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. 3
The prosperity of fools shall destroy them. (Prov. 1:32, AV).
Prosperity inclines sinners to an impious neglect of God, which is a sin of the highest nature, and prolific of innumerable evils. All sin is an irregularity, either in the excess or the defective extreme, either in overvaluing and loving the creature, or in the disesteem and indifference to the Creator. Prosperity increases the aversion of the carnal heart from God, in the same degrees as it strengthens the prosperity to the world. For the opening of this, it will be necessary to consider the essential and eternal respects due from the reasonable Creature to God. And they are four comprehensive of all the rest.
1. A solemn thankful recognition of him as the author of our brings, and all the comforts we enjoy.
2. Supreme love to Him.
3. A humble fear of his displeasure.
4. Entire obedience to His will.
As in this regular universe, every kind of being has its proper end; so it cannot be denied, without the most evident absurdity, that God in all these respects is the chief end of man.
1. A solemn thankful recognition of God, as the Author of our beings, and all our comforts, is continually due to Him. The neglect of this is so contumelious to the majesty and glory of God, and so contrary to those most binding obligations to His mercy and goodness, that ’tis an offence infinitely provoking. In every transgression, the authority of the Lawgiver is despised; but this immediately reflects dishonor upon the Deity. As a common felony is a breach of the King’s laws, but treason not only violates His laws, but strikes immediately at His person and dignity.
Now, prosperity inclines sensual persons to this wretched neglect of God. The world, with all its desirable things, has the dominion and full possession of the understandings, memories, and hearts of men. ’Tis the character of a wicked person, but most proper to him in his prosperity, God is not in all his thoughts. Of this impiety there are several degrees: the highest is explicit atheism, a disbelief of God and His providence, of His being, and bounty; and this is sometimes occasioned by plentiful prosperity. And the consequences are, pride that blasts the mind, as it were, with lightning, and confidence in the things of this world. Of this we have astonishing instances in the Scripture. Nebuchadnezzar transported in a vain-glorious flush of joy, at the view of his magnificent works, breaks forth in those lofty insolent expressions: “Is not this great Babel that I have built, for the house of my kingdom, by the might of my power, and the honor of my majesty?” (Dan. 4:30), as if he had been raised by his own power, and did not own his greatness to the King of Heaven. This ’tis charged against the prince of Tyrus: “Thy heart is lifted up because of thy riches; and you have said, ‘I am a God and sit in the seat of God’; and you set thine heart as the Heart of God” (Ezek. 28:2). He presumed that his throne for glory and stability was like the divine kingdom that cannot be shaken, and forgot that he was a frail man in a mutable world. Plentiful prosperity is so strong a temptation to atheism, that a wise and holy saint earnestly deprecated it as a pernicious snare: “Give me not riches, lest I befall and deny thee, and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’” (see Prov. 30:8,9). The carnal heart, in the full fruition of the world, is apt to ascribe all to the course of nature, or to humane contrivance and endeavors, without any serious acknowledgment of the divine liberality and beneficence. Prodigious ingratitude and equal folly! As if one should imagine that a fountain of water had not its original from the sea, but from the marble stones, through which it immediately and visibly springs. Or as if it were requisite the hand of the giver should be as visible as his gifts.
Now although few arrive to this height of impiety in actual thoughts and open words; yet prosperous sinners are always guilty of an interpretative and virtual denial of God: they have not a solemn grateful remembrance of their benefactor and His benefits, and a due sense of their dependence upon Him. It was the wise and holy counsel of Moses to Israel, when they should be possessed of Canaan, a place full of delight and profit, “When you shall have eaten, and are full, then beware lest you forget the Lord” (Deut. 6:12). The caution so enforced, intimates a sinful disposition in the carnal heart, in prosperity to neglect God. There may be a notional remembrance of Him in the mind, a naked ascription of all good things to His providence, a complemental visit in exterior worship; yet without an inward cordial sense of our dear obligations for His most free favors. The apostle charges the rich in this world, not to trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God. So foolishly are men prone to depend for protection, reputation, and provision of all things upon their estates, as if they were inconsumable, and neglect God their rock, who is the alone sufficient foundation of all our hopes and comfort.
2. Supreme love to God is an indispensable duty from men upon the account of His most amiable excellencies and benefits. “You shall love the Lord with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy strength, and with the thy mind; this is the first and great commandment” (Luke 10:27), and consequently a coldness and indifference to God, much more a strong aversion from Him, is a sin of the most heinous nature. Now, prosperity has a special malignity to disincline the heart from God. The supreme love of God includes an act of the understanding, a transcendent esteem of His favor: “Thy loving kindness is better than life” (Ps. 63;3). It inspires the soul with ardent desires after Him: “My soul follows hard after Thee” (Ps. 63:8); it produces the most joyful satisfaction in communion with Him. The thoughts of God are unspeakably precious and sweet; the ordinances, the blessed means of conveying His grace, are highly valued; and sin that displeases and separates from God is hated as the greatest evil. Now, the soul must be refined to a heavenly temper, to some degrees of angelical purity, before ’tis capable of light to see spiritual excellencies, and love to enjoy them. And if the soul does not make the body heavenly and spiritual, the body will make the soul earthly and fleshly. From hence it is that the affluence of things pleasing to the senses, fastens the carnal heart to the world as its happiness and heaven: it darkens the mind, and vitiates the affections, that the soul can neither taste nor see how good the Lord is. ’Tis the universal character of men in the carnal state; they are lovers of pleasure, more than lovers of God. And a remiss degree of love is comparative hatred: a sin of astonishing guilt, and not less odious to God, and damning in its nature, tho’ little observed and resented by carnal men. For the highest dishonor of God is complicated with disobedience in it. A sin that deserves and inflicts the sorest punishment; for God alone, whose goodness is infinite, can make us perfectly and eternally happy; and the spiritual separation from Him is such an invaluable loss that, when truly understood, is the foundation of the heaviest sorrow.
3. The fear of God is a most distant affection from the heart of the foolish sinner in his prosperity. The fear, reverence, and the awful esteem of God, that proceeds from the reflection upon His glorious greatness, is a grace that remains in heaven: the angels in all their bright degrees of excellence cover their faces before His throne. The fear of circumspection that restrains from displeasing Him upon the account of His justice and power, is a proper affection to men in the present state. The blessed in heaven are above this fear, being confirmed in a state of unchangeable perfection and felicity. The damned in hell are below this fear, in that no chance can make their condition worse: but ’tis most useful and congruous in this middle state. This fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, the first and chiefest part of it in respect of order and dignity. For the true notion of wisdom, consists in the foresight of evils, in the choice and use of effectual means to avoid it, and it is the best wisdom that avoids the greatest danger. This fear is the principle of conversion from sin to holiness; exciting us to make God our friend, who is so dreadful an adversary, so holy and just, that He will not connive at sin, and spare the guilty and impenitent; and so powerful, that with one stroke He can utterly destroy His most stubborn enemies. Carnal security is directly opposite to this fear of God, and nothing does more harden and fortify men in security, than a prosperous state. The voluptuous and sensual are without apprehension of danger, till imminent and in their view. “Because they have no changes, therefore they fear not God” (Ps. 55:19). Uninterrupted prosperity tempts them to atheistical security. The long enjoyment of plenty, and ease, and peace, renders men constantly secure and fearless, as if the tenor of their prosperity were invariable, and no evil could disturb it; or at least they will set back the expectation of evil at a great distance, like those profane scorners mentioned by the prophet: “They say, the vision he sees is for many days to come, he prophesies of the times afar off” (Ezek. 12:27), and with a brutish stupidity, slight the divine threatenings. And from hence it follows, that none are so rebelliously and boldly disobedient as the prosperous sinner, which is the fourth thing to be considered:
4. Entire obedience is due to the Supreme lawgiver, who is able to save and destroy forever. Yet He is mercifully inclined to pardon the infirmities of men, and greater sins, retracted by repentance. There are sins of ignorance, when a man dashes blindfold against the law; and of sudden corruption, when there in no time to deliberate and for recollection; and the best are not exempted here from sins of this nature. These are sins of deadly malignity, when men are careless of God’s commands, and indulge their lusts, though not without some remorse. But the prosperous sinner is usually most presumptuous. He sins with a high hand, and incurs a greater guilt, and shall be exposed to greater punishment. When the fear of God is extinguished, luxury takes the reins, and breaks through the hedge of the Law, without feeling the wounding thorns, the fearful threatenings in it; and drives on through all the degrees of sin. ’Tis the aggravation of the Israelites ingratitude: Jesurun waxed fat, and kicked, and lightly esteemed the rock of his salvation. They were like beasts high fed, that became fierce and untractable, and would endure no yoke upon them. The prosperous sinner securely despises the commands of God, and by an implicit blasphemy dares His offended omnipotence, as if he were stronger than the Lord. He concludes his safety from his present success, and says in his heart, “I shall have peace, tho’ I walk in the imagination of mine heart and add sin to sin. The Lord will not spare him, but the anger of the Lord shall smoke against that man to his destruction” (Deut. 29:19,20).