Years of practice have permitted me to be able to blow up a balloon with my ear. I carefully put the balloon over my ear and close my mouth and nose so no air leaks out and with great effort am able to blow up this balloon.
When I do this, the truth appears to be that I can actually blow up the balloon with my ear. You know very well that this can not be true and so although the truth appears to be one thing, it is actually something else. That is what deception is - a distortion of the truth. You know that you are being deceived, but sometimes we don’t know that we are deceived.
In the passage in James 1 which we are looking at today, we are told three times to be very careful about deception. In 1:16 - “Don’t be deceived,” 1:22,26 we are cautioned against “deceiving ourselves.” Of course, we are not talking about the interesting deception of slight of hand, but a much more serious spiritual deception which has a great impact on our life.
As we examine spiritual deception we notice that there are two different kinds of deception talked about here, both serious, one more dangerous than the other. If we are deceived because we have not understood the truth, that is one kind of deception. It is serious because not understanding the truth properly will result in ways of living based on things which are not true and can result in damage to ourselves and others. For example, if we do not know that this symbol means poison, we could put ourselves in danger. The remedy for this kind of deception is simply learning what the truth is. Today we will learn that we should not be deceived about who God is and how he treats us.
The other kind of deception is even more devastating and that is when we deceive ourselves. A person who deceives himself denies the truth in order to make it fit more comfortably into his or her lifestyle. For example, a doctor knows very well that smoking is harmful to his health, but deceives himself into thinking that it won’t harm him. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the queen asks, “mirror, mirror on the wall, whose the fairest of them all.” She was self deceived, thinking that she was. When she found out that wasn’t the truth, it caused a major upheaval in her world. Being self-deceived can be very devastating. A person who is deceived because they do not know the truth can be changed by presenting the truth, but what do you do with a person who knows the truth, but has distorted it? One person says, “two things for which there are no antidotes are self-righteousness and self deception. Both are terminal diseases.” Today we will be warned not to deceive ourselves about our spiritual life.
As we listen to these challenging words on being deceived about some basic issues of the Christian life, we need to take note of the tone with which these things are written. James says twice in this passage, “my beloved brothers.” He writes with a heart of compassion as a pastor who is concerned for the spiritual well being of his people. We need to listen as people who are loved.
Last week we talked about trials. We defined trials as those things that come into our life which challenge our faith. The reality about trials is that they raise the possibility that we will not come through them with flying colours, but may give in. Last week we said that we should face trials with joy because of the value they have in our life. Because of that kind of thinking, we may think that God has brought these things into our life. When trials come, we often ask, “why did God let this happen?” or “why did God bring this into my life?” However, you will notice that at no time did we discuss what the source of those trials was. The text never says that God brings these things into our life. How then should we think about where trials come from and what God’s role is?
One thing we can know for certain, as we learn in 1:13, is that, “When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone…” The word “tempt” is the same Greek word as “trials” in verse 2 and 12. Which tells us that the same context is in mind. The word is translated differently because the intent is different. Trials have the purpose of revealing the quality of faith in us. God may permit those, but we need to be very clear and not be deceived into thinking that God has any evil intent in any trial or temptation that may come into our life.
James makes it very clear that God is not capable of tempting us. He is, as one commentary puts it, “impervious to evil” and he does not tempt anyone. If evil happens because of a trial we are going through, we can in no way blame God. God is incapable of doing evil or enticing anyone to do evil.
The lie that God brings evil into anyone’s life is as old as the garden of Eden where the serpent seduced Eve to consider the possibility that “God did not have her best interest in mind.” To this kind of thinking, James says in 1:16 - “Don’t be deceived.”
To think that God has tempted us to do wrong is very dangerous thinking. If God brought it into our life, then in some way, we can blame God for it and we don’t have to feel responsible for the outcome. If God is responsible, then it diminishes our trust in Him and we begin to think that we need to rely on ourselves because God seems to be playing with us. If God has brought this into our life, then we begin to question whether God has our best in mind and we wonder whether we can look to him.
As an aside to make sure that we do understand the source of sin, James lets us know where sin does come from.
If we can’t blame God, who can we blame? A number of years ago, a comedian often used the phrase “The devil made me do it.” James, however, puts the blame squarely on us. We deceive ourselves when we think that the source of wrongdoing is anywhere else. We deceive ourselves about these things because we don’t want to hear that we are responsible for our own sin. “James has ignored the tempter without by focusing on the traitor within.”
The descriptions are vivid and powerful. When going fishing, one of the main ways of catching fish is with the use of a lure. (bring a lure). The fish sees it and finds it attractive and wants it and chases it and bites it and is caught. On Thursday, a black bear was sighted in Winnipeg. You may have seen that they were trying to catch the bear by enticing him into a trap with sardine oil. These are the pictures behind the two words, “dragged away” and “enticed.” Sin happens when our own desires draw us into something good that is distorted and we become trapped or caught.
The imagery changes from fishing or hunting imagery to sexual language. Desire is conceived and gives birth to sin and when sin is full grown it gives birth to death. In The Message it says in verses 14,15, “We have no one to blame but the leering, seducing flare-up of our own lust. Lust gets pregnant, and has a baby: sin! Sin grows up to adulthood, and becomes a real killer.”
What a contrast from what we learned last week when we saw that trials which are endured result in life.
Far from being the source of temptation, God is the source of everything good. Verse 16 being between vs. 15, 17 is really a transition and pertains to both concepts. Don’t be deceived about God - He does not do anything to lead us into evil of any kind, instead, God does good to us.
Since God does not send the test to bring evil, what does God send? He sends every good and perfect gift. He is the Father of the heavenly lights. The imagery of lights reminds us of the lights that we know on earth. We know the light of the sun, but every night, the sun is gone and we are in the shadow of the earth. From time to time, the moon comes between the earth and the sun and an eclipse causes a shadow to pass over the earth. Every source of light can be uncertain or cast a shadow, but the light of God is pure and perfect. There is no shadow in God. There is no eclipse in the goodness of God. There is no place where he does what is wrong.
The greatest example of that is the great gift of new birth which he has already given us. He has chosen us, given us a new birth and created us as the firstfruits of his creation. The blessing of salvation is the greatest demonstration that God has nothing but our best interest in mind.
So we need to be very careful that we are not deceived. God does not bring evil to us but has our best interest in mind. If we believe the lie, it leads to death. Instead of being deceived, let us recognize God’s goodness and trust Him in every situation.
Not only can we be deceived about God, we can also be deceived about ourselves.
What would happen if you thought you were putting gas into your car and instead you were putting in diesel fuel? What would happen if you thought you were putting baking soda into a recipe and instead you were putting in flour? What happens if we claim to be living our life in God’s way, but we don’t obey his word? That is the deception that is spoken of in verses 19-25. It forces us to make sure that we are not deceived about the operating center of our life.
In verse 18, James has said that we have been given new birth through the ”word of truth.” God’s word is powerful. It is by a word that he created the heavens and the earth and it is by His word of truth that we have been born again.
As a result the word of God is planted in us. This is the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament. In the Old Testament, the Word of God was written on tablets of stone and placed into the ark. Since Christ and by the Holy Spirit, the Word of God has been written on our hearts and planted within us as it says in verse 21.
But we need to be very careful that we do not deceive ourselves. We deceive ourselves if we think that the word of God is planted in us and if we merely listen to it and do not do it.
Ron Kroeker has drawn me a cartoon which describes what that kind of self deception is like. It is taken from 1:14,15.
This is a very dangerous self deception. Can you imagine what will happen if this man tries to go courting? His self deception will result in disaster.
Can you imagine what will happen if we think that we are pleasing to God because we have come to church and heard the preacher preach and have listened to the songs, but have not obeyed what we have heard? Can you imagine what will happen if we think that we are doing everything just fine, but we have failed to do what God’s Word says?
We need to be very careful that we are not deceived about ourselves. If we are not doing the Word of God, we have no reason to claim that it is within us. Verse 21 tells us that the “implanted word in you can save you.” But if we are not acting on that word, then it is obviously not in us and if it is not in us, we are headed for destruction instead of for salvation and life. Just as the look into the mirror has no real effect on the man, but is a momentary glance at the truth which makes no impact, so listening to the Word of God or reading the Word of God and not doing it contains the same useless momentariness.
Some of the specifics of such obedience are contained in verses 19-21. Here we have five words. Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry, get rid of moral filth and evil and humbly accept the implanted word. Most of these words are repeated in other places, but let me make a few comments about each one.
The sins of the tongue are severely attacked by James. In a few weeks, Amos is going to speak about the great danger of sinning with our tongue. The summary given here is worthy of note and is also common in the Bible. For example, Proverbs 10:19 says, “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.” Jesus said in Matthew 12:34,37, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks… For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
Anger is not spoken about elsewhere in the book and so we need to say a few words about anger. Anger is not sin. How we express anger is the critical issue. Anger is a warning sign that something is wrong and when we feel this emotion, we need to stop and ask ourselves, “why am I angry?” Sometimes we will not quite get a handle on the emotion and a flare up may occur. Although we need to be careful about that kind of flare up, that is not, the anger which James is speaking about here. There are two Greek words for anger. One means the anger that is explosive and quickly expressed and the other is the anger which is nurtured and held on to. It is this second kind of anger which is spoken of here. James warns against settling into anger. Such anger does not bring about God’s righteous way. I think we need to remember that in our work in the church and in our relationship with each other.
James goes on to tell us to get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent. As we will study more of this book we will get a better idea of what specific moral filth and evil he is talking about. Our first thought may be sexual evil, which certainly is prevalent in the world around us and needs comment. We need to get rid of the accepted ways of the world and not have them in our life. Ways such as pre-marital sex and media which blatantly portray these values need to be fought against and put away from us because they are so destructive in our lives. But James will speak about things that are much more insidious. He will speak about attitudes which are sometimes tolerated among us. Attitudes like favouritism, arrogance about the future, cheating our workers and hoarding wealth.
I am inviting us to evaluate our whole life and if we claim to be children of Christ, and are not adjusting our life to His Word and living according to it, we are deceiving ourselves. How do we change? By accepting and acting on the Word of God implanted in us.
In a similar fashion, we can be deceived about whether or not we are religious people. The last occurrence of the idea of being deceived is found in verse 26. It has to do with what makes us religious people. The word religious has negative connotations in our society and I would suggest that a better way of describing it would be “worshipper of God” or “follower of God.” What is a worshipper of God? Is it a person who goes to church every Sunday? Is it a person who is on a church board? Is it a person who prays before meals? Is it possible for us to deceive ourselves about whether or not we are worshippers of God?
Once again James strikes at the tongue. If we are all talk, that is not true religion. If our talk is hurtful and out of control, then we are not true worshippers of God. If we think we are good examples of God’s truth, but our tongue always gets us in trouble through gossip, slander, lying or foul language, we are deceiving ourselves. If your speech were evaluated, would it be clear that you are a person who is close to God?
After the negative statement, James gives a positive statement describing what true religion is. It includes two parts, compassion and purity. Some people emphasize one and ignore the other and vice versa. Being a worshipper of God is both.
True religion is compassion. It is to be engaged in ministries of compassion. One writer says that this means to have “a face open to a broken world.” Another way of translating the words “orphan and widow” is “abandoned and forsaken” which means that ministries of compassion must be extended to all people in need. The parable of the good Samaritan offers a powerful teaching on what it means to obey this command. A person who has been changed by God must have a heart to help those who are in need.
The other side of it is to be unstained by the world. A stain on a white table cloth is pretty obvious, but is the stain of the world obvious in us? I am very concerned about this for myself and for all of us. It is so easy to be deceived about holiness. Some are deceived when they think that because they have nothing to do with people outside of the Christian community they are unspotted from the world. Others are deceived when they think that since the values they live by are acceptable to the people of the world that they can also live by them. We are influenced by the stain of the world both because of the evil in our hearts and by the evil in the world and deceive ourselves if we think that we can not be influenced. We need to constantly guard ourselves against such deception and always evaluate our life both in regards to compassion and holiness.
Periodically, volunteer fire departments test their system to make sure that when they call for their volunteer firemen, they are hearing the call. The test of the system evaluates the integrity of the system. If it would not work properly and the firemen did not hear the call, it could be disastrous.
We need to have our “system” tested from time to time and the warnings which James gives here test the basic system of our faith life. Are we deceived about God? Do we understand that he does not bring evil into our life, but only good? What does that mean for our trust in Him? Are we deceived about ourselves? Do we obey the Word of God or only listen to it? Are we deceived about ourselves regarding our life in God? Is it active in ministries of compassion and purity?
If we are deceived about God, about ourselves or about our religion we need to make things right. If we are self deceived, we may have to face some harsh realities. It will be hard to make changes if we have deceived ourselves. But such changes are critical because in the end, we will not be judged by our perception of the truth, but by the truth. Therefore, we need to make sure that we pass the test so that we can have life!