Subscribe to our newsletter

Save a Marriage Today

Connect with us

The Grand Illusion

Choosing contentment over the desire to acquire.
By Dennis and Barbara Rainey


I want to let you in on a little secret. Whether you know it or not, your marriage is susceptible to the "American Dream Syndrome." Through an endless parade of messages in this media-driven culture, you and I are sold the notion that we can have it all—and what's more, that we deserve to have it all.

The unwritten motto of the American Dream Syndrome is this: The more stuff you have, the better off you are.

As Barbara and I know, it's easy to be seduced away from our real calling, the Kingdom of God. We are tempted to embrace the American Dream instead: to own the big house, to drive the cool cars, to send the kids to the right schools, to have the right club memberships, to take the extended cruise, to have all of the latest "stuff."

Contentment, like a flawless diamond, is a valuable and scarce commodity. Talk to ten people at random and you will be hard-pressed to find even one or two who are truly content.

After all, advertisers parade a colorful host of gadgets, toys, cars, and home furnishings, as well as every imaginable convenience, before our wide-open eyes on our wide-screen TVs. What's the goal?

To make us discontent with what we have.

To infect us with a desire to acquire.

Fueling this desire are the glossy pages of People, Martha Stewart Living, and Oprah-styled magazines which feature the must-know "beautiful people" with their must-have beautiful bodies, must-see beautiful homes, and must-own beautiful possessions.

And don't underestimate the role of peer pressure in the spread of the American Dream Syndrome. The lifestyle choices we see made by our families, friends, and neighbors can put us in a never-ending race to catch up with the proverbial Joneses.

Contrary to what you might be tricked into believing by the pop culture, you can't have it all—whether material possessions, personal activities, or life achievements. God simply did not design us with the capacity to do, or to have, everything. Further, the pressure created by the endless pursuit of stuff, or by engaging in endless activity, brings out the worst in us.

We know. We've been there.

The American dream syndrome

If the walls in our house could talk, they'd have story after story to tell in which Barbara and I wrestled with the temptation to give in to the American Dream Syndrome. Sometimes it was Barbara. More often it was my own drive to do more, buy more, and accumulate more. Years ago, for example, we lived in an older part of town. Many of the people we went to church with enjoyed living in newer subdivisions. Those upscale neighborhoods sure caught our eyes. I can assure you that had we not exercised restraint, we could have easily put the welfare of our family and marriage at risk.

Over the years, we've identified three myths of the American Dream Syndrome:

Myth #1: Getting stuff will make me happy.

Myth #2: Having lots of stuff is a sign of personal significance.

Myth #3: The guy with the most toys wins.

These three myths are primarily related to the acquisition of material things. The same American Dream Syndrome, however, also pressures us into striving after acceptance, status, and the admiration of peers. None of these pursuits have anything to do with our calling to participate in God's Kingdom.

But for now, let's focus in on the cornerstone of the American Dream Syndrome: the pursuit of possessions. Why? Because the endless, uncontrolled pursuit of stuff is choking the life out of our marriages.

Let's take these myths on one by one.

Myth #1: Getting stuff will make me happy.

I was struck by something actor Brad Pitt said in an interview several years ago: "Whether you want to listen to me or not—I'm the guy who's got everything. I know. But I'm telling you, once you get everything, then you're just left with yourself. I've said it before and I'll say it again. It doesn't help you sleep any better, and you don't wake up any better because of it."

Pitt continued: "Man, I know all these things are supposed to seem important to us—the car, the condo, our versions of success—but if that's the case, why is the general feeling out there reflecting more isolation and desperation and loneliness?"

Acquiring stuff doesn't equal happiness. Nor does it bring inner peace.

The apostle James puts it this way: "What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures" (James 4:1-3).

Myth #2: Having lots of stuff is a sign of personal significance.

Our culture applauds and rewards men and women who are driven to excel in their chosen career path. We subconsciously regard these upwardly mobile people as having "arrived." We tend to view them as being significant individuals when, in reality, many have trashed their marriages, their children, and their friendships just to juggle the inhuman pressures necessary to "succeed."

Take it from the wealthiest man who ever lived, Solomon. He had it all. The book of Ecclesiastes tells us that he accumulated unimaginable riches—servants, forests, vineyards, and more. According to Scripture, "All King Solomon's goblets were gold, and all the household articles in the Palace of the Forest of Lebanon were pure gold" (1 Kings 10:21). Several verses later we learn that "the king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones" (v. 27).

Talk about achieving personal significance! Solomon had arrived. Big time.

Yet he concluded, "Meaningless! … Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless" (Ecclesiastes 1:2).

The truth is, Jesus spoke not about acquiring but about giving away to those in need, because "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35). Lasting significance comes when we align ourselves with the heart of God and make His agenda our agenda.

Myth #3: The guy with the most toys wins.

Says who? On the contrary, Jesus warns us, saying, "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal" (Matthew 6:19). Why? Because it boils down to a matter of the heart. Do we own our stuff, or does it own us? Invariably, it's the latter. That's why Jesus says, "For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:21).

Even the Material Girl, Madonna, managed to swerve into the truth in her latest self-reinvention: the spiritual seeker. Now married, the mother of two, and in her mid-forties, she's apparently sobered and mellowed. She told USA TODAY, "Take it from me, I went down the road of 'be all you can be, realize your dreams,' and I'm telling you that fame and fortune are not what they're cracked up to be."

She added, "Every person on the planet is … trapped into programmed thinking that we're all expected to have a certain amount of material things to be perceived as worthwhile human beings." And, "Sometimes success is a curse that keeps you from paying attention to what's important. Okay, I was living in a dream, but I've woken up."3

So, what do you do? How do you and your mate keep from embracing the grand illusion that you should have it all?

Choose contentment over the desire to acquire.

Choosing contentment

Contrary to the seductive tune played by the pied pipers of the American Dream Syndrome, enough is never enough. Learning the secret of contentment defuses the pressure to constantly acquire or achieve more.

Solomon writes: "There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth" (Ecclesiastes 4:8). As Barbara and I learned years ago, we will never reach the point of having enough, because enough is never enough.

Contentment arises from a spirit of gratefulness and thankfulness. It is a courageous choice to thank God for what you have and for what you don't have.

If you want to avoid the trap of the American Dream Syndrome, learn to be content with your portion by practicing a life of thankfulness. The apostle Paul writes, "Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

Give thanks in all circumstances?

Even when you don't know where the next paycheck is coming from? Even in illness? Even when the car breaks down?'' Even when the real estate or stock market crashes? Remember,

Paul isn't writing from an easy chair sipping iced tea with a twist of lemon. He's the same Paul who had been flogged, shipwrecked, and imprisoned. Paul had even been stoned and left for dead.

The more you acquire, the less satisfied you will be. But Paul knew that God could be trusted. Listen to his amazing words: "I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want" (Philippians 4:11-12).

Will you trust God as Paul did?

You see, material things will never fill the void in your soul. They will never satisfy the hunger in your heart. In fact, that hunger will grow and grow. The more you acquire, the less satisfied you will be. Why? Because of the God-shaped hole in our hearts. Only Jesus can satisfy that void in our souls.

A couple who fails to see this could spend a lifetime chasing the American Dream, only to find it's like a desert mirage—forever just out of reach.

Nurturing a spirit of contentment is an absolutely foundational step toward pressure proofing your marriage. Remember, our real calling is not to the American Dream, but to what God is doing beyond what we can see here on earth. As Scripture says of Abraham, "He was looking forward to the city with foundations whose architect and builder is God (Hebrews 11:10).

Adapted from Pressure Proof Your Marriage © 2003 by Dennis and Barbara Rainey. Used by permission of WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. Excerpt may not be reproduced without prior written consent.

FamilyLife is a donor-supported ministry offering practical and biblical resources and events to help you build a godly marriage and family.



Save a Marriage Today

Subscribe to our newsletter