somebody who, as C.S. Lewis put it, “lives for others” when “you can tell the others by their hunted expression.” Or somebody who thinks they hear words from heaven, when what they’re hearing is almost certainly their own thoughts or wishes projected onto God. If your circle consists mostly of the devout, you have doubtless encountered people like that.

They suffer from what Russian-Orthodox theology calls prelest: a term best translated as “spiritual deception” or delusion. But such people present only one example of prelest, and not the most common. In fact, most of us suffer from that condition to some degree. It’s vital to recognize as much and, of course, learn what to do about it.

Living In a World of Our Own

What classifies a person as an extreme (or malignant) narcissist is not so much his sins themselves, but his unyielding insistence that he is without sin.

Each of us in our unregenerate state − the “old Adam” or “old Eve” − is spiritually deluded without ordinarily knowing it, and just to the extent we’re disposed to deny it. Most often, that means we deceive ourselves to some degree about our true state and our motives. Most of us tend to see ourselves as better people than we really are.

A particularly clear example of prelest is the personality type the mental-health profession calls “narcissistic.” In his influential 1983 book People of the Lie, the late Dr. M. Scott Peck elucidated a thorough description of the extreme narcissist – one that may help us less extreme narcissists see our own prelest for what it is.

Peck argued that what classifies a person as an extreme (or malignant) narcissist is not so much his sins themselves, but his unyielding insistence that he is without sin. That facilitates the typical behaviors of malignant narcissists, which differ from those of garden-variety narcissists mainly by degree. The malignant narcissist is incapable of remorse or repentance, so that there’s no inner check on his spiritual deterioration. He has become evil because he categorically refuses to examine himself and find anything wrong. To protect the delusion, malignant narcissists are usually careful to don the mask of good and project their sins onto others by scapegoating.

How did the narcissist get to this point? Peck points the finger at his “unsubmitted will.” He notes, “All adults who are mentally healthy submit themselves one way or another to something higher than themselves, be it God or truth or love or some other ideal.” Extreme narcissists on the other hand have never truly submitted themselves to authority – whether parental, societal, or religious – even if they have at times made a show of doing so.

As Peck summed up, such people literally live “in a world of their own” in which the self reigns supreme.

Devoted to Truth

If we are to put ourselves on guard against falsehood, we had better begin by understanding what we’re up against.

Most narcissism is not malignant in the clinical sense of the term. I cited the extreme example only as the clearest indication of what prelest is really about: kidding ourselves that we are pure or good or special, when we are not, so that we don’t have to repent and obey God. It’s all about protecting our false pride.

The solution is a lifelong project, like the interior conversion or metanoia of which it’s a part: becoming devoted to truth, no matter how uncomfortable the truth may be, especially about oneself.

Now all that sounds great in the abstract. But what, concretely, does it involve?

If we are to put ourselves on guard against falsehood, we had better begin by understanding what we’re up against. Once we do we are in a position to grasp the corresponding truth and act accordingly.

In essence, there are two possible kinds of falsehoods here. The first is unsophisticated: “I’m a really good person, not a sinner; I have no need to improve because I’m fine as I am!” One way out of this pitfall is to learn, usually through some painful or humiliating event or realization, that one is not so perfect after all. But that elementary move forward is not automatic, even when life is shouting at you to take the step. It is a work of grace, not of fallen nature. And it takes courage and humility.

The second form prelest can take is subtler than the first, and usually can be found among believers. It’s the belief that we can take shortcuts to spiritual growth which minimize or altogether avoid ongoing self-examination, radical repentance, and regular acts of self-denial. In other words, holiness without true interior conversion.

That attitude is much more common among believers than most realize—not just among the lukewarm. It’s the form of prelest involved in two mutually opposed extremes that I shall call, for want of better terms, pharisiasm and quietism.

Pharisaism is the tendency to think oneself godly because one does “the right things”—by one’s own power. Such is the perennial temptation of the most “respectable” believers. It does not occur to the pharisaical that maybe I do the right things for the wrong reasons, or that earning my way into God’s favor is totally impossible. One can only merit God’s gifts by God’s gift. Without those gifts, which include our merits, we have nothing to offer God but our nothingness. Until we recognize that, we are in prelest. And as long as we’re in prelest, we cannot please God.

‘Quietism’ was originally coined to describe a quasi-heresy that arose in the Catholic Church during the 17th century, in response to the Protestant critique of the idea of justification by works. Taking for granted that we cannot earn grace, quietists infer that all one need do is sit back and let it work without specific acts of the will on one’s own part. Convinced they had the right attitude about grace, they presumed upon it. And they were proud of themselves that they weren’t like the naïve, pharisaical masses who thought they could get grace by reciting prayers and doing penances.

The error of quietism is to imagine that there’s nothing we can or need do in response to God’s grace in order to be transformed by it. I have noticed that a generic quietism is very common today, especially among younger people. Confusing divine grace with good fortune and warm, fuzzy feelings, too many people seem to believe that God not only loves them just as they are—which is always true—but also approves of them just as they are—which on this side of the grave is almost always false. But they assume that, as long as they eschew acts of kinds they happen to find repellent, they’re good to go to heaven.

Communities Combatting Prelest

The ideal strategy is for small, intentional communities of believers to lovingly hold each other accountable for spiritual delusion.

The surest way for believers to avoid the extremes of pharisaism and quietism is to recognize that they are errors we easily commit if we don’t examine ourselves as objectively and regularly as possible. Of course the same goes for our day-to-day behaviors that don’t premise theological errors. How much better off would our loved ones, co-workers, and neighbors be if we didn’t so often kid ourselves about ourselves! Christian psychotherapy can often help with that.

Unfortunately, and as I’ve already implied, much in contemporary life militates against the antidotes to prelest. Beyond the false ideology of autonomy, our spiritual focus is dissipated by consumerism, by ubiquitous and trivial entertainment, and by the use of anodynes such as alcohol and drugs. Most of us also lack spiritual “elders” and other living saints to set us straight. What is to be done?

Given the difficulty of fighting prelest on one’s own, the ideal strategy is for small, intentional communities of believers to lovingly hold each other accountable for spiritual delusion. That doesn’t mean getting cultish, falling for groupthink and scapegoating outsiders. The needed “communities” can be ready-made: as small as a family or as big as a parish. Whatever the form, they entail striving together to be what the Church first was, and still is in more places than we know. Pope Benedict XVI recognized that, and Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia has translated it recently into an American idiom. Are we up to the challenge?