The American Dream might best be summed up as the possibility for a life of freedom, personal happiness, material comfort, and lasting fulfillment (all nicely enclosed in a white picket fence).Hard work, long hours, and independence are woven into the fabric of our hopes as the means by which to procure this dream. I'm thankful to live in a country where dreams are possible, education is offered, and elections are marked by peaceful transitions rather than violent uprisings.
However, I fear at times we mistakenly substitute the American Dream for our expectation of the Christian life. If we love Jesus enough, serve in the church nursery every week, study our Bibles with vigor, and understand all the right theology, surely our lives will follow the pattern of our dreams. By doing all the right things, we assume God will bless our life with the American Dream.
Yet, the biblical expectation of the Christian life is not one of upward mobility, but of humble service. It is not presented as a life of ease, but of toil and struggle. We’re not to be independent, but dependent, working together as one body.
In contrast to our typical image of the American Dream, Scripture offers us three images of the Christian life: a battle, a race, and childbirth.
While I've never fought in a battle, one viewing of Saving Private Ryan made me want to curl in a ball and cover my eyes. The reality of the battle scene on the beaches of Normandy was terrifying. In the midst of bullets, blood, and fears, the soldiers pressed forward. It was a small glimpse into the painful sacrifices and struggles of wartime.
Paul reminds the Ephesians:
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm (Eph. 6:11-13).
We're at war. The biggest threat to our safety is to forget a battle is raging. We're shocked when life is hard and days are weary. When we forget we're living in wartime conditions, we find ourselves discouraged and disgruntled by misplaced expectations.
Years ago, some friends convinced me to run a half-marathon. We trained for months and then we ran the race. My skin chaffed. My body ached. There were moments when I desperately wanted to just stop running. It required endurance to stay in the race.
The same is true for the Christian life. The writer of Hebrews gives this imagery:
Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. (Heb. 12:1-3)
If you're struggling and exhausted, it doesn't mean you're doing something wrong. Look to Jesus. Remember his endurance on the cross. Take courage. And then, put one foot in front of the other and keep running the race.
I've given birth three times. Contractions tighten in such a way that breathing becomes difficult. Just when one has passed, another builds. I squeezed my husband's arm so tightly he may still have bruises.
Paul uses this imagery to explain our groaning as we await redemption:
For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies (Rom. 8: 22-23).
Our groans of waiting walk alongside our songs of praise. Childbirth is not something anyone describes as easy. Neither is the Christian life.
And yet, we are still a people of hope.
As we consider the battle, the race, and childbirth, it's easy to become overwhelmed. If this is the Christian life, how can we be people of joy, peace, and hope?
While each of these images involve struggle, they also are pictures of hope:
- A battle is fought in hope of peace.
- A race is run in hope of a victor's crown.
- A mother labors in hope of new life.
Jesus explains, "I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).
In the midst of a world that doesn't cooperate with our dreams, Jesus is the source of our joy, peace, and hope.
The American Dream cannot compare to the Christian's hope. When trials are difficult, we’re not disillusioned. When the battle rages, we’re at peace. When loneliness aches, we hope for a world of perfect fellowship. When our bodies wear out, we look forward to a day when all will be made new.
We're seeking a city still to come.
Our expectations greatly affect our experience. Today, we can celebrate our country (with parades and fireworks and cookouts), but we know we’re not really home. Rich Mullins summed up this mix of emotions so well in Land of My Sojourn:
Nobody tells you when you get born here
How much you’ll come to love it
And how you’ll never belong here
So I call you my country
And I’ll be lonely for my home
And I wish that I could take you there with me.