The Kingdom of God vs. the American Dream
“You ought to be happy, healthy, fit, wealthy, comfortable, and popular. All you need is the right state of mind.” Substitute the phrase “God wants you to be” at the beginning of the message, and there you have the core message of not a few television preachers. The message runs deep in U.S. culture. It strikes at the heart of the latest iteration of the “American Dream.”
Physical and financial prosperity are not wrong, but they are spiritually perilous, for they distract from things that actually matter. The message of easy living has its appeal because it is exactly what many of us want to hear. It claims to offer empowerment to the powerless and wealth to the poor. Yet this is ultimately a false hope, for its focus is on the outwardly visible measures of Success, that falsest and most American of all the false gods.
Christ, the prophets, the martyrs, and the other saints offer a different message: you will suffer and die, but your suffering and death need be neither in vain nor the end; God offers eternal life, love, and joy, but embracing this fully means to let go of all else.
It is absurd to claim that Jesus preached worldly happiness and a flourishing career, given the untimely end of his own earthly ministry. One should also note his calling down the wrath of God upon the rich and comfortable: “Woe to you who are full, who have already received your comfort!” (please see Luke 6 for other equally grim curses). Regarding the prosperity preaching of Joel and Victoria Osteen, Albert Mohler has poignantly noted that “Mere Happiness Cannot Bear the Weight of the Gospel,” including the weight of joy and the weight of suffering. To his insightful survey of the historical origins of Osteen-style preaching and the ways it is irreconcilable with biblical teaching, I would add a few more voices to the conversation in making that case.
The history of the Church is littered with spiritual “success” stories that were failures in any ordinary human sense of the term. The 14th-century English mystic Julian of Norwich prayed to be sick, to draw close to death, so that she could better know Christ in his sufferings and so that she could receive a revelation from God. While modern readers may balk at her logic—and should hesitate to follow her example—her reasoning strikes at a core message throughout the history of the faith: those who suffer have the potential to better know God.
Many, such as Dorothy Day and Mother Theresa, have embraced that insight, especially as it relates to poverty. To love and serve the poor is to do the work of God. Those who do this most fully are those who embrace poverty themselves. Addressing poverty involves coming to terms with the ugliness of the world. Yes, it is a beauty, deep down. But the world is a messed up, unjust place. Changing that is more than just a matter of changing one’s own attitude and encouraging others to do the same.
Why do we exist? It is not to feel great, to look great, or to own nice things, although at present such pursuits seem to hold the fabric of society together, culturally and economically speaking. Small wonder that we seem daily to inch toward becoming collectively unhinged.
The point of life is to know God and to find joy in God, now and evermore. Whatever disagreements have existed between Catholics and Protestants, it has not been on that point. In fact, some of the stronger statements to that effect date from times of some of the greatest tensions within Western Christianity. In 1647, the Westminster Divines asserted: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, answer to question 1).
St. Ignatius Loyola began his Spiritual Exercises (1524) on a similar note: “Human beings are created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by means of this to save their souls. […] To do this, I must make myself indifferent to all created things. […] I ought not to seek health rather than sickness, wealth rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, a long life rather than a short one. […] I ought to desire and elect only the thing which is more conducive to the end for which I am created.” This vision is the “principle and foundation” of Loyola’s vision.
With still greater warmth and wit, St. Francis de Sales offered words of comfort to those who would grow in grace. Writing in a letter in 1605 to a nun whom he spiritually counseled, he gave the following encouragement: “Courage, my dear sister, my daughter! Look at your Spouse, your King, see how He was crowned with thorns and so racked on the cross that all His bones could be numbered. Consider how the crown of the bride ought not be of softer stuff than that of the Bridegroom, and that if His flesh was so lacerated that all His bones could be counted, it is only right that one of yours be seen.” And yet, he continued, “we love our consolations, our comfort, our convenience. We would like our prayer to be steeped in orange-flower water, and ourselves to become virtuous by eating candy; we do not look at our gentle Jesus who, prostrate on the ground [in Gethsemane], sweats blood and water in agony.” In a slightly later letter to another kindred soul, the saint made a similar analogy with the seasons; we always want summer, but we must endure winter, for the nourishment of our souls.
We want the road to Heaven to be bright, warm, sunny, and lined with offers of free ice cream. We want to strut easily in our victory parade. Such days may come. But until then, any who would claim the Cross must pick up their own cross and walk down icy, lonely roads, not because winter is the end, but because winter is a means to our ultimate end, that is, both our purpose and our destination. Only One thing really matters. How easily we forget. The promise of short-term ease, warmth, happiness, and material prosperity sells well, but it fails to help us toward eternal joy. We want Aruba; but, for now, we need Gethsemane.