The Danger of the American Dream

This is message 10 in our series in James, The Gospel for Real Life.

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The American Dream has been alive and well since 1620, when the Pilgrims saw America as a dream of religious freedom. Over the next century, English speaking settlers would continue to arrive, largely with the same vision. In the 1840s and 50s, the second wave of European immigrants flooded into the U.S., with 20 million arriving between 1880 and 1914. By this point, the motive of migration was not religious freedom as much as it was the opportunity for economic prosperity.

By the mid-20th century, the United States was undoubtedly the wealthiest nation on earth. With that wealth has come so many good things. A strong national defense that has been able to protect against tyranny. Private funding for medical research has led to countless scientific advances. Surplus wealth has resourced non-profits through charitable giving, including funding that has allowed the church in America to become the primary launching pad for global missionary outreach.

And yet with all the benefits associated with the American Dream, there is a danger, which is that the dream can become primarily about personal affluence and material prosperity to the neglect of spiritual awareness and vitality.

We call this dark side of the American Dream materialism.

I want to be clear. In a biblical worldview, the material world, including money and possessions, is not evil; it is neutral. Money, like a hammer or even alcohol—money is just a thing—a thing that can be rightly used and enjoyed as a blessing or, like all other things, can be misused and abused, even becoming an object of worship.

Therefore, the danger with the American Dream is not the material, it is the –ism.

It is this -ism which we are warned about in James 5:1-6.

Jesus himself warned of this in Matthew 16:26, saying, “What good is it to gain the whole world but forfeit your soul?”

What James shows us is that if I put my hope and joy, finding my identity in wealth and material comforts, I will end up being sorely disappointed

 

Wealth Can Be a Mirage (vv. 1-3)

James’ original audience, just like us, probably thought that money would solve all of their problems. After all, when someone achieves financial prosperity we say that they have “made it.”  The American definition of success is practically synonymous with material wealth.

Obviously, wealth does solve some problems. We have bills to pay. We need food and clothing. We incur medical costs. Many of us are paying on college tuition, car notes, and home mortgages.

We need money to operate as a local church. We will need to raise a significant amount of capital when we begin building a permanent facility.

Since the lack of money is the cause of so much stress and is one of the primary causes of marital strife, we are tempted to think that an abundance of wealth—or just more than we presently have—would solve the primary problems we face.

You know what it is like to drive in the heat of summer, looking down the road and detecting what looks like shimmering pools of water in the road. Yet even through you drive and drive, you never come to any water. What you were seeing is what we call a mirage.

The promise of money to solve our problems is like a mirage on the highway. We can pursue wealth all day and still never drink from the waters that we believe will solve our problems, bringing us emotional peace and happiness. In fact, it may be quite the opposite.

Look back at verses 1-3,  “Now listen, you rich, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. 2 Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3 Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.”

Material wealth as a source of hope and happiness may bring temporary relief, but eventually it produces an aftertaste of misery. This is what James says in verse 1. In fact, the Greek words he uses to convey misery have the force of “bursting into tears” and “howling with grief.”

This experience of unexpected misery is not only because of the decrease in the value of our possessions that James describes in verses 2-3, but strangely, increasing wealth creates an ever-growing discontent and dissatisfaction with what we already have. We continually want more, bigger, newer, and better. In addition to sheer discontent, the more we possess, the more stressed we get.

Have you experienced this—the fact that managing more stuff leads to experiencing more stress? Think of life in college versus your life today. Or early married life. Are you experiencing less stress or more? For most of us, it is probably more stressful now than it was then.

William H. Vanderbilt, the eldest son of Cornelius Vanderbilt, said, “The care of $200 million is enough to kill anyone. There is no pleasure in it.”

The stress of more culminates in the face of judgement, when, having put our hope in our net worth, we discover that it actually is worthless. In fact, James says in verse 3 that what we have hoarded will testify against us, proving that our true god really was money, not Jesus.

Some of us may be a bit uncomfortable right now. I kind of am, too. I want to push back against this. I’m not material-istic. Or am I? Seriously.

Let’s not be too quick to justify or rationalize how we have been influenced by materialism.

If you are like me, you consider wealthy folks to be those with more than you have. But did you know that on a global scale, most of us are incredibly wealthy. According to statistics, if an annual income is $32,400 or more, then you are in the top 1% of wage earners in the world.[i]

It is said that a wealthy industrialist at the end of the 19th century was asked how much money is enough. His reply, “Just a little bit more.”

I assume we all feel that way at some point, don’t we? But the “little bit more” is just a mirage.

Not only will money be a mirage for me, but…

 

Wealth Can Become an Obsession (vv. 4, 6)

In the Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Toilken created a character who represents what the love of money does to the human heart—even to the heart of a professing believer. You know the character. The former hobbit who turned into a wretched creature named Gollum because of his obsession with the golden ring of power—the ring he called his “precious.”

When financial gain becomes “my precious,” my heart will grow increasingly callous, even callous to the material needs of others. Like the financially obsessed Ebenezer Scrooge, I will lack compassion, finding joy only in the counting of my coins, or in tracking the rise of my investment portfolio.

This is what happened to the people to whom James is writing. They had become obsessed with the god of wealth and were willing to do anything for greater affluence, whether cheating or even murder.

We see this in verses 4 and 6, “4 Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty… 6 You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.”

These wealthy landowners were hiring day laborers to work for them but then not paying the workers their fair wage, or at least they were delaying payment, possibly finding reasons to complain about their work as a pretext not to compensate them.

In the first century AD, a large percentage of the population was day labor. If you could get hired, you’d eat. If not, you could starve. The landowners obsession with money was literally starving, killing the folks working for them.

Even if we don’t cheat day laborers, we may share the same root desire as those who did, which is to squeeze as much financial prosperity for ourselves as we can. To hoard and hold, seeing our possessions as ours rather than as God’s.

In a secular worldview, the bottom line to everything is monetary. This is why the primary issue in American politics is economics rather than character and integrity. Economics is not unimportant; but it probably shouldn’t be the most important.

In the Christian worldview, the bottom line is not determined by how much we make but by how well we love. You may think that this means faith and finances are mutually exclusive topics, but just the opposite is true, because one primary way we love well is through generosity—giving money away—not under compulsion (which is socialism), but voluntarily. I am not in any way advocating socialism. History tells us that the next step beyond socialism is governmental tyranny. Nevertheless, Jesus says that the best way to determine the genuineness of one’s faith is to observe how generous or ungenerous they are with money.

One of the major principles of biblical economics is that we are not owners. God owns it all. We are merely stewards of his resources.

 

Therefore, even though we will not all be able to give equal amounts, we can give to the same proportion. This may be why God instituted the “proportional giving” principle in the tithe, which is just 10% of one’s income. If someone who makes $50,000, he would expect to give $5,000 a year while the person whose income is $100,000 would plan to give $10,000 and so on.

I’ve heard it said that the simplest test to know if someone is a materialist is simply to ask if they tithe.

Tithing is just a way to stay honest about whether I think I am the owner of my possessions, or if I am a steward. If God says it is good for me and for the church for me to give 10% and I don’t, then I am functionally stealing from God, revealing that my true god is money.

The apostle Paul speaks to the spiritual danger associated with wealth in 1 Timothy 6:6-10, 17-19.

6 Godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8 But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9 People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs…

17 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19 In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.

 

In view of this passage, it is safe to say that there is a difference between making a living to support a family and the ambition to be rich, because remember, money itself is not evil. Wealth is not a sin. In fact, material wealth can be a huge blessing if we follow Paul’s instructions to put our hope in God while being generous with God’s money. Even as a preacher of old was known to say, “Make all you can so that you can give all you can.”

What is evil about money is the love of money, where I pursue wealth without the perspective of stewardship.

It is this self-serving, obsessive pursuit that Paul says leads to unbelief and causes grief, often the grief of families torn apart after the death of a wealthy relative, where tensions rise with the hopes of staking a claim in the will. When there is not an even distribution, sibling’s relationships can be destroyed—showing how deeply the love of money is able to take root in the soul.

Some of us can testify in agreement with James that…

 

Wealth Can be a Curse (v. 5)

As Americans, we tend to think of blessing in material terms, not in spiritual terms. But according to Scripture, our greatest need is not material; it is spiritual, which means, logically, that the greatesty blessing we could receive is not material, but spiritual. Nevertheless, we live in a secular, materialistic culture and are by default influenced by material-ism.

The extreme danger of this –ism is emphasized in verse 5, where James says to the rich, 5 You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.

The sarcasm in this verse would not be lost on a first century audience of wealthy Jews in a substantially agrarian culture. They knew all about the fattening of animals before being slaughtered for food.

James is saying that those who pursue their hope, joy, and identity through wealth are acting like a pig who ingests buckets of slop, not knowing what they are eating or when to stop.

In other words, material prosperity can make us spiritually soft, lazy, and weak. Like a fat pig that’s ready to become bacon.

All of that slop tasted so good at the time. But what tasted like blessing was really a curse.

It is the same way with the kind of “surplus wealth” that allows for luxury and self-indulgence.  What feels like a blessing in the moment—in this life—may actually be a curse where the hope of my heart is united to money and possessions as my true, functional gospel. If I do not recognize the danger inherent to materialism, my soul will become callous and corrode.

As we have already noted, the way to offset the influence of materialism is expressed in one word: generosity.

If all that have as God’s, where I am not an owner, but a steward, one of the best things I can do for the health of my soul—as a practical expression of gratitude to God and expression of trust in his provision—one of the best things I can do is give. Biblical philanthropy does not only bless the ones to whom we give, it is a blessing for the giver.

What a great application on the first Sunday of Advent, when we have gathered to celebrate the ultimate gift of God to sinners in the person and work of Jesus.

_____________________________

The wealthiest man in modern history was John D. Rockefeller, whose net worth in today’s currency is estimated to have been almost $400 billion. To put that in perspective, if you combined the net worth of Bill Gates (founder of Microsoft), Mark Zuckerberg (founder of Facebook), Jeff Bezos (founder of Amazon) and Warren Buffet, you are still a good $40-50 billion short of Rockefeller’s net worth.

The Rockefeller biography truly is a “rags to riches” story. Born in 1839, by sixteen years old, he had gone to work to help support his family. In 1860, the oil industry was like the internet in the early 90s. It existed, but not many people knew about it. In 1863, John Rockefeller invested in that fledgling oil industry, and by 1870, at just 31, he had founded Standard Oil. In the mid-1800s, most light was produced by lamps than ran on… oil. At the turn of the 20th century, the automobile was invented and began mass production. Standard Oil, which eventually was turned into 34 separate companies, would produce 90% of fuel demanded by this new industry. Opportunity plus timing plus ingenuity plus industry created a massive fortune for the Rockefeller family.

What makes him so unique, though, is not only his wealth, but his philanthropy—where he used his “surplus wealth” to establish and fund medical research, hospitals, universities, and countless other charitable endeavors.

He was particularly interested in supporting theological education and mission organizations, including the primary mission organization in his life, the Erie Street Baptist Mission Church, where he taught Sunday School, served as a trustee, and even as a part-time janitor.

It very well may have been his biblical worldview on wealth and possessions, where he began tithing his income as a 16-year-old while making only 50 cents a day, that led him to such generosity, eventually giving away billions of dollars in today’s currency.

Rockefeller once said, “It is wrong to assume that men of immense wealth are always happy…. [because] nothing can truly satisfy except Christ.”

The Christ who didn’t live a rags to riches story, but a riches to rags story.

In 2 Corinthians 8:9, the apostle Paul writes, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”

But the riches we receive in the gospel are not financial riches. They are spiritual riches—what Paul calls in Ephesians 2:7, “the immeasurable riches of grace.”

The gospel tells us that not only were we spiritually and morally impoverished in our sin, we were debtors before the law of God who in our own resources could never bail ourselves out of our condemned condition.

Which is why, upon a cross, Jesus was condemned for the condemned, taking our moral poverty upon himself, allowing us to take on his moral wealth, which call imputed righteousness.

When we possess the riches of grace lavished on us by the Father, we are set free from the dark side of the American Dream and are able to be stewards of material wealth rather than worshippers of it—because we now are worshippers of our Savior and Lord, Jesus, in whom we will receive an eternal inheritance of joy that can never perish, spoil or fade.

Do you have this hope? Have you received this grace? There is nothing for you to do, except to put your hope in the space-time, real, historical event of the cross, where your material-ism was nailed and condemned in the body of Jesus so that God’s mercy could be dispensed without measure to any who will receive it.

 


[i] https://www.investopedia.com/articles/personal-finance/050615/are-you-top-one-percent-world.asp

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