Wake Up from the American Dream

Corey —  July 8, 2010

       In last week’s weekend reading roundup, I promised to write up an article about why contentment and careful spending are serious issues for Christians. Here it is.

       The American Dream. The idea that prosperity and success will give you a better, richer, and fuller life began mostly as a dream about the ability to achieve as much as you are able based on your abilities and hard work. But over the years it has morphed into something that’s measured almost completely by material wealth and goals. Owning a home (or at least living in one that you partly own…the bank owns the rest). Having a nice car. Pursuing a successful career (and making lots of money). Having a vacation home. Owning a boat/RV/ATV/motorcycle/jet ski/big screen TV/iPhone/one of everything. These have become the focus of the “American Dream”. It’s no longer about the virtue of rewarding industry and diligence justly. It’s all about having bigger, better, and more stuff.

       And the funny thing is that many of us go through life pursuing this American Dream without consciously examining these goals to see if they’re really ours. Countless people look back on all the effort they expended in buying, using, and chasing stuff and accomplishments with a deep feeling of emptiness and grievous loss. “What was it all for?” “What was my life really about?” “What good did I do?” “What now?” “I wish I had(n’t)…”

       As the late George Carlin once said, “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” (I’m not endorsing everything George Carlin said…) This idea that material prosperity and success will lead to a fulfilling life is ludicrous when closely examined. And it ought to strike a very uncomfortable chord in the hearts of Christians who are fully pursuing God.

       The problem is that we (Christians especially) don’t question it enough. Too many Christians blindly accept the goals of the American Dream as their own and spend their entire lives trying to achieve those goals. Seems like a strange way to live if we don’t want to be conformed to the patterns of this world.

What’s So Wrong about Wanting More, Better, or Nicer Stuff?

       I want to be clear that I am not saying that all Christians must live extremely austere and Spartan lives. There is a place for the “extras” in our lives – the luxuries that we enjoy. There’s nothing inherently wrong in enjoying the beauty of a nice home, the relaxation of a boat ride, or the satisfaction of successful work. But the “American Dream” has become a lifestyle of seeking pleasure in anything and everything you want. It’s all about you.

       But as Christians, we know it’s not about us – or at least we should know this. I don’t think I need to quote any Bible verses to prove my point here. Our purpose in life is not to pursue pleasure above all else and fulfill all our personal wants and desires. Our purpose is to honor and glorify our God – to seek out His will and then to do it.

       In all my discussions about contentment (and I’ve discussed it quite a bit), my point has never been to draw lines about what Christians can conscientiously enjoy and what they should avoid when it comes to material things. I’m not here to tell you that it’s OK to drive a Honda but not a BMW. Someone else can just as easily say you should drive a Tata Nano (very cheap car) but not a Honda. We’re treading dangerous ground when we start to set strict guidelines for other Christians based on our own preferences and arbitrary guidelines. Contentment is not an excuse for self-righteousness.

       The problem with wanting more, better, and nicer stuff and simply fulfilling those desires is that we stop asking ourselves what God’s will is when it comes to those issues. We either ignore His will completely or we assume that our will is God’s will. If we want to lead a life of significance – a better, richer, and fuller life – then we must start seeking God’s true will in everything. Not just in our career path, whom we should marry, or where we should live but in all things – even the day to day spending decisions we make.

       Before you reason that God has blessed you and must obviously want you to enjoy these blessings for yourself, let me ask you this: Is your choice to use God’s blessings for your own wants a result of God’s will for you or your will for God? American Christians are very richly blessed with wealth and material things. But does this mean we should blindly use this wealth to continue lavishing luxury upon luxury on ourselves? Or could it be that God has greatly blessed us so we can give generously to those in need?

Contentment Is Not Laziness Or a Lack of Ambition

       Too many people think of contentment as blind complacency – a “guise for mediocrity” as one detractor recently put it. But such a definition only signifies the person’s ignorance regarding the true nature and meaning of contentment. As I’ve written before, contentment is not complacency. It’s not laziness, apathy, or a lack of ambition. But here’s what contentment really is:

  • Fulfillment – Not from what you own or what you do for a living, but from who you are in Christ.
  • Sufficiency – In Christ, in our eternal life, and in our heavenly riches, but not in the brief, fleeting, and ultimately dissatisfying things of this World.
  • Appreciation – For what we already have, not what we still want.
  • Choice – To fully use what we have, to honestly and purposefully seek out God’s will, to consciously examine our goals and be sure they’re really our own, to use our excess for extreme generosity over self-seeking luxury.

       God’s Word is exceedingly clear that contentment is an excellent virtue for Christians to pursue. We will always struggle to give generously if we cannot learn to find contentment in Christ. And we will pierce ourselves with many sorrows if we do not learn to hold to our faith and let go of our greed. But contentment does not come as an instant change that happens after you accept Christ. It takes time – and sometimes an epiphany. And that is why we must all make a strong and relentless effort to seek godliness and contentment as we walk with Christ. Consider these words from Colossians:

       1 If then you were raised together with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God. 2 Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are on the earth. 3 For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, our life, is revealed, then you will also be revealed with him in glory. 5 Put to death therefore your members which are on the earth: sexual immorality, uncleanness, depraved passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry;

Colossians 3:1-5 (WEB)
emphasis mine

       So take time to stop and count the cost. Deny yourself and take up the cross. Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Wake up from the American Dream!



Corey is currently pursuing a Master of Arts degree in religion. While he enjoys learning and writing about Christianity, another one of his new passions is writing about personal finances in order to help others make wise decisions with their money.

11 responses to Wake Up from the American Dream

  1. Excellent article! I have always felt this way about the “American Dream”, however something else that you said really hit me. “We’re treading dangerous ground when we start to set strict guidelines for other Christians based on our own preferences and arbitrary guidelines. Contentment is not an excuse for self-righteousness.”

    I’ve been guilty of this type of thinking – especially when it comes to pastors – and I know that this isn’t pleasing to God either.

    This is a very well-balanced article!

  2. Thanks for your encouraging words, Khaleef!

    I’m often guilty of that type of thinking as well. But I tend to think of Jesus’ warning to take care of the log in your own eye first. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t admonish, encourage, and teach other Christians as we learn to follow Jesus better. But it does mean that we should carefully examine ourselves first and be cautious before quickly condemning others who don’t measure up to our standards (as opposed to God’s standards).

  3. May I toss a couple of handgrenades into the thread?

    The American Dream–in it’s current material-wealth- is-everything perversion–has sucked a lot of Christians into a soft version of the prosperity gospel. Not the blatant “if you give $10 to God, he’ll bless you with $100”, but the Old Testament version where we might be tempted to believe that God is blessing our piousness with material wealth–ie, material wealth is evidence of God’s favor upon us.

    The other is the way it’s corrupted the secular interpretation. If the American Dream is all about the quest to accumulate more possessions, where do integrity, freedom and justice fit in? Should we wonder why our freedoms are disappearing when we’re singularly consumed by the “right” to own a home or the “right” to a high priced college education for our kids?

    When money (and what it buys) is the measure of all things, a whole bunch of good things are withering on the vine…

  4. Toss away, Kevin! That’s partly the point of this post.

    I agree with your points. There have been far too many great and devoted Christians who were quite poor to believe that material wealth is evidence of God’s favor. And this point is further reinforced by the fact that there are far too many wealthy people who don’t know God at all. I think we tend to forget that the many of the promises we read in the Old Testament were specifically to the Israelites during their time in Israel. We’d do better to study Jesus’ promise to us that we will have troubles and adversity in this world – but we don’t need to fear because He has overcome the world!

    In my opinion, the entitlement mindset is crippling Americans.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  5. I really don’t think this needs to be a soley christian problem – I think everyone is just seeking fulfillment of SOME SORT for something, and have gotten the idea that they can find fulfillment of the type that they are seeking through material goods. They can’t, it’s just not that simple. You have to truly know yourself to find fulfillment, and it makes me wonder why Christians dont have fulfillment. If they go to services every week and live like the bible says, shouldn’t they be happy?

  6. Thanks for your comment, Jeff.

    I agree that this isn’t solely a Christian problem. But I write mostly for a Christian audience, so I’m speaking directly to their situation. It’s futile for anyone (Christian or not) to look for fulfillment in material things.

    As far as Christians not being happy, I think it’s important to remember that even after you accept Christ you are still a work in progress. Yes, we must strive to attain perfection, but we must acknowledge the fact that we will not reach perfection in this life. Christians need to be living lives that show the evidence of their salvation and of God’s love working through them. But non-Christians need to realize that Christians are still humans. They will make mistakes. They will never be perfect as God is perfect. That is why there are unhappy Christians and “sinful” Christians. We have been freed from the consequences of sin, but we must still struggle against sinning in this life.

    Finally, I just want to point out that going to church services every week doesn’t make you a Christian.

  7. Paul – “I think we tend to forget that the many of the promises we read in the Old Testament were specifically to the Israelites during their time in Israel.” AMEN! I think Christians often look to the OT and substitute America for Israel, forgetting that Jesus ushered in a whole new way that went out to Gentile and Jew alike. To a large degree, we’re floating on the waves of a life without definite structure, and that’s where faith comes in. Trusting that God will bring us safely to safe shores, but that the ultimate safe shore isn’t of this world.

    Jeff – A Christian can feel spiritual fulfillment in the face of worldly disaster, but that doesn’t mean we’re immune to the disaster. We straddle the realms of the spiritual and the physical, and we’re pulled by both. We’re never completely divorced from either and hence the perception of hypocrisy by non-believers.

    The Christian walk is a journey, not a destination, and we never reach that destination in this life, but God honors our faith-however imperfect-along the way. It’s his mercy, and not our perfection upon which our salvation rests.

  8. Another great post. I really enjoy reading your articles. Keep up the good work.

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