October 20, 2017

Prosperity and Poison

Aaron Blumer

Prepare your heart for Christmas … and Black Friday!

Last summer our garage acquired a new addition to its collection of lethal chemicals: a bottle of fungicide now adorns a high shelf. The chemical’s intended purpose is to keep the tomatoes alive and prospering, and it has proved to be wonderful stuff. But it came with a whole booklet of instructions and dire warnings. Too little water in the solution or too many applications to the plants, and the blessing can become a bane, killing what it was intended to nurture.

The Christmas season reminds us that there is also a potent agent in our American homes that can become toxic to us and our families. It is the wonderful but deadly phenomenon called prosperity.

Prosperity can become poisonous in many ways. We’ll consider three.

Guilt

First, prosperity becomes poisonous if it’s mixed with guilt. Scripture represents prosperity as a form of God’s blessing. When God began to gather a people for His name through Abraham, He promised Abraham great prosperity. And He delivered! “I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great” (Gen. 12:2). “And Abram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold” (Gen. 13:2).

The pattern continued in the lives of Isaac (Gen. 26:12–14) and Jacob and Joseph. “The Lord was with Joseph, and he was a prosperous man” (Gen. 39:2). Centuries later, Moses reminded God’s people again that their prosperity was God’s blessing: “And the Lord shall make thee plenteous in goods, in the fruit of thy body, and in the fruit of thy cattle, and in the fruit of thy ground” (Deut. 28:11).

Now, as then, honestly attained prosperity is a gift from God. Feeling guilty about it insults His generosity, leeches joy from our lives, and poisons our relationship with God. As our families meet this Christmas and share great abundance, we should keep guilt out of the mix and, instead, add large quantities of humble thankfulness.

Forgetfulness

Second, prosperity becomes poisonous if combined with forgetfulness. When we receive a gift, it’s supposed to make us remember the giver more than we otherwise would. But ironically the human heart tends to respond to the gift of prosperity in exactly the opposite way. Because our possessions are so constantly visible, and because the hand of Providence is so constantly not, the gift of prosperity tends to be more real to us than the Giver. Soon we begin to feel that our well-being depends on our own labor and resources, and through forgetfulness prosperity turns to poison.

Moses confronted this tendency when he warned God’s people about their prosperous future in the land. “When the Lord thy God shall have brought thee into the land . . . to give thee great and goodly cities, which thou buildedst not, And houses full of all good things . . . when thou shalt have eaten and be full; Then beware lest thou forget the Lord” (Deut. 6:10–12). “And [beware] when thy herds and thy flocks multiply, and thy silver and thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou hast is multiplied; Then thine heart be lifted up, and thou forget the Lord thy God . . . And thou say in thine heart, My power and the might of mine hand hath gotten me this wealth” (Deut. 8:13, 14, 17).

The truth we have to re-inject into our thinking again and again is that our hard work does not really produce our prosperity and our possessions do not really secure our well-being. God does. Moses went on to say, “But thou shalt remember the Lord thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth” (Deut. 8:18).

Thousands of years after Moses, Paul reminded Timothy to confront the same problem. “Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not highminded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17).

If others have struggled down through the ages, certainly we who enjoy a life of unprecedented plenty are even more vulnerable to forgetting Providence. As we share our abundance with one another this Christmas, let’s protect our families by reminding them of our dependence on Almighty God.

Distorted Values

Third, prosperity becomes poisonous if joined by distorted values. Human nature is prone to respond to prosperity by developing twisted values. That is, we tend to assign much more value to certain features of our lifestyle than these features really have. To put it another way, we lose sight of the difference between needs and luxuries.

In America, many believe they are “poor” if they can’t afford to buy a second car. There just isn’t enough left after making the payments on the first car loan, the satellite TV, the big screen entertainment center, and after buying the latest trendy clothes and the newest CD from their favorite musician. We shouldn’t be surprised to see this kind of thinking. Prosperous societies enjoy increasing comfort and luxury from generation to generation, and each generation tends to classify as “needs” what the previous generation saw as “luxuries.”

Thinking this way has serious consequences for believers. Though we are fairly quick to sacrifice “luxuries” for what has enduring value, we generally see “needs” as nonnegotiable, and if meeting those “needs” costs us some family time or some ministry opportunities or some growth opportunities—well, a person has to do what he has to do.

This reasoning is sound enough, but if our idea of “needs” includes what are really luxuries, the result is that we cling to the expendable and sacrifice opportunities that are truly priceless. The prosperous young man Jesus met is one ancient example. “Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me. And he was sad at that saying, and went away grieved: for he had great possessions” (Mark 10:21, 22).

The results of these distorted values can be grave. Parents pass up a Christian education for their children, high school graduates opt out of Christian college training, and families pass up opportunities for short-term missions all because they “don’t have enough money.” Even worse, moms and dads neglect one another and their children because they “need to work more hours.” Perhaps, sometimes, we really don’t have enough money for these items of higher value, but we each have to face the question honestly: have we simply elevated luxuries to the level of needs and put them in the “nonnegotiable” file? Have we created a lack of funds for growth and service by confusing luxuries for needs?

Paul’s warning is as timely as ever: “Having food and raiment let us be therewith content” (1 Tim. 6:8). Tragically, parents sometimes create values confusion in their children unintentionally while trying to teach them important lessons. They aim to teach “the value of hard work” (an important Biblical lesson, Prov. 14:23), so they encourage their child to get a job. But all too often a sixteen-year-old has a job only so he can buy a car that he really needs only so he can get to his job. Meanwhile, matters of much greater worth are being crowded out of his life.

We parents must take great pains to avoid teaching our children the bad habit of sacrificing important relationships, Christian service, or even regular worship for the sake of “more stuff.” If we make that mistake, we allow the blessing of prosperity to pervert our values and poison our families.

God’s Word declares what is truly of greatest worth: “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way , and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up” (Deut. 6:5–7).

The lesson that we must love God with all our being is the most important one we can teach our children. If we fail in that, teaching “the value of hard work and responsibility” is pointless. Our prosperity demands that we constantly realign our values to God’s and that we take great pains to instill His values in our children.

Soon families will gather and gifts will be given. We will share our vast prosperity with another. God calls us to do so with attitudes informed, shaped, and constrained by Biblical truth. Let’s be thankful for the gift of prosperity, mindful always of the Giver, and careful to keep a clear view of what has greatest value in life. Then prosperity will not poison our families. It will be the source of joy and blessing God intended.


(Originally published in FrontLine • November / December 2004. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)


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