Maybe you (or someone you know) is “livin’ the dream.” As the phrase has become more mainstream, I’ve quietly wondered, What on earth does it mean?
I may live a sheltered life in the suburbs of Chicago, but lately I’ve heard at least three versions of “livin’ the dream,” which tell us something important about the American Dream:
What the American Dream Says
1. The Optimist’s Dream
When the optimist says, “I’m livin’ the dream,” I think he means, “My wife/girlfriend thinks I’m a real catch, I’m dramatically under-qualified to be making this much money, and can you believe people like me this much? I’m living the American Dream!”
(If you identify with this, you’re probably under 30, you’ve been with your partner for less than three years, and you have really good friends!)
2. The Critic’s Dream
When the critic says, “I’m livin’ the dream,” it’s said with a twinge of sadness: “This is the life my parents wanted for me, and it’s what I always thought I wanted. I graduated from a great college. I have a great paying job and a great family. I don’t have anything to complain about…but honestly, my life isn’t that great. It feels like something is missing.”
(If you identify with this, you’re probably north of 40, and many of your friends and acquaintances wish they could trade places with you!)
3. The Cynic’s Dream
When the cynic, dripping with sarcasm and fueled by resentment, says, “I’m livin’ the dream,” he’s saying something like, “What dream? My dream is dead. It died with my difficult marriage, my ongoing stint as a single (or a single parent), my search for a job, my child’s death (or illness), my ______. Life isn’t fair.”
(If you identify with this, you might be in your 20’s or 70’s; you’ve seen some really dark times; things don’t seem to be getting any better; and it doesn’t feel like anyone, including you, would want the life you have.)
No Dream at All
Many of us have bought into the American Dream – in all its versions, with all its trappings – which is really no dream at all.
Think with me about 21st century life in the United States. Who dreams of living in a deeply-divided country? Who dreams of watching their parents (or kids, spouse, children, friends, or co-workers) die? Who dreams of cancer or hip-replacement surgery? Of school shootings, overdoses, or suicides? Of divorce and war? No one, that’s who.
Yet these are irreversibly woven into the fabric of our country and world. They’re stained, like blood, into the canvas of our lives. So what’s wrong with the world? With all the progress we’ve made, why do we still have such problems? And why do they plague the educated as well as the uneducated, the rich as well as the poor, the good as well as the bad?
The Bible says the answer is sin. Sin is the ultimate cause of problems in the world. It’s the ultimate cause of division and death, sickness and war. And it’s is the ultimate cause of the problems within each of us.
In a sinful world, there is no American Dream. It’s only a mirage. It’s something you chase after, like a rainbow, but you never find the pot of gold.
Dreaming of Another World
When I dream, I dream of another world.
The Bible says, “God has put eternity in our hearts.” If that’s true, then we’ll never be satisfied with this world. We can try, and succeed to a certain degree. But behind the pursuit, we have this sneaking suspicion that we’ll never actually get there.
One of my favorite writers, C. S. Lewis, says,
It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
Lewis is right. God offers us “a holiday at the sea,” one that never ends. We refuse him, and content ourselves with mass-producing mud pies, but God promises us something infinitely greater than the American Dream:
I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)
What God promises is simple and wonderful: himself. To be in heaven is to be with God, who says he will “dwell with” or live with his people. And if God is with us in heaven, then that means no more tears, death, crying, or pain. So heaven must mean no more sin — no more sin in the world, and no more sin in us.
Eternity in Our Hearts
The American Dream likes to pretend there’s no sin. It calls out to you and me, “Just keep working! You’re almost there! Keep on keeping on!” But no matter how hard we work, it stands at a distance. It beckons us from beyond our reach. It mocks us and tells us to work harder. And it demands we sacrifice the ones we love in order to have it.
We must not pursue God like we pursue the American Dream — because faith is not simply a matter of working harder (or smarter). Seeking God is not achievement-based, but grace-based. Heaven is not a wage you earn for living a good life, but a gift you can receive because of the perfect life and death of Jesus.
God doesn’t stand at a distance from us like the American Dream. No, he’s reaching out to each one of us in his Son, Jesus Christ. That’s why he sent Jesus into the world, and that’s what he was doing on the cross. He was reaching out to us, that we might lay down our sinful lives in order to receive his eternal one.
God has put eternity in our hearts, the dream of another world, so we can never be completely content with who we are in this broken world. But the American Dream? It’s like giving your son or daughter an ice cream cone at grandma’s funeral: Best case, it’s a distraction. Worst case, it’s a deception.
So don’t settle for “livin’ the dream.” Don’t settle for an ice cream cone at a funeral when God promises a holiday at the sea.