It smelled. Bad—really bad. In fact, I thought I was going to be sick. But the kids of this neighborhood in Mexico didn’t seem to notice the stench surrounding them. They held our hands as we climbed up the dirt hill to their small “Bible clubhouse,” made out of old garage doors. As I looked around at what these kids considered their play area and home, I saw trash. I smelled trash. It was a dirty, stinky, rotting dump. But the kids were smiling. They were… happy.
Our church group played games with them, told a Bible story, and fed them breakfast. Later, as we piled into our car to leave these precious children, we asked a little girl if she would like to take the leftover milk home. Since there was no running water or electricity in the dump, we asked her, “Do you have somewhere to keep this cool?”
“Yes,” she replied excitedly. “My family would love the milk! We have a hole in the ground where we keep things cool. I can put it there.” We handed her the half-full milk jug, and her face glowed as she carried it home.
I watched her walk away and then sank into the seat of our air-conditioned car, tears welling up in my eyes. Their refrigerator was a hole in the ground? How could these children be so happy in such circumstances? I replayed the day’s events in my mind: their passion for learning about Christ and their genuine love of others, and I realized that their joy didn’t come from possessions. Their joy came from knowing Christ. He was all they needed.
The joy of the poor surprises and baffles American Christians. But why?
Could it be because we believe happiness is only achieved by fulfilling the American Dream?
Our culture promotes the American Dream of success and prosperity. Materialism drives our society. We think more is better, that wealth proves success.
I used to be enamored with the American Dream too. I never said it out loud, but deep down, I wanted a life of comfort. I craved the security of home ownership and a substantial savings account. I couldn’t wait to attach a nice big flat screen TV to my wall.
Little by little, I had begun to interpret life through the lens of the American Dream. But then, as I dwelled on mission experiences, I wondered if the American Dream was biblical. It seemed to contradict several of Jesus’ teachings:
1. Jesus taught us to follow Him, not riches
Matthew 19 tells of a rich young man who asked Jesus how to gain eternal life. Jesus said to keep the commandments, sell everything, and follow him. Saddened, the young man departed from Him. He had kept the commandments all his life, but couldn’t bring himself to leave his stuff behind. Leaving it behind meant abandoning his achievements, status, and security. His identity was in his riches. He had created an idol of his wealth.
The materialism fueled by the American Dream is consuming our society, just as it consumed the rich young ruler. It has created an idol of prosperity. Our culture praises it, adores it, and sacrifices to achieve it. However, the first commandment clearly warns that nothing should usurp God’s place in our hearts. We should be able to abandon anything—everything—for Him.
2. Jesus taught us to store up treasure in heaven, not on earth
The American Dream promotes piling up stuff up on earth—BMWs, three-car garages, and 401 (k)s. I ask myself, though, should mere accumulation of stuff be our focus? In Luke 12, Jesus shared with his disciples that the things of this earth are temporary. He encouraged them to focus on eternal matters—storing spiritual treasures rather than stockpiling stuff that would rot, rust, and mold.
Of course, living in such an affluent country, we will always have material possessions. And we should be responsible stewards of what the Lord entrusts to us, but we should not hoard things for ourselves. I doubt Jesus will say, “I wish you had purchased more vintage cars or had saved more money instead of giving it to the poor.” Our resources should go toward glorifying God and reaching people for Christ. We should not invest more money in things stored in our garage than we do in God’s work.
3. Jesus taught that poverty is not a curse
As a society, we fear poverty more than we fear God. The American Dream has taught us that poverty means failure. However, is that outlook biblical? Jesus never saw the poor as failures; He treasured them as much as He treasured the rich. Jesus saw poverty as a way to display God’s work (John 9:3). The poor could never say, “Look what I bought for dinner.” They could only say, “Look what the Lord miraculously provided.”
Should poverty be such a frightful thing for Christians? Do we prefer the American Dream of plenty to serving Christ with a more humble lifestyle?
4. Jesus taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves
We stock our cupboards and forget that over 900 million[i] of our neighbors don’t have anything to eat. The American Dream teaches us to love others, but not sacrificially. Society says, “You deserve the nice stuff, the best quality that you can afford. If you have money left over, you’re free to give it out; just don’t sacrifice your comfort or social status by giving away too much.” Sadly, our culture teaches us that our own upward mobility and monetary dreams are more important than our neighbor’s welfare.
5. Jesus calls us to a life full of persecution
The American Dream encourages us to avoid anything uncomfortable. We deserve the best, most luxurious lifestyle that we can attain. So we sit smugly in our comfortable, even lavish, lives. Is that I-deserve-the-best attitude biblical? Jesus didn’t promise a cushy lifestyle. In Matthew 24, He said we will suffer because of His name. Jesus applied this to all Christians, not just the ones in oppressive countries. So often, though, we rationalize His statements away, applying them to some generic group of Christians somewhere else—not us.
6. Jesus taught that the poor are blessed
In the beatitudes (Matthew 5), Jesus shared that the poor are blessed because they often are richer in faith. Yet we rarely associate the word “blessing” with the word “poor.” In fact, the American Dream has taught us to compliment wealth more than character. You rarely hear, “He lost it all, but he’s blessed. He’s standing firm, and his family is standing with him.” Instead, we say, “Wow. He’s so blessed. He just got a raise.” Or, “You are so blessed to have such a beautiful house.” Perhaps we, as Christians, should use the word “blessed” more thoughtfully.
Can we really reconcile the American Dream with Jesus’ messages? In Matthew 6:24, Jesus clearly states that we cannot serve both God and money. But the American Dream says we can do both—in fact, that we are entitled to both. From every street corner, computer screen, and radio station blares the same theme: You need this to be happy! You need this to succeed! YOU NEED MORE STUFF! Our possessions hold us captive, and we soon find ourselves enslaved to the worldly desires of security, comfort, and success.
Jesus calls us to discard our idol of the American Dream, to prevent materialism from hindering our pursuit of God. Let’s not allow our stuff to obstruct God’s work.
*This article appeared in Fusion magazine Spring 2013