The Purpose of Wealth in the American Dream and the New Testament

By Nathan Cornelius, Special Guest Writer

 

How Does the American Dream Align with Biblical Teaching?

The notion of the “American Dream” is one of the most powerful images in our cultural heritage, embedded in our national psyche, often more deeply than we are aware of. It seems natural and self-evident that everyone has the right to better their life, maybe even make their fortune, through honest hard work. As Christians living in America, we may take the American Dream for granted, perhaps placing it next to the Bible in terms of influence on our personal values. We may even see our own prosperity as evidence of God’s approval of our lives. But have we ever stopped to consider whether any of this actually aligns with the Bible’s teaching?

A Brief History of the American Dream

In the early hours of November 9, 2016, Donald Trump, declared victory in the presidential election, saying: “We will begin the urgent task of rebuilding our nation and renewing the American Dream… Every single American will have the opportunity to realize his or her fullest potential” (Los Angeles Times Staff 2016).  Almost exactly nine years earlier, November 7, 2007, then-senator Barack Obama announced his candidacy for President of the United States in a speech that echoed that rhetoric about “the American Dream”: “We need to reclaim the American Dream… Every American has the right to pursue their dreams” (CNN 2007).

“The American Dream” has been cited by nearly every American president or presidential candidate of the past century as inspiration for supporters of his or her cause. Often, it is accompanied by the implication that government has somehow jeopardized or corrupted the Dream and the new leader’s task is to “reclaim” or “recover” it.

The ideas behind the American Dream have roots in the earliest history of our country, best summed up in the famous phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence in 1776. In 1774, the Declaration of Colonial Rights used the phrase “life, liberty, and property,” and almost a century earlier, British philosopher John Locke had asserted that government has a duty to protect the fundamental rights of “life, liberty, health… and the possession of outward things;”  While the authors of the Declaration arguably substituted the phrase “pursuit of happiness” to suggest a conception of prosperity as more than merely material, many Americans today seem to largely equate “happiness” with “the possession of outward things.”

The phrase “American Dream” itself did not appear until 1931, in the thick of the Great Depression, when many Americans were experiencing a notable lack of material possessions. In that year, historian James Truslow Adams, in his The Epic of America, wrote of “the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement” (Adams 1931, 214). In this vision of society, “each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable” (ibid., 415).

The Need for God’s Perspective on the American Dream

There are many profound and provocative questions one can ask about the American Dream. In future posts, I plan to address the fundamental justice or injustice of the American Dream and the philosophy of meritocracy. First, though, I want to examine the Bible’s teaching on the purpose of material possessions so that we can evaluate the American Dream’s view of wealth in light of it. This is important so that if we critique our culture, we do so positively rather than negatively, not just pointing out the ways in which our culture falls short of God’s glorious standard, but also showing how his vision of a flourishing society far exceeds that envisioned by our human ideals.

Wealth Can Be a Good Gift

First, the Bible does not see material wealth as inherently evil, but as one of God’s good gifts.

Solomon appears to praise the “American Dream” value of hard work that provides opportunities to make money: “The diligent man will get precious wealth” (Proverbs 12:27), and “In all toil there is profit… the crown of the wise is their wealth” (Proverbs 14:23-24).[1]

The Apostle Paul also says, “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17).

Wealth Can Be a Trap

However, love of wealth can easily entrap those who have it into the sins of pride, greed, and selfishness.

A few verses earlier, Paul warns that “those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:9-10).

Thus Jesus simply remarks, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:24-25).

He also declares, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry” (Luke 6:24-25).

And James delivers this scathing rebuke to rich oppressors: “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. …Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter” (James 5:1-2, 4-5).

Sharing Your Wealth: A Christian Responsibility and Opportunity

However, the New Testament clearly teaches that Christians who do come into possession of material wealth have a responsibility to share it with others.

Even if Christians acquire their wealth by honest means, they still ought not to keep it all for themselves: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Ephesians 4:28).

Paul, in asking for donations to help famine-stricken Jewish believers, explains, “For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness” (2 Corinthians 8:13-14). The early church did not try to enforce an equal level of income or possessions among its members, but did try to ensure that everyone had what they needed.

Sharing of wealth also presents an opportunity for Christians to experience God’s blessing and show his love. Paul goes on to say that “Those who are rich in this world… are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:18-19).

This sharing should especially be practiced among fellow Christians as the distinctive evidence of God’s love: “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” (1 John 3:17).

Luke records that sharing of not only money but property as well was common practice in the early church: “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. …There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4:32, 34-35).

Governmental vs. Individual Responsibility

Thus, the Biblical vision of an ideal society is one in which those who have achieved material prosperity do not merely rest on their laurels, but out of their love for God share the fruits of their wealth with those who have less, so that there is equity among believers. The early church even went so far as to transfer ownership of their goods to the Christian community as a whole rather than holding private property.

This is different from the philosophy of socialism, which argues that it is the government’s responsibility to transfer wealth from those who have excess to those who have too little. In the Christian community, this sharing is undertaken voluntarily, motivated by brotherly love. Nevertheless, government does have a responsibility to put an end to injustice where possible, and if the rich in society consistently refuse to share their excess with the poor, even though the latter face material hardships due to their lack of resources, this may constitute an injustice warranting action by the state.

Where exactly this line lies is a matter of much debate. However, it brings up an important question: if we are called to share their wealth with others, are there certain groups with whom we should be most eager to share it? Is it possible to use wealth in a way that reduces, not exacerbates, the social injustices existing in our society? I believe God desires Christians to create and nurture community by using their wealth generously rather than selfishly – what Tim Keller (2010) calls “generous justice.” I want to explore this topic more in future posts.

Summary: Honor God with Your Wealth

In summary, the Biblical ideal is clear: wealth is not to be pursued as a goal, even a dream. Instead, Christians should aspire to honor God in their work, their engagement in society, and their financial decisions. Rather than guarantee money as a blessing to those who do so, God usually rebuked the rich. And to those whom he has given wealth, God reveals that he does not intend them to keep this gift for themselves. Rather, the purpose of wealth is to enable one to share with those who do not have enough, as a way of imitating God’s example of generosity and showing his love. In this way, Christians can take the lead in working towards a society where every member has the chance to experience a “better and richer and fuller life,” not through the “pursuit of happiness” in home ownership, consumer goods, or a comfortable retirement, but through pursuing “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:8).

Notes

[1] All Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.

Works Cited

CNN. “Obama’s November 7, 2007, speech on the ‘American Dream.’” Accessed April 3, 2017. http://edition.cnn.com/2007/POLITICS/12/21/obama.trans.americandream/.

James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1931).

Los Angeles Times Staff. 2016. “’I will be president for all Americans’ — transcript of Donald Trump’s election night victory speech.” Los Angeles Times, November 9. Accessed April 3, 2017. http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-trump-election-night-speech-20161108-story.html.

Timothy Keller, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just (New York: Riverhead, 2010).
Continue reading “The Purpose of Wealth in the American Dream and the New Testament”

Introduction Part 2. Purpose of This Blog: To Praise Jesus for His Love and His Call to Justice, and to Seek His Understanding

Praise be to our Father, God, and King, and to His Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ! He alone can save–and has saved–the world. He saved my life–literally and spiritually. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). For reasons only He knows, He put in me a desire to question the nature of justice in the world, before I ever knew Him. By the Holy Spirit, “I will sing of your love and justice; to you, Lord, I will sing praise” (Psalm 101:1). We should praise Him for His love, but we should also praise Him for His call for us to do justice. And seeking to do His justice in the world is a way to glorify Him.

What Is Social Justice? – Some Personal Explorations

Helping People In Need?

Unfortunately, I myself have been slow to find out more about the deeper meanings of social justice, even though I have been interested in social justice and anti-poverty efforts for over 10 years. Early on, I thought of the two in very simple terms, based on the well-known passage, Matthew 25:31-46: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat . . . .”

So, I tried to learn how to help people in need: the poor and elderly using government-run health insurance, the homeless, victims of human trafficking, children and parents who live in housing projects, and disadvantaged people in communities of color.

But “helping people in need,” while good, seemed to be a somewhat weak concept of social justice, especially in the terms of changing the causes of injustice. In many cases, these are unjust social structures—roughly speaking, these are the institutionalized power dynamics that allow some people to frequently take advantage of those weaker than them.

Changing Unjust Social Structures?

I thought studying public policy and learning how to work with it would help me understand how changing social structures relates to social justice. But I have not found very satisfying answers to how policy, politics, government, nonprofits, and businesses promote social justice, even when we say we are talking about “social justice.” We go through countless political debates, endlessly analyze issues, and spend millions of dollars, and volunteer and work hundreds of hours. But in many cities across America, like Baltimore, progress on problems–such as poverty, violence, and racism–seems painfully slow.

Public policy practice, as a field, seems to assume what is good, rather than critiquing itself and leading debates on what “good” truly means. Attempts to analyze and debate the moral dimensions of public policy are quickly shot down. Instead, it is usually considered good to “play the game”—run the analysis according to prevailing ideologies, and generally accept the establishment’s norms. Among other causes, this might have contributed to the failure of most mainstream political analysts and the media to accurately predict the rise of President Trump, whose election was in part fueled by the anger and mistrust of the American people. Public policy practice is largely a mental exercise that lacks heart and soul, and it is probably designed that way.

Jesus Brought the Good News About Love and Justice; Do American Christians Bring No News or Bad News?

If the institutions of public policy practice tend to lack heart and soul, then where might we find them? Perhaps the Christian Church?

Jesus brought the good news of salvation—the gospel. It is wonderful news!

[Jesus] stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

(Luke 4:17-19)

Part of the gospel is Jesus’s authoritative command to love others and do justice (cf. Matthew 23:23, Luke 11:42). As I’ve walked with Jesus through the years, I have been inspired by this.

However, in the American Church, we seem to overshadow Jesus’ command to do justice with his completed work of saving grace and mercy. We preach an incomplete gospel.

Jesus preached both parts, and did both parts. He scolded hypocritical religious leaders and peacefully defied the political powers. And He welcomed outcasts, healed the sick, and fed the poor. And He died on the cross for everyone’s sins, and rose again! That’s the good news!

Sadly, most of the time when I hear Christians talk about social and political problems, it sounds too much like the world: blame of the poor, fear of being too generous, a narrow focus on certain social issues, nationalism, complaints about taxes, being selfish and angry, etc. That’s bad news.

And as American society has once again ebbed into violent hatefulness and selfish individualism, the general silence or incoherence of the Church and Christians on such issues is sometimes deafening. No news is bad news, too.

Christians have additional concerns, both theologically and with regard to practical ministry, such as the following:

  • Whether political involvement is too worldly
  • Faith vs. works
  • Judging others vs. mercy
  • Faith in waiting for Jesus to return and bring complete justice

While we do live in a fallen world, one where people will inevitably commit injustices until Christ returns, how much are we being the “salt” and the “light” (as Jesus said in Matthew 5:13-16) to our neighbors who are struggling to survive—neighbors down the street or on the other side of the city, not to mention across our nation and world? We pray the Our Father prayer do we not?

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.Matthew 6:9-10 (emphasis added)

We can do justice on earth, it seems!

Is Christianity Irrelevant? What is Our Role?

Many people in our society today believe that Christianity is irrelevant in social and political issues. But now more than ever, we can surely use some good news—the Good News!

Throughout history, Christians and the Church have been far from perfect, and we never will be until Jesus returns.

However, I believe there are basic ways we can understand our role with regard to doing justice:

  1. Jesus told us to both love others and do justice (Matthew 23:23, Luke 11:42)
  2. The fight is fundamentally spiritual—we are born again of the Spirit (John 3) and we are to fight the spiritual fight “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms “ (Ephesians 6:12)
  3. For our faith in Christ to be alive, we need faith with works (cf. James 2:14-26, John 14:15)
  4. Jesus gave us the Great Commission: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20, emphasis added)

With the Holy Spirit’s help, we can do this!

Who is Supposed to Teach Us How to Do Justice?

Following from the above, part of the Great Commission is to teach people how to do justice. We probably do not lack teachings, but perhaps we lack teachers and students. Are we letting the secular world teach us about justice, when we should (also) be teaching about it? Are we mostly letting the secular world define social justice without seeking God’s understanding ourselves?

Methodology of This Blog: Seeking Understanding by Asking Questions Based on Christ’s Inspiration

Instead of disengaging from the world, we Christians should be seeking to understand God’s heart for engaging the world. And part of seeking understanding is to ask questions.

If we want to be like Christ, why not let His words inspire us to seek understanding from the Holy Spirit, so that we can act boldly in faith in Christ, for God’s glory?

The questions I have asked above have been inspired by God’s Word. May we continue to seek Him for understanding. Amen.

Introduction Part 1. Primer on Some of God’s Answers About Injustice and Watchfulness

Conversations With God About Justice

Job

Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said:

“Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge?
[. . .]

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.

(Job 38:1-4)

Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm:

“Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.

“Would you discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?

(Job 40:6-8)

Habakkuk

Habakkuk’s Complaint

How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? . . .
Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.

(Habakkuk 1:2-4)

The Lord’s Answer

“. . . I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.
I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people,
who sweep across the whole earth to seize dwellings not their own.
They are a feared and dreaded people; they are a law to themselves and promote their own honor.
[. . .]
. . . guilty people, whose own strength is their god.”

(Habakkuk 1:5-11)

Habakkuk’s Second Complaint

You, Lord, have appointed them to execute judgment; . . .
Your eyes are too pure to look on evil . . .
Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? . . .
I will stand at my watch . . .
I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint.

(Habakkuk 1:12-2:1, emphasis added)

Then the Lord replied:

“Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it.

[ . . . ]
Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.

“See, the enemy is puffed up; his desires are not upright—but the righteous person will live by his faithfulness—

(Habakkuk 2:1-4)

Genesis of Injustice

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”

(Genesis 4:9-10)

But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”

The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

(Genesis 3:9-13)

Jesus the Light of All Mankind and the World

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

(John 1:1-5, emphasis added)

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

(John 9:1-5, , emphasis added)

Jesus’ Call to Be the Light the World

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

(Matthew 5:14-16, emphasis added)

Jesus’ Call to Keep Watch

Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning . . . You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

[. . .]

“. . . But suppose the servant says to himself, ‘My master is taking a long time in coming,’ and he then begins to beat the other servants . . . The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers.

“The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. . . . From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded . . .

(Luke 12:35-48, emphasis added)

I have posted watchmen on your walls, Jerusalem; they will never be silent day or night.

You who call on the Lord, give yourselves no rest . . .

(Isaiah 62:6-7, emphasis added)

Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me.

(Ezekiel 3:17; 33:7, emphasis added)