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The Rev. James Ellis III The Rev. James Ellis, III

The Rev. James Ellis III is Chaplain of Discipleship at Hope College in Holland, MI.

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A Peacock Mentality: The Christian Identity Crisis

October 30, 2010

Let me put my cards on the table by hoisting a question for us to ponder: "Are you fundamentally following your dreams or are you following Jesus Christ?"[1] If you have not yet watched CNN's "Black in America"[2] documentary series, I highly recommend it. After viewing their latest installment, "Almighty Debt,"[3] I was struck most by how utterly disillusioned Christians can be about the consequences of synthesizing, and incorrectly prioritizing nationalistic and cultural preferences with God's word.

Does this dilemma point to the innate presence of sin[4] that exists in all of us? But, of course. It surely isn't exclusive to any particular group of people. We, Christians, believe that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus."[5] Thus, sin is a deadly disease whose only antidote is Jesus Christ. Our hand-crafted illusions of grandeur simply will not do.

Therefore, it is heartbreaking that many of us who reside in the cul-de-sac of American freedom, and profess faith in Christ so severely misunderstand what he have and have not been called to. Indeed, to take a page from the Christian rapper Tedashi, we have an identity crisis[6].

I love America like any other citizen, but loving the "American Dream" will kill you. There is no facetiousness in that statement. You would do well to take it literally. Any dream outside of Jesus will ultimately bring ruin. And, quiet as it is kept, radically following Jesus inevitably means dying to your way of life, and finding fulfillment in him, and him alone. Contrary to popular opinion, the American Dream has no salvific authority.

In particular, even with its embrace of the coveted Protestant work ethic, the American Dream will have you pursuing things by any means necessary in order to supply a semblance of temporal security and entitled comfort. It will have you thinking that success, even to God, is the procurement of some overpriced, luxury automobile or financing your child's higher education at the right institution; which is done, in part, so that you can brag about your spoils. I have always enjoyed John Ortberg's reflection to this end. He wrote, "We suffer from a phenomenon called "reference anxiety", more often referred to as "keeping up with the Joneses". We don't ask if our homes or cars meet our needs. We ask if they are nicer than those of our neighbors. We work like crazy to make it so. But what do you do when the Joneses refinance?"[7]

The American Dream will have you working harder and longer, and taking more risks along the way, in order to become someone society admires, no matter how briefly. It will have you desperately trying to make a dollar out of fifteen cents. The street corner or Wall Street will do. It will have believing (remember, we are within the context of Kingdom ethics here) the lie that you deserve to come home to nice things; whatever that means. The American Dream will have you downplaying your disobedience to God, fighting tooth and nail for upwardly mobile status where bigger equals better.

It will have you concerned with the quantitative draw of your swag (or swagger) instead of your qualitative devotion to Christ. It will have you preoccupied with external possessions rather than the Holy Spirit's internal proclamation. The American Dream will have you confusing legality and morality. The American Dream is not evil. It simply isn't the Gospel and doesn't represent our modis operandi, so to speak. Thus, as such, it can only be a nightmare.

There is an aphorism which asserts that a peacock struts merely because it can't fly. I fear that we continue to create Christian Americans who primarily associate their faith with prosperity of one incorrect kind or another. Ravi Zacharias put it this way: "Jesus did not come into this world to make bad people good. He came into this world to make dead people live."[8]

Jesus is not a salesman who, in classic quid pro quo rhetoric, promises us a bountiful life overflowing with safety and affluence in exchange for our souls. God doesn't advocate our selfish quests for more. Even though they require updating in order to adequately address today's generations, perhaps Sunday school, Bible Training Union, and other Christian education endeavors weren't so bad after all. J.I. Packer and Gary A. Parrett make a solid case along those lines in Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way.[9]

One aspect of "Almighty Debt" that I appreciated was the challenge by DeForest B. Soaries[10], senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, NJ, that his congregants tithe 10%, save 10%, and invest 10% of their income. Although on its own merit this may reflect good business wisdom, generally speaking, but for him it is about his people being responsible stewards of what God has given them. It isn't about them becoming rich. It is about them being sanctified (or "set apart"). It is about them becoming holy.[11]

For the Christian, success must be understood as obedience to Christ; nothing more, nothing less. We affirm that our lives no longer belong to us. They aren't our own processions to rearrange as we please. We die to our dreams and adopt the dreams, definitions, and disposition that God has for us. Proverbs 14:12 reminds us that, "There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death."

We cannot be satisfied with being caricatures of who we have truly been called to be. This struggle, nevertheless, stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of who Jesus is, and thereby what Christianity requires.

If you listen to Jesus' voice,[12] then surely you are aware of the high calling that is before us, for Jesus said, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me, for whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Song of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done."[13]

If there is little, if no difference between the ways of this world and the ways of Christ's followers, then in response to Friedrich Nietzsche's critique we have failed to show the results of our redemption.


[1] This is an excerpt from the baccalaureate sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Craig M. Barnes on June 3, 2010 at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA.
[2] http://images.cnn.com/SPECIALS/in.america/black.in.america
[3] http://www.amazon.com/Almighty-Debt-Black-America-Special/dp/B004478BR4
[4] Genesis 3, Psalm 51:5.
[5] Romans 3:23.
[6] Tedashi, Identity Crisis, Reach Records, 2009 (CD).
[7] John Ortberg, When the Game Is Over, It All Goes Back in the Box (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 194.
[8] Ravi K. Zacharias, Cries of the Heart: Bringing God Near When He Feels So Far (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2002), 112.
[9] J.I. Packer, Gary A. Parrett, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way (Ada, MI: Baker, 2010).
[10] http://www.fbcsomerset.com/about/pastor_soaries.php
[11] Melvin E. Dieter...[et.al.], Five Views On Sanctification (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987), 30.
[12] John 10:27.
[13] Matthew 16:24-27.


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