A Classic Study:
The Danger of Prosperity
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A Classic Study by William Bates (1635–1699)
[Here we begin a study by the eminent English Puritan William Bates, concerning the danger of prosperity.]—Ed.
The Danger of Prosperity, pt. 1
The experience of all Ages has verified, that none are exposed to more dangerous trials than the prosperous in this world. The great tempter has found the temptations of prosperity so insinuative and prevailing with men, that he attempted to tempt our blessed Savior with them; expecting by the pleasant prospect of the kingdoms of the world, and their glory, to have fastened an impression upon His spirit, and tainted His inviolable purity. But he found nothing in our Savior, not the least irregular inclination to his allurements; and could work nothing upon him. ’Tis otherwise with men born of the flesh, in whom there is a carnal heart (the center of apostasy and corruption) that is easily enticed and overcome by charming complacencies. Prosperity is a dignified poison, pleasant to the unwary sense, but deadly in the operation; and the more pernicious in the effects, because less dangerous in the opinions of men. The temptations of prosperity are so frequent and favored by us, that they give vigor to the inward enemy, the sensual affections, and boldness to the malicious tempter. They foment the carnal appetites that defile and debase the soul; and are more rebellious and exorbitant the more they are gratified.
Prosperity is the strongest obstacle against the conversion and reformation of sinners. While they are plying their various pleasures, they have neither will nor leisure to advert to the voice of conscience, so reproachful and clinging to them. And many times prosperity stupefies conscience, that men are fearless of divine judgment, involved in sensual security. They will not reverence and obey God’s authority, till they feel His power; they abuse His blessings to pride and vanity, idleness, and luxury, and are hardened in their impenitence, dyed with the deepest tincture of ingratitude: they drive on through a course of sin, till death puts a period to their lusts. How destructive, how penal is prosperity to such graceless souls! When God rains snares upon the wicked; when the affluence of this world is abused to satisfy their vicious desires, ’tis a sad forerunner of the shower of fire and brimstone, and the horrible tempest that shall overwhelm them at last.
Others in prosperity are not openly profane or boldly vicious, yet are corrupted and insensibly destroyed by it. They over-value and over-delight in the good things of this world, and please themselves in an opinionative felicity in their present state. They enjoy the world with more appearance of reason, and less sensuality than the riotous and luxurious; but their conversation with so many charming objects, alienates them from God. They do not sanctify Him in their hearts, placing their highest esteem upon His most amiable excellencies, and their dearest delight in communion with Him. They look upon religion as a sour severity and count nothing delightful, but what is suitable to fleshly affections. A deceit like that of a sick person who, feeling no pleasure, but in the easy intervals between his fits and the remission of his distemper, should imagine that if he were freed from his disease, he should lose all pleasure, though the delights of health are more full and durable. The angels are incapable of sensual pleasures; their happiness arises from the perfection of good, not the allays of evil. The beasts are only capable of sensual pleasures, the remedies of natural evils, hunger, thirst, weariness, or accidental evils, diseases, and pains: and many are so sottishly deceived, as to prefer brutish pleasures that affect the senses, before angelical joys that arise from the fruition of God’s favor and obedience to His laws. This is a sad symptom of an unrenewed heart, and a heavy presage of future misery; for God will not be our everlasting joy in heaven, if He be not our exceeding joy upon the earth.
Others surrounded with riches and honors are neither thankful to their divine benefactor, nor careful to employ their prosperity and power for His glory. The law of mercy requires a solemn affectionate recognition of God’s benefits, but the current of prosperity drowns their sense of divine goodness. And incogitant practical atheism is as destructive as absolute and speculative. How many by the deceitfulness of riches are apt to imagine that they possess with dominion what they receive in trust: they could be rich in good works and, if their hearts were according to their ability, be fruitful as paradise, but are as barren as the sands of Africa. They are in a mighty debt for so many received blessings, for which their account will be heavy and undoing with the highest Lord. These, and many other considerations, make it evident how dangerous prosperity is to the most that enjoy it here.
’Tis therefore a point of high and holy wisdom how to manage prosperity so as to avoid the impendent evils that usually follow it, and to improve it for our eternal advantage. This is the design of the present treatise.
The Danger of Prosperity
The prosperity of fools shall destroy them. (Prov. 1:32, AV).
In the verses that precede this one in Proverbs, the divine wisdom is introduced in a very elegant and pathetical manner, reclaiming men from their miserable errors, to partake of light and felicity. The address is directed to them with upbraidings and indignation at their folly, and with tender compassion for their ruin. “How long you simple fools will you love simplicity… and fools hate knowledge?” (Prov. 1:22). ’Tis said of our Savior, the incarnate wisdom of God, that He looked on the Pharisees with anger, being grieved at the hardness of their hearts. He did also express an earnest desire of their conversion. So also, divine wisdom says: “Turn ye at my reproof” (Prov. 1:23). And that is seconded by a gracious promise: “I will pour out my Spirit to you, to illuminate and conduct you in the way of Life” (Prov. 1:23). But for their stupid obstinacy in despising the counsel, and rejecting the reproofs of wisdom, they are surprised with utter destruction. This is described with that train of killing circumstances, that are the most forcible excitations timely to prevent that evil, which neglected, will be remediless: “Because I have called, and you refused, I have stretched out my hand, and no Man regarded; I will also laugh at your calamity, and mock when your fear comes: When your fear comes as a whirlwind, when distress and anguish comes to you, then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer; they shall seek me early, but they shall not find me: for that they hated knowledge, and despised the fear of the Lord” (Prov. 1:24-29). In their distress they supplicate for mercy; but as they were unchanged, notwithstanding all the gracious calls of God to repentance, so He is not moved by all their mournful entreaties and takes pleasure in His righteous judgments upon them. Their final ruin is resolved into its proper cause; the willful hardness of sinners, and the abuse of those mercies that should have melted them into a compliance with the divine giver of them. “For that they hated knowledge, and did not choose the fear of the lord. For the turning away of the simple shall slay them; and the prosperity of fools shall destroy them” (Prov. 1:29, 32).
The title of fool is the usual character of the sinner in the language of wisdom; and ’tis with great reason and congruity attributed to him, in opposition to the universal virtue and supreme director of human life. For as by prudence a man so governs himself, and regulates his actions as to avoid impendent evils, and to obtain that good that is suitable to his necessities: so tis the effect of folly, not to foresee the evils to prevent them, and to neglect the season of obtaining what is good. And by how much the good is more valuable and desirable, and the evil is more pernicious and threatening? In proportion, the folly is more unpardonable and woeful, that loses the one, and exposes the other. And this is justly charged upon every impenitent sinner.
Prosperity comprehends all things in the order of nature that are so much admired and desired by worldly men: riches, honors, pleasures, health, strength, peace, plenty, and the abundant variety of what is grateful to the carnal mind and appetites. These blessings of God, abused and perverted by the folly of men, are turned into weapons of unrighteousness, to offend God, and wound their souls to everlasting death. The point I shall insist on, is this: Prosperity abused, is fatal and destructive to foolish sinners. In the treating on this argument, I will, 1. Show how prosperity is destructive to the wicked. 2. That ’tis folly and madness above all wonder, when sinners abuse the blessings of God to their destruction. 3. How just, and certain, and heavy their destruction will be.
(We will continue this study, D.V., in the next issue.)