A Classic Study:
The Danger of Prosperity
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A Classic Study by William Bates (1635–1699)
[Here, we conclude a study by the eminent English Puritan William Bates, concerning the danger of prosperity. In this issue, Mr. Bates is continuing to enumerate some rules on how to properly manage prosperity.]—Ed.
The Danger of Prosperity, pt. 13
7. When riches and power are employed for the glory of God and the good of others, they are a happy advantage to those that possess them. All benefits are virtual obligations; and the greater our receipts are, the greater our accounts will be. God has a sovereign right in all things we have, and they are not to be employed merely for our pleasure or profit, but according to His will, and for His honor. It is true, He enjoys His own eternity, His own glory and blessedness, to which there is no possibility of accession: His essential glory cannot be increased, but His declarative glory may be more manifested in the eyes of men; and He strictly requires that we should use His gifts, so as to show forth His glory to declare how highly we value His glory, and how ardently we desire and endeavor that others should bless and praise Him. Thus men in high dignity should govern their greatness so as to make it subservient to this blessed end, that the wisdom, power, holiness, justice, and mercy of God, may be manifested in their administration. And those who enjoy a present abundance should, according to their capacity, relieve the wants of others. The wise God has ordered several degrees in the society of men, the rich and poor; that the inequality may be an occasion of the exercise of charity. And it is a spiritual favor, that He is pleased to make some His treasurers to dispense His benefits to His family. While others can only be charitable in their compassionate desires, He gives to some an ability of diffusive goodness: and it is injustice mixed with foul ingratitude, not to pay that tribute of which He has appointed the poor to be His receivers, not to abound in good works, when from His most free and special favor, He enables men to imitate and honor Him who is rich in mercy. “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). The present reward is excellent: it is our Savior’s encouragement; give alms of such things as you have, according to your capacity, and behold all things are clean unto you. As under the law, by offering the first fruits in the temple, the whole harvest was consecrated and blessed; so by a charitable distribution, the rich have a pure and comfortable enjoyment of their estates. And the reward hereafter will be glorious by infinite degrees, exceeding the most costly and liberal charity. It is the encouragement used by the apostle, “Charge them that are rich in this world, that they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate; laying up in store for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life” (I Tim. 6:17). Some by corrupt prodigality waste their estates, are profuse as the sea; some heap up riches as the sand, and both must be responsible to the righteous Lord, who will severely call them to an account for the abuse of His blessings. But those who, according to their utmost ability, honor Him with their substance, and by their charity and beneficence open the hearts and lips of many in thanksgiving to God, shall be accepted and rewarded from the divine mercy.
Especially doing good to those whom God loves, who bear His image, who are peculiarly related to Him, shall have an excellent reward. The apostle tells us, that some by entertaining strangers, received angels: The honor is incomparably greater, that in relieving the godly, Jesus Christ, the Lord of angels, is fed and clothed in His members. And at the last day He will publicly own those acts of mercy as done to Himself: Then He will give to the contented poor the crown of patience, and to the charitable rich, the crown of liberality. In short, riches and honor, power and prosperity are temptations to the carnal that draw forth their lusts, and increase their guilt and misery; but to wise and faithful Christians, they are talents improved for their Master’s honor, and their own everlasting good.
8. A firm resolution to part with all possessions and dignities, when God’s honor, and the testimony of His truth requires it, is an excellent antidote against the evil of prosperity. God does sometimes call forth His servants to hard trials, to declare with more stretch and evidence their love to His name, their zeal for advancing His glory: Satan is an irreconcilable enemy to God and His saints; and inspires the perverted world with His own malice against them. Rage has no reason: The Jews would excommunicate the blind man, because he saw, and ascribed the glory of the miracle to our Savior: and Lazarus must die, because he was to be raised from the grave. Now when a Christian is prepared for this noble act of self-denial, to forsake all things when his duty to Christ requires it; this preserves him from the ensnaring temptations of prosperity.
It is observable, the same divine disposition of soul makes us temperate in the use of present abundance, and patient in the loss of it. The low esteem of earthly things, joined with the lively hope of heaven, renders the enjoyment of the world less delightful, and the loss of it more tolerable. The philosopher and courtier says of himself, that he always in his prosperity kept a great distance between his affections and riches with honors; and in the change of his state, that were rather taken easily away, than rent from him. According to the temper of the mind, the difference is as sensible in the parting with outward things, as between clipping the hair, and tearing it off with violence. Nay, the glory of heaven does so eclipse the faint and fading luster of this world, that a believer not only patiently but cheerfully makes the exchange of the one for the other. Moses preferred affliction with the people of God before the crown of Egypt, because of the reward above that was in his view (see Hebrews 11:25ff). And the Christian Hebrews took joyfully the spoiling of their goods, knowing that they had in heaven a better and an enduring substance. The blessed hope will preserve us from being foiled by prosperity when it surrounds us, and from sinking in adversity. Like Mertyllus his shield, that secured him in the field, and saved him being shipwrecked at sea, by wafting him to the shore.
Lastly, earnest and constant prayer to God for divine grace, is a sovereign means to preserve those who are in prosperity from the danger that attends it. “I know how to abound,” says the apostle; and immediately adds, “I can do all things through Christ that strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12-13). Supernatural strength in an eminent degree is requisite to keep us entire and upright in the dangerous conflict with the pleasant temptations of the world: and that strength is derived from Christ, and obtained by humble prayer. It is St. Austin’s observation, that Elisha wanted a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, because he was in public honor; and exposed to a more dangerous trial and extraordinary grace was necessary for him: But Elijah was under continual persecution. The trees that are exposed to storms are strong and firm, but those in the sunny valleys are brittle and easily blown down. We are directed to ask wisdom of God for the governing of ourselves in afflictions, that in patience we may possess our souls, and the turbulent passions may not cause rebellious disorders, but the sanctified mind may use afflictions for our spiritual and eternal good. And it is as necessary to beg heavenly wisdom for governing ourselves in prosperity, that when temptations are frequent, and favored by our joyful affections, which are equally vehement and exorbitant as the sad affections, reason may keep the throne, and manage prosperity, so as we may obtain our blessed end. Such is the malice of Satan, that he incessantly desires leave to tempt us, and love to our souls should make us pray continually for confirming grace against his temptations. Briefly, if the good things of this world make us more humble and holy, more fearful to offend God, and careful to please Him; if they are motives to renew our homage and thankfulness to Him, if they are used in subordination to His glory, they are the testimonies of His present favor, and the pledges of our future felicity. Our blessed Savior keeps the best wine for His obedient friends until the last.
(This concludes Mr. Bates’s study.)