The following stories are true. The scam is real, but names and inconsequential details have been changed to protect those involved.

Okay, Cupid. My friend, Sara logged on to the dating website, Ok Cupid, with reluctance and the tiniest bit of hope. Almost immediately she was messaged by a handsome man, with a job, who lived within an hour of her home. Sara’s heart did a few somersaults during their brief communication. Could it be? I mean really? Sara told me that she could hardly believe this man might be really interested. Sara is not a loser and she’s no dummy, but she has navigated the inexplicable maze of singleness for years. She cautiously continued communication with Clark, a self-described entrepreneur with a son, an unfaithful ex-wife, and an almost intoxicating determination to find the woman of his dreams. He asked the questions that Sara longed to answer about herself, her interests, and her hopes for the future. He pursued her faithfully – messaging and then calling with all the right words — to “hook” the most beautiful parts of Sara’s heart. He really saw her – not just her intelligence and competence – but he saw her vulnerability, compassion, generosity, faith . . . and deep, deep loneliness.

It was inevitable. The fairy-tale took an expected turn for Sara. Clark called her and with resignation told her that he had been summoned by one of his wealthiest clients out of the country for business. He might be gone for weeks. So before they even met in person, Sara’s hope plummeted. Clark, however, was not going to let this get in the way of their growing relationship. He promised that he would remain in touch daily, that he was going to request a return to the States as soon as possible, and then . . . and then he promised that they would meet face-to-face, go to an extravagant restaurant for a wonderful dinner, and start to make plans to create a life together. Sara could hardly believe it – Clark remained faithful to his promise to stay in touch, and for weeks continued to pursue her in ways that made it feel like they had actually met, fallen in love, and were waiting for an amazing life together.

Before you stop reading this because you don’t use dating websites, you’re not looking for romance, and you don’t trust the Internet anyway, consider the commonalities in Sara’s story that we all share: themes of finding something that is too-good-to-be true (or it finding you), being pursued and affirmed, finding something that is trustworthy and reliable, and imagining what if all the promises are true? Have you ever:

*  invested in a financial deal that promised a significant increased return on your investment?
*  purchased face cream that guaranteed you would look 5 years younger in a month?
*  clicked on a warning for a virus that appeared on your computer, only to discover that you’d just let the virus in by trusting the warning?
*  opened an email from Outback Steak House, Target, or Barnes & Noble offering a gift card and then learned that some nefarious group was “fhishing” for your financial information. (“Fhishing is a fraudulent scheme, especially for making a quick profit.)

If you or someone you know has been hooked by any false promise, you need to keep reading.

Sara was overjoyed when Clint messaged her that he was going to be able to return to the States in a week. He asked her to pick her favorite restaurant and make reservations. He told her that he kept one of the pictures of her that he’d gotten on the Internet with him all the time, but had taken it out of his wallet and looked at it so often that it was starting to fall apart. Sara promised him a new picture. Clark told her to wait – they’d get a picture of the two of them together. With Sara’s heart full of hope and her head swimming with promises of love . . . of finally being loved in a way that she’d always longed for, but had just about decided that it wasn’t possible until Clark came along, she believed his promises. And so when he asked her for money to pay for his plane ticket because his credit card had been stolen and he had no access to his funds overseas, Sara drove straight to the grocery store and wired Clark the money with hardly a second thought. He promised that he’d pay her back and pay for everything they had talked of doing together in the future.

The money really didn’t matter. It seemed like a small price to pay for someone Sara cared about deeply . . . for someone who she’d been hoping for all her life.

And then Clark’s return to the States was delayed due to some complications in his business. He remained stedfast in calling Sara – even in the midst of such important business matters. Of course, she paid the fee to change the airline tickets.

And then Clark’s return was delayed again due to an injury he suffered when he slipped and fell in his hotel. He needed medical attention, and Sara’s compassion and care for him surpassed most doubts when he asked for a few more hundred dollars to make it possible for him to return to the States . . . and to her.

My heart had been on this roller coaster ride with Sara. I rejoiced with her, prayed with her, hoped with her, but I was starting to feel uneasy. I plugged in a few pertinent words in an Internet “search app,” and as I read the pages and pages and pages of stories similar to Sara’s I felt heartsick. It was a scam! And then I felt enraged. I was ready to get on a plane to find “Clark”and key his car or put banners outside his house telling the world that he is a monster.

When I showed Sara what I found, she went into shock. She couldn’t believe it. She didn’t know what to do. She was waiting for Clark to call at the appointed time. He did call and she barely mumbled out something like, “I can’t talk now.” We contacted a private investigator who told us that “Clark” had a thick file with the FTC and the Attorney General’s office.  He is part of a group in Nigeria that is equivalent to organized crime in the United States. They are ruthless, hardened criminals who have scammed unsuspecting victims out of millions of dollars.  Once you are on their “list,” you could be contacted over and over again, either with threatening phone calls or attempts at further scams.  It seems that these Nigerian thugs have learned the western adage, “Once a fool, always a fool.” That is certainly how Sara felt, even though I reminded her that the shame was not her’s, but theirs.

The true confession of a scam victim that everyone should read.

Sara wrote these words shortly after her world seemed to shatter into a million pieces:

My scarlet letter, my letter of shame, is “S” for “single.” It is bright and red and angry like a new scar. It throbs and pulses. It hurts. I feel as though others can see my letter, and it colors their vision of me. I am somehow less because of it.

Sara’s story is heartbreaking and a warning that she is courageously allowing me to share.

But we haven’t gotten to the great scam yet – the one that may affect you and everyone you know.

As I thought about Sara’s story, and was plotting to take on the Nigerian mob, the Spirit gently tugged at my own heart and reminded me of a scam I have played again and again:

*  I recalled being thirteen years-old, on my knees of the hard cement floor in a cabin where I was staying during a Bible camp. I prayed with all the heart a 13 year-old can muster, “Jesus, I don’t know why you want me, but I want you.” But within a few months of my “mountain top experience” at camp, I was immersed in an adolescent world that didn’t have room for promises to Jesus.
*  I remembered standing in a wedding gown beside my groom, facing a beloved pastor and promising that “in sickness and health, poverty and wealth, good days and bad,” that nothing would make me break the promise of the eternal covenant of marriage. It only took a few months before alcohol slithered into our lives and over time began to choke my marriage while my sweet innocent children were upstairs sleeping.
*  And I could not forget the day I was in the middle of nowhere, confronting my alcoholism – again, and promising God that, “If you will clean up the mess of my life, I will never drink again.” That promise didn’t last either.
*  I cannot count the days that aren’t marked by any great sin or shameful behavior, but every minute of that day is filled with my attempts to make life work on my terms, to look good to everyone else by going through some motions of faith, all the while muttering under my breath, “I’ve got this, God. I don’t really need you right now.”

I think that we are all scam artists. Sometimes we are faithful for years. We read our Bibles and meditate on God’s word and pray. And then something good or something bad or maybe nothing at all makes us forget our promise to be in daily contact, to nurture a relationship, to want Him and look forward to spending all of eternity with Him. Every con artist guards their secrets, but you know what I mean – when what you proclaim on the outside just doesn’t match up to what is going on inside. The New Testament describes what this scam, that can affect us and almost everyone we know, looks like:

“People knew God perfectly well, but when they didn’t treat him like God, refusing to worship him, they trivialized themselves into silliness and confusion so that there was neither sense nor direction left in their lives . . . . They traded the glory of God who holds the whole world in his hands for cheap figurines you can by at any roadside stand” (Romans 1:20-23).

It is almost as if we are like the Nigerian scam artists who can say the right words of love and promise, go through all the right motions, and certainly talk about being in Heaven one day. We can do this again and again in many variations, but we don’t treat God like He is God, we don’t live a life of worship; and when we get lost, we reach for our addictions and achievements instead of clinging to the Creator of the whole world! It is a marvel to me, as I reflect on my rage at those worthless, insidious, Nigerian mobsters, that God doesn’t just shut the whole thing down, reveal us all for the scam artists we are, and put up a sign that says, “Closed due to fraudulent scheming.

As my friend Sara battles shame and feeling pitiful and fights to not harden her heart because of what now feel like foolish choices, I remind her that she is like God. Can you imagine Jesus showing up in person to greet those Nigerian criminals? He could do far more than key their cars. But the truth is that He is showing up for them and for the rest of us scammers. To some He looks pitiful, as Frederick Buechner describes, “the One with the swollen lip and the cauliflower ear;” the One who risked it all as He hung stripped and naked to the shameful Cross and even then, He could see us sinning. We are His scarlet letter. He knew we’d make promises we couldn’t keep, that we’d pledge love that we would quickly forget, and that we’d bargain a hundred times that if He would just get us out of the mess we were in, we’d never wander again.

But we are prone to wander and yet, again and again and again He waits for us, sees our scamming hearts, and says, “Here I am, I stand at the door and knock . . . if you will open the door, I will come in again and again and again and be with you.” You see, that is what is more unfathomable to me than any scam those Nigerians can come up with – in His humility, Jesus allows us to “hook” the best parts of His heart – His vulnerability, compassion, generosity, and deep, deep longing for us – so much so that He became willing, in what could look like the greatest scam in history, to give His own life for us, a bunch of scammers,  as He hung on the tree, so grotesquely pitiful that God the Father had to turn away. He knew the extreme lengths that He had to go to so that He could say, “It is finished. I’ve paid for every scam. Come home, come home.”

If you have moments like I do, and like my friend Sara, when you feel that scarlet letter pressing into your forehead: the letter S. It really stands for “Sinners Saved by Grace.” I am coming to believe that Jesus looks at us — in our best and worst moments – again and again and again, and He wants us to cling to the promise that is far greater than any scheme found in all the cracks of cyberspace: “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am for Eternity” (John 14:2-3).