GIVE UP TOGETHER.
As we have walked through the GIVE UP series, several questions have come up repeatedly.
- How do these teachings fit into the culture of the American Dream?
- Does Jesus want us to be poor?
- Isn’t it okay if this beats us up a little, makes us feel uncomfortable?
Can you follow Jesus and live His ways while pursuing the American Dream? Well, it depends obviously on how you define the American Dream. If you define the American Dream along the lines of the pursuits that Jesus suggests, then yes. But most people don’t. In fact, here’s what James Truslow Adams wrote when he coined the phrase “American Dream” in his 1931 book Epic of America:
The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, also too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. 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.
He also wrote:
The American Dream, that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of material plenty, though that has doubtlessly counted heavily. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as a man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.
Hopeful and optimistic for sure, Adams’ ideal had mostly to do with togetherness and equal opportunity. Which, by the way, I am all in favor of. Jesus definitely values unity and love and togetherness. He also definitely values every person understanding that they are loved by a gracious God who, through the cross, set everyone on the same ground – available by His grace alone to respond by faith and in love to His invitation to follow.
Two elements of Adams’ ideal though that tear at the very fabric of togetherness and opportunity, though. First, the ideal of getting “better and richer” have, possibly unintentionally, led Americans to live with a mindset of bigger is better and pursuit of more is a proper motivation as well as a crowning achievement. These fly in the face of Jesus’ teachings about the last being first (Matthew 20:16) and the pursuit of personal gain ending with complete loss (Luke 9:23–25).
We need to have our eyes opened to the idolatry of wealth that is the basis of Western society. (Alan Hirsch)
Second, the ideal that each of us should be allowed “to grow to fullest development as a man and woman” is an ideal that Jesus’ teachings potentially could support. However, Adams’ assertions have most often been interpreted by catch phrases like “look out for number one” and “anything you can dream of you can achieve” and more recently “I gotta get mine.” To grow to fullest development, when centered in my own efforts, is a selfish pursuit driven by personal effort. To grow to fullest development, when centered in an effort to listen to and surrender to and obey the Giver of life, the One who wants to give abundant life, is the intention of the One who wants us to know life to the fullest.
4 “When he puts forth all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 A stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers.”
6 This figure of speech Jesus spoke to them, but they did not understand what those things were which He had been saying to them.
7 So Jesus said to them again, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. 9 I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:4–10)
39 If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it. (Matthew 10:39)
At the risk of sounding as dogmatic as I probably did this past Sunday morning, I would suggest that it is next to impossible to pursue the American Dream and follow Jesus, if you are going to give full credence to His teachings.
So what does this mean? Does Jesus want me to be poor?
He had rich followers, didn’t he? The answer is yes. He did have followers who had much. Friends of God, like Abraham and Joseph and David and Daniel, were very wealthy at least at some point in their lives. Nicodemus in the New Testament. Zacchaeus. Joseph of Arimathea. Luke. And more.
They had much. What was the difference between them and the rich young official (Luke 18)? I would suggest that the difference is that they were not living for the same purpose. They had denied themselves and taken up the purposes of God for their lives (Luke 9:23). They were not driven to get more or secure by the stuff they had. They were living to give all and secure that Jesus was enough, even if they lost everything they had. And most of them risked it all.
Again, this is not a cop out approach suggesting that we settle back into the American Dream. We have already established that settling into the American Dream is not following Jesus.
The real surrender for many of us is probably this – GIVE UP THE VERY WAY YOU VIEW LIFE, WORK, PROVISION, PURSUITS, AND SUCCESS. Get honest – do you value riches more than rich relationship? Evaluate how you spend your time and money and you will know the answer. David Platt said:
Our culture says bigger is better & flashy is more effective; Jesus calls us to humbly & quietly focus our lives on people.
We also need to realize that we already are poor. We are impoverished spiritually on our owns. We are in desperate need of God and His love and His grace and His life renewal. And this may be the real issue. We pursue the American Dream like we can make it on our own. We can do anything we set our minds to. So the real issue may be, like it was for the rich young official, that we live as though we can be “good” on our own strivings. That’s what he was after – validation of his own efforts. The call to sell everything was a mirror Jesus held up that highlighted the real root of sin and lack of goodness in the rich young official – his selfishness and greed and misplaced security.
At the same time, living luxuriously, beyond our basic needs, and giving 80 and 90 hours a week into a career to provide more and more doesn’t seem to mesh with the teachings of Jesus either. One email I received put it this way:
Is this penny I am about to spend being spent on “daily bread” or a want that is beyond “daily bread?” If beyond “daily bread,” am I spending on a want of my life what could be given for a need in someone else’s life?
I have heard multiple times during this series people say they have really struggled with guilt over this stuff. Others have said, “We don’t need to beat ourselves up over this.” And while I agree that guilt is not the desired result of focusing in on these teachings in this series, it can often be a response we are tempted to wallow in. But we must not wallow there. We also must not be afraid of discomfort and confusion and struggle over this. Another email I received:
On multiple occasions, I heard “don’t beat yourself up over this” as advice to those that are wrestling with this series. I’m disappointed that response wasn’t challenged. I almost wanted to stand up and ask why it was OK to question how much and what we should give up, but stop short of REALLY digging deep to the point that you might “beat yourself up”. Maybe “beat yourself up” is going a little far (and maybe not), but what if none of us are going deep enough. When I read the scriptures you’ve been including in the devotionals, it doesn’t sound like Christ was telling us to do our best and make sure we were still comfortable and living the same way we were before. Doesn’t this go back to the point that Christ never said that following him would be easy? Shouldn’t it hurt a little?
Jesus’ teachings expose us. But they also welcome us. They welcome us into the life we were intended to live. A life in which we fall in love with the Giver of life and walk daily with the One who gave His life for us. And His ways, if we actually follow and obey in all things, will not let us wallow in guilt or become complacent in our comforts or be satisfied with same old, same old.
We must surrender to let Him change us. We must GIVE UP.
But here’s one thing I want to make abundantly clear and that I think the Scriptures make abundantly clear – WE WERE NOT INTENDED TO AND CANNOT AND DO NOT NEED TO TRY TO GIVE UP ALONE.
We must GIVE UP TOGETHER.
We must struggle through these as a church family as well as give ourselves away together as a church family. That is the essence of the early church – SHARING WITH ALL WHO HAD NEED. They lived in close community, united around a common mission (to make disciples of Jesus), and shared all they had such that no one lacked for what they needed.
We tend to live isolated lives, busy with our own mission and schedules, writing a check when we know of a need but normally not knowing of a need because we don’t walk close enough to know. And sharing with all who have need isn’t just about writing a check, but rather about walking in relationship and ownership of all of life.
Is that the mission Jesus wants for us? To be willing to love one another? To be willing to love our neighbor? To be willing to be a neighbor to anyone, regardless of how much they have or where they live or what they’ve accomplished.
Maybe Jesus wanted us to unite around His love and His mission. Here’s what He prayed in John 17:
18 In the same way that you gave me a mission in the world, I give them a mission in the world. 19 I’m consecrating myself for their sakes so they’ll be truth-consecrated in their mission. 20 I’m praying not only for them but also for those who will believe in me because of them and their witness about me. 21 The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind—just as you, Father, are in me and I in you, so they might be one heart and mind with us. Then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me. 22 The same glory you gave me, I gave them, so they’ll be as unified and together as we are–23 I in them and you in me. Then they’ll be mature in this oneness, and give the godless world evidence that you’ve sent me and loved them in the same way you’ve loved me.
May this be a simple reminder of what God intended from the beginning. He did not want us to perform isolated spiritual shows for Him, did not want us to busy ourselves with so much that we live alone on His mission, and did not want us to make our worship of Him self-serving. He wanted us, together, to love Him and love our neighbor. WHY? So that those in need of love would find it lived out, not just talked about, among His people (His church).
So, how will we GIVE UP TOGETHER? I will suggest four specific ways in the next devo.
Meantime, leave your comments and thoughts.
I love you guys.