The Nightmare Driving the American Dream

Millions wear ambition to camouflage their insecurities.

Not all ambition is insecure or ungodly (Romans 15:20), but a lot of it is. For instance, the apostle Paul says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). Ambition for the sake of Christ fills the heart and makes a real difference. Ambition for self draws an elegant veil over an empty heart, staying busy in order to look and feel significant.

The American Dream looks like an impressive mountain to climb when it’s really just a tiny cave in which to hide. People look like they are aspiring, striving, and succeeding, but in reality they are cowering. Confident, put together, assertive on the outside, but terrified within. We cover our deepest fears by trying to achieve more, acquire more, and be more.

Five Fears Steering Our Hearts

So, what are we so afraid of?

Our fears may wear new styles of clothing, listen to new artists, and refuse to pay for cable, but they are ancient, relentless, and contagious. The same anxieties terrorizing us today were terrorizing the church and the world in New Testament times. The list below is not exhaustive, but represents five fears the Bible addresses that are as alive today as ever.

1. We are afraid to have needs.

Jesus knew we would fear need. He preached to his disciples, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on” (Matthew 6:25). Then he repeated himself twice more in the next nine verses (Matthew 6:31, 34). If he was preaching today to Christians in comfortable, affluent America, would he say something different?

“The American Dream looks like an impressive mountain to climb when it’s really just a tiny cave in which to hide.”

No, because anxiety about our external needs is not really about those needs, but about our hearts. We are afraid about our food, and drink, and clothing — and mortgage payments, and appliances that need to be replaced, and tuition bills — because we simply cannot believe what Jesus says: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

2. We are afraid of what others might think.

Sadly, the Pharisees may fit in just fine in many American churches. Who knows just how happy they would have been in today’s social-media popularity contests?

They opposed and even killed Jesus because they loved the attention and praise of man too much (Mark 11:18). At the same time, they restrained their murderous jealousy against Jesus at times to preserve their favor among the people (Mark 14:1–2). They lived and killed for approval, and ran from disapproval like it carried some life-threatening disease.

Why do we care so much about what others think? Because we are born, in our sin, wanting to be God and believing we are worthy of worship. Not the Sunday-morning-in-the-pew kind of worship, but a visible, countable, comparable kind of reverence and recognition. We live for likes, follows, and compliments, and fear rejection — or even worse, being overlooked.

3. We are afraid of what others might do.

We dread what others might do even more than what they might think. In America, Christians do not worry about being killed for our faith, or even physically harmed in any way. We’re just afraid we might get maligned, shamed, or excluded.

The apostle Peter preaches into our fears and insecurities, “Even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled” (1 Peter 3:14). But what if they never talk to me again? What if they report me to my boss, or spread false rumors about me? What if they fire me, or refuse to do business with me? “Have no fear of them.”

The apostle John goes even further than Peter:

“Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Revelation 2:10)

Some of you will be thrown into prison. You will be tested. You will die (“unto death”). Do not fear.

If we believe Peter, and John, and Jesus, “we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’” (Hebrews 13:6).

4. We are afraid to lose control.

Every story from Jesus’s life and ministry deserves special attention and awe, but one has shocked me as much as any year after year. Jesus comes to a demon-oppressed man — in fact, he’s oppressed by a horde of demons (Mark 5:9). The man walked around naked (Luke 8:27), could not be bound by anyone (Mark 5:3), cried out day and night in agony, and cut himself over and over with stones (Mark 5:5).

“Millions wear ambition to camouflage their insecurities.”

Then Jesus healed him. He cast all his demons into a herd of pigs, and finally freed the man from a lifetime of enslaving and self-destructive evil. What happens next is the shocking twist:

Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid. (Luke 8:35)

Jesus sets the demon-oppressed free, leaving a wild and violent criminal “clothed and in his right mind.” And instead of rejoicing, worshiping, and drawing near, the people retreat and reject Jesus instead. “Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked him to depart from them, for they were seized with great fear” (Luke 8:37).

Why? Maybe because he killed their pigs, and ruined someone’s business. Or might it be because they saw what he was capable of, and they were terrified he might upset, disrupt, and overturn their life, too? They were afraid to lose control.

The demon-oppressed man had lost control a long time ago. When Jesus comes and heals him, he begs to be with Jesus. The crowds had cultivated the illusion of control, and they weren’t ready to surrender that to anyone, not even one with the power and authority and compassion of Christ.

Are we ready?

5. We are afraid to die.

Fears of need, rejection, and persecution plague many of us, but death is the nightmare driving the American Dream. The writer to the Hebrews says of Jesus,

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Hebrews 2:14–15)

Like King David, each of us is born into this lifelong slavery, from our very first breath to our dreaded last breath, unless God raises us from the dead. “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. . . . Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalms 51:3, 5).

“Not only can death not touch what we treasure most, but it is now forced to deliver our greatest treasure to us.”

American or African or Asian, Christian or Muslim or Buddhist, we are all born into sin and under its curse. The whole earth groans under its death sentence (Romans 8:20–21). Death comes to every one of us, and yet we try to ignore it for the vast majority of our lives, naively thinking it might go away. Yet the harder we run away from it, the faster it closes the gap on us.

The promise of success, and the thrill of sinful pleasure, and the high of spending, and the buzz of entertainment all treat the symptoms, but they cannot liberate us from slavery. They mask our fear of death, dulling our senses, and blinding us to reality, tragically leaving us even more hopeless than before.

Do Not Fear

Death is the nightmare in the American Dream, but not in the Christian life. “‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:54–57).

We do not fear need, because we know our Father will give us what we need today (Matthew 6:32–33), and everything else forever when we are finally with him (Romans 8:32).

We do not fear what others think, because God himself sent his Son to show us just how much he loves us (1 John 4:9–10).

We do not fear what others might do, because Jesus satisfied the just wrath of God we deserved (Romans 3:25–26), and no one on this earth or anywhere else can separate us from him (Romans 8:35–37).

We do not fear losing control, because we know the one who governs and decides all things is working absolutely everything, large and small, for our good (Romans 8:28).

“The American Dream loses its appeal because it offers less life, liberty, and happiness than we find in Jesus.”

We certainly do not fear death, because, as John Piper says, “Death has become a doorway to paradise.” Not only can death not touch what we treasure most, because of Christ, but it is forced to deliver our greatest treasure to us.

If we fear God, we need not fear persecution, poverty, punishment, or death. The American Dream loses its appeal because it offers less life, liberty, and happiness than we find in Jesus. Having died to fear, we are raised to freedom.