Several years ago, my pastor said this, “Many Christians follow Jesus just enough to make their lives miserable.”
Years later, after thousands of sermons and podcasts, his words haven’t left me. You see, you can pursue the American Dream and Jesus. But your life won’t be much fun.
Have you ever tried giving your heart to two things at once? I remember trying to date two girls at the same time. I was in middle school, eighth grade, I think. It worked out well for a day or two. Then day three happened; no further commentary necessary.
Have you ever known someone who could make this work, devoting time and energy to two people? I haven’t, not without some form of manipulation or fear.
Yes, you’re wired to give your heart fully to one thing, your Creator. And God, in his crazy deep, indescribable mercy, gives you freedom. You’re free to pursue exclusivity with other things. Job. Romance. Money. Family. Status.
But you won’t find Life there.
And here’s the crux. Most of these “other” pursuits aren’t inherently evil or wrong. Some are, certainly, but most aren’t. Money, for example, is neither good nor bad. Yes, it can easily become a cheap substitute for our foundational needs, identity, security, and hope. That’s probably why Jesus talked it more than any other topic, even more than current trendy topics like homosexuality and President Trump. But you can have money without making it your god.
The same can be said for romance, family, image and the Star Wars franchise. These are tempting substitutes for God because they offer to fill (temporarily) our core needs, the ones God is supposed to fill.
Your heart’s greatest desire reveals your god
Jesus wasn’t interested in scaring or shaming people. He also didn’t force feed his listeners with ego-satisfying, black-and-white answers. Instead, he called people to the heart, to prayer and discernment.
In Matthew 6:21, for example, Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” In Mark 6:21, Jesus addresses the Pharisees with these words, “For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder…All these things come from within; they are what defile you.”
So, it’s appropriate to ask. What’s your heart’s greatest desire? To who or what do you give your allegiance? What do you sacrifice your time and money for? Your energy, who or what receives it? To cut through the self-centered pursuits, you must ask these questions.
This sucks, I know. I wish there was an easier way. If you find one, shoot me an e-mail. I’m not going to wait around, though. Let’s keep moving.
The American Dream as a clever disguise for following Jesus
If God created you for exclusivity, then we must discuss the greatest challenger, the American Dream.
For most Americans, the pursuit of upward mobility and finding your identity in what you do or accomplish will be your greatest threats to exclusivity with Jesus.
I must admit, much of my life has been devoted to this god. For many years, I thought God helped those who helped themselves. Then, I mysteriously developed Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. And suddenly, my bootstraps disappeared, leaving me nothing to pull myself by.
Work hard, yes. Be grateful for America’s freedoms. Understand, however, that the American Dream will not give you an abundant life.
Usually, you need the ladder to break (as well as a few prideful bones) before you start seeing it for what it is. Chronic Fatigue meant rendered my achieving futile. I lost contact with people I thought to be friends. I lost my identity. I began to question God.
But, in this place, with nothing to achieve or attain, I began seeing things more clearly. And although this was a dang hard season, my time in the valley was a blessing.
You find out who you are and what you love when everything’s gone. No shadowboxing or mirages in the valley.
That’s why those in the valley and the ones with few material possessions are often more prepared to hear the gospel. The Pharisees had no interest in following Jesus. They had status and security, thank you.
What does all of this mean for you and me? Here are a few concluding thoughts.
You can’t follow Jesus if you expect him to do all the dying.
A. W. Tozer once said, “We want to be saved, but we insist Christ do all the dying.” If you’re not carrying a cross, you’re probably sitting on a throne, your throne. Following Jesus involves sacrifice. It involves letting go, changing, repenting. These things are hard. But, honestly, has anything easy ever brought you lasting satisfaction? Of course not.
Are you carrying your cross or sitting on your throne?
Ask hard questions.
You remember, as a young lad, someone saying we only use 10% of our brains? Well, it’s true. Neuroscience can now confirm it. So what’s up with the other 90%? It’s called the unconscious. We’re largely unaware of the goings-on in the deeper parts of our brain. But brain science has shown that most of our biases and prejudices live here, in the unconscious.
If you don’t go below the surface, you will never know WHY you do what you do. This is what I call creative self-critique. It’s not judgmental or shameful. It’s about growth. Next time you get angry, upset, or find yourself trapped in comparison, ask some hard questions. Why am I angry? What false value drives this? Get below the surface. Real transformation occurs here.
Detach from any allegiance other than Jesus.
If you can’t detach from something, then you’re addicted. We associate addiction with porn or alcohol. Those are sources of addiction, no doubt. But the word “addiction” literally means “to devout or surrender.” An addict is a person who is enslaved to something. You can be enslaved to your kids, your favorite sports team or your political party just as much as you can be enslaved to drugs.
Does that make sense?
Anything that controls your emotions and actions is an addiction. And addictions keep you from experiencing the abundant life in Christ.
Much of spiritual growth is about recognizing things that hijack your emotions and learning to detach from them. The ones who make this a discipline are the ones who find Life.
Giving everything to Jesus is a worthy pursuit. I believe that with all of my being. You won’t do this perfectly and it doesn’t happen overnight. And that’s okay. Grace fills the gaps. When you mess up, grace reminds you that God is for you. Grace keeps failure was turning into shame.
In the presence of Grace, you’re never too far gone. You can always get up, no matter how nasty the fall.
This is the beauty and power of God’s grace. Failing doesn’t mean you’re disqualified. It allows you to keep moving forward, on the journey to Christlikeness., with all its twists and turns, roadblocks and potholes, the simple pursuit of becoming more like your Creator.
May we always strive to carry a cross rather than sit on a throne.
Grace and peace, friends.
Frank is lead writer and editor for the blog at Bayside church. He is also a husband, father and Jesus-follower. Occasionally he plays golf. Often he drinks coffee.