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. 11
The prosperity of fools shall destroy them. (Prov. 1:32, AV).
In the last place, from hence we should be warned to be always circumspect to avoid the evils that usually attend prosperity, to improve it to our eternal advantage. Prosperity is not like an infected garment, that transfuses a contagious malignity into everyone that wears it. A person that is rich and honorable, and in power, may not only be a saint, but the more a saint by his dedicating and employing the gifts of God to His glory and public good. It is a point of high and holy wisdom, and only taught in the school of heaven, how to manage the opposite states of the present life, so as not to be vain in swelling prosperity, nor broken and flagging in adversity, but to preserve an equanimity, a constant composed mind, the blessed imitation of the divine unchangeableness. Paul says, without vain arrogance, “I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound, everywhere, and in all things I instructed, both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need” (Phil. 4:12). It was a secret of the Spirit, not learned from men, but from the Holy Spirit of God. In some respects it is a more difficult exercise to manage prosperity than adversity. Many are like Hannibal, victorious in arms, while conflicting with adversity, and vanquished by enticing pleasures. It is observed of the lamps in some of the Roman tombs, that have burnt for many ages, and are bright while kept close, that as soon as they are opened to the air, a breath of wind extinguishes them: Thus the virtues of some shine in a low retired condition, when there are no temptations, no occasion of quenching them; but when brought forth into the open world, and should appear in conspicuous operations, their virtues are of so weak and consumptive a spirit, that the light expires and dies. Even the piety of David was chilled by prosperity. It is said, with an emphasis, concerning Jehosophat, that he walked in the first ways of his father David: intimating that his religion was not so exact when he was in the throne, as in his banishment.
It is equally excellent as difficult. To be holy and heavenly in the midst of sensual tempting objects, is the clearest discovery of the truth and power of divine grace, of the piety, ingenuity, and generosity of the Christian Spirit. Humility and modesty in a low condition, are not so praiseworthy, as the absence of them is odious: but humility in a state of honor, is more illustrious than the splendor of external dignity. Temperance in a cottage, where are only supplies of hunger and thirst, seems rather the effect of necessity, than of wise choice: But to be temperate when abundance and variety tempt the sensual appetites, when the sparkling color and delicious relish of the purest wines tempt the fancy and the palate, is virtue in a height and excellence. To be pious and weaned from the world in afflictions, is no wonder; but in prosperity and power to be serious in religion, and despite the splendid vanities of the world, is a virtue of a superior order. What is observed of the perfuming gums of Arabia the Happy, is applicable in this matter: those that distill freely from the tree, excel in purity, in fragrancy, and value, what comes from it when the bark of it is cut. Thus obedience, which comes from the heart in love with God for His benefits, is more valuable and precious than what is the effect of compulsion, which comes from the heart wounded with terrors in adversity.
I shall add further, the using of prosperity aright is most comfortable. The love of God can sweeten afflictions, and make a dinner of green herbs as savory as if they grew in paradise: and it gives a quick and high taste to all our temporal blessings. When His love is conveyed and sealed to us by the gifts of His providence, we have the purest enjoyment of them. Now when prosperity is made subservient to His glory, when it endears obedience to us, we have an infallible testimony it is from His special favor to us.
The rules how to manage prosperity for our everlasting good, are,
1. Let us preserve a humble sense of our original coarseness, continual frailty, and sinful unworthiness in the midst of prosperity. Men are apt to be high-minded, and to cherish undue conceptions of their own worth when raised in the world: as if they were not as inferior to the majesty of God, and as liable to His impartial justice as others. They lose the knowledge of themselves in a mist of vanity. This provokes the High and Holy One that inhabits eternity, to blast them in their most flourishing and secure state, and convince them how deceitful and insufficient the grounds of their pride are. He puts them in fear, that they may know themselves to be but men. There are such great and just allays of the vain mind, such correctives of pride, that it is strange that any temporal prosperity should occasion swelling arrogance. The Psalmist considering the glory of God shining in the heavens, is in an ecstasy at His condescending goodness. What is Man that you are mindful of him? Or the son of man that you regard him? His original is from the earth, the lowest element; all that he possesses to supply his want and satisfy his desires, is from pure mercy; and the more eminent the advantage of some is above others in this world, the greater are their receipts and obligations. And who would be proud that he is in a mighty debt? Rich and poor, honorable and mean, are distinctions among men; but in respect to God all are equally mean and low. Neither do these things give any inherent worth, and make persons more acceptable to God. Poor Lazarus, who was a miserable spectacle. His body corroded with ulcers, yet had a precious soul under it. The glorious angels descended from heaven to receive it at the point of death, and convey it to the reviving presence of God; but the rich man was cast into hell. Besides, how uncertain are all the admired things of this world!
Is he truly rich whose whole estate lies in a ship abroad, that is to pass through seas exposed to tempests, and infested with pirates, and runs a double hazard of being robbed or cast away? And the consideration thereof, is a proper argument to cause us to keep a low mind in high condition. It is the apostle’s counsel, “Let the rich and the great in the world, rejoice in that he is made low: because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away” (James 1:10). When the florid beauty is displayed, it presently withers. How many survive their estates and dignities, and by unforeseen revolutions become poor and low. Many that were overflowing in riches and pleasures, are as dry and desolate as the desert. And is it not a disparagement to our reason to admire shadows, and be proud of transient vanities? But suppose they continue with men here, can they preserve the body from diseases and death, or the soul from oppressing sorrows? And is it not miserable folly to pride themselves in secular greatness, that is so insufficient to prevent the worst evils? But especially the consideration how man is vilified by sin, should make him be abased and low in his own eyes. As that blessed martyr, Bishop Hooper says, “Lord, I am hell, Thou art heaven; I am a sink of sin, Thou art the fountain of holiness.” And the more gracious and bountiful God is to men, the more sinful should they appear to themselves. Humility discovers our native poverty, in the midst of rich abundance; our true vileness in the midst of glittering honors, that nothing is ours but sin and misery; and make us say, with the spirit of that humble saint, “We are less than the least of all God’s mercies.” Now the more of humility, the more heaven is in the soul: it is that disposition that prepares it to receive the graces and comforts of the Spirit in an excellent degree. God resists the proud; the self-conceited and aspiring He is at defiance with, and abhors them; He justly deprives them of Spiritual treasures, who value themselves and bear it high for the abundance of this world. But He gives grace to the humble. The due sense of our wants and unworthiness makes us fit to partake of divine blessings.
2. A meek temper and deportment is an excellent preservative form the evil of prosperity. Humility and meekness are always in conjunction, and most amiable in the eyes of God and men. “A meek and quiet Spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price” (1 Pet. 3:4). They are the brightest jewels that adorn humanity, and shined so gloriously in our blessed Savior, the supreme pattern of perfection, and are propounded as signally imitable by us. Learn of me for I am meek and lowly. When He came in His regal office, He is thus described, “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion: Behold thy king, come unto thee: He is just and having salvation, lowly” (Zach. 9:9). The Church is excited to rejoice in His mild monarchy. And Christians, who in profession are His disciples are commanded to be gentle, and to show meekness to all men. This especially concerns those who are in a superior order: for prosperity is apt to make men insolent and intolerable, and to treat with an haughty roughness those that are below them. But there is nothing more becoming men in prosperity and power, than a sweetness of Spirit, not easily provoked by injuries, and easily pardoning them; a gracious condescension expressed in words and actions, even to all inferiors. And especially meekness is necessary in a submissive receiving reproofs for sin, whether by the ministry of the word, or by a faithful friend. Prosperity is never more dangerous, than when sin takes sanctuary in it, than when men think riches and power to be a privilege to free them from sound and searching reproof, and so damn themselves with less contradiction. And a humble submission, with respect to the authority of God and an ingenious tractableness, with respect to the sincere affection of those who are faithful in their counsels for our souls, is an eminent instance of meekness, and preserves from the danger of prosperity.
3. Solemn and affectionate thanksgiving to God for His mercies, sanctifies prosperity.
This is the certain consequence of a humble disposition of soul. Pride smothers the receipts of God’s favors: Thankfulness is the homage of humility. This is infinitely due to God, who renews our lives as often as we breathe, and renews His mercies every moment; yet so unjust and ungrateful are men, especially in prosperity, that they strangely neglect it. From hence are those divine warnings so solemnly repeated to the Israelites, “When you shall have eaten, and are full, then beware lest you forget the Lord” (Deut. 6:11-12). And, “lest when you have eaten and are full, and have built goodly houses, and dwelt therein, then you hear: be lifted up, and you forget the Lord thy God” (Deut 8:12). This was the wicked effect of their prosperity: “According to their pasture so were they filled; they were filled and their heart was exalted, therefore have they forgotten me” (Hosea 13:6). There is a great backwardness in a carnal heart to thanksgiving for mercies. Prayer, in our distress, is a work of necessity, but thankful praise is an act of duty; carnal love is the cause of the one, divine love of the other. Even David, how ardently does he excite his soul to the performing this duty; “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless His Holy Name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits” (Ps. 103:1-2). The earnest and repeated address to make a lively and fervent impression upon his soul, is a tacit intimation of the drowsy negligence he found in himself. This duty is spiritual, and to be performed by the soul (which is our noble part), and capable to understand our obligations to the divine goodness. Indeed, it is often expressed in the vocal praises of God, for there is a natural correspondence between the tongue and heart, as between the hand of a clock, and the motion of the wheels within. But the chief part is performed in the soul, and is only of value and acceptance with God, who is the maker, the searcher and the judge of our hearts. Therefore the Holy Psalmist calls upon his soul, and all that is within him; every faculty to unite in the praises of God: The understanding, to consider the several arguments of praise and thankfulness, to esteem and to admire the divine goodness, to ascribe the glory that is due to God for His mercies; the memory, to register His benefits; the will and affections, to love Him for His mercies, and above them.
Thankfulness implies a solemn recognition of the mercies of God, with all the circumstances that add a luster to them, to affect us in as vigorous a manner in our praises for the blessings we enjoy, as we are in our prayers for what we need. Not only signal mercies, but common and ordinary should be continually acknowledged by us. And since our memories are so slippery as to the retaining of favors (injuries are inscribed in marble; benefits written in dust), we should every day review the mercies we enjoy, to quicken our praises for them, and to make impressions not soon defaced. Thankfulness implies a due valuation of God’s benefits. This will be raised, by considering the author, the great God: the meanest mercy from His hand is a high favor. As the guilt of sin arises from the greatness of the object (though some sins are comparatively small, yet none is in its intrinsic nature a small evil), so though of mercies, some are in comparison eminent, and some are ordinary, yet every mercy is great with respect to the author from whence it comes. And the thankful esteem of mercies, will rise in proportion to the sense of our unworthiness. A constant poverty of Spirit in reflecting upon our own vileness, that there is not merely a want of desert in us, with respect to God’s blessings, but a desert of his heavy judgments, will heighten our esteem of them. For this end it is very useful, that the prosperous would consider those below them, how many better than themselves are under oppressing wants, tormenting pains, and breaking sorrows, whom you may trace by their tears every day; and what free and rich mercy is it, that they enjoy the affluence of all things. This distinguishing goodness should be acknowledged with a warm rapture of affection to the divine benefactor. To compare ourselves with those that excel us in grace, will make us humble, and with those who are below us in outward blessings, will make us thankful.
The prosperous have special obligations to be most conversant in this celestial duty. There are various graces and duties that are only useful in this imperfect state, and shall expire with us (as repentance, faith, hope, patience, etc; the reward of them will be eternal, but the exercise is limited to present life), but love and praise remain in heaven. The saints eternally admire, love, and bless God for His mercies. And the sincere and constant performance of this duty is most pleasing to God, and profitable to us, for thankfulness to our blessed benefactor, engages His heart, and opens treasures of His bounty more liberally to us. The way to obtain new benefits is not to suffer former favors to be lost in ungrateful oblivion. In short, it is the best and surest evidence of our thankfulness to God, when His mercies are effectual motives to please Him. We cannot always make an actual commemoration of His benefits, but a habitual remembrance should ever be in our hearts, and influential in our lives. “Thy loving kindness is before mine eyes, and I have walked in thy truth” (Ps. 26), that is, unfeignedly respected all Thy commandments.
4. The fear of God, and a vigilant care to avoid the sins that so easily encompass us, is necessary in prosperity. The secure assist Satan in his war against the soul; but watchfulness disarms the tempter. Circumspection is never more a duty, than when pleasures without and passions within, conspire to betray us. It is useful to reflect upon the great numbers who have been corrupted and ruined by prosperity: That the vices of the dead may secure the virtues of the living. The fear of God is clean, effectively, as it preserves from sin. It is Solomon’s advice to young men, that enjoy the world in its flower, and in the season of their sinning, that they would remember that God for all their vanities will bring them to judgment. This consideration will be powerful to prevent the rising of the corrupt affections, or to suppress their growth, and hinder their accomplishment. But with the excellently tempered soul, ingenious fear from the consideration of God’s mercies, is an effectual restraint from sin. It is said, they shall fear the Lord and His goodness: Fear to affect and grieve and lose His goodness. This fear does not infringe the comfort of the soul, but preserve and improve it. Servile fear, when the soul is afraid to burn, not to sin, is a judicial forward impression, the character of a slave; but an ingenuous grateful fear, that springs from the sense of the divine goodness, is a voluntary affection becoming a child of God, and cherished by Him. The fear of the Lord is His treasure. This watchfulness must be universal against all temptation to which we are incident by prosperity: otherwise we shall be guilty of a like folly with those that shut and fortify one gate, and leave the other open to the enemy. And it must be as continual as our temptations. Blessed is the man that fears always.