I enjoy writing in different settings, particularly when blogging. I’m not sure why. Maybe I love watching people. I might even enjoy eavesdropping on conversations around me.
Please stop judging me.
For this post, I chose the commons of a local Christian library. While searching for an interesting story to frame the points, God hit me with a holy face slap (which is much less painful and more productive than the slaps I’ve received from a few unnamed women).
Sitting across the commons was a guy wearing a red hat with the words “Make America great again.”
Mind you, I’m in a Christian library, not a Presidential debate. The American dream penetrates deep into the heart of Christian culture.
What is the American dream? I defer you to Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago Bulls. While celebrating Michael Jordan’s retirement, he said this:
“The American Dream is to reach a point in your life where you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do and can do everything that you do want to do.”
Make no mistake. There are few, if any, similarities between the call of Jesus and the American dream.
Could it be that our idea of following Jesus is actually a perverted American dream with some gospel sprinkled on top? Could it be that American pursuits drive us away from Jesus? Could it be that our temporary dreams prepare us for an eternal nightmare?
Here are seven signs you love the American dream more than Jesus.
1.) If Jesus returned today, you would be disappointed.
Let’s assume a signal goes out 30 minutes before Jesus’ return, giving you time to process the past, present and future (or lack, thereof). Would you be excited about His coming? Would you feel robbed? Would you be apathetic?
I’m being honest. While I would be beyond ecstatic if Jesus returned, I’m not exactly longing for his return. Paul says creation longs for restoration. That’s foreign to me.
My life is great. I’m doing work I love. I have an amazing family. I’m healthy. There’s really no need to return right now, Jesus. If you have some other items to knock out in heaven, go ahead with those. I’m good here for now.
Maybe you share my thoughts. But you shouldn’t.
Creation longs for restoration because it finds no comfort or satisfaction on earth. For every Frank, who enjoys a comfortable life on earth, dozens are so overcome with grief or pain, they can’t imagine another second on this planet.
Several months ago, I stared this reality in the face. While serving at a homeless food kitchen, I noticed a man overcome with anger and sadness. He was pacing back and forth, unable to eat. After watching this for several minutes, I finally asked him to go with me in another room and talk.
As a pastor, you hear incredibly sad stories. This man’s story might “take the cake.” The night before, while staying in a home he doesn’t own, sleeping in a different room than his wife because they were arguing, someone raped her. So, here’s a homeless man, unable to provide for his family and processing another man sexually assaulting his wife.
His pain was so strong, I felt it. Now, let’s assume Jesus approached this man and said, “Hey bro, I’m thinking about redeeming you and the rest of humanity. In 30 minutes, your pain will disappear, and your wife’s attacker will receive justice. What do you think?” You think he would respond with, “Uhh … or you can come tomorrow. Life’s pretty good, Jesus.”?
I left the food pantry that night with a sobering thought … maybe this man, homeless, hungry and overcome with pain, is closer to Jesus than I am. Unlike me, he understands what it means to long for restoration. Brokenness isn’t something “out there.” It’s his reality. Heaven would be an upgrade for him.
Most American Christians don’t see their desperate need for God because they’re blinded by the American Dream.
If you don’t feel uneasy here, it’s probably because you’ve created a pseudo-heaven on earth. Your hope rests in a present facade rather than a future reality. And if you take up residence on earth, you give up residence in heaven.
2.) You trust things more than people.
I saw a bumper sticker recently that said, “The one who dies with the most toys wins.”
“Congratulations, Billy, you have the most toys. C’mon down and claim your prize. Billy … Billy … Hey, Frank. Where is Billy? Oh, he’s dead. How will he receive his prize? … Who cares, let’s divvy up his toys.”
What an absurd idea that we would accumulate trinkets only to leave them for someone else?
But this is the American Dream. As your salary increases, so does your toy box. Incidentally (or maybe not), the larger your toy box, the less you rely on others and especially God.
The rich don’t need other people. But, a culture driven by wealth and prosperity must understand a very important point …
No one is independent.
Maybe you don’t need other people. Maybe you see this as a noble pursuit. People, after all, can’t be trusted (at least, this is the what the American Dreams says). But your independence from people only reveals your dependence on stuff.
“God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him …” These words introduce Jesus’ first sermon in Matthew 5. They also reveal who is in the best position to receive the promises of God. Why does Jesus spend time with prostitutes, tax collectors and lepers? They’re poor in spirit. Their toy box is small. And, consequently, they’re most eager to receive a message of hope.
No facades with the poor. No trinkets to cover up enormous voids. No costumes to mask secret sins and empty hearts. Phillip Yancey says it this way, “I do not believe the poor to be more virtuous than anyone else, but they are less likely to pretend to be virtuous.”
The poor and helpless must depend on others. They have no stuff. And, in this way, they’re more likely to receive Jesus.
3.) You believe privacy is an acceptable way of life.
The American Dream preaches independence.
While independence isn’t inherently bad, its close friend isolation is. Independence and isolation are travel buddies. You won’t see one without the other. I’ve watched Christians becoming increasingly disconnected from one another and culture.
I often hear, “I just don’t like entertaining guests in my home or sharing details about my life. I’m a private person.”
But, to be real, you handed in that card when you became a Christian. There’s no such thing as a private follower of Jesus. You were created by a relational God, so your joy is tied to other people and others’ joy is tied to you.
I’m an introvert. My wife thinks this is ludicrous, but I enjoy lunch by myself. I also used to be a “private” person, chalking it up to introversion. But as I saw lives changed by opening my home to others, I realized an isolated life is the product of the American Dream, not a personality type.
When people say they’re “private,” it usually means one of two things.
Number one … you don’t want to be inconvenienced. Cooking dinner for strangers is weird. Having people stay in your home cramps your style. It’s easier to do neither and tell others you’re private.
Number two … you’re hiding something. I know this from experience. I was most isolated when I struggled with addiction or my marriage was struggling. I was afraid someone might uncover my secret sin and struggling marriage, so I played the “private” card.
Whether it’s inconvenience or secret sin, the real issue with isolated Christianity is it’s not sustainable. When Christians become isolated and private with their lives, the church begins to die. A relational faith won’t thrive in a disconnected culture.
4.) You can’t distinguish between necessities and luxuries.
Multiple times every day I say, “Man, I need …” and complete the sentence with stuff like
“… a new phone.”
“… that fresh flannel shirt.”
“… a raise.”
Maybe you do this too. If so, here’s an exercise. Count how many times you say “I need …” in a 24-hour period. While this seems like water under the bridge, it’s really more like rushing water threatening the integrity of the bridge.
For the record, “needs” are food, water, shelter and clothing. Generally speaking, everything else is extra.
While it’s a blessing to have your needs met, if you can’t differentiate between wants and needs, many teachings of Jesus will be difficult to comprehend.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” (Matt. 5:6)
“So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?” (Matthew 6:31)
“Give us today the food we need.” (Matthew 6:11)
These statements might as well be written in some alien language. I’ve never experienced hunger or thirst, which puts me at a disadvantage when it comes to understanding righteousness.
“Give us today the food we need” is not only foreign, it’s irresponsible. Seriously. How would you respond if someone told you they only had only enough food, clothing and resources for today? No extras. No stocked pantry. Only enough for today.
The American Dream would call this irresponsible. Sadly, I probably would too.
5.) The radical life of Jesus sounds more like a threat than good news.
If you use “radical” and “Jesus freak” to describe certain Christians, you’re probably too influenced by the American Dream. Jesus asks the same thing from every follower. He asks you to die.
If you haul the American Dream into the presence of God, you can count on one thing … he will ask you to leave it at the door. Recall the rich young ruler. By all appearances, he was a sincere man. But he wanted to journey with Jesus and bring his stuff. So, when Jesus asks him to leave his stuff at the door, the young man chooses instead to walk away from Jesus.
For Christians influenced by the American Dream, every sermon is a threat to their lifestyle. They pick and choose Scripture. And when confronted with stories like the rich young ruler, they’re quick to justify. “This story is an example of exaggeration.”
You can’t serve both God and the American Dream. If you want God, you must leave your selfish pursuits and ambitions at the door, all of it.
6.) Your fears are exaggerated and unrealistic.
I don’t get into conspiracy theories. But, if you live long enough, a conversation about some far-fetched, wildly unrealistic scenario eventually finds you.
A culture drowning in riches is also drowning in unrealistic and exaggerated fears. We have no real needs, access to unlimited information and an unhealthy amount of free time. The result is fabricated fears.
You know who doesn’t entertain conspiracy theories? People with real needs. People whose eyes are fixed on the cross.
7.) You don’t know how to receive from others.
“Only the poor, the hungry, those who need someone to come on their behalf, will have that someone. … Without poverty of spirit there can be no abundance of God.” Oscar Romero
Jesus says it’s more blessed to give than receive. While this is true (I’m not one to question Jesus), I also know it’s more difficult to receive. When given a compliment, especially from a stranger, what’s your first response?
“Thank you? I appreciate it?”
Of course not. The natural inclination is to divert it.
You can tell a lot about yourself by how you respond to compliments. If someone approaches you and says, “That was a powerful sermon,” “You look pretty today,” or “You’re a talented writer, artist, mother, etc.” how do you respond?
I meet few Christians who respond with “Thank you.” But, when I do, it tells me something about that person. They are humble. They know how to receive gifts. They aren’t power hungry or control freaks.
Receiving a gift (without repaying or refusing it) requires humility. You’re indebted to the giver. You allow another person to have power and control. And this is why most Americans are awful receivers. The American Dream is built on independence and self-sufficiency. Freedom means you’re indebted to no one.
We’d much rather be givers. We love helping the poor, especially at Christmas, while our greatest fear is being poor at Christmas. We love buying gifts for family, but opening gifts from others is more awkward than a middle school relationship.
We’re better givers than receivers because we’re prideful and arrogant, not generous.
But here’s the real issue. Until we approach God with a posture of humility and total dependence, we won’t receive his gifts.
Rich, self-sufficient people can’t fathom the gift of grace. They might accept the gift. But they turn around and work to repay it, nullifying the gift.
God’s promises can only be received. They can’t be earned. We say grace is a gift, but it’s incomplete without works. God says grace is the work. We say salvation is a gift, but you must follow certain steps and maintain a level of morality. God says the only step to salvation is approaching Him with empty hands.
Until we see ourselves as poor, needy and completely dependent on God, we won’t receive His gifts.
The American Dream isn’t God’s dream. The life Jesus modeled stands in stark contrast to the values of America, in particular, and the world, in general. We are poor and helpless. To see Jesus, we must accept this. Americans hold no special claim over God.
The door to Jesus is open to anyone … just leave your stuff outside.
I love you all. To God be the glory forever. Amen!