A question presented at a church-planting conference I attended several years ago was this: “Can you pursue the American Dream and be a disciple of Jesus Christ?” I circled those words on my paper and figured I needed to think about this question. To answer a question like that, you and I must first understand the terms. What is meant by the phrase American Dream? Then, what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus Christ? How do those two concepts influence one another? In this post, I’ll try to define the terms and answer the real question, “Can you follow Jesus Christ as His devoted, committed disciple and pursue the American Dream at the same time?”
What is the American Dream?
What is the American Dream? Historian James Truslow Adams popularized the phrase “American Dream” in his 1931 book The Epic of America. He defined it this way:
The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. … It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position. (James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America)
Wikipedia interprets his words this way,
The opportunity for prosperity and success and an upward social mobility achieved through hard work.
The idea of the American Dream is rooted in our Declaration of Independence, which proclaims that “all men are created equal” and that they are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights” including “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Though far from perfect, our society does offer everyone a greater degree of opportunity to pursue learning and personal development of God-given gifts than it did 40 years ago. And there are many stories shared of those who worked hard to overcome any disadvantages of their childhood years to become successful productive citizens of our country. Biblically, our God desires that we learn everything we can about His Word and His world so that we can best serve Him in it. The American Dream offers that opportunity. So how does it affect you and me as a disciple of Jesus Christ?
What is a disciple?
A disciple is an active follower or learner. Jesus Christ calls us to follow Him as His disciples. To follow Jesus as His disciple means that you make the choice to learn from Jesus through what He teaches us through His Word and what He allows into our lives. Then, we are to intentionally apply those teachings to our lives. In this way, we not only follow Him but also become like Him, representing our invisible God to a watching world. We are to not only be disciples but also make disciples as well.
A disciple follows Jesus more than herself. It is a commitment to pursue Him above our own selfish ambitions. It is recognizing Jesus as Lord of your life. Your desire should be to represent Him well and glorify Him in every area of your life, including whatever goals in life you have.
Being choked by the cares and riches of this world
Following Christ as His disciple is hard. Jesus warned us about being choked by the cares and riches of this world.
The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown. (Mark 4:14-20)
Mr. Adams might have said, “It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely.” But anyone who pursues the American Dream is usually pursuing a higher standard of living. Wealth can be deceitful and bring all kinds of other troubles with it.
Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 6,
But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Timothy 6:6-10)
I live in an area filled with affluent Christians. It is so easy to want “more” because you can have more and because your neighbors have “more.” But we all know that having more usually requires taking more time and energy to maintain the “more.” It’s easy to lose the eternal perspective—God’s perspective on daily living.
Jesus said this to His followers,
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. … No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (Matthew 6:19-21, 24)
Isn’t that true? Where your treasure is, there you heart will be also. It’s an either / or. You are either pursuing and serving God, or you are pursuing and serving money.
So what should be our pursuit if not for more treasure?
So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:31-33)
Pursue the kingdom of God and the righteousness of God more than what America offers you. When you are pursuing God, you will be content with whatever He provides. What you have is God’s provision for you. And you should consider your money to His money and use it for eternal purposes.
Having the eternal perspective
The doctrine of eternity teaches us what is truly valuable and worth pursuing in life. How much time, energy, money, and worry do you spend on your pursuit of “success” in this world? Do you have too many “toys?” Is your house way bigger than what you really need? Do you really need 30 pairs of shoes?
There is more to this life than right now. Where should you invest your resources, time, energy, and money that will last for all of eternity? Who needs to know Christ so they will be saved from God’s wrath against sin?
New Testament writers encouraged Jesus’ disciples to work hard not only to provide their own needs but also to be able to generously share with others. That would include churches and mission organizations that are actively working to bring people to Christ. Paul shared this in 1 Timothy:
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1 Timothy 6:17-19)
There is nothing unbiblical about being rich. Being rich is a good thing if you give God the credit for your riches and put your hope in Him and not your riches to bring joy to your life. You can enjoy having enough resources so that you can share with others. Having the eternal perspective with your money means you are generous and willing to share with those who need your help.
But you can be just as generous even if you are not rich. Consider what Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians about some of his Christian friends,
Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity… they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will. (2 Corinthians 8:2, 7)
That is so radical! Extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. And that done with overflowing joy. Who does that naturally? Only those who know how to trust God with their money.
It is not what you’d do with a million, if riches should e’er be your lot. But what you are doing at present with the dollar and a quarter you’ve got. (R. G. LeTourneau)
All giving requires trusting God, not having plenty. It’s what you do with what you have. God’s riches to us are supplied through us to meet another’s needs. We are brothers and sisters in a large family with a responsibility to care for each other. That may require some learning to live without something so we have more to give. Doing so requires sacrifice. Is the concept of sacrifice missing in American “disciples” today because of the American Dream?
Is it possible in this American culture to be content with what God provides for you? Someone will always have more than we do. Of course, someone will always have less than we do as well. But who cares about that! Trusting God to take care of you and me in whatever manner He chooses is something we have to learn on our faith walk. Like Paul, we must learn how to stay dependent on the Lord.
Pursue Jesus first and foremost.
Can you follow Jesus Christ as His devoted, committed disciple and pursue the American Dream at the same time? You can ONLY if you are pursuing Jesus and His purposes for us on earth more than selfish ambition.
In the conference I referenced at the beginning of this post, the speaker continued by saying this,
We have a master who demands radical obedience with a radical mission for us, and we don’t have time to waste on the American Dream. We are plan A. There is no plan B.
That mission is to share Christ and make disciples everywhere.
Does the American Dream distract you into consumerism and away from pursuing Christ and His mission for you first and foremost? If so, then you need to ask the Lord Jesus to show you where and how to reset your goals in life.
- 4 Lessons to Learn about God’s Provision
- The God-Dependent Woman Bible Study of 2 Corinthians (read online)
- The God-Dependent Woman Bible Study on Amazon
- Compassion Reflects Overflowing Joy in the Lord
- Healthy Living Bible Study of Colossians (read online)
- Healthy Living Bible Study of Colossians (download pdf)