Follow your dream. Write your story. Live an epic life.

I’m sorry, but I’m not buying it.

This has long been the fodder of daytime talk shows and popular self-help books, but when did Christians start talking like this? When did we create conferences, ministries and enterprises out of teaching people to discover their dreams and craft their lives in the pursuit of them?

This was not how the people of God used to make sense of their lives and of their purpose.

Nehemiah sat and wept when he heard the condition of Jerusalem.
Jeremiah said the word of the Lord was like fire shut up in his bones.
Jesus was moved by compassion.
Paul was constrained by the love of Christ.

Not one of these were peering into their heart, tapping into their dreams and longings, and then projecting them outward into a plan for action.

Was Augustine following his dream when he gave up his career for a life in service of the church? What soul-searching, script-writing technique was Francis engaging in when he renounced his wealth and devoted himself to rebuild the church? Was Cranmer pursuing his passion when he refused to recant his convictions before being executed? Whose dream was Hudson Taylor chasing when he sailed to China?

‘Dream’, of course, can be a slippery word. What do we mean by ‘dream’?

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream…but if you listen to the content of that dream— and pay attention to his life as a whole— it was more like a prophetic imagination, a vision of a world not yet visible, of a Kingdom still arriving. It didn’t arise out of a restless boredom from spending too many hours in a cubicle. His ‘dream’ was not anything like the thing to which our use of the word refers. I can’t help but wonder if the ‘dream’ rhetoric in our day isn’t just overly self-conscious and semi-public angst-filled musings.

Vision’ is not much better. Hijacked by a corporate culture fixated on maximizing every opportunity, ‘vision’ can be overly goal-oriented and results-driven.

Passion’ gets closer, mostly because its roots are in the notion of suffering, particularly suffering for the sake of another. After all, whenever we begin with ourselves, we are off on the wrong foot. Purpose is often discovered in service of another.

A word that is missing in our day, a word that brings to bear a whole set of virtues largely absent from the ‘dream’ rhetoric, is burden. Burden implies a weight, a weight that someone else placed upon you. Burden is not what you asked for but what is being asked of you. Burden is not thought up or dreamed up. Burden burns.

The rhetoric of dreams has helped us find the courage to take risks. That’s a good thing. But risk-taking in itself is not a virtue. No one, from Aristotle to Aquinas, would have seen it as one. Taking a risk is implicated in virtue if the telos— the goal— of that risk was virtuous. If one joined a battle to defend a vulnerable village and it involved taking a risk, the goal was virtuous, therefore the act was virtuous. But to make risk-taking in itself a virtue is lunacy.

So while the rhetoric of dreams may have led us to find our courage, there are other virtues we need. We need to recover the virtues of faithfulness— even in the mundane; we need the virtue of selflessness, so that we can sacrifice and serve. These virtues help us not only to create but also to preserve, not only to start but also to stay. Such virtues do not arise from the current rhetoric of dreams; they are the result of surrendering to a burden.

My prayer for you is not that you will have big dreams; it is not even that you will take the risk to follow your dreams; and it is certainly not that all your dreams will come true.

My prayer for you is that you will be gripped by a holy burden, that there will be a fire of the Spirit raging within your bones, that you will be moved by compassion. Dreams can make fools who rush into action; burdens make prophets who weep and fast and pray.

My prayer is that you will not make heroes out of dreamers, but that you will contemplate the saints who lived and died under the weight of a holy burden.

May you never set out to find your life; may you always be led to lose it.

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9 thoughts on “Forget Following Your Dreams

  1. Basically, I read it three times now, I think you are tripping over a trend in Christian culture, a selfcentered/individualistic dreaming, in which you have my full support. We can’t be loud enough in telling each other that that’s not what life’s about.

    But … on the other hand…

    How do you know the story behind people’s dreams? You hear the word and define it for us and then decide we are wrong in following our dreams?

    What if someone seriously has a burden for the hurt, sometimes combined with actual tears after finding about people’s situations?
    What if compassion is what drives someone into their passion?
    What if someone actually spends years trying to get out of their comfort zone and learning to be more selfless and more faithful to Gods calling?
    What if someone actually had to learn to redefine words like “selflessness” and “faithfulness” and “burden” by studying the Bible, because all they seemed to mean was stay stuck in your routines and you will be called faithful?
    What if taking risks gives someone a sense of freedom, not because risktaking is a virtue in itself, but because it is often a condition to stay faithful?
    What if God put all these things into someone’s heart and it gets summarised, translated into an action that you can call a “prophetic imagination”?

    And what if … here it comes … that whole pile of Godgiven burden, compassion, vision, … is then summarised as a “dream”?

    I believe Nehemia, Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul, Hudson Taylor, Frances of Assissi, Martin Luther King, … all followed their dreams, because Gods dream had become their personal dream. They had learned to make the sacrificial life their dream, their dream had become giving up their dream. Think of Jesus in the garden, His doubts and then His passion for bedience?

    How dare you define for others what they mean by “dream” without knowing their story, yet at the same time give Martin Luther King’s “dream” a different meaning? Seriously?

    My dislike for this article goes very deep, not in my opinion but in my full life as a Christian. You sound very spiritual, but in the end you are just talking about semantics and totally missing your point. You want people to stop being selfish and selfcentered and individualistic, but by replacing “dream” with “burden” you won’t get there, because even those spiritual words have the same potential of helping people to be selfish and selfcentered.

    I know I sound pretty strong, it just touched my soul very deeply. Maybe it would be a good exercise to rewrite this article without a language game, but by actually going to the core of the problem. Words are not the problem, hearts are!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Henri,

    Thank you for this. I saw the comment thread/discussion on Filip’s Facebook and I basically agree with both sides. Burden and faithful can become problematic too when they are used to excuse being stuck!

    I want to clarify one thing– related to your strongest remarks– I’m not trying to define for YOU or for anyone else what THEY mean by “dream”; I am defining what I mean here in this post. Words must always be clarified, especially in short pieces like this.

    Where we agree: it is the origins (the heart, the Spirit of God) and the goal (selfless, Kingdom, etc) that make an endeavor virtuous and that produce virtues. I’m using the word burden to draw out the selfless part of it. In America “dream” has become too associated with selfishness.

    Hope that helps.

    Loved the Buechner quote someone referenced on the FB link.

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  3. There’s a part of this I agree with, but I also think the idea of following dreams and taking risks is so helpful and necessary in the context of recovery. For people coming out of abusive situations, this kind of thinking creates some balance where the scales have been tipped too far in the other direction–when people never feel safe to take even a “normal” risk or get in touch with what dreams/visions/passions might be a part of them. Obviously, I speak from experience. I didn’t mean to be so distant from this critique. So maybe we need to be more careful to apply this advice to certain contexts (and the language could be more precise too), but we should also be careful not to be too dismissive in our critiques of it as well.

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  4. This is very helpful, Michaela. I certainly had not thought of situations of recovery from abusive contexts. I’m really glad you brought that up. I do think we should pay attention to the desires, passions, and, yes, even dreams in our own hearts. There is a certain sense in which we might see God as being involved in placing those things in us. Part of embracing our “belovedness” is confess the beauty in us that reflects the imago Dei into the world. But here again, dreams are not automatically good ends. (Cf Hitler’s dreams for the world). That’s why I referenced the “telos” of a dream in connection with virtue. And I’m using the word “burden” to speak of “holy and beautiful dreams” with a virtuous telos.

    I like what others– Buechner and Wright, I think– have said about vocation being a standing in the place of world’s deepest pain. All this is better than the self-actualization drivel I hear out of many pop Christian circles. (I would reveal what sparked this blog, but it would surely mean picking a fight with people.)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Another option. Since I know what brought this up, I wanted to share my story. I grew up in a church system that promoted complete self-sacrifice and submission for the sake of the group, the community. This sounds good, but it had a very unhealthy (nearly abusive) tone. The result was a robotic practice of faith. Basically, I was never encouraged (or given permission) to ask what God wanted of me specifically. I was told where to fit in, where to serve, how I could “build the church.” Again, it sounds good and has good elements, but it became a service mostly to our primary leader’s ego and reputation. So when I first heard the dream language you are talking about, it actually served as a righting pole in my spiritual life. I started listening to God for myself. I started considering my life according to the ways I had been gifted and burdened and embraced a way of thinking about my calling that I hadn’t been able to do before. Of course, there is wrong in any extreme, and I have since pulled somewhat back toward center. I realize I can follow my dream but still work a plain job for someone else. I don’t have to be a Christian superstar to be living my dream. I can do it quietly right here in my own city, loving my kids, looking to meet Jesus wherever he is. It can be quiet, simple, and local. It most definitely is in and through community. But I couldn’t have found this place if I hadn’t first listened to a great guy talk about dreams. When he talked I felt Holy Spirit stir life and bravery in me to do what I had been designed to do despite some pretty bad indoctrination in my past. I’ve put my own spin on it and I guess I’m thinking we should trust other faithful Christians to be able to do the same thing. I think different people are called to different things – some shouting loudly what they believe in and the rest of us listening, being encouraged, weighing truth, and finding the balance we can life with in peace with men and God. We need voices that challenge us, including dreamers, including preachers.

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  6. So good, Felicity. Again, very helpful. I love the different perspectives that you are all coming from. I hope you can see from a few key paragraphs in my post that I certainly am advocate a ’rounded out’ approach to this…one that you have arrived at…where we trust the uniqueness and the burdens and even dreams that the Lord has placed within us…and have learned to distinguish them from selfish or whimsical dreams…what a friend on Twitter today called ‘Disney dreams’. My hope is in adding the word ‘burden’ to the conversation, we are shading toward a fuller picture of this. I realize the title of the piece is a little sensationalist or even polemical…such is the nature blog headlines…but I hope the piece itself speaks to the balance you have written so wonderfully and personally about in your comment.

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