I read a story this morning about a businessman who was behind fake bombs planted at Grays’ Inn in London's legal district to intimidate lawyers who work for the National Crime Agency (NCA). He wanted to frighten them after the NCA conducted legal proceedings against him and his wife, which resulted in £1m of assets being recovered. The court heard he was upset at the prospect of losing his stately home, Embley Manor in Romsey, Hampshire.
The man’s case is another example of how our slavery to prosperity leads us to offer more sinful sacrifices to keep it. In his case it has cost him physical freedom. Materialism is a loveless uncaring god. Now, if we are true followers of Christ, we know that Christ is infinitely better. Yet, how we also still give in so easily to the pursuit of the slavery of prosperity! I recently came across a statement by Paul David Tripp (PDT) that helpfully discusses this issue:
Why are we so busy? There may be many answers to that question, but let me suggest one that is particularly true of Western culture. The answer may surprise you: materialism. I think we all have been influenced by the materialism of Western culture, which says that happiness and fulfillment are to be found in material things. If you are a Christian, you would say that is wrong and that you do not believe it. But that does not discount the fact that the influence is very powerful, and the evidences of its seduction are in all of our lives in some way. The constant pursuit of bigger and better material things sucks away our time, energy, and relational vitality. We not only have to work way too much to acquire material things, but once we have them, we are enslaved to the responsibility to maintain them. And with all our acquiring, the things we have acquired don’t satisfy the longings of our heart. So we go out and get more, as if we are running a race that has no finish line. Many of us live in houses way bigger than we actually need. Many of us have closets that are stuffed with clothing we seldom wear. Many of us are spending way too much money on restaurants, entertainment systems, big vacations, and luxurious cars. And if that does not describe you, perhaps this will: almost all of us are living beyond our means in some way.
PDT puts the finger on the ugly stain of how most professing Christians live. It is not a life of freedom in Christ, it is sadly a life of slavery to things we own. The more we accumulate the more enslaved we become because we feel pressure not only from inside but outside to maintain our lifestyles. This is a bigger explanation of what is going on with us, than simply, ‘I need a car because my neighbour has one’. The first movement of getting the car may well be built on better moral foundations, the bigger problem is that now we have a car we must offer sacrifices to it to keep it. There is not just slavery but also an element of paganism in our materialism.
The real issue is that in a fallen world our relationship with everything has become adversarial. All things we own are trying to enslave us in some way because all things are tainted by sin. C S Lewis makes a similar point in The Screwtape Letters. In one of the chapters, Lewis puts a finger on why “prosperity” is dangerous to the human soul. It makes living in this fallen world comfortable. It makes us want to live longer in this world not because we want to honour God with our lives but because we are afraid of losing what we already have. In short, properity reduces the size of God and enlarges earthly possessions. Here is how Lewis puts it in his own words:
Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that he is “finding his place in it”, while really it is finding its place in him. His increasing reputation, his widening circle of acquaintances, his sense of importance, the growing pressure of absorbing and agreeable work, build up in him a sense of being really at home in earth which is just what we want. You will notice that the young are generally less unwilling to die than the middle-aged and the old.
When I think of prosperity, I see it in terms of the four things that Job in the Bible had in his life which were taken away from him for a season: riches (properties and businesses); family (children); personal health; and, influence (significance, friendship, social influence). When we receive blessings from God in any of these areas we are prospering. The odd thing is that as we prosper in these areas we start prefering this life more than the eternity God offers each one of us through faith and trust in Jesus. And most importantly we start configuring our lives to be about maintaining these things rather than focusing on living for Jesus.
Now, I know many who profess faith in Jesus would not regard themselves as followers of the "prosperity gospel". We do not follow God to give us riches. That is a good thing. And yet, if we simply stopped and looked at our lives, it is quite evident that most of us are living desperately to maintain or even chase a higher level of prosperity of family, health and influence. It is not just that our lives are organised around investing in these things above all else, including God, it is also that that our joy is tied to how much of these things we have. If we do not maintain some level of prosperity we become depressed and joyless.
It is much worse than that. I suspect if we searched deeply, we would find that buried within our hearts is a false assumption that if we work hard for God and really gave him our best, God will work hard for us. We live hoping that if we put in lots of mileage to church on Sunday and share Jesus with others, God will see how good we are! And then he will bless us with a great family, good health and widen our influence. We don’t believe in the "financial prosperity" gospel but we still believe in the lie that if we are nice to God, He will give us the best life now. To paraphrase C S Lewis, prosperity has knitted our souls to this world. We live for here and now. Even our relationship with God is about the here and now.
What is the antidote to this slavery of prosperity?First, we need to recognise that even as true followers of Jesus there is still that temptation in us to live for this world, even though we know full well this world is not all there is. We know that it is foolish on our part to chase prosperity in this life because this world is not enough. The world is passing away. To centre our lives on this world is nothing short of decorating the tomb. All the things we live for - riches, family, health and significance are good things. But knitting our souls to these things is folly because they can never give us ultimate fulfilment. They only enslave us.
The problem with living for worldly prosperity, in whatever form it takes is not simply that the more blessings we have the less we want to lose, it is that the very accumulation of blessings strangely expands our longing for more. From the youngest age, this longing for prosperity in life defines everything we do and say. We fight over toys, the last bowl of cereal, and who gets the bathroom first. We want to be first in the classroom; we want to be prettiest girl in school, to win every argument with our neighbour; to achieve that illusive promotion. We strive to have the best, to be the most powerful, the best known; and the most loved. As we grow older this desire for prosperity just keeps on growing.
Why does prosperity lead to a deeper desire for more? A. W. Tozer says, “There is within the human heart a tough, fibrous root of fallen life whose nature is to possess, always to possess. It covets things with a deep and fierce passion”. Prosperity expands our desire for more prosperity because at the heart of each fallen human being is a longing for satisfaction that never ends. It is a longing for God, as PDT says elsewhere, “The crisis of the human existence is not that we are horizontally unfulfilled, but that we are vertically cut off ". As Christians we know that God is the only one who can ultimately fulfil our endless longings for prosperity because God made us in his image. He is our greatest need in life.
As followers of Jesus, we know that people don’t just need prosperity from God, we need an intimate and interactive life with God. We need God to fill us with Himself. To be of one mind with God.. To love what he loves, and our hearts to beat for what God’s heart beats for. This is only possible by God giving us a new heart. We cannot do it on our own because we carry a virus within us called sin. It is forever pushing us to hate God. So we need God to take away our evil hearts and put a new desire within us. The good news of Jesus is that God does this for everyone who repents and trusts in Him.
If we are trusting in Jesus we have found lasting meaning and purpose in God. However, whilst we are still in these bodies, and living in this fallen world, we will face temptations to give into the temptation of prosperity. So there is need for us to examine ourselves everyday. What are you truly living for? Are you living for God or are you living for prosperity? What are you most afraid of losing in this life? Is it your family, your house, your health, your job, your car, your video games, good behaviour of your children, the respect of your co-workers? If your fear of losing intimacy with God is bottom of the list then clearly you are handcuffed to the very slavery of prosperity which God has already freed you from in Jesus.
What are are you really living for? What gets you up in the morning and keeps you going through the day? What would your friends say really matters most to you? If we watched the video of your life over last month, listening to what you said and why you said it, what would we notice most? If we watched how you made decisions and related to others, noting what you were interested in and fought for, what would it reveal? If we saw how you invested your free time, and if we saw you in busy and quiet moments, even hearing your silent conversations with yourself, would we conclude that Jesus is the centre of your life? Is Jesus really your love, your source, your motive, your goal, and your hope?
C S Lewis elsewhere says: If we consider the staggering rewards promised in the Bible, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased”.
The truth is that we will never find fulfilment in new outfits, new homes, new cars, new businesses, new holidays or new promotions. This is a truth we know already as believers but we so easily forget. This world only offers us the slavery of prosperity. True last fulfillemnt is already ours in Jesus and we grow to enjoy it by growing in surrendering to Jesus.
The proper response to the slavery of prosperity is not simply trying harder not to pursue it. The answer to the slavery of ownership is not in taking unilateral steps to abandon ownership, that is death. To live is to own. The answer is to ensure that which enslaved us loves us. What we want is for our lives to be dominated by a slavery that is freedom. And we have One whose slavery to Him is love because we know He gave His life to purchase us our freedom from the slavery of sin to a new life of loving slavery with Him. We over come the slavery of prosperity by growing in a superior slavery to Christ. Allowing Christ to extend His loving shackles on us. The more we are controlled by His love the more happy and free we become.
Every musician knows that it’s hard to enjoy playing with another musician who fails to stick to the same key and rhythm, and the same is true of life in general. We cannot say we are living life with God when we are playing in the wrong key with Him. Only growing in surrendering to Jesus can we grow to in experiencing lasting happiness in Him. So we must come afresh to God believing that in Jesus we have an advocate with the Father. And that if we confess our sins, God is faithful to cleanse us from our sins! In Jesus we have a Saviour who is enough for us! So let us come to Him afresh and ask Him to take away the love of prosperity and renew in us the love of the Father!