Parents are always communicating with their children. A touch of restraint on the arm, an encouraging word after school, or a hug before bed all convey important truths. From the casual smile across the dinner table to the tear-filled conversation before bed, every exchange with my kids is an opportunity....
“I don’t really have any dreams.”
My friend spilled this confession as we tried to piece together future possibilities and life directions one lazy Saturday. I had long been embarrassed that I was in the same place, hiding my cultural heresy of dreamlessness. “I don’t have dreams either!” I said. It was a unique moment, our bonding over a lack of something, and it felt like we should have been whispering, to keep the secret between the two of us.
I get excited about lots of things — real butter, lunch with my grandparents, the high school small group I lead, puns, a good math joke (that’s a tautology: they’re all good). But as for an all-consuming, change-the-world passion that ignites every fiber of my being and makes me want to sing from the mountaintops, wear burlap, and stop showering to conserve water? Meh. Not really.
This is not something I share regularly. It feels like a betrayal of our generation. After all, if you have spent much time at a liberal arts college or on Pinterest, you have been told some in some form that our lives are only worth living if they are spent pursuing our dreams. At my university, we joked that if you hadn’t started a nonprofit by sophomore year, you were falling behind. We face immense pressure to distinguish ourselves by following a dream — any dream — with every ounce of energy. Our culture has this idea that our real value is rooted in how far we are willing to go for our chosen cause.
It sounds good at first, even like something Jesus might support. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” sounds pretty close to “Go wherever your dreams take you.” The romanticized vagabond lifestyle associated with following dreams all over the world resembles Jesus’ traveling ministry. It’s a powerful idea, very spiritual sounding, that we are destined to discover the one activity or cause that fulfills us and then devote our whole lives to making it happen.
But the Bible never says this. At least not in the way it is typically framed. Never does the Bible encourage believers to follow their dreams, simply for their dreams’ sake. Never does the Bible legitimize any activity on the basis of our degree of passion for it. Never does the Bible tie a Christian’s value in the kingdom to the achievement of his personal dreams.
The difference in the messages is the central focus. Our culture says, “Follow your dreams,” focusing on you and your ideas. Jesus says, “Follow me,” focusing on himself. The first message is all about meeting our desire for significance through our own achievements. The second message is about finding our significance in Christ, in the work he has for us, regardless of how glamorous or adventurous it seems.
We have no record of Jesus sitting with the disciples in a circle and one-by-one asking them what their dreams are, what would make them feel fulfilled. Instead, he spent a lot of time teaching them how to have the most fulfilling life possible, through submitting their lives to him.
Though the topic of following your dreams wasn’t quite so hot in biblical times, the Bible does speak to our desires for fulfillment and value. It tells a different story than our culture does (shockingly), one that is far more affirming and far less self-centered.
If you don’t have a dream to follow, congratulations! You are not worth less than someone who does. Look at the biblical figures God uses most dramatically: Many of them were leading fairly non-eventful lives at the time God scooped them up into positions of honor. Moses, David, Mary and Joseph, the disciples — none achieved eternal significance by following some great dream they had cooked up. The biblical narrative does not suggest anywhere that God considers certain people more valuable because they have bigger personal plans and ideas.
Where does value come from, then, in a time of run-of-the-mill, just-trying-to-make-it-to-work-on-time life? My friend and I shared our conversation with a wiser, older couple, who told us we were blessed to be in this season. Blessed! Not off the hook, though. They said we were blessed to be free to focus entirely on our relationship with Christ. Yeesh, that’s almost more intimidating than trying to pick a dream.
Being in a season of dreamlessness doesn’t mean you get to float around with no responsibilities until God taps you on the shoulder with marching orders. Rather, you are free to focus on Christ, where our value as Christians is found. You are free to devote yourself to prayer, to support and serve others as you are needed, to ask God where you can be sanctified, and to grow your faithfulness in the responsibilities God has given you.
In fact, whether you have a specific dream or not, God calls you to faithfulness in your relationship with him and in your day-to-day actions. We see it in the Bible over and over:
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
Now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require from you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways and love him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul… (Deuteronomy 10:12)
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in me. (John 15:4)
God commands us to be faithful to him. This is to be our priority. If your plans don’t currently include a big dream, focus on faithfulness, and trust that God will bless this. We see this blessing in the parable of the talents, where the master commends two of his servants for dealing faithfully with assets he has left in their control:
Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. (Matthew 25:23)
What is the “little” that God has given you to be faithful over? Take heart that your value and usefulness are not limited by the lack of a dream; they are rooted in Christ and can be exercised in faithfulness.
On the other hand, if you do have a dream, ask yourself what is driving it. If it is your own self-interest or self-indulgence, then “follow your dreams” is little more than a high achiever’s version of “follow your heart.” The practice of elevating one thing above all others in your life, unless it’s Christ, is idolatry.
If you are seeking after a dream, are you worshipping your passion and your vision of its fulfillment? Or are you submitting your dream to Christ, seeking after his vision for your life?
Like anything else we care about, it can be difficult to loosen our grip on dreams and put them in God’s hands. What if he takes them away and makes me do something really dull? What if he makes me team up with someone else, and that person gets all the credit for my dream?
Yes, those things could happen. You could be destined for a life that is significant only to those in your close circle. But these fears are all focused on ourselves, rather than on Christ. If devotion to God means being used in a different way than you had envisioned, then you can rejoice in the opportunity to sacrifice for God’s greater purpose.
The Bible refers to Christians as prisoners of Christ, instruments of Christ, and the body of Christ. These descriptions are all at odds with the worldly idea of striking out on your own to find self-fulfillment. Considered together with Jesus’ promise of abundant life, though, they indicate that in our new life as Christ’s servants we can expect bountiful fulfillment through him. We are prisoners to “him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20).
God is able to concoct far greater dreams than we are able to. Whether we experience them in this life or not, we can be confident that we serve a God of great abundance and that our value and fulfillment come from his life for us and his dreams, not ours.