At twenty-two, I tossed conventional wisdom to the wind in order to chase a six-figure dream in sunny South Florida. I took the bait—hook, line, and sinker—and resolved to out work and out hustle the next guy in order to “make it”. By twenty-four, I was cashing moderate five-figure checks each month and my career in luxury real estate sales was booming. A shiny new SUV sat in the driveway of my second home proving that I was living life in the fast lane of the American Dream.
When people would ask, “How are you doing?” I would casually reply, “Life is good.”
Or was it?
By the beginning of 2008 the bubble had burst and the market crumbled faster than a sandcastle in the wake of a receding wave. My income was reduced by eighty percent and I was forced to rent out the home I could no longer afford in South Florida. I had become a homeless landlord living with my parents. The room over the garage seemed like a cool place to call home when I was fifteen, but it was quite humiliating at twenty-five with my brand new wife in tow.
But the lessons that were forged through the fire of bad decisions has finally culminated in wisdom that overrides naive ambition. I’m now more than ten years removed from the errors of my youth, but the wounds of misplaced hope are still tender. If I’ve learned anything through my own journey it’s that the American Dream needs to be refurbished. Like an old classic car we have to get underneath the hood and rebuild the engine that once powered this great country.
But the dream isn’t the problem. It’s what we’ve inadvertently sacrificed in the process. In the name of nobility, we’ve hijacked our priorities and feasted on empty promises served to us on a tarnished silver platter. As a result, our garages are full of crap while our hearts remain empty.
If you can relate, here is a fresh perspective and a few thoughts on true wealth.
1. Learn to Recognize the Crisis
When I started making money, my grandfather would say, “You sure are living in high cotton.” Although spoken in jest, his words carried a sense of warning from his experiences as part of the Greatest Generation. Having lived through the Great Depression, it’s almost as if he knew what was coming. And he was right.
But why wasn’t I able to see it?
A quick glance at the social media mirage reminds us that the Good Life promises fancy yachts, big houses, fast cars, and finer wines. Although I never longed for those things, extravagance tastes sweet. Once you’ve tasted it, you want more. But it’s an endless pursuit whose craving is ravenous. There will always be fancier yachts, larger homes, faster cars, and finer wines.
On the flip side, I had a pure desire to retire comfortably. But the more I saved, the more I battled that ugly seed of greed that began to take root. If I could hoard away enough paper in the bank, then I’d ensure safety and security for my family and future generations. Beneath the surface, a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge was being brought to life.
At some point, I had to realize that extravagance and hoarding were both problematic—byproducts of a heart caught in an identity crisis. The sad truth is, I didn’t know who I was anymore. I was defined by what I did and what I had. No wonder it was so hard to let go.
True wealth begins when you’re willing to be honest about what defines you.
2. Discover Your True Identity
I’m not sure what smelling salts caused me to come to my senses, but it took a divine act of intervention to emerge from the fog. My addiction to my own agenda needed to end. I guess you could call that the birthplace of humility. Rock bottom looks different for everyone, but you never recognize it until after you’ve already hit it. Humility only looms large for those with oversized egos. Until you’re willing to lay down your pride, you’ll never be able to see the things that deceive you.
Against common sense and popular opinion, I had to recognize my own broken condition and step into the process of restoration—restoration that began with the hope found in full reliance upon God. If that seems hokey and religious to you, that means it’s a problem. Until your faith becomes personal and tangible, you’ll rest upon your own strength to make things right.
And quietly, in the places you don’t talk about at parties, you’re just a little kid who wants to be noticed. You want to fell worthy and have a sense of value and purpose. And curiously, you’ll even sacrifice yourself to get it.
The very thing you’re afraid of losing is the thing you worship the most. Those are the things that define us. I’ve lived that truth. And as long as I refused to wrestle it, I was living my life based on someone else’s opinion.
In time, I discovered that the only thing sturdy enough to carry the weight of my identity was the One who created me.
3. It’s Not About How Much You Have
Minimalism seems to be the quickest counterpoint to the idea of simplifying, but it is far from the answer. In fact, many minimalists are as proud of not having anything as those who are proud of their pile of trinkets. The man who flaunts his one-bedroom house flaunts it for the very same reason as the man who flaunts his ten-thousand square foot, ocean-front estate. They want to be known.
In both, we hear the desperate cry, “Look at me.”
In my case, I had to trust God more than my ability to make money. Any reliance on ourselves is a lack of dependence on God. It’s only when we’re willing to go to the place that we have nothing else that we realize He’s everything we need. Then, and only then, we find that He cares far more about our well-being than we ever considered. I had convinced myself that my well-being mattered more than His will. That made it easy to ignore His voice. But when I learned to see Him as a good Father, the facade of a distant authoritarian began to fade.
I wasn’t defined by how much I did or didn’t have, I was defined by the One who gave all so that I might receive all.
What Makes You Rich?
God has created us to experience His richness. Like any father hopes for his children to live in abundance, our Heavenly Father desires the same for us. Yet our unwillingness to let go of all that defines us keeps us from discovering who we are. Sadly, the American Dream has caused us to live a scarcity mindset. That is a mindset of self-first, driven by the fears of this world.
True wealth is found in relationships, in a life spent investing in others. Wealth is found when we learn how to be grateful for what we’ve been given rather than coveting what we don’t have. And finally, wealth is marked by its willingness to be humble. Those are the cornerstones for the good life—a life that flourishes spiritually and physically.
You can keep up with the Kardashians. I want something more.
So, what does being rich look like for you?
Matt Ham is a speaker and the author of the book, Redefine Rich: A New Perspective on the Good Life. Learn more about the book by visiting www.redefinerich.com.
In 2016, along with Zondervan author Kevin Adams, Matt co-founded YouPrint, a faith development organization. Learn more by clicking here.