One of the more troublesome and damaging human traits is our susceptibility to deception. Scripture speaks often of this problem and we do well to examine some of those texts and consider what they teach us.
Perhaps it is good to look first to the Latin and Greek roots of the word deceive.
Latin: The Latin root of deceive is 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. It evokes the image of an animal being carried off as prey in the mouth of a lion. We are so easily are we carried away by the latest fashions, trends, and thinking of the world. And having been carried away, we are ensnared by error and to some degree cut off from the truth.
Greek: There are several words in the Greek New Testament that are translated as deceive in English. By far the most common is πλανάω (planao), meaning to go astray, to wander off course, to deviate from the correct path, to roam into error, to be misled. (Planao is the also the Greek root of the English word planet (literally, wandering body)). In the Greek New Testament, this term nearly always conveys the sin of roaming from the truth. And thus we see that the Greek emphasizes 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. Too many of us will listen to and follow anyone but the Lord.
We humans are involved in deception in three different ways.
I. We are sometimes the victim 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 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! We are not to allow these deceivers to lead us astray, to make us wander about in error and sin. We are to resist them and see them for the deceivers they are.
II. We can be among those who deceive (though hopefully this is less frequent). This refers to something deeper than the more common human foible of lying. The deception here involves misleading people in matters of 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 their flocks: “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: But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived (2 Tim 3:13).
III. The final category is perhaps the most troubling of all: a middle ground between being a victim and a victimizer. It is that middle ground where we connive in deception. When deceivers speak to us, not only do we fail to rebuke them for their deception, we perk up our ears and in effect say, “Tell me more.”
We do this because, to some degree, we want to be deceived; we want to be affirmed in our sin, in our weakness. Many want the truth to be watered down and are delighted to listen to those who call into question the demands of righteousness. Yes, many of us connive; we enter into partnership with the deceivers.
Many of the warnings that we “not be deceived” are not simply alerting us to the presence of deceivers; they are cautioning us to be wary our own tendency to enter into agreement with those would deceive us. In this context, the warning, “Do not be deceived,” takes on more of this tone:
“Don’t kid yourself; don’t tell lies to yourself; don’t go on playing the fool or the ignoramus. You know better. The voice of God echoing in your conscience bears witness to the fact that you’re lying to yourself and you’re 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 things people “want” to be deceived into believing? A brief survey of Scripture reveals this. (I have boldfaced 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 mere lip service; that good intentions are enough; 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).
C. 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).
D. That regular consort with 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).
E. 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 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 shows a performance of the classic movement from the 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.” This movement is a kind of musical onomatopoeia (the music sounds like the scattering and wandering off that the lyrics describe).
Enjoy, but beware: it is referring to us!