We live in a world full of lies, and deceit comes from many sources. There are lying spirits who lead astray (1 Timothy 4:1); there are “evildoers and impostors” looking for dupes (2 Timothy 3:13); and, perhaps most insidious, we have ourselves to deal with. Self-deception is common in our fallen world.
Our own hearts are deceitful—so much so that we easily fool ourselves (Jeremiah 17:9). Isaiah 44:20 speaks of an idolater who is misled by his own “deluded heart.” The prophet Obadiah identifies arrogance as one of the roots of self-deception: “The pride of your heart has deceived you” (Obadiah 1:3). Human pride always blinds us to truth. It promises honor, but it delivers disgrace: “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18).
James 1:22 warns us against deceiving ourselves: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” The self-deception that James has in mind relates to an inappropriate response to truth. God’s Word is meant to change us (see Psalm 119:11 and John 17:17). We can sit in church for years, listening to sermon after sermon, but if we never allow the Word we hear preached change us, then we are self-deceived. We can read the Bible from cover to cover, but unless we put its commands into practice, we deceive ourselves.
Such deception is common among religious people who accumulate truth in their minds, assuming that this is what “true religion” is all about. But Scripture was not given merely to produce theologians; it was given “so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17). Holding the truth in one’s mind is not necessarily a character-changing quality. James 1:23–24 illustrates: merely looking at oneself in a mirror is not necessarily an appearance-changing experience. The mirror can tell us our hair is a mess, but unless we get out the brush and attack the problem, the tangles will remain.
James goes on to contrast self-deceived, “worthless” religion with “pure and faultless” religion, giving a practical example of each. One type of self-deception is to believe that our words do not matter: “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless” (James 1:26). In contrast, those who successfully avoid being self-deceived practice true religion: “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” (verse 27). Empty religion allows a person to employ his bodily members and his material resources toward self-centered objectives. But God approves of “faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6).
Self-deception is illustrated tragically by Samson. This mighty hero of Israel disclosed the secret of his strength to Delilah, who betrayed him to his enemies as he slept. Once his hair had been cut, Delilah called, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” Samson “awoke from his sleep and thought, ‘I’ll go out as before and shake myself free.’ But he did not know that the Lord had left him” (Judges 16:20). Samson learned the hard way that forgetting the Word of God is a form of self-deception.
The bravado of the giant Goliath is another example of self-deception. He strutted and boasted and flung insults at Israel, sure that his great size and physical strength would ensure victory against the much smaller and weaker David. But he was wrong; in fact, Goliath didn’t even know what battle he was fighting. His fight was not with David, but with David’s God (1 Samuel 17:41–51).
Self-deception can also occur in relation to one’s security, as shown in Jesus’ parable of the rich fool. The man in the story was thrilled that his land produced an unusually abundant crop. He believed he’d come to a time in his life when he could “take life easy; eat, drink and be merry” (Luke 12:19). But this was wishful thinking, for he would die that very night (verse 20).
The church of Laodicea was the victim of self-deception concerning their spiritual condition. This lukewarm church had convinced itself that everything was all right: “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing” (Revelation 3:17a). Jesus, who always speaks truth, set them straight: “You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (verse 17b).
To avoid self-deception, we must be like the one who “looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do” (James 1:25). Remembering the Word, doing the Word, and continuing in the Word—this is what changes character and counters self-delusion. Like a mirror, the Word of God will always show us the truth.