A great clarion call goes up quite often in Scripture: “Do not be deceived!” And indeed, this call must go up as never before, for we live in times of great deception. So many have been deceived about marriage, sexuality, life, the existence of God, and what our life is really all about. And while our current times show widespread deception, it must also be noted that deceiving and being deceived are common human tendencies, especially in our fallen condition. 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.
Let’s first look at 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 as “deceive” in English. But by far the most common is πλανάω (planao), meaning to go astray, to deviate from the correct path, to roam into error, to wander off, or (in the passive voice) to be misled. Planao is the root of the English word “planet,” which means “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; at least a sheep knows its master’s voice. Too many of us will listen to and follow anyone but the Lord.
We can distinguish three different ways in which we are involved in deception.
I. We are sometimes the victims of deception. 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, 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 wander about in error and in sin. You are to resist them and see them for the deceivers they are.
II. We can be among those who deceive (though I hope this is rare). This refers to something deeper than the more common human foible of lying: it is the misleading of 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 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 lot of deceivers in 2 Tim 3:13: But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.
III. We can connive in deception. This final category is perhaps the most troubling of all. It is a kind of a middle ground between being a victim of deception and a perpetrator of deception. We allow deceivers to speak to us, and not only do we not rebuke them for their deception, we actually perk up our ears and say, in effect, “Please go on; tell me more!”
We do this because, to some degree, we want to be deceived. We want to be confirmed in our sin, in our weakness. Somehow, many of us want the truth to be watered down; we’re delighted to listen to those who call into question the demands of righteousness. Yes, many of us connive with the deceivers.
And thus many of the warnings that we not be deceived are not simply warnings to be watchful for deceivers; they also warn of our own tendency to collude 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 lie to yourself. Don’t go on playing the fool. You know better. The voice of God echoing in your conscience bears witness to the fact that you’re lying to yourself, and you are allowing 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 its various forms.
A. 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. Faith can be perfunctory, intellectual, or mere lip service. Good intentions are enough and 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 7:2-11).
D. 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. 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. We can somehow 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 carried off, to be deceived. And, frankly, too many of us want to be deceived. Be alert to this deep drive that is rooted in sloth and pride. Learn its moves and despise its lures.
This video features 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—it’s talking about us!