Countering ‘The Great Deception’

Last weekend I was driving around town ticking off my to-do list and listening to an episode of This American Life, the much-acclaimed public-radio storytelling show hosted by Ira Glass. I catch the show mid-stream as Boen Wang, a 20-something Asian-American man describes the impact of his early life growing up in an immigrant family whose gravitational epicenter was the church. His dad came to the U.S. first, a Chinese national on his way to the University of Oklahoma to earn his PhD. before he brings his whole family over. In the airport, with no promised transportation provided by OU and not knowing anyone, he meets a man who offers to give him a ride and a place to stay for the night. On the drive to this man’s home, Wang’s father learns that “Dave” leads a local church’s Chinese ministry.  He shares his faith and invites Wang’s dad to join a Bible study. Eventually, he commits his life to Jesus. Almost immediately, the church and Christian culture became the primary focus of his identity, and later his family’s identity.

Years later, as an adult, Wang leaves the church and his faith behind—believing he’s been permanently damaged by shame because of it. He’d lived under a crushing expectation of moral perfection, and under the shadow of damnation if he didn’t meet the church’s standards. He says his first reaction after making a mistake or experiencing a disappointment is to repeat a kind of mantra to himself: “I should kill myself.” So he leaves all that church baggage behind as soon as he is on his own, but doesn’t tell his family. Toward the conclusion of his story, he decides to talk to an atheist friend who’d not grown up in the church, simply to compare and contrast the differences between their two upbringings.

He expects his self-doubt and his struggles with fundamental shame to be stronger in him because of his church-centered childhood. But his friend shares many of the same struggles, self-doubts, and shame responses. He’s looking for the source of his shame in his church upbringing, but discovers through his friend that it’s more universal. Both grow up as natives in the digital age, as relationships shift online and internet-connected phones become the norm. Researchers say the introduction of these technologies, and widely available social-media platforms, undermined a stable identity among late Millennials and Gen Z. Even though these generations have enjoyed the highest standard of living in the history of the world, they experience the highest levels of anxiety, loneliness, and depression in American history.

The Great Deception
Wang believs his psychological and social struggles are rooted in a suffocating church experience, but discovers the true source of his struggles was more likely tied to “The Great Deception.” I mean, our central brokenness is a result of a fundamental deception and betrayal in the Garden of Eden—Adam and Eve are told by the serpent that they will “be like gods” if they eat from the forbidden tree. They choose independence over dependence when they act on that deception. And ever since, self-sourced solutions to our challenges in life have been our norm. This is the Great Deception—that we can find wholeness and a thriving life apart from our dependence on God. Now overlay this common addiction to self-sourced strength with a tsunami of social and psychological input coming at us through our digital devices, and our capacity to handle life is quickly overwhelmed. As Jesus warned: “If you try to hang on to your life [live independently, with self-sourced strength], you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake [live dependently, with our strength sourced in God], you will save it” (Matthew 15:25).

The Great Deception is a subtle shift away from maintaining our presence to Jesus and to others. Instead, our technologies subtly shift our attention onto self-centered markers for our identity. Put another way, The Great Deception has shifted our dependence from resources outside ourselves to resources inside ourselves. And we know, deep down, we are not enough…

The Path to Wholeness
In Matthew 5-7 we have an account of what we call “The Sermon On the Mount.” We’ve commonly treated this sermon as an extended to-do list from Jesus—all of the moral behaviors we’re supposed to be trying harder to be better at. But what if, instead, Jesus is simply describing what it looks like to live in wholeness, as people freed from our captivity to The Great Deception and therefore free to live our lives outwardly focused, purposeful, and impactful? We can’t live up to the impossible standards laid out by Jesus in this three-chapter exploration of His Kingdom’s norms and values, and Jesus knows this. Wholeness, another way of describing righteousness, is possible only when the “branch” (that’s us) is intimately attached to the Vine (that’s Jesus). We get His strength, His life, His truth, His goodness, and His perseverance when we remain in Him.

And so it follows: the answer to our deepest struggles is not simply to take away the devices or technologies that are feeding into our anxieties, our loneliness, and our depression. If that’s all we do, we’ve left an empty space that will simply attract more disorienting influences if left unfilled. Remember what Jesus says: “When an evil spirit leaves a person, it goes into the desert, seeking rest but finding none. Then it says, ‘I will return to the person I came from.’ So it returns and finds its former home empty, swept, and in order. Then the spirit finds seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they all enter the person and live there. And so that person is worse off than before. That will be the experience of this evil generation” (Matthew 12:43-45).

Yes, He’s referencing “evil spirits” here—but the dynamic is the same. We can’t take away a destructive influence and simply leave an empty space. We have to invite the Spirit of Jesus to fill that space. That means, as ministry leaders, we look for creative new ways to offer our people the space they need to abide and remain in the Vine. How can we encourage a deepening attachment to the Vine that crowds out and neutralizes the influence of The Great Deception? The Christian para-church ministry InterVarsity offers a helpful primer—just click HERE. Use the ideas you find here as a momentum-starter in your setting. As you invite people to taper away from the conduits that are enticing them into The Great Deception, offer them new spaces to thrive…

Just for You!
My new book Editing Jesus is now out. If you’d like an extended teaser of the book, just to check it out, the publisher has put together a pdf of the first three chapters that is exclusively available to the Vibrant Faith community. So, here you go… Just click on this link and you can download a pdf of this long excerpt from the book. And check out (below) a curriculum resource you can use with both adults and teenagers in your church this fall—Following Jesus will help them explore what an ABIDING/REMAINING relationship with Jesus is like. It’s an experiential, highly interactive, co-discovery way to invite people into deeper intimacy with Jesus.

Rick Lawrence is Executive Director of Vibrant Faith—he created the new curriculum Following JesusHe’s editor of the Jesus-Centered Bible and author of 40 books, including his new release Editing Jesus: Confronting the Distorted Faith of the American Church, The Suicide Solution, The Jesus-Centered Life and Jesus-Centered Daily. He hosts the podcast Paying Ridiculous Attention to Jesus.



A Deeper Way to Lead Others Into Faith Maturity… Guide your people into depth relationally and experientially… A new curriculum by Rick Lawrence for both youth & adult ministries. Learn More Here




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