The Curse of Prosperity
In recent years, people have begun to call Thanksgiving by another name, Turkey Day. I have always found this name a bit peculiar. On other holidays like Columbus Day, George Washington's Birthday, and Memorial Day, we pay our respects to those we are remembering, but on Turkey Day we kill and eat them, rather like cannibals in the South Pacific having a People Day.
There's a reason—a disturbing reason—for the name change. When people sit down before the great feast on Thanksgiving Day, they still sense that they ought to bow their heads and give thanks. Yet people today would rather forget God. They would like to suppress the feeling on Thanksgiving that God deserves their gratitude. So, they are trying to discard the name Thanksgiving and to forsake the traditions on this holiday which kept God at the center.
Why are so many ungrateful to God for His blessings? The fundamental reason is that we are too prosperous. After the exodus from Egypt, God told the nation of Israel that He was leading them to a desirable land already prepared for their habitation. It would be a land overflowing with milk and honey, a land filled with strong cities that others had built and with vineyards and olive groves that others had planted. So, after occupying the land, they could expect a life of prosperity. But God warned them that with prosperity would come the danger of forgetting God. They would be tempted to look around at their wealth and say to themselves, "By our hands, by our labor, we have achieved this, we have built a good life for ourselves." They would take credit for what God had given them.
The same mentality exists in America today. We enjoy unprecedented prosperity, and yet we fail to recognize that its source is God. Why? We take our wealth for granted. We feel we deserve it. We imagine that we created it. It is a funny thing about human beings that they are more thankful when they are suffering poverty than when they are enjoying plenty. In Little House in the Big Woods, the author, Laura Ingalls Wilder, describes how new pioneers living on the edge of subsistence celebrated Christmas. Each of the older children received exactly two presents (a pair of knitted mittens and a piece of candy), and in addition one of the younger children received a homemade rag doll. Were the children unhappy and ungrateful because their gifts were so meager? On the contrary, the author concludes her reminiscences by saying, "What a happy Christmas it had been!"1
Perhaps you say, "Others may have the problem of being too rich, but not me. I'm not rich." Because we know people who have bigger houses and cars than we have, most of us feel that we are just average folks. But comparing ourselves with wealthier acquaintances is like the Empire State Building in New York comparing itself with the Willis Tower in Chicago. From street level, they both look gigantic. Likewise, in relation to all the people living in past generations, in relation to the vast majority of people around the world today, modern middle-class Americans are fabulously wealthy. Think of it. What are you lacking that you could reasonably want? There is probably a restaurant in your city to satisfy any craving your appetite is capable of. You have more clothing in your closet than many of your ancestors possessed in a whole lifetime. Your houses and gardens would, in past generations, have set you just below the highest nobility. Kings of old would have gone to war to acquire your telephone, your air conditioner, your car, your television.
Although prosperity is a blessing from God, it is, as we have said, a danger also. It can have a chilling effect on our love for God and on our gratitude for His blessings. What is the remedy? Should we give away our goods and take a vow of poverty? That might work. But it might not. With poverty might come bitterness rather than gratitude. I think God prefers that we take the following, more practical, measures to guard our spiritual health in the midst of material wealth.
Let Us Stop Putting Ourselves in the Place of God.
Many self-made men have no time for God because they think that they have no one to thank for their success but themselves. They view life as a brutal competition in which the fittest survive, and they count themselves among the fittest. None of us would be so crass, but still we are all prone to thank ourselves for our achievements. When we finally move into a dream home after years of working and saving, do we say, "This is the result of what we have done," or do we say, "This is the result of what God has enabled us to do"? For indeed, everything we have comes from God and belongs to Him.
Remember Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 4). God warned him through a dream interpreted by his chief counselor, Daniel, that because he failed to acknowledge his dependence on God, God would bring him low, making him like a beast in the field. A year passed and nothing happened. The king probably had forgotten the dream, or had decided that he was in no danger of divine judgment. Then one day he went up to the heights of his palace and surveyed his capital city, Babylon.
On his north he saw the Hanging Gardens, which Greek writers identified as one of the seven wonders of the world. There, a visitor could see exotic flowers and trees and beasts and birds collected from every corner of the world known to ancient man.2
On his east the king saw the beautiful Ishtar Gate, which still exists in ruins.3 Beyond that, he saw the wall of Babylon stretching into the distance. The wall was actually two walls. Each section was twenty-five feet thick, and between them was a space forty feet wide filled with rubble that supported a military road running along the top.4 So, the overall width of the wall was close to one hundred feet. No one knows how high the wall was, because in the course of centuries people have carted the bricks away and put them to other uses.5 One Greek writer said that the wall was eighty-six feet high.6 Outside these walls was a moat three hundred feet wide, and beyond the moat the land was wet and marshy.7 No wonder that the world in Nebuchadnezzar's day regarded the defenses of Babylon as impregnable. And indeed, no attack force ever took Babylon by going over the walls.
To the south of the palace Nebuchadnezzar saw a huge ziggurat piercing the skyline. Called Etemenanki, it was designed as a step pyramid within a perfectly cubic space, over 300 feet in each dimension.8 It was likely patterned after the original Tower of Babel (that is, Babylon). Beyond Etemenanki lay Esagila, the temple of Marduk, who was god of Babylon. Within its chambers the god was depicted by a statue made of pure gold.9
When the king looked to his west, he saw the mighty river itself, the Euphrates, dividing the city into two sectors, and in the western sector he saw rich temples and prosperous homes and broad avenues.10
Humanly speaking, Nebuchadnezzar had every reason to be proud. He said to himself, "Is not this great Babylon, that I have built?" (Dan. 4:30). But what happened when Nebuchadnezzar boasted in himself and failed to thank God for his achievements? The judgment that God had foretold a year before immediately fell upon him. His mind was filled with the mad delusion that he was a beast, and for seven years he went about on all fours, seeking to feed himself by grazing grass, and he allowed his beard and nails to grow as if they were fur and claws.
It is possible that America will come to a similar fate. As a nation we neglect to give thanks to God and instead we boast in ourselves. God has patiently withheld judgment, giving us a chance to repent. But his patience will not restrain judgment forever.
Let Us Stop Putting Human Science and
Human Ingenuity in the Place of God.
How do you react when you hear that another life has been saved by some marvel of modern medicine? Do you praise man's ingenuity, or do you praise God? You should praise God, of course, because medicine advances only when God allows man to understand something new about the world He created. Who shows a doctor how the body works, who teaches him how to treat its diseases, who guides his hand in surgery? It is God.
Yet, few who thank the doctor who is God's instrument remember to thank God Himself. Why? One reason is that we do not realize just how puny man's achievements are. When we enter a shopping mall for the first time, or when we spot the latest model of a luxury car coming down the street, or when we watch the blastoff of a manned rocket, we feel a momentary thrill of admiration. But when we come across a divinely crafted object that we have never seen beforean unfamiliar flower or bug or tree or mountain perhapswe may hardly glance at it. Any backyard is full of wonderful living things designed by God, yet we take them for granted. Have you watched the metamorphosis of the ugly caterpillar? Do you know how the lowly squirrel manages to run at full speed along a pathway no more than an inch wide? Do you know how the firefly produces light? We are hardly aware of how fearfully and wonderfully we ourselves are made. Did you know that the complexity of the human body in relation to one of man's greatest achievementsthe Space Shuttle, for exampleis like the difference between the Encyclopaedia Britannica and a postcard?
By the way, modern science has figured out how the firefly produces light. The mechanism is very complex, involving two large, unrelated enzymes otherwise unknown in nature. Why has God allowed man to solve this particular puzzle of His creation? Because God leaves man no excuse for denying the Creator's existence. The light-producing mechanism in a firefly is in itself sufficient proof that the firefly did not evolve. There is no way the mechanism could work unless it was complete. Therefore, it could not have evolved by degrees. The same is true of millions of other mechanisms in nature. No wonder the Bible says, "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God" (Psa. 14:1).
Let Us Remember Past Blessings.
One reason we fail to thank God for blessings is that we forget them. What did God do for you yesterday, last week, a year ago? Do you remember? If you do not, how can you be properly thankful? Most of us give God a laundry list of requests in the morning. Then, as we go through the day, we more or less forget God and fail to notice how His answers are working themselves out in events. So, when we return to Him the next morning, we just give Him another laundry list of the same kind, consisting of requests without thanksgiving. What is the remedy for this problem?
1. When you pray, emphasize spiritual requests. Pray for souls, for their salvation if they do not know God, for their growth to spiritual maturity if they do know God. Ninety percent of your requests should not be for healing of sickness, or for rescue from trouble. You will discover that God frequently does not grant a request of this kind, because to grant it would be to negate His higher purpose in the trouble or sickness. God did not take away Paul's thorn in the flesh. Why? He wanted to keep Paul humble (2 Cor. 12: 7-9). He let Fanny Crosby lose her sight when she was a little girl and He never restored it. Why? He wanted her to develop the sensitivity to sound that would make her the finest religious poet of her generation. John Bunyan was an outstanding preacher, yet God allowed his opponents to silence him by putting him in prison for several years. Why? He wanted Bunyan to write Pilgrim's Progress, that great work of Christian literature which has been a source of instruction and blessing to millions.
Therefore, if you pray only for the relief from misfortune, you will often approach God with a disappointed heart. But if you see every misfortune in a spiritual light, revealing that God uses trouble to accomplish good purposes, you will be able to thank Him for whatever happens.
2. Keep a record of God's blessings. When He does something extraordinary or miraculous, do not pass over it quickly, keeping only a dim memory somewhere in the recesses of your brain. Write it down somewhere, in a notebook perhaps. After you have compiled several stories of His working, these will be very helpful and encouraging to read at difficult moments in your life. In the past I have recommended that a believer keep a prayer diary. But I have found that answers to many requests do not become evident until years later. So, a prayer diary will not help you much if you lose patience and set it aside after a few months. However, if you keep it faithfully for five or ten years, it will do much to support your prayer life. It will encourage you to pray, and to pray in faith, and to keep on praying, even when heaven seems silent.
My wife has kept a record of how God has helped us in each of our moves. Moving is an ordeal, as you all know. Selling one house and buying another can be a great trial. Yet the Lord has always given us some special help to ease our burden, to strengthen our faith, and to give us reason to praise Him. Let me cite two examples.
- While we were teaching school in Michigan, the local economy was severely depressed. There were houses near us that remained for sale during the whole seven years we lived in our house. So, when we put our house on the market, we did not know what might happen. But the Lord brought two buyers on one day who bid against each other, and we were able to close on the day following the last day of school.
- When we took teaching jobs requiring us to move from South Carolina to Georgia, our house sold the first day it appeared on the market. But after buying a new house in Georgia, we discovered something that made us deeply regret buying it. But the contract was contingent on completion of our sale in South Carolina. Just then, after much prayer, the deal in South Carolina fell through, releasing us from our contract in Georgia. Although we were now delivered from a big problem, we were back at square one, with little time remaining before I was due to start my new job. But the Lord worked it all out. After returning to the market, the house in South Carolina again sold immediately, on the first day. We quickly found a house in Georgia. And we were able to close on both houses before school started.
Let Us Stop Being Self-centered and
Cultivate the Habit of Thankfulness.
Thanking God is one way we show that we love Him. But 1 John 4:20 says, "If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?" We might also say, "If a man say, I am grateful to God, and is ungrateful to his brother, he is a liar: for he that gives not thanks to his brother whom he hath seen, how can he give thanks to God whom he hath not seen?" In other words, I will more readily thank God for His benefits if I customarily show gratitude to the people around me. A sincere "Thank you" should always be on my lips. I should say it to a brother, a sister, a spouse, a parent, a child, a neighbor, a clerk at the store, a person on the street. Then, because I have set gratitude at the core of my character, I will remember to give a heartfelt "Thank you" to God.
The adage, " Charity begins at home," implies that the home is the best place to start showing more thankfulness. Let us begin by showing more of it in our marriages. Let us express more appreciation for what our spouses do for us. Some years ago, when circumstances left my wife with an unusual burden of schoolwork, I had to cover a larger share of the household chores—like doing the dishes and doing the laundry, even preparing meals. Now, doing the dishes is not a bad job. It is just that you are never through. You no sooner walk out of the kitchen than dirty dishes begin piling up again. They multiply like rabbits. As for making beds, I fail to see the point. You pull up the covers in the morning, only to push them down again at night. It would make more sense to leave them in one place. You can see that my competence at housework is borderline. Nevertheless, doing more of it gave me a new gratitude for my wife's unselfish labor in the past. It brought me under conviction that I had not told her, "Thank you," as often as I should.
As we learn the habit of thanking people and acknowledging our dependence on them, we will develop a keener sense of our dependence on God. He is our creator, the giver of life both in this world and in the world to come. Through Him life has meaning and purpose. The past holds no enduring shadows. The future shines with hope. It is He who covers our sins with a robe of righteousness, who makes our failures a training ground for spiritual success, who equips and improves us until we can serve night and day in His temple forever. He is the One who will erase all our pain and dry all our tears and give us a new body to serve as a tabernacle for the soul; a body that the Bible describes as spiritual, powerful, and immortal; a body so wonderful that we cannot now imagine what it will be like. There is nothing good that does not come from God. There is nothing bad in anything He does or in anything He designs. So, as we come to Thanksgiving, let us indeed give thanks—let us give thanks to the great Benefactor whose goodness many people on that day will ignore and resent. Let us not be among them. Let us prove ourselves to be God's children by giving Him the praise He is due.