Summary: Jesus told his disciples that “there shall arise false Christs and false prophets, insomuch that if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.” The term “very elect” implies someone who is a strong follower of Christ, then how is it possible that even they can be deceived by the teachings of “false Christs and false prophets?” More importantly, who are these false Christs and false prophets, and how can we recognize them? This article provides the answer to these all-important questions.
As Jesus sat with his apostles on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the city of Jerusalem below, he explained to them what would happen in the last days before his second coming, and one of the things he told them was, “For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect” (Matthew 24:24)
This is a well-known prophecy that many people have talked about over the centuries, and the question is, how is it possible that “the very elect” are deceived? It’s understandable why people who are not believers in Christ can be deceived, and it’s very possible that those who don’t have a strong testimony of Christ and his ways can be fooled into believing false doctrine, but the term “very elect” implies someone who is a strong follower of Christ. How then is it possible that even they can be led astray by the teachings of “false Christs and false prophets?”
This isn’t hard to understand because we’ve been witnessing this very thing happening over and over again for the past 2,000 years. Every new Christian denomination that springs up does so as a result of someone who has a deep, heartfelt love of Christ but who has come to believe that they have found the true doctrines of Christ, as contained in the Bible, that all the other denominations have missed.
Perhaps it could be said that the leaders of these different religious organizations are the “false Christs and false prophets” Jesus was talking about but they’re not the only ones who fall into the trap of thinking they have the truth when in fact they’re being misled in their thinking. This can happen to anyone.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proclaims that they teach the pure doctrines of Christ that Jesus Himself has restored to the earth through divine revelation, and to ensure that these doctrines remain unaffected by the philosophies of men, the Lord has placed divinely appointed prophets and apostles to guide us in our understanding of what is true and what isn’t.
With such a safeguard against false teachers, it would seem very hard for someone to be deceived into believing false doctrine, but unfortunately, such is not the case. Even in Christ’s restored church, there are those who hold beliefs that are not in harmony with the teachings of the church. But how can this be?
The church teaches its members to do as the Bible teaches, which is, if we lack wisdom, and are uncertain, that we should ask God in faith, nothing wavering (James 1:5), and promises that if we will “ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you by the power of the Holy Ghost” (Moroni 10:4).
It seems that if we follow that advice, we could never go wrong, but the sad reality is that there are people who say they have prayed with a sincere heart yet have received answers that are not from God. But because they’ve become convinced that what they believe is the absolute truth, they become their own false prophets.
Then how can we prevent this sort of thing from happening? The answer the church gives is that we should keep the commandments of God, say our prayers and read our scriptures every day, magnify our callings, attend our church meetings, go to the temple as often as we can, honor our covenants, strive to live a righteous life, be virtuous in our thoughts, care for the needs of others, be honest, and do good.
Clearly, anyone who does these things can certainly be defined as being among “the very elect,” and yet, history has shown over and over again that even people who do all of this have become deceived into believing a lie.
Perhaps, no greater example of this is Oliver Cowdery. He was an educated man who had had a number of great and marvelous visions, including gazing upon the risen Jesus Christ in the Kirtland temple, and yet he became bitter towards Joseph Smith and was excommunicated from the church. There have been professors at Brigham Young University who have lost their testimonies and left the church, and there have been people who had served successful missions for the church who later apostatized. The question is, how could this happen?
There is no one answer because each of us have weaknesses that Satan exploits in an effort to lead us astray. For some it may be pride. For others it may be doubts, or fear. For still others it may be the result of being offended by what someone said or did, or it may be the result of physical or financial setbacks. But whatever the reason is for following false beliefs, the common trait among all those who’ve become deceived is they are completely and totally convinced that whatever they believe is right and that whoever disagrees with them is wrong.
It could be said that these people weren’t living the commandments as they should, but none of do, yet they will argue that they are living the commandments. It could be said that it’s because of their pride, but they will argue that that they’re not being prideful for denying what they know to be the truth. There are those who study the scriptures every day who come to believe things different than what the church teaches, and then are adamant that it’s the church who is wrong. There have been those who went to the temple regularly, who later became critics of the church.
President Russell M. Nelson has pleaded with members of the church to seek for and be worthy of receiving personal revelation, but how does someone know if the answers they receive from prayer are from God or from the devil, or from the desires of the person offering the prayer? Jospeh Smith taught that “nothing is a greater injury to the children of men than to be under the influence of a false spirit when they think they have the Spirit of God” (Times and Seasons, April 1, 1842). Then how do we know which spirit we’re hearing when we seek for personal revelation?
Perhaps we can illustrate this problem with a story from church history.
Len and Mary Hope and their family of five children were African Americans, living in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1934, but had joined the church in 1928.
“When the Hopes first arrived in town, they attended meetings with the Cincinnati Branch. And at first, it seemed the Cincinnati Branch might welcome the family. But then a group of members told branch president Charles Anderson that they would stop attending meetings if the Hopes kept coming. [President Anderson] knew that racism ran deep in the Cincinnati area, and he did not think he could change how people felt.” (Saints, vol 3, chapter 22, p 344).
So what does he do?
Does he allow the Hope family to attend his branch, even if it means that a number of the branch members would stop coming and very possibly leave the church? Yet his responsibility included helping each member of his branch to grow spiritually. Does he turn his back on that responsibility?
Because the church wasn’t well thought of at that time, having a black family attend a white church in a racially segregated community, would further inflame resentment against the church and make it much harder, if not almost impossible, for the missionaries to convert people to Christ’s restored church.
Yet, at the same time, President Anderson had a responsibility to care for the spiritual needs of the Hope family, especially since they were faithful members living within his ward boundaries. Does he sacrifice the needs of this one family for the greater good of the many other saints and for the good of the church, or does he stand on principle and do what is right by the Hope family no matter what damage it may cause to his branch and the church?
We too can sometimes find ourselves in a similar situation where there doesn’t seem to be any good solution to our problems, and where we’re forced to decide choosing between the lesser of two evils. But how do we know which evil is the better of the two? It’s times like this when it’s extremely important for us to be sure that the answers to our prayers are coming from God, and not from the devil, or from our own ideas, fears, prejudices, or biases.
President Nelson has warned “in coming days, it will not be possible to survive spiritually without the guiding, directing, comforting, and constant influence of the Holy Ghost. My beloved brothers and sisters, I plead with you to increase your spiritual capacity to receive revelation” (April 2018 General Conference). But how can we be sure that when we do seek for personal revelation that we won’t be deceived?
The scriptures speak of two kinds of men – the natural man and the spiritual man.
The natural man – or the natural tendency of man – is to rely upon his own wisdom and understanding of what he thinks is the best decision to make in difficult circumstances. On the other hand, the spiritual man seeks for God’s wisdom, and earnestly and sincerely prays to know that he is following that wisdom rather than allowing himself to be guided by some else’s wisdom.
There is no doubt that we are living in very perilous times, and everyone has an opinion of what they think is the “right” solution to the problems we face, but very few people earnestly, sincerely, and genuinely seek to know what God wants them, as an individual, to do. Instead of saying “Thy will be done,” the natural man will say “My will be done,” and then expects that God will honor their decision.
Nephi warned of such people when he said, “O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish” (2 Nephi 9:28).
In contrast, the Lord has said, “Blessed are those who hearken unto my precepts, and lend an ear unto my counsel, for they shall learn wisdom” (2 Nephi 28:30). It’s when our desire is to hearken unto the precepts of the Lord and lend our ear to his counsel that we gain divine wisdom.
But how do we know when what comes to our mind is from God or from some other source?
The Lord’s counsel to us today is “to increase your spiritual capacity to receive [personal] revelation,” but how do we do that? How do we go about become less of a natural man who depends upon our own wisdom, and becoming more of a spiritual man by hearkening to and following the counsel of the Lord?
President Nelson has given us the answer when he’s asked us to spend less time on social media and spend more time studying the scriptures. He’s also asked us to spend less of our time immersing ourselves in the things of the world and spending more of our time concentrating on the things of the Spirit.
We all have to live “in the world” where we’re required to be concerned with attending to the physical aspects of everyday living, such as earning money, taking care of the many material things we have responsibility over, as well as raising a family and attending to our church duties. In addition to this, we should seek to become better informed and responsible citizens who do our part in improving the world around us.
There is no question that all of these things are necessary and important, but Jesus taught “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:34).
The natural man will spend a large portion of their time thinking about, talking about, and concerning themselves with the things of the world and occasionally will spend some time thinking about, and concerning themselves with the things of the Spirit. It’s the things we choose to spend our time on that indicates what we treasure the most.
However, we know that “this life became a probationary state; a time to prepare to meet God; a time to prepare for that endless state which has been spoken of by us” (Alma 12:24). The purpose of mortality is to give us the chance to decide whether we want to spend most of our probationary time trying to improve ourselves spiritually so that “when life is o’er we can earn a great reward,” or whether we want to spend the majority of our time worrying about the temporary and fleeting things of the world.
Jesus taught the parable of the wise man who built his house upon a rock, and the foolish man who built his house upon the sand. When we choose to spend most of our time concentrating on the things of the world, we’re building our foundation on the shifting sands of time.
As we examine the lives of those who have been led astray by false teachings, and false teachers, in almost every case we find they became more concerned about the things of the world than about the things of God. On the other hand, those who spend more of their time trying to improve their relationship with Christ, getting to know him personally and intimately, and striving to become more like him, the less chance they have of being deceived
As a result of increasing our spirituality in this way, our communication with heaven becomes clearer and we are able to hear and recognize God’s voice more readily when he speaks to us. The more we become like Christ and the less we become like the world, the easier it becomes for us to tell the difference between the voices of the world and the whisperings of the Spirit.
It’s when we treasure being like Christ more than anything else, that we will stand firm when the winds of adversity blow, and the rains of temptation, fear, doubt and confusion beat upon us. Reading the scriptures every day, saying our prayers, magnifying our callings, and doing good to others are not ends in themselves, but are merely means to an end. They are tools meant to aid us in becoming more spiritual. But when doing those things don’t bring us closer to Christ and instill in us a desire to become more like him then they lose their power to keep us from being swept away with false ideas.
When the desire of our heart is to be guided by the Spirit, and we place our faith and trust in Christ, relying upon him to direct our path, then we can be assured that he will not let us go very far astray.
Related articles can be found at The Nature of Spiritual Growth