As the American dream goes, we can do anything we set our minds to accomplish. There is no limit to what we can accomplish when we combine ingenuity, imagination, and innovation with skill and hard work. We can earn any degree, start any business, climb any ladder, attain any prize, and achieve any goal. James Truslow Adams, who is credited with coining the phrase “American dream” in 1931, spoke of it as “a dream … in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are.”James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1933), 415.
So is there anything wrong with this picture? Certainly hard work and high aspirations are not bad, and the freedom to pursue our goals is something we should celebrate. Scripture explicitly commends all these things.
But underlying this American dream are a dangerous assumption that, if we are not cautious, we will unknowingly accept and a deadly goal that, if we are not careful, we will ultimately achieve.
The dangerous assumption we unknowingly accept in the American dream is that our greatest asset is our own ability. The American dream prizes what people can accomplish when they believe in themselves and trust in themselves, and we are drawn toward such thinking.
But the gospel has different priorities. The gospel beckons us to die to ourselves and to believe in God and to trust in his power. In the gospel, God confronts us with our utter inability to accomplish anything of value apart from him. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”John 15:5
Even more important is the subtly fatal goal we will achieve when we pursue the American dream. As long as we achieve our desires in our own power, we will always attribute it to our own glory. To use Adams’s words, we will be “recognized by others for what [we] are.” This, after all, is the goal of the American dream: to make much of ourselves.
But here the gospel and the American dream are clearly and ultimately antithetical to each other. While the goal of the American dream is to make much of us, the goal of the gospel is to make much of God.
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If we are not careful, we will completely bypass this promise and miss out on the power of God’s presence. Surrounded by the self-sufficiency of American culture, we can convince ourselves that we have what it takes to achieve something great. In our churches we can mimic our culture, planning and programming, organizing and strategizing, creating and innovating — all in an effort that will show what we can accomplish in our own ability. As Adams said, we can “attain to the fullest stature of which [we] are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what [we] are.”
But there is another way.
It is the way of Christ. Instead of asserting ourselves, we crucify ourselves. Instead of imagining all the things we can accomplish, we ask God to do what only he can accomplish. Yes, we work, we plan, we organize, and we create, but we do it all while we fast, while we pray, and while we constantly confess our need for the provision of God. Instead of dependence on ourselves, we express radical desperation for the power of his Spirit, and we trust that Jesus stands ready to give us everything we ask for so that he might make much of our Father in the world.
Think about it. Would you say that your life is marked right now by desperation for the Spirit of God? Would you say that the church you are a part of is characterized by this sense of desperation?
Why would we ever want to settle for Christianity according to our ability or settle for church according to our resources? The power of the one who raised Jesus from the dead is living in us, and as a result we have no need to muster up our own might.
Our great need is to fall before an almighty Father day and night and to plead for him to show his radical power in and through us, enabling us to accomplish for his glory what we could never imagine in our own strength. And when we do this, we will discover that we were created for a purpose much greater than ourselves, the kind of purpose that can only be accomplished in the power of his Spirit.
Excerpted from Radical by David Platt Copyright © 2010 by David Platt. Excerpted by permission of Multnomah Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.