A Biblical teaching on the problem of (self) deception

Close-up of a Sheep's head in front of a crean backgroundOne of the more troublesome and damaging human traits is the tendency for us to be deceived. Scripture speaks often of this problem, and we do well to look to some of the texts and see what they have to teach us.

Perhaps, it is good it first to look to the Latin and Greek roots of the word “deceive.”

The Latin root comes from decipere, meaning, “to ensnare” (de (of or up) + capere, (to seize or take). And thus the Latin emphasizes our tendency to be easily caught up, or carried away; to be ensnared by error. Indeed, so easily are we carried away by the latest fashions, trends, and thinking of the world. Having been carried away, we are ensnared by error, and to some degree cut off from the truth.

Regarding the Greek roots, there are several words in the Greek New Testament that often get translated “deceive” in English. But by far, the most common is πλανάω – planao – meaning to go astray, get off-course; to deviate from the correct path,  roaming into error, wandering off; (or in the passive voice) to be misled. Planao is the root of the English term, planet (meaning “wandering body”). This term in the Greek New Testament nearly always conveys the sin of roaming from the truth.

And thus we see that the Greek emphasis is that we go astray, or are led astray, that we wander off.    Isaiah the prophet lamented, All we like sheep have gone astray; every one to his own way (Is 53:6) Yes, and if sheep are wayward animals, human beings are more so, for at least a Sheep knows its master’s voice, but too many of us will listen to anyone but the Lord, and follow them.

Regarding our tendency toward deception, we can distinguish three different stances toward the problem.

I. On the one hand, we are sometimes the victim of deception. And the Scriptures frequently warn, “Do not be deceived….” Jesus warned At that time many will fall away and will betray one another and hate one another. Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many (Mat 24:11)

St. Paul also lamented false apostles and Judaizers who misled many. He warned of savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. (Acts 20:29-30) He also spoke of some who will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons (1 Tim 4:1).

St. John warned of the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world (1 John 4:3).

Thus, to some degree we are victims of deceivers. The Scriptures warn us to be on our guard, do not be deceived! That is, “You are not to allow these deceivers to lead you astray, to make you wonder about in error and in sin. We are to resist them and see them for the deceivers they are.

II. In another, and hopefully rarer version, we can be among those who deceive. Here is referred to something deeper than the more common human foible of lying. But rather, the deeper deceiving is referred to here of misleading people in matters regarding the true faith.

God warns deceivers Why do you boast of evil, you wicked man? Why do you boast all day long, you who are a disgrace in the eyes of God. You who practice deceit, your tongue plots destruction; it is like a sharpened razor. You love evil rather than good, falsehood rather than speaking the truth. You love every harmful word, you deceitful tongue! Surely God will bring you down to everlasting ruin(Psalm 52:1-5).

God declares a curse on those shepherds who mislead his flock: Woe to the shepherds who are mislead and scatter the sheep of My pasture!” declares the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD God of Israel concerning the shepherds who are tending My people: “You have scattered My flock and driven them away, and have not attended to them; behold, I am about to attend to you for the evil of your deeds.(Jer 23:1-3)

Jesus  declares If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me–to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. (Mat 18:6)

St. Paul speaks of the a lot of deceivers in 2 Tim 3:13: But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.

III. But the final category of deception is perhaps the most troubling of all. It is a kind of a middle ground between being a victim of deception and a victimizer. It is that middle ground where we connive in deception. Where we allow deceivers to speak to us, and not only do we not rebuke them for their deception, we perk our ears and in effect say, “Tell me more.”

We do this, because to some degree, many want to be deceived, they want to be confirmed in their sin, in their weakness. Somehow, many want the truth to be watered down, are are delighted to listen to those who call into question the demands of righteousness. Yes, many of us connive, we enter into agreement with the deceivers.

And thus many of the warnings that we “not be deceived” are not simply warnings to the presence of deceivers, but a warning to our own tendency to enter into agreement with those would deceive us. In this context, the warning, “Do not be deceived,”  takes on more the tone of

“Don’t kid yourself; don’t tell lies to yourself; don’t go on playing the fool or the ignoramus. You know better, and the voice of God echoing in your conscience bears witness to the fact that you’re lying to yourself, you are letting others lie to you.”

Premier among the conniving texts is St. Paul’s warning to Timothy: For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear, and will turn away from the truth (2 Tim 4:3).

What are some of the common ways people “want”  to be deceived? A brief survey of Scripture reveals this. I have highlighted the various forms of the word “deceive” to illustrate that God is teaching us about the various forms of this sinful connivance.

A. That our actions will not have consequences:  Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. (Galatians 6:7-8 )

B. That faith can be perfunctory, intellectual or merely lip service. That good intentions are enough and that one can love the world:  But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves… If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:22-27)

Hear the word of the Lord, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’ “If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless. ‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 7:1-11)

D. That Sexual Sin is no big deal –  Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor 6:9-10)

Be sure of this, no fornicator, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them. For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light… and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness. (Eph 5:5-11)

When lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. (James 1:16)

E. That regular consort with sin and sinners will not affect us:   Do not be deceived: “Bad company corrupts good morals.” Become sober-minded as you ought, and stop sinning; for some have no knowledge of God. I speak this to your shame. (1 Cor 15:33).

But encourage each other daily, while it is still today, so that none of you is hardened by sin’s deception. (Heb 3:13)

F. That we can wholly avoid deception and error apart from Scripture and the Teaching of the Church: Jesus answered them, “You are deceived, because you don’t know the Scriptures or the power of God. (Matt 22:29)

Wickedness deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the Truth and so be saved. (1 Thess 2:10)

Here then is a brief excursus on the lamentable human tendency to wander, to be be carried off, to be deceived. And frankly, too many of us want to be deceived. Be alert to this deep drive rooted in sloth and pride. Learn its moves, and despise its lures.

This video is the classic movement from Messiah that says, “All we like sheep have gone astray, every one to his own way. And the Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” The movement is a kind of musical onomatopoeia, for the music “sounds” like the scattering and wandering off it is describing. Enjoy but beware, its talking about us!

9 Replies to “A Biblical teaching on the problem of (self) deception”

  1. Archbishop Chaput wrote this line in his homily for Right Life Mass at the National Basilica last week:”But nations are born and thrive, and then decline and die. And so will ours. ” When I read comments from people on things like this or hear some of the young discus things, I become ever more convinced that we are well into the process of decline. As John Paul II said, once a democracy becomes so corrupt the next step is a dictatorship. But Chaput gives us hope when he finishes the same paragraph with this: “Even a good Caesar is still only Caesar. Only Jesus Christ is Lord, and only God endures. Our job is to work as hard as we can, as joyfully as we can, for as long as we can to encourage a reverence for human life in our country and to protect the sanctity of the human person, beginning with the unborn child.” And so we must also show reverence for human life by not encouraging or promoting mind altering drugs, excessive use of any drug!

  2. Recently I became victim of self deception by my own fault and I am today very sorry about that. Let me explain:
    on this blog not long ago, I said that it seemed to me that the Holy Father never had said to my knowledge anything encouraging about the priests. It seemed to me that he was often criticising the priests without ever acknowledging their good and hard work. Today I read Vatican Radio’s report about what Pope Francis said lately when he made a reflection on the first reading of the day, which speaks of the tribes of Israel who annointed David their King. Here are the Pope’s words: “How many holy bishops, many priests, many holy priests who have spent their lives in service to the diocese, the parish.” “We are all sinners, but a falling tree makes more noise than a growing forest”. What a surprise to read this! I feel so silly and I can feel the wheight of my own self deception. I am at fault of believing a false idea and most of all of writing it on your blog for all to read. Thank you Monsighor for replying immediately that that the Holy Father did not mean things to be interpreted “that way”.

  3. I tell my friends pick up a book on the Saints read it and them imitate them in all things. God in his infinite wisdom gave us these good and holy people as examples of the way we should live our lives. Then never stray from Church teaching utilizing the Sacraments, the Liturgy, Eucharistic Adoration and the Rosary. Have a “true devotion ” to our Lady. These ingredients together assists us in not being deceived. Mother Teresa is my example and look to her and her Sisters for the way we should live our lives!

  4. I take pride in not deceiving myself; yet I am still cursed, for I have no virtue to act against sin and to bear my cross. Thus I am forced to watch others go gladly to hell and drag me along.

    1. To Brwno: Who can claim s/he has virtue? Merely human virtue always has its limits, both in terms of duration and perfection. It is the merits of Christ that make the merits of His Mystical Body possible. Let me suggest that should the power of vice seem insurmountable, confidence in our Lady, manifested by the most frequent recourse to Her Rosary (itself a visitation of the whole of the work of Redemption) will conquer the pessimism expressed in your note. I will pray for you tonight at the Altar.

      1. Thank you so much for your prayer. Only now I thought to check for any responses to this anguished comment of mine.

  5. Thank you Msgr.
    A brief aside on the light side. I have listened to Handel’s Messiah perhaps 1000 times, and have sung it in chorus perhaps a dozen times (a strictly amateur baritone). After reading your blog post today, I JUST noticed that Handel is playing with us in the phrase “We have turn e e e e e e e e e ed away.” which sounds like bleating sheep.
    Delightfully sobering.

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