A Classic Study:
The Danger of Prosperity
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A Classic Study by William Bates (1635–1699)
[Here we continue a study by the eminent English Puritan William Bates, concerning the danger of prosperity.]—Ed.
The Danger of Prosperity, pt. 2
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.
I. I will show how prosperity is destructive to the wicked. In order to the explicating of this head, some things are to be promised:
1. This great world, with all the parts and creatures of which ’tis composed, has an inherent goodness and perfection convenient to the end for which ’twas formed by the Creator, and that was to be useful and comfortable to man in the service of God. There is no pestilence and contagion in the nature of things that are pleasing to our faculties: They are dangerous, not as made by God, but as managed by Satan. They do not pervert the minds of men from any noxious inherent qualities, but as they are corrupted by concupiscence. Upon this account, St. John dehorting Christians from the love of the world as inconsistent with the love of God, gives this reason of it, “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the eyes, and the pride of Life, is not of the Father, but is of the World” (I John 2:16). He signifies the objects, riches, honors, and pleasures, by the vicious affections, that make them deadly to men. The poison is not in the Flower but in the Spider. And the Apostle speaking of the purifying Virtue of the Gospel says, “That exceeding great and precious promises are given to us, that by these we may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust” (II Pet. 2:4). This is evident by visible experience: for many holy men have enjoyed temporal blessings without the offence of God; and have been more holy and heavenly in themselves, more beneficial and good to others by mercies: while the sensual, like the ocean that changes the sweet showers of heaven into salt quality, turn the divine blessings into provisions for their brutish lusts. It appears therefore that this contrariety of effects is not to be attributed to the quality of worldly things that is always uniform and alike, but to the different dispositions of the persons that use them. As the same good is healthful or hurtful, as the stomach is clear or foul that receives it: in some it renews the blood and spirits, strengthens and preserves life; in others it increases the sickly matter, feeds the disease, and brings death more painfully and specially.
2. The primary design of God in His most free and rich benefits, is to endear Himself to us, and bind us to His service: for they are the most proper and convincing expressions of His Love and Goodness, and powerful motives and pervasives to a grateful correspondence of love and obedience. “I drew them” says God, “with the cords of a man and with Bands of Love” (Hos. 11:4). Goodness duly considered, engages to please the Benefactor. ’Tis therefore said by St. Paul, that the goodness of God leads sinners to repentance (see Rom. 2). ’Tis the most natural unconstrained consequence that the mind can regularly infer from His clemency and bounty. The hearts of men should be melted in tender resentments of their unworthy conversation towards Him, and encouraged to return to their duty, since He will graciously receive those who unfeignedly repent of their sins: But the event does not usually answer God’s aim. Men are hardened in sin by His mercies.
3. When the wicked abuse God’s blessings, defeat His kindness, and frustrate the excellent ends of it, He most righteously and severely continues their prosperity. That ferments their lusts, and renders them more willful and incorrigible, and the more guilty of their own damnation. What was said by Simeon, concerning the most glorious Gift of God, our Savior, is applicable in this case; “Behold, this Child is set for the fall of many in Israel, and for a sign that shall be spoken against.” (Luke 2:34). When the riches of grace, offered in the Gospel, are despised and neglected, the blessed Savior of souls is most justly ordained to be the occasion of the sorer punishment. So when the common benefits and mercies of God are ungratefully perverted by men, to the dishonor of the Giver, they are by Divine determination ordered, for the aggravating of their sins and sentence. Prosperity is a fatal ambush for their surprizal and ruin, according to that heavy imprecation of the Psalmist, “Let their table become a snare to them: and that which should have been for their welfare, let it become a trap, an occasion of their falling” (Ps. 69:22). This judgment proceeds from the most terrible and inexorable displeasures: ’tis better and more eligible to encounter all the storms of a raging world, than to enjoy the claim and security of a prosperous sinner. For the more afflicted we are by men, the more earnest are our addresses to God’s prosperous throne, to incline His mercy to regard and relieve us. But for a sinner, the more full fruition he has of the world, the more he forsakes and provokes God, and the more he is abandoned to his worst enemies, his lusts, and Satan. This will be amplified more in the following parts of the discourse.
This being premised, we come to show how prosperity abused is destructive to sinners, both meritorously as it induces a deadly guilt, and makes them obnoxious to the revenging wrath of God; and effectively as ’tis opposite to felicity and perfection of man, that consists in the renovation of the image of God in the soul, and in joyful communion with Him forever. This will appear by the following considerations.
1. Prosperity is the continual incentive of the vicious affections, “the fleshly lusts that war against the soul” (I Pet. 2:11), which deprive it of its beauty, order, freedom, and felicity. Man consists of flesh and spirit: by the one he communicates in nature with beasts; by the other he confines with the angels. By the original law of union, the body was subject to the soul; and though taken from the earth, did not oppress it, and hinder its heavenly flight: The flesh did not lust against the spirit, nor the spirit against the flesh. But as the motion of the two eyes in the head is always uniform, and directed the same way, so reason and sense accorded. The appetites were regular and concentric with the mind. Upon this established order, the internal peace and holiness of man depends. But by the rebellious sin of Adam, the soul lost its regal power and freedom: and as in the first temptation the soul infected the body, so now the body infects the soul. The carnal appetite, the spring of lust and anger (that infernal pair that reigns so universally) over-rules the rational will, and gives law to men.
The love of sensual pleasures is natural to men; and as temptations are more charming and increased, ’tis more predominant. The sense, the fancy and the passions are in a conspiracy against the soul; and there is a continual circulation in their working, they excite one another. By the senses, pleasing things obtain an easy entrance into the fancy; and fancy has a strange power to charm or terrify by false representations; it amplifies the evil, and heightens the seeming good of things; and by the inspiration of fancy, the passions are moved, and the passions being altered, bribe and seduce the mind, and draw the consent of the will by the actual pleasure that is mixed in the gratifying of them. And as Adam lost his innocence and paradise by his compliance with the blandishments of his wife; so the soul loses its purity and happiness by yielding to the desires of the flesh that is in conjunction with it. For this reason, man in his fallen state is called flesh, as if there were no other principle in his nature, and of his operations. The spiritual and more noble faculties, that were made for delightful communion with God, are sunk into carnality. The description of men in their natural state, by the apostle, is a full proof of this: “We all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of the flesh, fulfilling the desires of the Flesh, and of the Mind” (Eph. 2:3). ’Tis observable that the lusts of the flesh, that spring from the sensual part, are drawn forth into act by the concurrent wills of the flesh, and of the mind. The nobler faculties, the understanding and will are depraved, and freely indulge the carnal appetites in their pursuit of pleasures. Prodigious degeneracy of the reasonable creature! Of this we have a resemblance in the marvelous transforming power of nature. If a branch be grafted into a tree of another kind, the fruit that grows on it will not be according to the nature of the stock, but of the graft that overrules the sap, and turns it to its own quality. Thus the beast is grafted into the man, and the intellectual powers are corrupted and carnal. The mind is employed to disguise the ignominy and guilt that attend the lusts of the flesh; and the will consents to a submission to those ignorable and unruly appetites. Man has only this privilege, that he is a more ingenious brute to make provision for his sensual desires, and to accomplish them.
Now in prosperity, when the senses are entertained with a variety of alluring objects, the fancy is more predominant and contagious: it has more force, vivacity, and extent, the more ’tis conversant about sensible things: and a polluted imagination is the most active and general principle of corrupting the heart: for the mind transcribes a copy of what is written in the fancy, and presents it with a false gloss to the will, that is ready to choose what brings actual pleasure. And the sensitive affections are excited by the fancy, so that the presence of a suitable object, foments the warmth into heat, and turns the heat into fire, and the fire into flame. And the more carnal affections are indulged, the more they are enlarged, the more importunate and head-strong they become; and the soul is utterly disabled from recovering itself from the besotted vile prostitution, to the ignoble and unruly appetites. Millions would have been less guilty and defiled, and less miserable forever, if they had not been surrounded by pleasant temptations and entanglements of iniquity
2. Prosperity occasionally incenses the irascible appetite: for the usual incentives of anger are the crossing of desires, and contempt; and the stronger the desires, the more impatient they are to be controlled; and in proportion to the height of mind, is the indignation for any contempt that is offered. Now prosperity makes the carnal desires more exorbitant, and consequently raging when frustrated. Violent burning desires, when controlled, provoke violent burning anger: and anger inflamed, extinguishes the calm light of reason, becomes blind and furious in revenging apprehended injuries. ’Tis the inquiry joined with conviction, according to St. James, “From whence come wars and fightings among you? Come they not from your lusts what war in your members?” (James 4:1). The voluptuous, ambitious, covetous passions when disappointed, are the common and natural causes of all the bloody disorders in the world.
The other cause of anger, is contempt, either real or supposed; and that is more provoking to those who, raised by prosperity, look with a distance of mind upon others below them. Prosperity in any kind, swells men with a vain opinion of their worth and dignity; and makes them insolent and intolerable. There is a strange distemper of the eyes in some persons, wherever they look, their own image visibly encounters them. The reason of it is assigned by an inquiring philosopher, that the visive faculty has not spirits and vigor to penetrate through the air to see other things, and the air as a glass makes the reflection of their own image. Thus one of a shallow and weak understanding, is continually representing to himself his own conceited excellencies. And prosperity increases their esteem of themselves unmeasurable above their just value. ’Tis like a concave glass that breaks the rays, and dilates the visive angle; and by a natural enchantment, makes an exorbitant figure, a dwarf to appear a giant.
Now as pride is the usual concomitant of prosperity, so there is no passion so inseparable from pride, and so proper to it, as anger. “By pride comes contention” (Prov. 13:10), ’tis the observation of the wisest man, confirmed by universal experience. Pride makes men impetious and impatient, boisterous and stormy against all that offend them. Pride, anger and revenge, like serpents, twine and wreath about one another. Pride interprets an offence as a high contempt, and raises anger, and anger provoked, takes proportionable revenge, to the conceived injury. We have a tragic instance of this recorded in scripture (see II Kings 8:12–13). Hazael when foretold by the mourning prophet, that he would stain himself with the innocent blood of the Israelites, “slay their young men with the sword, and dash their children, and rip up their women with child”. He startled at it as an execrable cruelty. And Hazael said, “But what, is thy servant a dog that he should do this great thing? And Elisha answered, ‘The Lord has showed me, that you shall be kind over Syria’”. When advanced to empire, he divested humanity. Pride armed with power is furious at opposition; and the flaming passion, like a frightful comet, presages and produces terrible effects. Thus ’tis evident how the lusts of the flesh are fomented by prosperity.