Christian Freedom and the American Dream: You are free to be content with less!4
Recently on a NPR special, they were taking calls concerning the realization that the “American Dream” isn’t as readily available for my generation (those born in the 1980s to now) as in past generations. It’s too expensive, good paying jobs are harder to come by, and college is becoming essentially unaffordable for the average American. The question posed was this: “How can we fix this, or can we fix it? - Call us with your answers and ideas.”
I listened to caller after caller complain about this reality. And I listened to caller after caller look at the federal government and the rich politicians and their special interests as the ones who are to blame. Over and over, it was slight variations of the same thing: It was the past President’s fault, and Mr. President Trump needs to fix it.
I was driving to a meeting and did not have time to call in. But I was growing more irritated by the minute because, for me, the answer just seemed obvious.
Wasn’t the standard of living much lower in times past? Could it possibly be that the answer is to live with less? What if our current standard and expectations for living are not sustainable? Yes, this doesn’t match our cultural ideals of always progressing and increasing. But for the Church - I think there is something we need to wake up to. Just listen to these basic statistics:
STANDARD OF LIVING IN 1950 COMPARED TO TODAY
In the 1950s, the average size of an American home was less than 1,000 square feet. Today, it is close to 2,500 square feet. Families were also larger then than they are now. Prior to 1960, 79% of America had less than two vehicles per household. Today, the vast majority have two or more (and cars are much more expensive today than they were today, even taking inflation rates into account). We are having fewer children than ever before in modern times, and living in the most luxurious standard of living than ever before, with more amenities at our fingertips today than ever in American (and human) history.
THE COST OF THIS WAY OF LIFE
The ever expanding standard of living in America does not appear to be content with ways of life past, but always crawling up the progressive ladder of an increase in living conditions. Today, more families have two working parents than ever before. The average home and the common standard of living today is expensive, and many families need both parents working. In order to have this in our grasp, it often comes at a great cost. The all important commodity of time is shrinking for us. We’re getting tired and worn out. Yet we find ourself out of breath, running the race, trying to keep up with the pack as the laps go by.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
In being just as guilty as anyone else, I want to be here to try and sound an alarm, to ring a bell to get your attention. This narrative of an ever increasing standard of living only means that we, as Americans, are taught to be a discontent people. It's increase is sneaky, and its slow enough that day to day, it can often go unnoticed. Because of this, it's not really ever on the radar for conversation as a "problem." It’s actually embraced as necessary and good.
But, as the famous fable goes, it's time to point out what (I believe) is a reality we must face:
the emperor has no clothes.
Why can’t we be content with far less? Generations not that long ago lived here with far less and not just survived, but flourished. We must wake up and be aware of these statistics: “America’s bottom ventile is still richer than most of the world: That is, the typical person in the bottom 5 percent of the American income distribution is still richer than 68 percent of the world’s inhabitants”
So if we actually intentionally reduced our standard of living, we’d still be far richer than the majority of the world. Our ever increasing standard of living has placed blinders on our eyes. We’re missing the fact that we could actually be living with far less in our country, and still living as Kings and Queens compared with the rest of the world, and have far simpler and easier lives! If this is the case, why can it be so easy to get caught up in this game?
The astonishing fact is that in pastoral ministry, I do not make a lot of money. When I do my taxes, they tell me just how far down the poverty line I am. But, the way of life my wife and I have, if we lived just a few decades ago, would have been considered very far above the poverty line. What sense does this make? It’s time we remove our understanding of “rich and poor” from these cultural standards, and begin looking at what the Word of God says. For it’s standards are much, much different than our American narrative.
WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS
According to Scripture, it’s not about how much money you make. It’s not about how much stuff you have or don’t have. Those things are not evil in themselves, and it’s not necessarily a negative thing to have them. It’s about your love of these things. It’s about your contentment with or without these things. We have all we need in Christ, therefore our circumstances and standard of living should not affect our contentment or joy.
"But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content." - 1 Timothy 6:8
"There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?" Ecclesiastes 2:24-25
“Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil - this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.” Ecclesiastes 5:19-20
And [Jesus] said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Luke 12:15
"I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me." Philippians 4:12-13
"Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” Hebrews 13:5-6
Jesus lives as our example, who lived with as a poor servant, yet was fully content with his Father. The Gospel teaches us that in Christ satisfying waters of life will flow in our hearts, brining us salvation, purpose, meaning, and contentment (John 7:38).
In summary: Enjoy the life God has given you in Christ and be content with what you have, whether much or little.
WE ARE FREE IN CHRIST TO BE CONTENT WITH LESS
For those who are feeling tired from the race, if your family’s schedule has gone off the tracks, if you feel as though you are always broke and can never keep up - an opportunity awaits us. Be content with less. Maybe a downgraded lifestyle is needed.
In Christ we have the opportunity for the fullness of joy (John 17:13), and he promised to meet our most basic needs (Matthew 6:25-34). And in our most basic needs, we’re called to be content (1 Timothy 6:8).
With less in America, you will still have more. This isn’t the American way of life, but the opportunity we have to be content with less as Christians is part of our very freedom we have in Christ -
and what a tremendous freedom it can be!