Monday, July 14, 2014

Pitfalls of Prosperity


I’m all for prosperity. Somebody once said, “I’ve tried living with money, and I’ve tried living without money. I like living with money better.” I concur with that perspective, although I’ve never pursued wealth and have never achieved it. And I’ve never been as “dead broke” as Hillary Clinton claims to have been.

But prosperity is a peculiar thing. While it’s certainly preferable to the alternative, there rarely seems a moment when we conclude, “That’s good. It’s all I need.” Many people ascribe to the mantra, “Too much is never enough.” Take the mega-million dollar athletes and entertainers, for example. Despite having achieved riches beyond anything people in many of the world’s societies could even dream of, we hear grumbling and complaining as if they’re paupers, anxious to renegotiate compensation as soon as possible.

But there’s another perplexing aspect of prosperity. It’s the tendency to forget our roots, to lose sight of what got us from where we were to where we are now. This is also true spiritually. In times of need, including financial distress, we cry out to God for His help and intervention. But once the crisis has passed, and prosperity has returned, it’s easy to forget the source of our deliverance.

This was repeatedly the case for ancient Israel. God bailed them out time after time, only to see their gratitude and devotion wane as their prosperity surged. In Deuteronomy 8:11-14 the Israelites were warned, “Beware that you do not forget the Lord your God by not keeping His commandments, His judgments, and His statutes which I command you today, lest – when you have eaten and are full, and have built beautiful houses and dwell in them, and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and you silver and your gold are multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, when your heart is lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God….”

Curiously, this almost seems like a description of the United States today. Founded on Judeo-Christian principles and values, our post-World War II nation experienced an unprecedented explosion of prosperity. Home ownership, once only a faint hope for the great majority, suddenly became reality. Cars were no longer only for the privileged, and garages were added to houses. Consumerism and materialism began taking hold, and despite economic ups and downs, their grip remains strong and unrelenting.

As a consequence, we as a society seem to have decided we don’t need God. It’s become easy to deny He exists. In a twist from “I think, therefore I am,” we don’t think of God, therefore He isn’t. Supposedly there are no atheists in foxholes, but out of the foxhole we believe – or disbelieve – whatever we want. And if we feel self-sufficient, why bother with God?

Perhaps that’s one reason the apostle Paul wrote, “The love of money is a root of many kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). It not only contributes to sins such as greed, coveting, overindulgence, pride and hoarding, but also takes our focus from God, whom the Bible tells us is the giver of every good thing, shifting it onto ourselves and our stuff.

This is hardly new to human behavior. As the writer of Proverbs 30:8-9 wisely pleaded, … Give me neither poverty nor riches; Feed me with the food that is my portion, that I not be full and deny You and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or that I not be in want and steal, and profane the name of my God.…”

So despite hand-wringing over economic uncertainties, we in the United States remain perhaps the most prosperous society in history. While the poor in some countries live in squalor – African huts, Brazilian favelas and Hispanic barrios, all homes consisting of scrap materials – many of our poor possess cars, wide-screen TVs and cell phones. Poverty and prosperity are relative.

The upshot of all of this is we, like the people of ancient Israel, have collectively decided, “Who needs God?”, replicating the pattern the Israelites modeled: all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes” (Judges 17:6).

As we scan the landscape of society, observing the craziness that’s transpiring these days, this doesn’t necessarily seem like a good thing. Maybe prosperity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

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