I once knew a girl, named Hope, who loved shopping, looking at items, and buying things. With many talents, piano and athletics among her favorites, she often won honors the competitions she was involved in. Having grown up in a Christian family, she had also begun a relationship with God at an early age. She was happy, with friends, goals, and a future of opportunity. I’ve heard her describe herself as living her ideal of the American Dream at that time in her life.
What comes to mind when you hear the words, ‘The American Dream’? Do you picture a healthy bank account, retirement, a good education…or is there something more? Most people I talk to associate the American Dream with wealth or success, but I would suggest differently. By examining the lives of three people, I hope to demonstrate that the underlying concept of the American Dream conflicts with truly following Jesus.
In order to do this, however, we must understand what the American Dream truly is. The Founding Fathers, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, fought for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—our God-given rights. Their vision was that these rights would be preserved and that we would have freedom to accomplish our goals. My friend, Hope, expressed that American Dream, living a ‘good life’ with opportunity for the future. James Truslow Adams, the man who coined the term, ‘the American Dream’, described it in his book, Epic of America, as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each.”
Opportunity and the right to pursue happiness lay the foundation for who we are and how we live. They affect every area of life, whether we chose to believe it or not. Everyone desires to become great in some way. When opportunities are thrown our ways, might as well take ahold of them, we say. Our culture in America has adopted this mindset as well. From the music we listen to, to the books we read, to the TV we watch—everything screams “be happy—take advantage of every opportunity. Make the most of yourself!”
Pursuing this dream, at age 17, a girl named Mai fled communist Vietnam to be educated and free. Forced to wait in China five years, she was on the brink of receiving her visa when she felt God calling her to return to Vietnam to share the Gospel with the people there. She was confronted with the question: what is more valuable to me: my rights, or my God? Knowing she would lose her opportunity of education and freedom, and likely face persecution, she returned. But why? Why did she return to the oppression of her country when she could’ve been free? Perhaps for the same reason Jacob Deshazer returned to Japan after WWII.
When Jacob heard of the bombing at Pearl Harbor, rage against Japan boiled up inside and he signed up as one of the famous Doolittle Raiders. His hatred only deepened when captured, tortured in solitary confinement, and forced to watch his friends’ executions. But as Jacob pondered the reason for such enmity, he recalled being taught as a boy, Jesus is the only way to have true love. Intense hunger filled his heart to read the Bible, and he struggled to get ahold of one in that dingy prison cell.
Miracles do happen. One day, the darkest anger can fill a man’s heart—the next, not a trace of dirt can be seen. Jacob’s hate slowly was transformed into love as he eagerly devoured the words of Jesus, when he read that Jesus pleaded for his enemies: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Those words made an everlasting impact on his life; he made a commitment with God to go back to Japan, if he ever survived, and after the war, returned as a lifelong missionary to the people who had mistreated him and murdered his friends.
Jacob had every reason to hate. Hadn’t they taken everything from him? But Jesus took priority in life, and nothing could stop him from obeying the words: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Both Jacob and Mai arrived at the same conclusion I, too, have found: Jesus comes first, above our desires, comforts, even above personal happiness.
I want to make it clear that the American Dream has many good aspects. I am not opposed to liberty, neither am I opposed to owning property. But let me draw your attention to what Jesus said: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” If we miss the fact that Jesus should rule over all parts of life, then everything else is useless. So we ask: is Jesus really worth it…worth losing everything for?
Jesus, faced with crucifixion, wept and prayed, pleading with God, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.” Jesus wasn’t talking about torture or even death, but the cup of God’s wrath—all God’s righteous hatred for sinners, laid on his very own son! Jesus died for us—we, who from the very beginning turned our backs on God, and when he came, we mocked him, beat him, hated him, even murdered him—in love, he died, though we have done everything to deserve his hate! He now calls us to follow him, even at the cost of everything else: is it worth it?
Mai and Jacob knew without a doubt—and their answer was yes, for how could they resist obeying the one who died for them?
I’d like to draw your focus back to Hope. She was a follower of Jesus with great opportunity, but why did I bring her up? I told you about Hope because she considered herself as following Jesus—yet he didn’t truly rule in her life. She didn’t think he was worth placing above everything she loved.
I tell you this because I am Elizabeth Hope, and I failed to see that I loved what made me happy more than I loved Jesus. I remember, even as a little girl, I struggled to be like my brothers and sister. They were great, and I did anything it took to be as great as they were. They collected books; so did I. (and spent way too much money on them from the age of five). They were amazing at piano; so I wanted to be the best, too. I worked hard, trying to play the harder songs, and after a while, doing that made me very happy. I was, and still am, often very pleased when I win events, or when people complement my piano playing, or when all my friends turn green with envy at the sight of my large collection of books. I am very proud of them. Yes, I loved what made me happy more than I loved Jesus. I pretended to be a follower of Christ; I went to church; I prayed at mealtimes; I knew all the Bible verses and answers. But I did not know Christ.
Yet after reading the book, Radical, by David Platt, president of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, these words he wrote struck me: “We are starting to redefine Christianity, giving in to the dangerous temptation to take the Jesus of the Bible and twist him into a version of Jesus we are more comfortable with. A Jesus who would never call us to give away everything we have, who would not expect us to forsake our closest relationships; who wants us to avoid danger; who brings us prosperity as we live out the American Dream." The reality of those statements stung me with their truth, for I was one of those who had twisted the words of Jesus to fit to my liking.
As I read Radical, I began to wonder how many other people like myself had squandered their time, their money, their lives on living the lie of Americanized Christianity. Do we forget that there are people who give up their very lives to follow Jesus? Yes, we live in the United States, protected (for now) from the persecution of those in North Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. Does that mean we should 'adapt' to this culture and live lukewarm lives that forget about Jesus whenever he's not convenient?
Jesus commands us to a radical obedience—yet we don’t want to radically follow him. When he calls us to deny ourselves, to take up our cross, to willingly accept opposition and suffering, we say we will. But when have any of us given up our desires or liberty—or risked our lives for Jesus’ sake? Is it possible we have stopped trusting Jesus, and have begun trusting the American Dream to satisfy us?
Following Jesus should turn The American Dream upside down. Finding happiness comes in obedience, and instead of protecting liberty, we are to be slaves to righteousness, to live in submission to God. Instead of owning our lives, we are to be willing to give up life for Jesus’ sake. Every part of us should be about Christ. As pastor and teacher, John Piper, put it: “God calls us to pray and think and dream and plan and work not to be made much of, but to make much of him in every part of our lives.” Mai and Jacob knew their comforts were incompatible with obedience to Christ, they knew they had Jesus inside of their hearts and ruler of their lives, they knew they were his servants: and they lived like it.
What about you? Who is first in the way you live? If you don’t consider yourself a follower of Jesus, will you consider what it is you do follow? What is your dream, and is it really worth it? The American Dream is worthless if it conflicts with following Jesus. So I urge you to join me in my pursuit to follow Jesus and live like he truly is worth losing everything for—that is the true dream.
A persuasive I wrote last year in speech and debate. I have revised it a little to sound better in writing, but would love feedback on how to make it more understandable or engaging. Thanks.