The last thing any parent wants to tell her child is “I’m sorry, we can’t afford it.” Whether it’s a special treat at the grocery store, a trip to an amusement park, or tuition at a prestigious university, the natural impulse of a parent’s heart is to provide both the needs and desires of her children. This impulse may also be part of the reason so many Americans are struggling to meet their financial obligations.
In a recent article in The Atlantic, author Neal Gabler counts himself among these Americans. Although he appears safely ensconced in the middle class, Gabler admits to being among the 47 percent of Americans unable to come up with $400 dollars to cover an emergency. And while Gabler’s woes are the result of multiple factors, in moments of disquieting honesty, he also admits that they are the result of certain lifestyle choices—including his attempt to provide an upper middle-class lifestyle for his family on a less-than-middle-class income.
By chasing the American Dream for his children, Gabler lost everything.
The American Dream
As many of us know it, the story of America is one of unfettered optimism, a place where the poorest of the poor can free themselves from the constraints of class or background. Here, if you can dream it, you can do it. If you just work hard enough, you can make it. If you sacrifice for your children, they won’t have to.
Unfortunately, a growing body of data suggests that Americans may be waking up from the American Dream. Shifts in the economic landscape reveal a growing divide between rich and poor, which means Americans are increasingly locked into the class we are born into.
For Christians, the loss of the American Dream affects more than our pocketbooks. Many of us received the promise of upward mobility hand-in-hand with our spiritual formation. We learned that the “slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich” (Proverbs 10:4). We learned to shun debt. We learned to pursue financial prosperity in order to bless others and fund the spread of the gospel around the world.
So what happens when the numbers don’t add up? What happens when our hard work and our good choices don’t result in moving up the ladder?
First, we learn to keep up the appearance of financial prosperity. If financial stability is an indicator of personal success, as many of us have learned, then financial instability signals personal failure. Gabler calls this “financial impotence.” Like its sexual counterpart, financial impotence feels shameful and drives us to hide our true circumstances. Instead of simply explaining to our friends that we can’t afford brunch after church, we make an excuse and slink away.
In Gabler’s case, keeping up appearances meant insisting on his role as the exclusive breadwinner—“my antediluvian masculine pride [was] at stake”—and scrimping to send his daughters to private school. He was driven by the very real fear that if he didn’t give his daughters “the best,” they would fall behind their wealthier peers.
“I never wanted to keep up with the Joneses,” Gabler writes. “I wanted my children to keep up with the Joneses’ children, because I knew how easily my girls could be marginalized in a society where nearly all the rewards go to a small, well-educated elite. (All right, I wanted them to be winners.)” He eventually depleted his own savings as well as his parents’ savings, using his inheritance to fund his daughters’ education at top-tiered colleges.
Gabler, of course, isn’t the only one trying to live an upper-class lifestyle on a low-income budget. He isn’t the only one who, as Proverbs 13:7 puts it, “pretends to be rich, yet has nothing.” Like Gabler, many of us pursue upward mobility not for our own sake but for our kids’ sake. To do “right” by them, we must dress them in certain styles and brands. We must feed them organic. We must educate them at the top schools. To be good parents, we scrimp and save and sacrifice so our children can move beyond their current socioeconomic status, because for them to live the life we have lived would be a failure.
Last year, my husband and I faced a similar dilemma when our 11-year-old completed fifth grade at our local elementary school. She was slated to attend sixth grade at a middle school in a neighboring town, and because she is our first child, we were understandably nervous. To explore our options, we met with guidance counselors and teachers. We researched homeschooling. And then we toured a private school that embodied everything we could want from an educational experience.
There was only one catch: we couldn’t afford it.
We could have taken advantage of the sliding scale tuition designed for families like ours. But even then, we would have had to scrimp and save and take one year at a time. There was also no indication that we’d be able to do the same for her brothers in the years following.
As we wrestled with our financial limits, we finally came to a place of surrender. We decided to embrace God’s providence over our finances. After all, he was the one who had called my husband to pastor a small, working-class church. He was the one who had called us to live in this community, and he was the one who had ordained that our income would reflect our peers’ income.
Live As You Were Called
As much as Christians talk about financial responsibility, we scarcely imagine that God could intentionally place us in certain class and economic brackets. Nor can we bear to think that the American Dream may not be God’s will for us or our children.
The early church wrestled with similar questions of class and upward mobility. The believers at Corinth actually solicited the Apostle Paul’s advice about whether a Christian slave should even pursue his freedom. In other words, how much attention should Christians give to bettering our lot in life? Paul’s answer reaches past the superficial to the question beneath the question:
As God has distributed to each one, as the Lord has called one, so let him walk…” he responds. “The keeping the commandments of God is what matters. Were you called while a slave? Do not be concerned about it; but if you can be made free, rather use it. For he who is called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise he who is called while free is Christ’s slave. (1 Cor. 7: 17, 19-22)
In other words, we are not called to upward mobility so much as we are called to surrender ourselves to Christ.
Following His Call
My husband and I eventually decided to enroll our daughter in public middle school. Much to our delight, she has thrived and was recently selected out of 300 peers to participate in a summer STEM program. These unique opportunities are a result of God’s providence in her life and also the simple fact that her parents couldn’t afford to send her to a private school.
Ultimately, learning to surrender to God’s providence doesn’t mean that we won’t work hard, take opportunities when they come, or pursue the prosperity of our families and communities. But it does mean that we understand who is ultimately in control of where we (and our children) land on the socioeconomic scale. It means remembering that we must walk the path that God has called us to, not the path he has called our neighbor to or the path that we believe we deserve.
But when we walk this path, we can be assured of his presence on it. And whether it leads us to abundance or scarcity, we can be content.
Hannah Anderson is a freelance writer, blogger, and author of Made for More: An Invitation to Live in God's Image. She lives with her husband and three children in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. You can connect with her at her blog sometimesalight.com, or on Twitter @sometimesalight.