Dismantling My American Messianic Complex

An American friend of mine married a man from another country and moved overseas. Early in their marriage an item they owned became unusable. “I think we can fix this,” my American friend said. “No. It can’t be fixed,” her husband replied with finality. This went on for some days, and her husband became annoyed at his American wife’s persistent optimism over something that was clearly unfixable. Finally the wife took on fixing the item as a challenge, and after a bit of a process she got the thing working. The husband says now that this was his first real encounter with the American, can-do spirit.

There is something deep in the psyche of many Americans which is continually searching for ways to fix things, or to discover new solutions, or to make a buck. There are numerous amazing applications for the entrepreneurial spirit, but left unchecked there is a dark side to our blessed optimism, it is called triumphalism and it will hamstring God’s ability to use us.

Triumphalism is a form of arrogance, and it has a death-grip on the American church and American mission. When blended with youthful idealism present in most 18-24 year olds, it can be crippling.

I work with college students, helping them to strive after Christ and his kingdom, especially within communities scarred by poverty, hopelessness and exclusion. One of my most daunting challenges is not helping students see that they can make a difference in these complicated situations; it is helping them to confront the messianic complex which convinces them that they are the solution.

In American-made movies where humanity faces a global crisis, whether it is a meteor hurtling toward the planet, a natural disaster threatening the human race, or an alien invasion – who is it that saves the world? It’s the Americans, of course. And while much of the world rolls their eyes at our oblivion to our arrogance and our blindness to the ingenuity, creativity, intellect, grace and wisdom in the other 190+ countries with whom we share this planet, we remain stuck in our inflated sense of self-importance.

In the world of American missions, particularly in youth culture, I find the messianic complex imbedded deeply in phrases which often begin with “we are the generation to …” followed by any number of spectacular world-changing statements: “… end human trafficking in our world … eliminate global poverty … plant a church among every people …” All very worthy kingdom goals, but the line between God’s power and our power gets blurred. I include myself in this critique since I find the messianic complex not far from the surface of my own world-changing ambitions. Americans often inflate our role in bringing change to the world, and it can be so subtle and sound so holy that the triumphalistic spirit goes undetected (though the recipients of our world changing schemes can spot our egos a mile away).

Triumphalism in mission is as old as the crusades, and Americans in particular (though not exclusively) must work hard to keep our ambitions from usurping the Triune God as Prime Mover in world change. Once the spiritual high of the Christian youth rally passes, and the wisdom of the 7 step guide to change the world fails, and the “You can do anything,” deception of our parents and mentors fade, we are left with our own impotence.

When I step into the desperate places of the planet and come face to face with the tragedy and complexity of suffering, lostness, and poverty, and my inability to bring change, this is the moment which God has been waiting for. God loves to use the weak, the obscure and the dependent. But as an American I tend to live under the illusion that I am powerful, I am the center of the world, and I don’t need any help, especially not help from people in desperate circumstances. But it is when I am in over my head and confronted with my own powerlessness that I find a rare opportunity to choose into a version of hope which is not primarily dependent on me and my skill. This is when the messianic complex can be dismantled in exchange for a new vision of transformation where I’m no longer the central figure.

Perhaps the real challenge to which we should apply our American ingenuity is how to maintain our hopeful, can-do spirit while cultivating a posture of desperate dependence on God and healthy interdependence upon those we perceive as needy.

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