Questioning the Great Australian Dream

I’m averse to most reality television, but the one series I watch every year is House Rules. Teams from around Australia compete by renovating each other’s houses (and later backyards) according to the homeowner’s specific “house rules”. It has become a tradition with one friend to text constantly throughout the series, comparing our notes on the teams and their designs.

It’s fun to see the house transformations, but I’ve found myself a little depressed by some of the comments people make on the show. During one of the backyard rounds, the expert judges walked through the newly renovated yard—complete with outdoor kitchen and dining, a living area, firepit and gardens—and stated, “This is how Australians want to live.”

A new Australian dream

Is indoor-outdoor living really the standard we’ve set for a good life? The great Australian dream is traditionally about owning a house. Only homeowners can apply for House Rules, so you’d think they’d already have reached that dream. But it has become about so much more than that—to have really “made it”, you need to reach lifestyle markers like a bathroom for each person, or an al fresco kitchen. The standards will keep getting more extravagant as these luxuries become normal.

The House Rules contestants say over and over how having a renovated house and winning the grand prize of $250,000 would be “life changing”. But how long would this really last? The allure of new and better is so fleeting. When you come home from the show and settle into your newly renovated house, guess what you’ll bring with you? Yourself. The same sins, the same pain, the same discontentment. Whenever we get something new, it’s not long before we’re used to it. Our sinful hearts soon to start to yearn for something different again.

I still live at home with my parents, so I’m not facing decisions about home ownership anytime soon. But I need to start thinking about it now. If I’m not watchful, sins like discontentment, entitlement, and greed will creep in and take up residence in my heart. When it comes time to make housing decisions, I may not even realise that I’m chasing security through my possessions.

Chasing the wind

Who has ever obtained wealth and actually found it fulfilling in the long term? In the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon is on a quest to find satisfaction. As the King of Israel he had the resources for this pursuit, and yet this is what he concludes about wealth and possessions:

I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees…I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces…I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 2:4, 8, 10–11)

“He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep.” (Ecclesiastes 5:10–12)

Striving after the great Australian dream is like chasing down the wind and trying to bottle it up. Surely we need to live for something more.

Of course, we can enjoy the good gifts God has given us in this rich nation: “Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God.” (Ecclesiastes 5:19)

Impossible expectations

But has God actually given you the power to enjoy your possessions? They are spoiled when we rely on them for more than they can give. Those freshly painted walls will crack under the pressure of our expectations. As Christians, whose hope and inheritance is in Jesus, we can enjoy what God gives us for what it is: an undeserved, temporary gift, a mere shadow of what awaits us beyond the grave. Our wealth cannot support the weight of our desperate hopes for fulfillment.

Not to mention that tragedy can befall anyone. A walk-in wardrobe and outdoor cinema won’t protect our family members from suffering, failure, sickness, and death. I don’t want to become like the rich fool in the parable who counted on material possessions for his security.

“The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ (Luke 12:16–20)

Who is to say that my life will not be demanded of me this very night? What joy will I have in riches if the worst happens? Riches corrupt and distract us, giving us a false sense of security so that we don’t seek or rely on God. I don’t want to allow them to slip a blindfold over my eyes.

Judgment day is coming

Solomon gives this conclusion to his quest for joy in this world:

“Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened…Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:1–2, 13–14)

Do we really believe that God will hold us to account for how we have lived in this world? I’d say most of don’t stop and think about this much. Too often I fall into the habit of living just like the world around me. I adopt the attitude of our culture which tells me that having a huge, beautiful house will make my life better. Does this sound like you too? Even as Christians we often make decisions uncritically, assuming that the pursuit of bigger and better doesn’t have anything to do with our relationship with God.

Winning a show like House Rules would certainly change things in your life—you may have more financial security, or be able to drop a second job and spend time with your family. But we also need to weigh up the costs. Jesus tells us:

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14–16)

What are you telling the watching world by the decisions you make? When younger Christians look at your life, are they encouraged to exalt in Jesus or exalt in aesthetics? We glorify God when we use our money, talents, time and affections to grow his kingdom, not our own palace.

Look, I see the appeal. I’m not immune to it. As I type this, there are builders out tiling our backyard. And since I live with my parents, I sometimes wish I had a place of my own—as if that will automatically fix all my frustrations, bad habits, and discontentment. I need to stop and recognise where these temptations are lurking in my own heart.

Renovating your home is not sinful in itself. Your family might decide based on your life and work situations, your gifts and plans, and your calling from God, that home ownership is the best way to spend the money God has given you to steward. Or perhaps adding a guest room or extra dining space will enable you to show greater hospitality. There is no single right decision. As we weigh up the options, we should submit ourselves both to God’s Word and to the church community he has placed us in.

I’ll face these kinds of decisions someday. Thinking ahead, I want to leave this reminder for my future self: Don’t make decisions based on what everybody else in the culture does. Don’t expect that picking up a paintbrush or changing the splashback tiles will fill the hole in your heart. And don’t fall for the lie that reaching that elusive Australian dream will really change your life.

Thanks to Chris Thomas for his valuable feedback on a draft of this article.

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