James 1:26 Self-Deception

(Apologies that my attempt to do a series of posts on James kind of ran out of steam, but I had plenty planned so I’ll try to persevere, albeit more slowly than I had hoped)

If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. (James 1:26)

In this verse, James describes someone who considers themself to be “religious” (this is not a negative term in James’s vocabulary, despite the way it is used today), and yet doesn’t keep control of their tongue. Such people are “self-deceived”, believing themselves to be “good” or “righteous” people, when in fact they are nothing of the sort.

But James doesn’t limit the category of self-deception to those who cannot control their tongues. It applies to anyone who hears the word but doesn’t put it into practice:

But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. (James 1:22)

Does this mean that every Christian is self-deceived? After all, none of us succeeds in putting everything we read in God’s word in to practice. I think James has something more subtle in mind. Self-deception occurs when we think that the right response to God’s word is simply to agree with it, but excuse ourselves from actually acting on it. I know I can be guilty of this when I hear a particularly “challenging” sermon and say afterwards how wonderful I thought it was, but fail to make any real change.

By definition, the self-deceived person is not aware that they are self-deceived. So how can I know whether this warning applies to me? Is my religion “worthless”?

Actually, I don’t think there is a great danger of being “self-deceived”, so long as we aren’t afraid of a bit of healthy introspection. “Introspection” has got bad press in recent years, with some even going so far as saying that it runs contrary to the gospel, since we should look to Christ, not at ourselves.

Although Christ is indeed the ground of our justification, nevertheless Paul is quite happy to encourage us to “examine” and “test” ourselves (2 Cor 13:5). We need times where we attempt to look at our lives in a brutally honest and objective light, and ask what evidence we see of the Spirit of God at work in us. James is adamant (along with all the NT writers) that there will always be fruit that accompanies genuine conversion (James 2:14).

If we are not willing to take a proper look in the mirror (to use James’ analogy) and see what we are really like, then the chances are, we will fail to recognise just how much we need more of the Spirit of God in order that we may be transformed more into the image of Christ, and bear genuine fruit.

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. Ps 139:23-24 NIV

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