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The Apostle Paul’s unAmerican Dream

by on March 9, 2012

The Apostle Paul’s statement in Acts 20:24 is so unbelievably contrary to the ethos that I am used to as an American I have to read it again and again for it to sink in.

“But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself [STOP!]” (ESV).

Let’s try that one more time and use a different translation:

“However, I consider my life worth nothing to me…” (NIV)

Alright, let’s try a paraphrase. Surely that will help soften this a bit.

“But frankly I do not consider my own life valuable to me…” (J.B. Phillips)

Bummer.

Paul, its time for a prescription of SSRIs. Your serotonin must be low. Anti-depressants would help. Haven’t you seen the commercials?

So, I invite you to dream a different kind of dream.

American Christians don’t talk like this. I don’t normally talk like this. Some preachers and teachers talk and preach precisely the opposite of this. Paul, as the verse before shows, knows that instead of comfort and convenience prison and affliction await him in each and every city and yet he has the resolve to keep going on with is mission and purpose in life. He is not depressed. In fact, his view of himself is a portrait of grace-shaped mental health.

Let’s look at the whole verse:

But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.

Paul doesn’t derive value and worth from within himself or bother with techniques to increase his own self-esteem, but from something else altogether. He’s overwhelmed with God’s grace in and on his life, and the calling and mission God has given him to proclaim this grace to every city he goes to. It’s not that Paul is clouded by some poverty mindset or after some ruthless asceticism and desire to get beat up every-other-day, but that his life has been gripped by the good news of God’s grace for sinful people who don’t want to hear it. He wants to share this message because his own identity has been re-shaped by it. Paul calls himself the chief of sinners (1 Ti. 1:15) because he himself persecuted sinners God had saved, yet God graced him with forgiveness anyway.

Paul was forgiven much. God’s grace was extravagant to him, and he knew God’s big gospel of grace is for the whole world no matter how big the sinner because he was the biggest. His identity was gospel-shaped and led him to look at himself and live life with a different ethos and dream a different kind of dream than what I’m used to in this culture.

Wikipedia says the following about the American Dream

“[it] is a national ethos…in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, an upward social mobility achieved through hard work. In the definition of the American Dream by James Truslow Adams in 1931, ‘life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement’ regardless of social class or circumstances or birth.”

Paul’s dream is far different.

His dream is that people regardless of social class or circumstances or birth hear that they can achieve nothing before God through their hard work because they are sinners, but that God has achieved everything for sinners by sending his Son to die for the ungodly and save them from their sins. Paul’s good news is that even though you are a sinful failure, God comes for sinful failures in the person of Jesus and makes them perfectly righteous. You can’t achieve the gospel. You can’t work hard for it. You simply receive the grace God gives in Jesus.

And this dream of Paul’s did not make him prosperous or successful at least in the way that America defines it. Paul’s definition of prosperity and success is a life lived for God’s glory in God’s grace. The gospel message doesn’t promise you temporal success or prosperity. It promises something greater–being swept up in the glory of God and his ever-loving-you, never-ever-leaving-you grace.

Don’t buy the lies of psychologized self-worth, but theologize it with something far more meaningful, namely, God’s grandiose—not sparing of his own Son—love for sinners to make them sons. Don’t buy the lies of living for Americanized prosperity and success, but join the mission of eternal success and prosperity of “testify[ing] to the gospel of the grace of God” regardless of social, economic, and physical impact because one day “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14).

Grace can make you say “I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself” without being self-deprecating and self-pitying because God in Christ is most precious of all. He is more precious and more valuable than life. Paul’s unAmerican dream is only unAmerican in that it is a kingdom of God dream for all people of every ethnicity and every nation (including America!) and carries an ethos that derives ultimate value from God and his gracious gospel not temporal comfort, convenience, happiness, and hard work.

So, I invite you to dream a different kind of dream. The church doesn’t necessarily need more dreamers but a different kind of dream. A dream soaked in more of God’s grace and more of God’s glory and less self. Dreams that are dictated by the shape and size of the gospel of God not the shape of size of the gospel of consumerism.

I know it starts here. In my heart. This dreamer in accordance with this gospel.

Come. Let’s join Paul.

 

(HT:BJS)

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