Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren.

For our around-the-table reading, our family just finished up the Mark Twain classic, Tom Sawyer. One of the iconic scenes of that book, of course, is when the title character dupes his friends into whitewashing a fence for him. Using techniques that any self-respecting used car salesman would recognize, he convinces them that doing his odious chore is actually a privilege to be sought after – and the neighborhood boys line up, and even pay Tom to allow them to do his job for him.

James is very interested that his readers, believers living in an unbelieving world, not be like Tom’s friends. As a stand-alone admonition, this short verse could have a number of applications relevant to today’s context.

Do not be deceived…by evil philosophies trying to worm their way into church theology.

Do not be deceived…by false teachers preaching heresy with a veneer of Christianity.

Do not be deceived…by those who call evil good.

Do not be deceived…the list is endless, actually.

That being said, it is important to remember that this verse does not stand alone. Although there is some debate as to whether it fits better with the previous verses, or the following ones, I am convinced that a plain reading of the original shows it to be a concise conclusion to the truths that James has just expounded. Hence, when he is telling us not to be deceived, the deception he is referring to is that played upon us by ourselves. In essence, he is saying don’t be taken in by our own lying, cheating, sinful heart.

There is, however, more than a tenuous connection between the outside deceptions listed above, and the inner deception James is talking about. The first chapter of Romans gives us a vivid picture of the process of apostasy, and it is interesting to note that the first step to accepting dangerous thought patters (being given over to a debased mind, v. 28) is having their foolish heart darkened (v. 21).

For this reason, Solomon includes the following warning in his book of Wisdom:

Keep your heart with all diligence,
For out of it spring the issues of life.

James would concur.

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