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. Mr. Bates is setting forth reasons that prosperity is dangerous to the believer. In this issue, he speaks of how prosperity exposes one to “the tempting power of Satan.”]—Ed.
The Danger of Prosperity, pt. 4
The prosperity of fools shall destroy them. (Prov. 1:32, AV).
3. Prosperity exposes dangerously to the tempting power of Satan, whose subtlety, malice, and diligence is always exercised in training men to perdition. His destructive power cannot make immediate impressions on the soul, but he tempts by objects without, and the affections within; with the world and the flesh that are in combination with him. He is accordingly styled, the god of this world, as he reigns in the men of the world, by using the things of the world, to obtain and establish his kingdom. He blinds their eyes by glittering temptations, deceives and surprises them by his fallacies. And although it is difficult to conceive and unfold his infernal agency, and pernicious operations; and it is certain he cannot make a forcible entry into the soul, and tempt with prevalence and success, without the consent of the will, yet we are told that he is a prime mover in the sins of men. He entered into Judas, and by putting a luster on the silver, exciting his covetous desires, prevailed with him to betray the Lord of Glory. “He works powerfully in the children of disobedience” (Eph 2:2). They are as it were possessed and acted by his strong inclinations. They are said to “be taken captive by him at his will” (2Tim 2:1). It is an allusion to the catching of beasts, when by the address and craft of the hunters, they are drawn or urged into the toil prepared for them. Now, prosperity furnishes him with the materials whereof he weaves the most fatal snares: for his strength and art to destroy principally lie in the specious representations, and fallacious promises of happiness in the enjoyment or worldly things. This will appear, by considering that:
A. Pleasant temptations are most apt to seduce the souls of men to ruin. As is sowing the earth, when there is a congruity between the soil and the seed, it is nourished and springs up a plentiful harvest, so when temptations are suitable to the heart, they are entertained with complacency, and are productive of actual sins. “Every man is tempted by Satan when he is drawn away by his own lust, and enticed” (the sensual appetite is drawn forth by things grateful to it) “...Then when lust has conceived, it brings forth sin; and sin, when it is finished brings forth death” (James 1:14). When the appetite has obtained the consent of the will, the complete act of sin follows; and sin habitually indulged, ends in death.
Some temptations of Satan are of such a black complexion, and so terrible to human nature, that the soul initially resists them, until by violence and restless importunity, resistance is overcome. By the attractiveness of pleasure, Satan easily prevails. As in cutting of timber, if one strikes cross the grain, there is strong resistance; but if the blow follows the vein of the wood, it easily cleaves asunder. The temptations of riches, honor, and pleasures are so delightful, that the devil commands or persuades men to a compliance with them.
Besides, his malice in pleasant temptations is less discernable; and consequently men do not by circumspection, and prayer for divine grace, preserve themselves from the mischief of them. If we are fiercely assaulted by unnatural temptations that cause extraordinary agonies of the spirit; we seek supernatural assistance, and fortify ourselves with holy resolutions against the open enemy. But by the pleasures of sin, he insinuates into men’s hearts, and feeds the deadly disease so gratefully, that they discover not their danger until past recovery. Therefore he destroys more by his serpentine suggestions, by winning charms, then by fiery rage. Indeed, he is never more a devil, than when he deceives; and we are divinely warned of his guile, devices, and wiles, that we may not be surprised and ruined by our invisible adversary.
B. Plentiful prosperity affords variety of temptations, which he makes use of to prevent the satiety and dislike that the same repeated temptations would cause. Since man was divided from God, the true center of the soul, he breaks into a thousand irregular desires; and in the apostle’s phrase, “serves divers lusts and pleasures” (see Titus 3:3), and the vanities of the world do rather cloy than satisfy; that which brings transporting joy at first, by continuance becomes nauseous and insipid. Now, the tempter, with the abundance of prosperity, so orders his temptations, as to take off the weariness of one pleasure by another, and keeps his slaves in the magical circle of variety. As a rich epicure provides a universe of luxury, commands the four elements to make a show, the earth, the air, the water, of their treasures, and the fire of its art to dress them, thereby to excite the languishing appetite, to give a relish of intemperance, and satisfy the greedy eye, as well as the blind belly. Thus Satan, the architect of pleasure, brings out of his storehouse several kinds of delightful temptations, to reenflame the carnal appetite when sated: without variety desire often fails the man, and pleasure sails the desire. Voluptuaries are dissolved in the changing streams of pleasure.
C. Idleness, that is often the concomitant of prosperity, gives him a tempting opportunity, and makes men more receptive of his temptations. The sin and destruction of Sodom was from hence. “This was the iniquity of Sodom, Pride, fullness of bread, and idleness was in her, and her daughters” (Ezek. 16:49). The idle person beckons the tempter to do his office. When the house is empty, the mind is not exercised with better employments, and the heart is loose and unguarded, the tempter is invited to take possession.
Idleness is directly opposite to life, as well as felicity. To live, is to be in action. Inanimate things are only bound with a dead rest. And among inanimate bodies as they ascend in perfection, they are more active. The heavens that excel in situation and qualities, things that are without life, are in continual motion. And man’s felicity consists in the most perfect actions of the most perfect life: in the vision and enjoyment of the blessed God. Now man, naturally being averse from a state contrary to life and felicity, if he is not employed in business becoming the reasonable immortal soul, rather than languishing in idleness, is active “in making provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof” (see Rom. 13:14). Time is tedious, and that it may pass away pleasantly, men seek for diversions that are usually either sinful in their own nature, or connected with sins.
Lawful employment is a double security against temptations. It is partly divine, as it entitles us to God’s providence over us. For while we are obeying His command, we are encouraged by His promise, “that He will keep us in all our ways” (see Ps. 91:11); either by preventing temptations, or by affording us assistance to vanquish them. It is partly natural, for while we are diligently exercised in a lawful calling, the mind is not at leisure to attend the temptation, and the senses do not so easily admit those objects that betray the soul. And it is observable, that God, who is merciful in His chastisements, orders that fallen man should obtain the fruits of the earth to support his life by the sweat of his brows, that his incessant labor might preserve him from idleness, for idleness, to corrupt nature, is the seminary of so many vile lusts.
D. As the temptations of prosperity make men an easy prey to Satan, so they keep them in the most perfect and miserable bondage under his power. When he has taken hold of their affections, “he leads them captive at his will” (see II Tim. 2:26). They are freely drawn by the pleasing force of his temptations: They are voluntary slaves, and in love with their captivity. It was the cruel and crafty advice offered to the Athenians, to keep the subdued inhabitants of Egina from rebelling, to cut off their thumbs, that they might be incapable to manage a spear, and by war obtain a victorious rescue from their tyranny, but be fit to pull the oar in the galleys. It is an emblem of Satan’s dealing with his slaves; for by the pleasures of sin, their hearts are weak, disabled from vigorous and holy resolutions to resist his power; they cannot make use of the armor of God for their defense: and their lusts are strong, they are patient of his drudgery, constant at the oar, and faithful to their chains. And from hence it is evident that men are never more dangerously under the destructive power of Satan than when they enjoy prosperity.
E. Prosperity is destructive to many in that it affords them advantages to corrupt others, and reciprocally exposes them to be corrupted by others. Persons in dignity, wealth, and power, when depraved in their inclinations and actions, are like public fountains poisoned, that convey a spreading ruin abroad. Their evil example has a pernicious influence, and more commanding efficacy as a rule, than their laws they ordain as rulers. The manners of princes are as current as their money, that being stamped with their image and superscription, though the metal be base, passes freely among the people. The reason of it is evident, for without the restraints of shame and fear, the sensual passions are riotous and licentious.
Shame is a displeasure at evils that are attended with dishonor and infamy, especially at sinful evils that are so shameful in their own nature, that the most sordid things in comparison are less ignominious. Now, foul vices when practiced by men of conspicuous eminence, do not seem with that turpitude and deformity as is inherent in their nature. They are like a muddy vapor drawn up by the sun, and enameled with the rays of light, appears amiable to the eye, not dreggy and foul as it is in itself. Innumerable miscarry by the vicious examples of persons in honor; for when sins are gilded over with creditableness, many think it necessary to be unholy, or even truly vile, that they may be fashionably noble. And when those that are in power abuse it, as a privilege for licentiousness in sin, inferiors are viciously bold, expecting facility and indulgence in the pardoning those faults of which their superiors are guilty: And those who do not fear to be punished, do not fear to sin. Thus among the heathens, lasciviousness was lawful, because they ascribed their vicious passions to their supposed deities, and did not fear their revenging justice for what was practiced by them.
Also, prosperity exposes the rich and great to be more corrupted by others. Servile spirits will be cruelly obsequious to the humors and lusts of those upon whom they depend, and the ready instruments of accomplishing their irregular desires. It is their interest to please them, from whom they receive favors and benefits. And how few have so firm a virtue, as to break the twisted temptations of pleasure and profit? The rich and great in the world are usually attended with a train of dependents, or vicious associates, whose compliance is very influential to harden a vicious disposition into a corrupt habit. These are underworkers to Satan, the master tempter, and feed the double element of infernal fire, lust and rage, in the breasts of those with whom they converse. It is the peculiar misery of men in a high and flourishing condition, that they have many flatterers, and few friends. Few or none dare faithfully represent their sins and danger, lest the sight of their guilt in its true reflections should offend them. As love is blind to others, so especially to one’s self; and mercenary wretches, by the most vile flattery, endeavor to make them believe of themselves, what is pleasing to them to believe. Such, to ingratiate, will commend the mere shadows of virtue, as substantial virtue; and excuse real gross vices, as but the shadows of vice. By deceitful arts they color and conceal the native ugliness of sin, under a thin appearance and name of virtue. The arrogant and revengeful, they call generous; the covetous, frugal; the lascivious, gentle; the prodigal, magnificent; the malicious, wary and cautious; the brutish and secure, courageous. The conversation of such is infinitely dangerous and corrupting: for under the disguise of friendship they are the most deadly enemies. What greater danger of being poisoned can there be, than when by art the taste of poison is taken away from the poison, and there is no suspicion of the traitor that gives it? Thus it is further evident, that prosperity is very dangerous to the souls of men.