Forget Following Your Dreams

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.