I am fond of coffee table books – big, beautiful books with stunning photos and choice words in attractive typography. A book like this can transport me to distant lands, stir compassion for an endangered animal, or let me peer breathlessly into outer space.
Yet, on my table lies a little brown book that I don’t like. Its pages refuse to whisk me away; instead, they call me to clarity and responsibility. I’d rather bury the book in the backyard where it could fertilize my hammock than leave it on display where it nettles me. Something deeper than preference keeps it there. Day after day, whether dusting or setting down my mug, I have to reckon with that book.1
The Pill: Statistics Say I’m Rich
Did you know that here in the United States of America we spend sixty billion dollars on pets annually? Or that we spend ten billion on romance novels and another sixty-five billion on recreational hunting and fishing? I didn’t know this either, until this bothersome book told me. For a little perspective, an estimated ten billion dollars would provide clean drinking water for every single person on earth. We spend more than that every year on bottled water. 2
As I stack catalogs on the book, I am good at making excuses. I don’t have any expensive pets – only a goldfish could be cheaper than my parakeet. I don’t hunt, fish or read romance novels.
The problem comes on page twenty-one. Oh how I hate that page! “If the total value of your home, vehicle, furniture, cash, and all other assets exceeds $10,000 you are [in the thirty-one percent of the world consuming ninety-seven percent of the world’s wealth]. That’s amazing, because if you live in America and have only $10,000 in assets, you might not feel wealthy … Because we have been surrounded by masses of other affluent people, we often lose sight of global reality.” 3
On page twenty-one, I have to face the fact: I am rich. We have a car, two laptops, a houseful of wedding gifts, and a bank account on top of that. Being rich isn’t so bad; it’s the fact that I don’t feel rich that bothers me. Why can’t I recognize my abundance and stop grasping for more?
I return to the book, not because I want to, but because I know I need to. Over and over again, I read the words. In those pages, I find the perspective I urgently need. I choke on the pill of statistics and rename the American Dream. This American Disease eats us alive, and I’m determined to fight it, even if fighting means that uncomfortable book lies screaming in my living room.
The Disease: Earth’s Treasures Corrupt
I trip so often, ready to fall for a worldview that says life is measured by possessions. One of the definitions for American Dream is, “a life of personal happiness and material comfort as traditionally sought by individuals in the U.S.”4
Personal happiness. Material comfort. Don’t the words sound as cozy as an afghan and a latte on a cold winter evening? What do we need to do to hear their hollow echo through an empty heart? I like to be happy and comfortable, and I suspect I always will; however when I hear the words of Jesus, I remember the world only offers an empty shell.
Jesus said, and I chose years ago to bank my life on His words, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”5
While this instruction clashes with everything we hear around us, His reasons are well outlined. Do not store up treasures on earth because they will be destroyed. Store up treasures in heaven because those treasures will last. A logical and sound argument, even to the twenty-first century American. We know about investing in time-tested, stable endeavors. But Jesus isn’t finished yet. His last reason settles in the believer’s heart with extra weight. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Destruction on one hand, life eternal on the other. The stakes are clearly drawn.
The Fight: We Remember What We’d Rather Forget
With a warning like this, I’m willing to sacrifice some comfort to keep myself fighting materialism, but it’s never easy, even with uncomfortable statistics on my coffee table. Then again, fighting means war, and war means hard.
When we’re surrounded by wealth, we forget we’re wealthy. In my mind, remembering is half the battle. When I remember and regain perspective, I stop comparing my clothing or technology with the choices of others, and I look for ways to give.
The words he wrote to Timothy, the Apostle Paul also wrote to us: “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.”6
Let us resist the urge to pass on the charge to someone richer than us. We, yes you and I, are to set our hopes on God, to be generous, and to do good. In this way we can avoid the many pangs7 of desiring wealth and take hold of true life.
We may run after big and beautiful, but this hollow capsule feeds nothing but our emptiness and certainly does nothing to combat the American Disease. The remembrance that we are the rich recipients of Paul’s charge requires diligence, but to diligent warfare we are called.
|Heather Lehman maintains that one can love both the country and the city; she is living proof. She loves hiking in the mountains, exploring cities, browsing international grocery stores, tutoring immigrants in English, and tending plants. After growing up on a produce farm and spending a few years in New York City, she’s made her home with her groom who currently lives in a university town in Indiana. She feels strongly about welcoming immigrants, living responsibly, and communicating Christ.
1 Miller, Gary. This Side of the Global Wall. Berlin: TGS International, 2015. Print
2 Ibid. Pgs 103,107,113, 115, and 121.
3 Ibid. Pg 21.
4 “American Dream”. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 18 Jan. 2016. Dictionary.com
5 Matthew 6:19-21, English Standard Version
6 1 Timothy 6:17-19, English Standard Version
7 1 Timothy 6:10