It smelled. Bad—really bad. In fact, I thought I was going to be sick. But the kids of this neighborhood in Mexico didn’t seem to notice the stench surrounding them. They held our hands as we climbed up the dirt hill to their small “Bible clubhouse,” made out of old garage doors. As I looked around at what these kids considered their play area and home, I saw trash. I smelled trash. It was a dirty, stinky, rotting dump. But the kids were smiling. They were… happy.

Our church group played games with them, told a Bible story, and fed them breakfast. Later, as we piled into our car to leave these precious children, we asked a little girl if she would like to take the leftover milk home. Since there was no running water or electricity in the dump, we asked her, “Do you have somewhere to keep this cool?”

“Yes,” she replied excitedly. “My family would love the milk! We have a hole in the ground where we keep things cool. I can put it there.” We handed her the half-full milk jug, and her face glowed as she carried it home.

I watched her walk away and then sank into the seat of our air-conditioned car, tears welling up in my eyes. Their refrigerator was a hole in the ground? How could these children be so happy in such circumstances? I replayed the day’s events in my mind: their passion for learning about Christ and their genuine love of others, and I realized that their joy didn’t come from possessions. Their joy came from knowing Christ. He was all they needed.

The joy of the poor surprises and baffles American Christians. But why?

Could it be because we believe happiness is only achieved by fulfilling the American Dream?

Our culture promotes the American Dream of success and prosperity. Materialism drives our society. We think more is better, that wealth proves success.

I used to be enamored with the American Dream too. I never said it out loud, but deep down, I wanted a life of comfort. I craved the security of home ownership and a substantial savings account. I couldn’t wait to attach a nice big flat screen TV to my wall.

Little by little, I had begun to interpret life through the lens of the American Dream. But then, as I dwelled on mission experiences, I wondered if the American Dream was biblical. It seemed to contradict several of Jesus’ teachings:

1. Jesus taught us to follow Him, not riches

Matthew 19 tells of a rich young man who asked Jesus how to gain eternal life. Jesus said to keep the commandments, sell everything, and follow him. Saddened, the young man departed from Him. He had kept the commandments all his life, but couldn’t bring himself to leave his stuff behind. Leaving it behind meant abandoning his achievements, status, and security. His identity was in his riches. He had created an idol of his wealth.

The materialism fueled by the American Dream is consuming our society, just as it consumed the rich young ruler. It has created an idol of prosperity. Our culture praises it, adores it, and sacrifices to achieve it. However, the first commandment clearly warns that nothing should usurp God’s place in our hearts. We should be able to abandon anything—everything—for Him.

2. Jesus taught us to store up treasure in heaven, not on earth

The American Dream promotes piling up stuff up on earth—BMWs, three-car garages, and 401 (k)s. I ask myself, though, should mere accumulation of stuff be our focus? In Luke 12, Jesus shared with his disciples that the things of this earth are temporary. He encouraged them to focus on eternal matters—storing spiritual treasures rather than stockpiling stuff that would rot, rust, and mold.