Grace & the American Dream

Read Galatians 2:15-21 and Psalm 32 here.

boatOne day, an American businessman was standing on a pier in a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the fisherman on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them. The fisherman replied that it only took a little while. The American then asked why he didn’t stay out longer and catch more fish. The fisherman said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.

The American then asked, “But what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life, señor.”

The American scoffed. “I am a Harvard MBA and I could help you. If you would spend more time fishing, you could sell the extra fish and buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats. Eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then L.A., and eventually New York City, where you will run your expanding enterprise.”

The fisherman asked, “But how long will this all take?”

To which the American replied, “Fifteen or 20 years.”

“But what then?”

The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions.”

“Millions? Then what?”

The American said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your friends.”[1]

The man with the MBA was telling the fisherman how to achieve the American Dream.  If the fisherman followed his advice, what would he really gain?

john-winthrop-326x235That term “American Dream” has a long and varied history.  It likely began in a sermon to the puritans sailing to Massachusetts back in 1630, in which John Winthrop encouraged everyone to work together and continue to follow the Bible’s teachings so they would prosper in their new home.  Thomas Jefferson continued this idea of prosperity in the Declaration of Independence where he wrote that all men were entitled to the opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  We know that Jefferson’s version wasn’t a reality for anyone who wasn’t a white male landowner, but it was a beautiful dream.  Over time the meaning evolved, so that many came to see the American Dream as simply the James_Truslow_Adamsexpectation of achieving economic success in exchange for hard work.[2]

In 1931, historian James Truslow Adams first publicly defined the American Dream in his book Epic of America. “The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.”[3]

Better, richer, fuller life sounds wonderful, and in fact that is what Jesus wants for us, too.  Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).  But the abundance Jesus wants for us is not dependent on our ability or achievement.  The only requirement for the new life that Jesus offers is faith.  That’s grace.  Grace is undeserved blessing freely bestowed on us by God.[4]

councilWhen Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians that we read from today, he was responding with anger to grace-killing requirements that Jewish Christians were imposing on the Gentile Christians.  They were expecting them to follow Jewish law, especially the law that required circumcision, even telling them, “Unless you are circumcised as required by the law of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).  This ongoing controversy consumed the early church, so much so that the church elders held a big meeting to address it.  Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to speak with this council and tell them about the Gentiles that were becoming Christians.  The council was overjoyed to hear about the spread of the gospel, but some were still adamant about the need for these new believers to be circumcised.  It was Peter’s words that changed their minds.  He said:

“Brothers, you all know that God chose me from among you some time ago to preach to the Gentiles so that they could hear the Good News and believe. God knows people’s hearts, and he confirmed that he accepts Gentiles by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he cleansed their hearts through faith. So why are you now challenging God by burdening the Gentile believers with a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors were able to bear?  We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 15:7-11)

The council then agreed that they should not make it difficult for the Gentile believers by imposing this requirement, and Paul and Barnabas went from town to town spreading the news about this decision and encouraging the believers.  “So the churches were strengthened in their faith and grew larger every day.” (Acts 16:5)

It isn’t clear whether Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written before or after that decision, but it is clear that Paul is addressing this issue, and is seeking to adamantly reinforce the understanding that salvation comes solely through grace by faith in Jesus Christ, and there are no other requirements.  He says,

“We know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 2:16)

And if that were not true, then our faith in Jesus Christ is pointless.  He says,

“I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:21)

If we could earn our salvation by the work that we do, then we don’t need Jesus at all, and if that is what we are trying to do, than we have rejected the grace that God has so graciously and freely given us, and Jesus died for nothing.

Theologian William Barclay points out that we fall prey to two basic temptations:

First, there is the temptation to try to earn God’s favour, and second, the temptation to use some little achievement to compare oneself with others to our advantage and their disadvantage. But the Christianity which has enough of self left in it to think that by its own efforts it can please God and that by its own achievements it can show itself superior to others is not true Christianity at all.”[5]

These are the very temptations to which we fall prey in seeking to live out the American Dream. Theologian Shirley Guthrie, a professor at Columbia Seminary, explains what happens:

“Many of us Americans try to justify ourselves not so much by good works as by just plain work.  Hard work and success make us feel that we are “worth” something and can win for ourselves the approval and admiration of other people.  So we work harder and harder and longer and longer, feeling guilty whenever we stop to rest or play.  But the very work that was supposed to give our lives meaning becomes a cruel slave driver that turns life into a treadmill.” [6]

We easily get off track and forget how grace works.  It cannot be earned.  The American Dream’s aspirations have become primarily financial gain, and we fall into the trap of measuring our worth and the worth of others by that gain.  Psychologists have found that those who live with the primary goal of acquiring wealth are much more likely to lack vitality, and have more depression and anxiety.[7]  But there is another way. Instead we can seek to serve.

johnbealIn 1979 a man named John Beal, a Vietnam veteran who worked as an engineer with the Boeing Company in the Seattle area, developed heart problems related to PTSD which forced him to take some time off work.  He was told he was in danger of more heart attacks and death, so to improve his health, he took up walking.  His strolls took him past a stream called Hamm Creek, a tiny rivulet that descends from the hills of southwest Seattle and joins the Duwamish River, an industrial waterway that empties into Puget Sound.  John remembered that in years past schools of salmon came up the Duwamish to spawning grounds in Hamm Creek.  Now the creek was barren of fish.  The evergreen forests that once lined the creek banks had been stripped away and now the banks were lined with garbage.  John decided to change that.

Seattle_Hamm_Creek_clean-upJohn approached the companies that were polluting the creek and got them to stop.  He hauled out the garbage.  Over the next ten years, he planted thousands of trees.  At first he worked alone, but as word got out about what he was doing, people began to help. Over time the salmon came back and each year there were more.

studentsEven now, people continue to work on restoring and maintaining the Hamm Creek area.  Last November patients from Renacer, a substance-abuse program for adolescents, worked at Hamm Creek alongside students from the University of Washington’s restoration ecology program.  Both groups were able to tell their stories and learn from one another.  While they were there, they got to see the Coho salmon swimming up the creek on their return journey from the ocean to spawn, a remarkable sight. For Renacer students, the salmon symbolized the hope and promise that comes with restoration.[8]

John Beal, the man who got that restoration started, died in 2006, 27 years after he was told he was near death. He often told people that he had made a pact with God, promising that as long as his heart kept beating he would devote himself to cleaning the waterway.[9] He was never paid for any of his work restoring Hamm Creek, but he said he was richly compensated by the personal satisfaction he had from making a difference.  “That’s my reward.  That’s how I got paid,” he said.[10]

So, why do we do the things we do?  For John Beal it was about doing something that was meaningful to him.  Our motivation matters.  Are we burning ourselves out trying to prove our worth by working harder, by being good enough?  Through grace we can live with a different emphasis.  We find purpose and meaning in our lives by living according to grace instead of works.

  • American Dream is based on work, but God’s dream is based on grace.

AD says: Anything is possible if you work hard enough. Trust in yourself.

Grace says: Anything is possible with God. Trust in God.

God is a much better person for us to trust than ourselves!

  • Jeremiah 32:17 Ah, Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you.

AD says: I can have whatever anyone else has and more if I work hard enough.

  • That becomes a temptation to covet, which we are warned against in the 10th
  • Comparison gets us in trouble, and takes our focus off of God.

Grace says: I don’t need to be like anyone else.  I am uniquely equipped for God’s plan for me.

  • 2 Peter 1:3 By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life.
  • Galatians 6:4 Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else.

AD says: I have to earn success by being good enough. Failure is not an option.

Grace says:  It’s impossible to be good enough.

  • Romans 3:23 All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

Failure happens, but it’s ok because we’ll learn and grow as we seek to follow Jesus who accepts us as we are and gives us grace.

“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Romans 3:23-24

Why do we do the things we do? The problem is not doing the work, it’s the motivation behind it.

That fisherman could have followed the American’s advice and achieved the success that the American described, but what would he have gained?

Are we trying to earn favor with God by working harder?

Are we expecting others to meet a different standard than the one God has used with us?

Or are we freely passing on the grace we ourselves have received?

The grace that we have received solely by faith in Jesus Christ is available to all who believe.  There are no other requirements.

We please God by trusting him, and acknowledging our need of the grace that he offers us.

Let us graciously accept God’s amazing gift and give him thanks.

And whatever we do, let us do it all for the glory of God. (1 Cor 10:31)

[1] Andrew Udell at

[2] Patrick J. Kiger “How the American Dream Works” 2 May 2011. <; 29 June 2018

[3] Kimberly Amadeo, “What is the American Dream?  The History that Made it Possible”

[4] Walter Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Baker Academic.

[5] William Barclay, The New Daily Study Bible: The Letters to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, pg 22.  Also quoted here:

[6] Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, pg 316

[7] Affluenza, pgs 72-73.

[8] King County Clean Water Stories accessed June 30, 2018.


[10] Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, John de Graaf, David Wann & Thomas H. Naylor, 2001 (ISBN 1-57675-199-6), pg 69.

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