One of my good friends and his wife are getting ready to sell their possessions and move to Ethiopia as missionaries.
Another friend, in his mid-thirties, lives comfortably in the suburbs and owns 11 well-established companies.
Both are Christians, both love Jesus, both are doing what they feel called to do.
Do these stories conflict? Can one person completely abandon the American Dream while another fully engages it and both be serving the same Lord?
Being in my twenties, I often feel pulled in these different directions. It sometimes seems as if finding God’s will for my future is like walking a tightrope between these two extremes and hopefully figuring out where I’m comfortable before I turn 30.
It’s time for Christians to be brutally honest about the American Dream. Is it possible to serve Jesus faithfully and pursue this iconic dream of ours at the same time?
The term “American Dream” was first used by James Truslow Adams in 1931. He spoke of “a dream … in which each man shall be able to attain the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are.” The American Dream originated as a dream about potential, opportunity and identity. I believe these elements still drive the American Dream today.
If the American Dream is simply about tapping into our innate gifts, pouring them out in unlimited opportunities, and being seen for who we truly are, I am all for it and I believe Jesus is too.
However, it can very quickly become twisted into a self-serving vision and dominate our lives. The pursuit of the American Dream can be commendable assuming we nurture it in the context of trust and dependency on Jesus and His plan for our lives.
I think every one of us has seen the American Dream misused or mis-pursued. It is easy to wonder if the chase is worth it when celebrities don’t seem satisfied, and when our nation of opportunity is also filled with unhappiness, debt, abuse and personal trauma. So where did a dream focused on people being “all they can be” go so wrong?
The moment we take the opportunities around us to simply serve ourselves, the American Dream begins to derail our nation and even our churches. Much of the misinterpretation of the American Dream happens when we believe we can focus on ourselves and our own comfort and still turn out OK.
David Platt, pastor and author of bestseller Radical, states, “The dangerous assumption we unknowingly accept in the American Dream is that our greatest asset is our own ability. The American Dream prizes what people can accomplish when they believe in themselves and trust in themselves, and we are drawn toward such thinking.”
The moment we tell ourselves, I can focus on myself and be all right, is the moment we shift away from the pursuit Christ has called us to. The primary way the American Dream has destroyed stories and societies is when people have become so obsessed with the idea of progressing and developing as an individual that those in need around them have been forsaken and forgotten.
The American Dream is not inherently wrong. A desire to grow, progress and succeed is healthy. But when that drive becomes our identity, we have can lose sight of our purpose as sons and daughters of God. When we do not exercise caution as we grow in this culture, we may wake up decades later to realize we have been consumed by consumerism.
God created us to pursue dreams that He has placed in our hearts — dreams that will help advance His Kingdom. Here are a few ways we can avoid the pitfall of the American Dream, and pursue the opportunity God has given us to follow our dreams:
Commit to Growth.
Refuse to settle for mediocrity. With all the resources and opportunities available, the world needs young people to actively commit to continue growing and moving forward in their jobs, education, relationships and pursuit of Christ. If you are not growing, you are dying.
Commit to Generosity.
A great way to avoid being consumed by the American Dream is to commit to a lifestyle of generosity. Determine what you need to fulfill the calling God has called you to, and enjoy giving the rest of your resources away to people in need.
Be Willing to Let Go.
We should be excited to succeed and grow, but we should be more excited about the growth that comes with obedience to Jesus’ call on our life. It might mean selling your business, moving, giving more than 10 percent of your income to those in need. We need to say “yes” to God’s call even before we know the outcome. That’s freedom, and that’s brave.
The American Dream should propel us as believers, not cripple us. If we are known for our success but not for our love and unity, we need to stop and consider who our dreams are serving. As we faithfully follow Christ, the American Dream becomes a life of growth, generosity and willingness to give it all away for the sake of Christ.
What are some of the things making it difficult for you to follow Jesus’ dreams in our culture of self-focus?