Exactly How Do People Become Deceived?


Eric Snow, sermonette, 3-7-09, UCG Ann Arbor, Michigan


In recent years, the money manager Bernard Madoff committed the greatest of all financial frauds ever.  He apparently cheated people out of an astonishing $50 billion who invested with him.  But what could be worse than tricking people out of their life savings and millions of dollars?  Could spiritual deceptions rob us of eternal life?  Could we be tricked out of God’s kingdom, just as Madoff’s investors were tricked out of their savings?  Most importantly, we need to be alert to how we can be spiritually deceived by other people in ways like how Madoff deceived people out of their money.


S.P.S.  So today let’s consider how false authority figures can deceive us spiritually.


I’m basing today’s sermonette on a recent article in the Wall Street Journal about how Bernard Madoff built the credibility that allowed him to successfully defraud even intelligent, well-informed investors.  Stephen Greenspan, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut wrote the article, “Why We Keep Falling for Financial Scams” (Jan. 3-4, 2009).  He also has written a history book on the same general subject, “Annals of Gullibility.”  But ironically, Madoff conned him out of 30% of his retirement savings.  So he carefully analyzes himself psychologically about how this happened.  Although his principles are about how people get cheated out of their money, what he says also can be applied to the processes leading to spiritual deception.


Revelation 12:9


Satan has deceived the whole world.  But how does he get the job done?  Sure, he has his evil angels to help him.  And he’s the prince of the power of the air.  That means he can negatively influence our minds and emotions directly.  But now, let’s narrow this down:  How can Satan use people to deceive other people?  But more specifically, how has and how can Satan use people with authority to deceive others?


A lot of false belief is based on authority, such as believing people with education, intelligence, power, beauty, and wealth.  So then, do we think that because this or that smart or powerful person believes such-and-so, we should believe the same as he or she does?  For example, how many people believe in the theory of evolution just because their teachers and college professors told them so?  This is separate from an a  dditional potential problem, of believing in people who have power over us and can threaten our jobs, property, and/or family.  Let’s go back to the Madoff case as an example of this kind of deception.   Since other intelligent, well-informed money managers advocated this investment with Madoff, it had to be a safe investment.  As Greenspan reasoned, his personal investment was made through 1 of 15 “feeder” funds.  He didn’t directly invest into Madoff’s fund.  He invested in the $3 billion “Rye Prime Bond Fund,” part of the respected Tremont family of funds, which are in turn a subsidiary of the giant insurance company Mass Mutual.  “I was dealing with some very reputable financial firms, a fact that created the strong impression that this investment had been well-researched and posed acceptable risks.”


So then, do we believe in spiritual truths merely based on someone else’s authority?  Understandably, young children will believe what their parents tell them.  But as we get older, we have to become spiritually responsible and do our own research to prove or disprove what we were taught as children.  Do we ever independently research what the Bible itself says about various doctrines, separate from any literature any religious organization publishes?  How I got tricked concerning the Holy Spirit being a person before 1995 in our parent organization.  Consider how many people just followed whatever their local pastor did in 1995:  So then, did we reprove what we originally believed in our parent organization?  Or did we just follow without much research what family, friends, and our local pastors did?


Greenspan candidly admitted why he looked to the authority of others when he wanted to invest his retirement savings:  “In my own case, the decision to invest in the Rye fund reflected both my profound ignorance of finance, and my somewhat lazy unwillingness to remedy that ignorance.”  Therefore, he looked to identify other people who were more financially knowledgeable than him.  Then he decided to trust in their judgment and recommendations.


Wouldn’t this be like someone who says, “I don’t have the time or the desire to read and study the Bible for myself.  After all, a lot of it is boring and confusing.  Therefore, I’ll just believe what my parish priest or church’s pastor tells me about its teachings.”  Don’t we recall Mr. Herbert Armstrong’s different approach when he was evangelizing the public:  “Don’t believe me, but believe the Bible.”  Didn’t he routinely challenge people then to check out what he was saying in their own Bibles?


I Kings 12:25-33


Jeroboam feared the people of the northern kingdom would go back to Rehoboam as their king if they went to Jerusalem to worship the Eternal.  So for reasons of state, he manufactured a false, idolatrous religion.  Then most of the people, besides the tribe of Levi, fell in line.  They obeyed false human authority instead of God’s commands. 


Let’s take another historical example of a partially “manufactured” religion:  Why did Henry VIII create the Church of England?  Was he a sincerely convicted Protestant?  Did he think the teachings of Martin Luther more accurately reflected the Bible and thus God’s will than the Pope and Catholic tradition?  Of course not.  He was just trying to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry another woman in order to have a son and heir to the throne.  The Pope, Clement VII, refused to grant him a divorce, thus standing on principle.  Of course, minor detail, she was also the nephew of the very Catholic Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and ruler over roughly half of non-Muslim Continental Europe.  How many people at the time just followed along, and broke with Rome only because of royal authority, not sincere religious conviction?


II Thess. 2:9-10


Will people during the great tribulation believe that only God can do miracles, not Satan?  Will they believe that the false prophet, a future pope, will do his miracles by the power of God since he’s the leader of the largest “Christian” church?  Simon Magus example.


So in conclusion, we should think carefully about specifically how false authority figures can spiritually deceived us, just like Madoff’s investors were financially deceive by him.  We shouldn’t believe a doctrine merely because someone in authority teaches it or because friends and family believe in it.  Madoff’s deceived investors merely lost their money; true Christians deceived by Satan could lose their eternal lives.  So let’s strive to find God’s truth and avoid man’s deceptions by studying His holy word.