What if my dreams don’t come true?
Even if it ain’t all it seems, I got a pocketful of dreams
Baby, I’m from New York
Concrete jungle where dreams are made of
There’s nothin’ you can’t do
Now you’re in New York.
No place on earth may be more fueled by hopes and dreams than New York City. Of the many dreamers I conversed with when I planted a church there, I found most fit into two groups. The first were the people who were still on their way up in life. These people were fairly new to the city, generally young and eager to “make it” in one of the thousands of vocations the place had to offer. They were driven and full of hope about what dreams may come. This is all fine and good. After all, to dream of “what could be” can be a wonderful gift that can spur us on to accomplish some amazing things. Humanity always dreamt of flying, and eventually, the airplane was created. Mankind dreamt of visiting space, and eventually, the space shuttle was invented. Innovators and brilliant minds ruminated over how to make the perfect burger, and eventually (as if dropped down from heaven), the In-N Out Double-Double (Animal Style) arrived.
The list could go on and on of what people have dared to accomplish because of their dreams. In fact, in some sense, to dream at all is really a reflection of being made in the image of God. Unlike other species, we image-bearers can envision a future for ourselves, make plans and work to try and ensure that this future happens. So your dreams – whatever they may be (as long as they are not explicitly forbidden by the Scriptures) – can be real gifts.
Nevertheless, because we who dream are sinners living in a fallen world, our dreams rarely come to pass the way we envision. The vast majority of “dreamers” I met fell into this category. They were those whose aspirations fell flat, who had gone through the tough stuff of life like injuries, addictions, death, and divorce. This crew may have still wanted to be in the city, but in many cases, they felt trapped within its confines. Being on the other side of failure, they had become a little (if not a lot more) pessimistic about what the city had to offer. I remember one man I met in a cafe looking me in the eye and saying, “Erick, this city exists for one reason: to edit out the weak.” Indeed, it is possible to be so beaten up by life that one can start to view dreaming itself as a setup for inevitable disappointment and pain.
Yes, though dreaming is good, it comes with many potential pitfalls. Chief among these pitfalls is the proclivity to make the inspirations that drive us into idols that enslave us. What do we mean by idols? Martin Luther discussing the first commandment, “You shall have no other God’s before me” said this in his Large Catechism:
A “god” is the term for that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need. Therefore, to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart. As I have often said, it is the trust and faith of the heart alone that make both God and an idol…anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God.
If not checked, our dreams can become what we live for, breathe for, and for all intents and purposes, worship.
How do we know when we’re practicing dream-olatry? Well, for starters, if accomplishing your dreams causes you to compromise your convictions, that’s a surefire indicator you’re bowing the knee to the wrong deity. History is replete with examples of people that have abandoned their standards to accomplish their dreams only to end up in eventual ruin. Another indicator of dream-olatry manifests itself when your dreams don’t come true. In that case, you get so despondent that you feel like there’s nothing left to live for. Thus every time we have a crash on Wall Street, there are stories soon to follow of various investors committing suicide. Why? Because most likely, they made money and the pursuit of it their idol, their identity. Now that it’s gone, they feel like they have nothing left to live for. And the nefarious thing about idolatry is that just about anything can become your idol: career, family, fame, wealth, status, spouse, you name it, any good thing can become a ‘god-thing” with ease.
Of course, you could actually accomplish your dreams and find out they don’t satisfy the way you thought they would. The stories of celebrities and wealthy people that testify to this are numerous. One of my favorite examples is Jim Carrey saying in a commencement address that he wished everyone could become rich and famous so that they could see it’s not the answer. To that end, the late writer Cynthia Heimel said, “The minute someone becomes a celebrity is the minute they become a monster.” She then gave the names of some big stars she used to know before they became big and said, “They had been once perfectly pleasant human beings, but now they have become supreme beings, and their wrath is awful.”
At this point, I can hear someone saying in response, “Ok fine, I get that I can make a dream into an idol, but are you suggesting that the reason I’ve suffered or lived an unfulfilled life is because of some sin I’ve been committing?” No, I’m not. In reality, suffering and hardship are part of what it means to live in a broken place, and all of us will have grave disappointments throughout our lives, whether we’ve made an idol of our dreams or not. What I am suggesting, however, is that for us to have proper perspective over all our hopes, dreams, and aspirations, we need to submit them all to the true, living, and reigning God. Or, to quote the model prayer, we must finally say, “Thy will be done.”
You need to remember that, ultimately, your identity, your value to the world, isn’t based on your accomplishments but on the accomplishments of Jesus Christ for you.
Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt. 16:24-25). What he’s saying to us is that ultimately we’re called to recognize that our life, our plans, our dreams, and our aspirations are not what determines our destiny, but he is. Because if your plans don’t come true, you need to know, “it’s gonna be okay.” No, really, it is. You need to remember that, ultimately, your identity, your value to the world, isn’t based on your accomplishments but on the accomplishments of Jesus Christ for you. It is because of his accomplishments by his perfect life, death, and resurrection that you find your value. Because of his work, God declares you to be his beloved child and promises that your ultimate destiny is for a dream larger than you can imagine to come true in his kingdom.
If God does not grant your aspiration to you (or hasn’t yet), it’s not because he doesn’t love you or care for you. Rather, it is because he loves you too much to let you have it (at least for now). He knows what’s best for you, and though it can be impossible to see, he knows what you need better than you do. As Tim Keller has said, “God will only give you what you would have asked for if you knew everything he knows.”
On the other hand, if your dreams are beginning to come true or have come true in some way, then remember to give praise where praise is due for that gift. Ultimately, your heavenly Father loves to give you good gifts (often in spite of yourself). And when he does, he simply asks that we acknowledge that it’s him who gave it to us and give him thanks. So whether your dreams are dashed or come true in 2023, one thing you can be certain of is this: your God knows what’s best for you; he loves you, and no matter what dreams may come, he will be with you through it all to provide everything you need for life and salvation. Ultimately, that’s a better dream come true than any of us would have ever envisioned on our own.