Lately, I’ve been feeling the tension of being both a Christian and an American. Lately, I’ve started to get worried.
Here’s why: I’m beginning to fear that my American-ness is shaping my Christianity more than my Christianity is shaping my American-ness.
Paul tells me that my truest and most eternal citizenship is beyond America, in heaven (Phil 3:20). But I live and breathe American air and I grew up cheering for the stars and stripes in the Olympics and waving flags on the Fourth of July.
I love Jesus and I love my country but one of those loves will always definitively shape the other.
Even if you’re not American, but you live in a stable, developed country I think this same dilemma can apply to you. But, judging from my Facebook feed and my own heart, I think it might be a particular temptation for Americans. So I’ll focus on my own heart and country first.
Here’s the first thing I’ve begun asking: Am I a radically humble American?
Winning the Lottery
I heard a fashion model admit once that the reason she could be a model is, essentially, that she’d won a genetic and cultural lottery. She said it just so happened that all her genes came together in the right way, and at the right time in history, that people wanted to use her in commercials. In many ways, it was simply a gift.
If you’re an American, in so many ways you’ve won a political and cultural and geographic lottery.
In a world of over 7 billion people, you’re one of the 4% of that population that happens to be American. What does that mean? It means a rare and nearly unprecedented blend of economic opportunity, safety, freedom of movement and freedom of religious practice. In many ways, that’s very very rare across all world history and across the world today.
Look, I’m not saying it’s easy to make it in America. I worship on Sunday next to guys who have found themselves on the streets at night sometimes. But just by being born here we started with a ticket to free schools and social safety nets and hospitals that can’t turn us away in the ER.
We started in a place where people below the poverty line can often get help somehow, somewhere and where economic opportunity abounds. We started with a place freer than most of death threats and crime and rampant government corruption.
The Right Response To a Gift
Biblically, then, I think the right response to being born in America is a radical humility.
The Christians in Corinth had much to be proud of as members of a thriving metropolitan and cultural center in the Roman empire. But their pride turned to rivalry and Paul exhorted them that “none of you…be puffed up in favor of one against another” (1 Cor 4:6).
And then Paul asks a simple question: “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?”
In Paul’s case, he’s speaking, among other things, of spiritual gifts and favorite preachers, but the principle can apply more broadly. What do we, as Christians, have that we have not received? Every good gift comes from God (James 1:17). This means our families, our possessions, and even our citizenship are a gift from God.
Watching my two young sons receive gifts is interesting. Their immediate response is joy and wonder. They can’t believe they’ve received a gift.
But quickly, within the day or even the hour, they get protective. They don’t want to let their brother play with it. Shouldn’t they be happy to have it at all? It stops becoming a gift and starts becoming “my toy!” so much that they’ll do anything to protect it and keep it for themselves.
Sometimes I think we as Americans can treat our gifts the same way. We can take whatever good we’ve received – our economy, our institutions, even our safety – and forget that they are gifts from God.
We can treat our citizenship as an excuse for arrogance, we look down on others who didn’t receive the same gift, we can demean others who have a different country on their passport.
Toward a Radically Humble America
I think very practically this truth has three effects:
First, it guards us from making America our idol. One current in American culture is pushing us toward making America our idol – raising our patriotism above even our faith. The “proud to be an American” language soars to unhealthy heights into our hearts and minds.
We’re brought down to earth when we remember the best of America is just a gift. We need to look beyond it to the Giver. This country can’t be our ultimate fulfillment, protection, and purpose. Only God can be that for us.
Second, it removes barriers to gospel work. Our language and rhetoric about America can at times do radical damage to our gospel witness. I have a friend who works to show the love of Jesus to international students at a state university.
Is he grateful for America? In many ways yes. But trumpeting his American-ness in the wrong way can very seriously hurt his ability to reach people with the gospel.
Similarly, our church is in partnership with churches in Latin America. We never want them to get the impression we only care about believers in the US or mission in the US. I never want to speak about my country in such a way that another pastor from Brazil would see my posts and be tempted to think he’s doing less valuable work because a different flag is flying over his city.
Third, it makes us willing to sacrifice. When we realize that having a job in America is sought after across the whole population of the world, our grip on that job and that money loosens in a godly way.
It’s too easy for me to look at my bank account and our two cars and our house and think “Man, we are barely making it here in America.” I forget that these are all gifts from God. And when I humbly receive my country and its benefits as a gift, I’m able to be generous with others the way God has been generous with me.
So I’m trying to learn to receive and celebrate the gifts of being an America but look beyond it to the Giver. In Him, I see all the good of America and none of the bad. In Him, I see a generous Father who has given me more than I need. In Him, I see a cause worth giving my life to advance.