The Prodigal Son: How to Overcome the 3 Lies We Tell Ourselves

Earlier this year my home parish welcomed a new associate pastor. He’s a friendly and vibrant young priest and a gifted preacher. Indeed, one of his recent homilies deeply affected me. Reflecting on the misadventures of the Prodigal Son from Christ’s famous parable (Luke 15:11-32), he drew inspiration from a “three lies” concept outlined in a talk given by Henri Nouwen and written about in Nouwen’s book “Return of the Prodigal Son.” Nouwen puts forth that like the Prodigal Son, there are three lies most of us tell ourselves on a daily basis, without even realizing it. These insidious lies distort our self-image and damage our relationships with God and the people around us.

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After Mass, I spent that quiet Sunday pondering how I’ve let my identity and self-worth be defined by these “three lies,” especially when it comes to how I use social media platforms like Twitter. What I discovered was not very flattering, yet this greater self-awareness helped me untangle the knots of self-deception and showed me how I could be healed by embracing the truth of my identity as a Christian: I am the beloved son of a caring Father.

Lie #1: “I am what I have.”

As a habitual collector and packrat, I’ve accumulated so much superfluous stuff over the years, yet it never seemed to be enough to assuage my irrational feelings of inadequacy. One day, I caught myself lamenting that my assemblage of pop culture memorabilia and bric-a-brac wasn’t impressive enough! Worse, I felt envious of fellow hobbyists who posted photos of their sprawling collections on social media. I had unwittingly embraced the lie that “I am what I have.” I had tied my self-worth to my possessions—and for what purpose? For the praise and admiration of people online? The absurdity of this situation came home to me clearly, and I resolved to work towards a greater detachment from material goods, remembering Christ’s admonishment to “take heed and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15)

Lie #2: “I am what I do.”

I’ve found that I’m easily caught up in the “comparison game”, a self-defeating mental trap in which I unfavorably compare my career to those of my peers. I have often struggled to find a sense of purpose as a single man. Without a family to support, I’ve invested much of my self-worth in my personal and professional accomplishments as a freelance writer and podcaster. Again, social media magnified my feelings of inadequacy. I follow many other writers and creatives on Twitter who post their latest triumphs. I got caught up in the anxiety of hustle culture: I felt that “doing more” was the only way to be useful, productive, and efficient. I began to take on more writing projects than I could realistically handle, and one day I felt so exhausted and depressed I could barely move. I stumbled headlong into burnout because I fell for the lie of “I am what I do.” These days I try not to waste time fretting over my perceived level of success. Instead, I take to heart the advice of St. Paul to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:18) as a potent antidote for unhealthy comparisons. 

Lie #3: “I am what other people say about me.”

 I’ve often rationalized mindless scrolling through social media as time spent “promoting my work.” When other users engage with my tweets and blog posts, I feel an almost intoxicating sense of affirmation. On the flip side, whenever there’s a lack of engagement, or if people post toxic comments and cutting criticism, I can become deeply depressed. 

I vividly remember one incident where I received a blizzard of nasty, anonymous invective on Twitter simply because I announced I would be reviewing Amazon Prime’s Lord of the Rings streaming series on a Catholic podcast! I began to feel depressed and demoralized by the barrage of name-calling. Because of a painful history of childhood bullying, I am sometimes easily deceived by the lie that “I am what other people say about me.” I tried to take strength from the fact that Jesus was also insulted and mocked in his earthly life. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ declared, “Blessed are you when men revile you.” (Matt. 5:11) 

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After talking the incident over with my brother, I realized the blatant silliness and pettiness of such online bullying. I decided not to let it bother me or deter me from reviewing The Rings of Power. In fact, the podcast ended up being well-received by audiences! 

The Truth: “I am a beloved child of God.”

You may have noticed that a clear common denominator of these examples is my tendency to brood on feelings of inadequacy being exacerbated by the misuse of social media. Once I realized this, it became easier to spot and counteract these negative thoughts and behavior patterns by limiting my “screen time” so that I don’t become swept up in the need for constant affirmation online. In this way, I’ve been able to reduce the influence of the three lies in my life.

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In the homily I referenced earlier, Fr. Chris contrasted the Three Lies with the truth we believe as Christians. We are not reducible to merely the things we have, the things we’ve done, or what others believe about us. The Prodigal Son believed these lies and thought that he was unworthy of his father’s love. But God, like the tender father in the parable, is not fooled by the lies we tell ourselves. God is truth, and he perceives us for who we truly are, his beloved sons and daughters.