In this episode we see how good circumstances can be a test of our faithfulness just as much as hard circumstances. Prosperity is a difficult challenge. It is an opportunity and we must choose how to use it. We need perspective to do this well. To help with this, we will look at the three things we can control and three specific challenges regarding prosperity.
The Mountaintops: Prosperity is a difficult test
You know it’s pretty typical, if you’re in a group and say something like wealth is a tremendous test of our—it’s a tremendous burden to bear. What will the response always be? Yeah, let me have that trial, right? Yeah, I want to try that one. Yeah.
Or, if you say fame is a real difficult test. Ah, let me try that! That’s the normal situation.
But the reality is prosperity is perhaps the most difficult trial of all.
This is a quote from a British author, Thomas Carlyle. He said, “Adversity is sometimes hard upon a man; but for one man who can stand prosperity, there are a hundred that will stand adversity.”
And we see this in the scripture too. If you’d turn with me to James 1, we can actually see it.
Now James 1 is a tremendous little treatise on life. It starts with,
—count it all joy when you fall into various trials,
And every one of us have trials, tests. We have difficulties.
And so he says count it joy. Why? Because you have a chance to prove your faith, and that’s really what we’re here on the earth for. That’s why we’re here, to grow our faith. That is what gives us the—that’s the real benefit of this life that we’ll take with us into the next life.
But then he says don’t think that God tempts you. And it’s the same root word, but I think the difference in a test and a temptation is the motivation of the one giving it to you. Your algebra teacher gives you a test, but do they want you to fail or pass? They want you to pass, right?
A tempter gives you a test, but they want you to fail; and God never wants us to fail.
So in James 1:9, it gives us the two kinds of circumstances that are the most common. He says,
Let the lowly brother glory in his exaltation
Okay, so a lowly brother. What kind of trial is a lowly brother going to be having? Necessity. Want. Difficulty.
And if we are in that situation, when we’re in the valley, man, it’s difficult! It was incredibly difficult in the valley. And what Job said was blessed be the Lord. He didn’t really fold on that. And he said this is the way to do it. Man, this is just what I needed! This is great for me! This is a really high spot to be in right now because God’s given me difficult circumstances.
But it just says that. And then it talks about the other end of the spectrum. It says,
but the rich in his humiliation—
Why? Now why a rich man in humiliation? That’s not what the world says being rich is, humiliating. “Oh, look how humiliating it is with that fancy car you have.” That’s not the normal response.
but the rich in his humiliation, because as a flower of the field he will pass away.
For no sooner has the sun risen with a burning heat than it withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beautiful appearance perishes. So the rich man also will fade away in his pursuits.
So with this one, he has to give an explanation. Why? Because this is a really hard one. This is a hard perspective to grasp. And that’s really what we’re going to be talking about today.
We need perspective
I mean, all through this terrain of the journey, our life’s epic adventure, we have this terrain. We’ve got the valleys, and we’ve got the everyday plains where most of life happens and most of our opportunity is. Now we have the mountaintops. And all of that terrain, what we really are trying to do is get perspective.
Now there are only three things in life we can control: We can control who we trust, we can control our perspective or our attitude, and we can control the actions that we choose to take. That’s really it. Everything else that we think we can control, we can’t.
Most notably, we cannot control our spouse. That doesn’t keep us from trying, does it? We cannot control our children. We cannot control our boss. We cannot control the circumstances around us.
We can control who we trust. We can control our perspective. We’re mainly talking about perspective here; and perspective largely deals with who we trust.
It was interesting. Thomas Carlyle’s wife has a famous quote as well. If this was a famous quote and it was given by my wife, I don’t think I’d be all that happy. But she said, “I married for ambition.” (I guess that’d be OK. She’s “marrying up.”) “I married for ambition. Carlyle has exceeded all that my wildest hopes ever imagined of him, and I’m miserable.”
Well, that’s what tends to happen with prosperity of any kind. You get there, and it’s empty. It just wasn’t what you expected it to be.
So how do we overcome that? Well, it’s with perspective.
So, we’re on this two-minute epic adventure ride we call life, and we’ve used the analogy of Snow White’s Scary Adventures, and we’re all Snow White. Mankind was appointed to be the ruler of all earth. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing in perfect harmony with God and with one another and with nature. That’s the way it was supposed to be. A little higher than the angels, even. That’s what Psalm 8 says we were appointed to. And, yet, because of the fall, we’re relegated to life in the scary forest with a dwarfed humanity. Humanity’s not like it’s supposed to be.
Well, what God calls us to do is wash the dwarfs’ clothes, cheerfully whistle, and commune with the animals, right? That’s what we’re supposed to do is cheerfully go about our daily business. We talked about that last week that life on the plains of everyday experience is really where our character is molded the most.
But then will come along the valleys and the mountaintops, and keeping our perspective is incredibly difficult.
So we have three challenges about prosperity we’re going to see today or the danger of mountaintop experiences. And we’re going to look at materialism, and we’re going to look at fame or prestige, and we’re going to look at spiritual highs. These are three challenges that we have to mount, and it all has to do with perspective.
Well, the philosophy of materialism we’ll take first. Materialism is a philosophy that says my happiness is determined by what I do not yet have. I will be happy if I get that thing. I’ll be happy if I have a Porsche. If I have the Porsche; I’ll be happy if I get a better Porsche or Ferrari. I’ll be happy if I have that wife. No, I’ll be happy if I have this girlfriend. Now I’ll get rid of that wife and this girlfriend becomes—no, I’ll be happy if I—you’re always chasing something else. And when you define happiness as something you don’t have, what can you never be happy with? What you do have. And if you can’t be happy with what you do have, you’re not going to be happy.
So the philosophy of materialism is a philosophy that says you can’t ever be happy. It’s craziness.
We can look at Jeremiah 9:23. Jeremiah 9:23 says this, and this is all in the context of God speaking to the nation about disaster that’s looming. And he says,
Thus says the Lord:
“Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom,
Let not the mighty man glory in his might,
Nor let the rich man glory in his riches;
What did James say is going to happen to riches? Just passing away, right? All money is on its way through our hands, on its way somewhere else, isn’t it? All possessions through our hands on its way to somewhere else. Clutching onto possessions does nothing but generate fear.
Nor let the rich man glory in his riches;
But let him who glories glory in this,
That he understands and knows Me,
We saw this in Job, right? We saw that the whole point of Job’s suffering was that God liked him best. He was his favorite guy, and he didn’t want him to miss out on one opportunity to know God by faith.
We see these verses where the angels are stooping down like archaeologists trying to understand about us, and they’re trying to understand God through looking at us. And why are they doing that? It’s because they can’t live by faith.
So glory in this: We get a chance to know God.
Ecclesiastes 5:10 says this:
He who loves silver will not be satisfied with silver;
Nor he who loves abundance, with increase.
This also is vanity.
John Rockefeller was once asked, “How much money is enough?” And he answered, “Just a little more.”
You know how much John Rockefeller left behind? All of it. Very good. Yes, that’s right. He left it behind, all of it.
God’s perspective on material things
Well the opposite is God’s perspective, God’s perspective on material wealth. Let’s look at 1 Timothy 6. In 1 Timothy 6, we can see God’s perspective on material things. 1 Timothy 6:17.
Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty—
Haughty. I’m better than you. When we elevate ourselves among other people, what we do is create separation; and, really, the greatest benefit of life is connectedness. So don’t be haughty.
nor to trust in uncertain riches
Where are the riches going? Passing through on the way to somewhere else, right? So this is one of the great challenges of having material prosperity. Material prosperity causes us to trust in our riches.
We have this problem in America. If you make $30,000 a year or $31,000 a year, you are in the upper 1 percent of all the world. If you make $30,0000 a year, upper 1 percent.
So they talk about the 1 percent. “We want the 1 percent to distribute their earnings.” What they mean is they want all the money in America to go somewhere else. That’s what they’re really talking about because all of us are rich.
If you’re at the poverty level, you’re in the top 85 percent of the world. The median income in the world’s $1,500 a year, the world today, not 80 years ago. Today. $1,500 dollars a year because most of the world still does subsistence.
So we are rich, and what we are doing as a nation is beginning to mourn the passing of our great riches because we can see it’s coming to an end. We’ve been borrowing and borrowing and borrowing. And people have a lot of angst and fear. Why? We’re trusting in our riches! Don’t glory in riches, Jeremiah said. Glory in knowing me.
We have a great opportunity coming in our country, I believe.
But, no, don’t be haughty nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy.
So the crazy thing is materialism that says you are happy when you get something you don’t have—which, by definition, means you can never enjoy what you do have—just the opposite. God says I gave you everything to enjoy what you have. Doesn’t that make a lot more sense to enjoy what you have?
C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters, I think it is, has the demon character say—I think they call it your patient. Have your patient—the demons are working on this guy.
They said, “Try to make him live in the future all the time because the future is not real. It doesn’t exist. And you can have him be afraid of every possible thing that might happen, and you totally neutralize him if you can get him to live in the future. If you can’t do that, get him to live in the past. There’s a little danger there because the past is real. He might learn something from it and bring it into the future. So it’s dangerous to be in the past; but at least in the past you can get him to focus on remorse or fear. But don’t let him live in the present! The present is where you touch eternity, and if he sits down to have a cup of tea and enjoys his circumstances and looks at the trees and says, wow, those trees are beautiful, now you’re in grave danger of losing him because he’s enjoying what he has.”
Well, that’s what God wants for us is to enjoy what we do have.
And look at the very first word here in this passage we read. Verse 17. Command. We rich people, we need to be shaken up a little bit because we trust in ourselves. We trust in our savings account. We trust in our material possessions.
Look, if you have a lot of money, you can control things. If you’ve traveled around the world, you take out your blue American passport, and everything just opens up for you. That’s what we’re used to.
Well let’s not be haughty or trust in uncertain riches. God has given us all things to enjoy.
Let’s look at John 6 and see what Jesus says. In John 6:26, here these people have chased him, and they—
—came to Capernaum, seeking Jesus.
And when they found Him on the other side of the sea—the Sea of Galilee—they said to Him, “Rabbi, when did You come here?”
Now this is great. That’s almost like a how-are-you question, isn’t it? When did you come here? They’re not seeking to know.
Jesus answered them and said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. You got a free meal.
Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life—
Now everlasting life, eternal life, has two components. It’s a gift, it’s a reward, it’s an experience, just like physical life. Birth and then living. And so, he’s talking here about the experience of everlasting life. Seek for the thing that causes you to experience the gift that you have.
And you can’t live your physical life very well if you stop eating food. Well, what is this spiritual food?
Well it’s the thing which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him.”
And we know what this is. It’s the words of Jesus. It’s the teachings that God’s given us, to live those things. And when we do that, we’re actually having true riches. If we strive for the rewards that God has set for us in the future and those things to which we can acquire after this life, we know those are things we can keep. Anything we have here is going to be eaten up by moths or rust. The things in the eternal life we can keep forever.
So we can do two things: We can choose a perspective that allows us to enjoy what we have in this life, and we can choose a perspective that brings exponentially greater happiness in the life to come.
“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard,
Nor have entered into the heart of man
The things which God has in store for those who love Him.”
If we love him, we do what he asks us to do. Choosing this perspective helps us avoid the trap of materialism which can be a real high to try to try to elevate ourselves materially.