Nothing muddles and muffles our faith like the American Dream.
In elementary school, I pledged to the American flag and the Christian flag (in that order) every morning. In history class, I learned about the God-fearing pilgrims who escaped from religious tyranny and thanked God for his providence and provision in the New World. The founding fathers infused their Christian ideals into our very Constitution, emblazing “In God We Trust” onto our currency. I came to believe that being a good American and being a good Christian were pretty much the same thing—strong moral values, responsible living and a healthy work ethic.
Yes, we talked about the separation of church and state as a positive ideal, but when authorities began to take prayer out of schools, protect the rights of abortion doctors, or promote evolution in our science books, we panicked, talking about getting back to our fundamental Christian roots (Republican values) before the Anti-Christ appears (probably a Democrat) to put numbers on our foreheads, keep us from buying and selling, and ultimately take off those numbers (along with our heads) in apocalyptic guillotines.
Don’t get me wrong. Despite my tone, I love being an American. I really do. I believe that the founding fathers did a good thing when they established a country where people were free to pursue their own destinies and worship according to their beliefs. I think that God grants people a similar freedom, giving us the life and liberty to seek the truth and engage with it for real.
But the nation of America and the kingdom of God are not built on the same principles. One is a natural democracy. The other is a spiritual monarchy.
The American Dream teaches us that every person can be the master of his or her own destiny. “Making it” is one of our greatest values. We respect personal achievement—publications, awards, financial stability, a strong following, and so on. It gives us a thrill to see people rise in society, encouraging us to work hard, dream bigger, and keep pressing toward the goal.
Paul also talks about pressing toward the goal:
“Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
We love verses like that. If you want more, just walk into a typical youth room and read the posters on the wall: “We are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
That’s great stuff. But what are we conquering? What are we accomplishing? What are our goals?
Well, just look at our prayer requests: Health concerns. Financial needs. Stability. If you ask me, our key desire is to be healthy and upwardly mobile, finding success in our jobs, families and cultures. That sounds a whole lot like the American Dream to me.
How do we know that our religion is not the American Dream, and God is simply a part of our support structure? Do we use him the same way we use our families, social networks, insurances, home security systems and credit cards? How do we know that we don’t think of him as our servant rather than the other way around?
A democratic mind might draw a person toward an individualist mindset. Hey, I elected you into office, now go do things to help me out. Why do you think JFK had to remind his citizens of their common goal: “Ask not what your country can do for you . . .”
Take a look at the general focus of Paul’s prayers. This sample from Ephesians is especially telling:
I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.
Wait, wasn’t Paul sick and busy and persecuted and frustrated? Why did he focus so much on the spiritual development of others, and the glory of God? Probably because he had different goals than we do:
I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Phil. 3:10 – 11
Are these our goals? To know Christ, to experience the power of his resurrection life, to share in his suffering? Or are we asking God to expand our borders?
Jesus says that the meek will inherit the earth, that the least on earth will be the greatest in heaven, that his strength is perfected in our weakness, that it is hard for a rich man to enter his kingdom. What do we do with the Rich Young Rulers in our churches? We say that God blessed their businesses, and put them on the elder board.
Do we want to gain the whole world and lose our souls? Or do we think that God wants us to have both?
Nothing has blessed me more than coming to the end of my rope and finding out that I never needed it. There is great wealth to be discovered in poverty. There is great security to be discovered in the loss of our social networks, future plans and credit cards, despite what our culture might say.
Sometimes God has to tear that flimsy rope out of our hands so we can see that our feet have been securely on the ground the whole time.