The Gentle Slope of Prosperity
Also, Over the past several months we have been working through a series of posts entitled “The Gentle Slopes.” The central content we have been using in these posts is C.S. Lewis’ (1898-1963) The Screwtape Letters, which is a profound satirical work from the perspective of a demon named Screwtape who writes letters to his impish nephew Wormwood in the hopes of training him in the best tactics to destroy the Christian “patient” he is assigned to. Throughout the book we witness Screwtape advising his minion to utilize a variety of temptations to unravel the soul of the Christian man – such as unsavory friendships, bouts of doubt and skepticism, struggles with lust, self-centeredness, and even boredom and distraction. These sobering insights are a powerful reminder to us as believers of the infernal tactics we face in the everyday ordinariness of spiritual life.
If you have not gotten it from this series of posts, let’s make it explicit: all of life is spiritual and all of ordinary existence is saturated with eternity. This is one of the central themes that permeates Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters and stands at the heart of the Gentle Slopes series. We need to be awakened to the reality of how everyday ordinariness can become a battleground of spiritual warfare.
PROSPERITY AS ENEMY OF SPIRITUAL LIFE
Towards the end of The Screwtape Letters, the senior demon begins to worry that his minion Wormwood may be failing at his task of insnaring his patient. Even worse, Screwtape fears that his diabolic toady may allow his patient to die prematurely amid war, which would ensure his immediate assent to Heaven (C.S. Lewis wrote this when the Germans were bombing England in World War II). The senior devil, therefore, takes the initiative to write his naïve underling and remind him of the necessity to keep his patient safe from harm so more time may be given to defeating him. One of the goals of Hell, Screwtape reminds, is to make sure the Christian has a long, healthy, and prosperous life of mediocrity. He puts it like this,
[Humans] tend to regard death as the prime evil and survival as the greatest good. But that is because we have taught them to do so. Do not let us be infected by our own propaganda. I know it seems strange that your chief aim at the moment should be the very same thing for which the patient's lover and his mother are praying - namely his bodily safety. But so it is; you should be guarding him like the apple of your eye. If he dies now, you lose him. If he survives the war, there is always hope. The Enemy [God] has guarded him from you through the first great wave of temptations. But, if only he can be kept alive, you have time itself for your ally. The long, dull monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather. You see, it is so hard for these creatures to persevere. The routine of adversity, the gradual decay of youthful loves and youthful hopes, the quiet despair (hardly felt as pain) of ever overcoming the chronic temptations with which we have again and again defeated them, the drabness which we create in their lives and the inarticulate resentment with which we teach them to respond to it - all this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul by attrition . If, on the other hand, the middle years prove prosperous, our position is even stronger. 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.
The truth is that the Enemy, having oddly destined these mere animals to life in His own eternal world, has guarded them pretty effectively from the danger of feeling at home anywhere else. That is why we must often wish long life to our patients; seventy years is not a day too much for the difficult task of unravelling their souls from Heaven and building up a firm attachment to the earth…. So inveterate is their appetite for Heaven that our best method, at this stage, of attaching them to earth is to make them believe that earth can be turned into Heaven at some future date by politics or eugenics or "science" or psychology, or what not. Real worldliness is a work of time - assisted, of course, by pride, for we teach them to describe the creeping death as good sense or Maturity or Experience….
How valuable time is to us may be gauged by the fact that the Enemy allows us so little of it. The majority of the human race dies in infancy; of the survivors, a good many die in youth. It is obvious that to Him human birth is important chiefly as the qualification for human death, and death solely as the gate to that other kind of life. We are allowed to work only on a selected minority of the race, for what humans call a "normal life" is the exception. Apparently He wants some - but only a very few - of the human animals with which He is peopling Heaven to have had the experience of resisting us through an earthly life of sixty or seventy years. Well, there is our opportunity. The smaller it is, the better we must use it. Whatever you do, keep your patient as safe as you possibly can.
I do not presume in one post to exhaust the wisdom within this passage, but I wish to focus upon one major truth that permeates it: One of the greatest threats to our spiritual lives is prosperity. Arguably there are few things more capable of producing in us a indifference and lethargy to spiritual things than affluence and safety. The famed German poet and novelist Goethe (1749-1832) said,
“Everything in the world may be endured, except continual prosperity.”
How profound when you dwell on it. People can endure tremendous amounts of suffering and evil, and yet many times come out the other end reforged into a new creature full of charity, temperance, strength, and calm. But how many people have you ever read about in history, how many nations can you think of, how many individuals have you known, that have been destroyed by prosperity? My mind immediately thinks of Solomon, Rome, America, and modern lottery winners. I am reminded of one author who wrote,
“Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, and weak men create hard times.”
This sentiment is true not only with nations but individuals, and not only with the material but even more so with the spiritual. Peace and success most often are the central tools by which the Adversary births within us an anemic and apathetic soul. We hate to admit it, I hate to admit it, but if we are honest, it is the truth. When things are good, when all is well in body and soul, God is more often than not put on the back burner of priorities. He becomes an event or individual penciled into our busy schedules, or perhaps not even that. This is all very subtle of course. Very few of us would acknowledge nor bring to the frontal realms of our consciousness the idea that we think less of God when things are good versus when things are bad. Few if any of us consciously say, “You are unimportant to me God.” But again, that isn’t how spiritual warfare works most of the time. It isn’t usually blatant blasphemous rebellion; it is slow-growing seemingly “benign” indifference. Remember that spiritual decay is a slow leakage – a methodical regression of caring. It is a settledness of spirit content with in its mediocrity. Prosperity is chief in this process all too often. The English bishop and writer George Horne (1730-1792) said it this way,
“Prosperity too often has the same effect on its possessor that a calm at sea has on the Dutch mariner, who frequently, it is said, in these circumstances, ties up the rudder, gets drunk, and goes to sleep.”
What is so sad about all this is how often our western churches help inculcate in us a desire for and even expectation of prosperity. In many of our modern churches, we are preached at incessantly, unto death even, on how much God desires to give us what we want. His goal, we are told, is to bless us with unbounded health, wealth, and peace. We are told “God wants you never sick but always healed,” (even though this never happened to the Apostle Paul) and “God doesn’t want you to ever beg bread” (even though many a prophet did), and “God has promised to give you the desires of your heart (even though said desires are to be aligned to Kingdom desires). God wants all of this for us, we are taught, even though the long and marred History of the Church reveals that untold suffering and even martyrdom are at the core of the Faith. The Early Church Father Tertullian (155-220 A.D.) long ago said,
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
Could you imagine such sentiment being stated in our modern western church settings? Now, let me just detour but for a moment at this point. Do not misunderstand. Can and does God often heal and feed and clothe his people? You bet! To think otherwise is to deny scripture and history. Can and does God answer our prayers regarding earthly desires and needs? Absolutely, as testified through the ages and the Word. But there is more to the story than this. There is an objective difference between requesting the blessings found in Christ versus demanding and expecting them. Furthermore, we tend to forget that God can and does often use struggle, suffering, and even lack for the reason to reform, refine, and realign our souls back to Him (the Book of Job, Romans 8:18, 2 Corinthians 4:17, 1 Peter 5:10, Hebrews 12:11).
Even more so, we tend to forget that there are far deeper and far grandeur levels to what qualifies "blessings" than physical safety and success. They are richer, higher, and more transcendent than just our earthy ends. That should, therefore, be our central focus when we consider "blessings." Jesus Himself taught it like this,
19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.
And the Apostle Paul instructed Timothy saying,
17 As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19 thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.
1 Timothy 6:17-19
Again, God can and does bless us with prosperity (and I mean this not in the sense of Bill Gates but contentment, peace, security, health, and normalcy of life) but we should stop expecting this as a guarantee. The fact is God doesn’t owe us a thing. He doesn’t have to do anything for us, and what He does is a sheer act of His grace and love. We need to get this truth and chew on it lest we be consumed with a sense of unwarranted disappointment because God is “not doing what we ask.” We should have a fortitude of faith that can declare, as Job did,
Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him
Can I declare such a thing? Can you? We better. Even more so, when you think upon it, if it is the case that God knows in His foreknowledge that prosperity would, in fact, make us indifferent and indolent spiritually, then why would He grant such requests to begin with? He would be unjust and unloving to do so. So in a very real sense, denying us prosperity can in fact be an exercise of His love and mercy for us at times. Read Job if you have any doubt, and then try out Ecclesiastes and Lamentations. But I digress.
COMFORTABLE IN A FALLEN WORLD
A major danger of prosperity is that it tends to make us desire and expect more of it, which in turn tends to become the central focus of our field of vision in life. Subtly it morphs our spiritual relationship with God into one of expectation rather than gratitude, of haughtiness rather than humility, and fickleness rather than perseverance. What can creep in is a hellish Health-n-Wealth type religion that believes that our “hard work” for God is somehow deserving of “hard work” from Him for us. Again, we won’t say this publicly or even perhaps consciously, but it can be there in the depths of our soul. God HAS TO bless me, cause I’m His! Right!? It’s this idea that if we put in a lot of mileage “doing for God” (going to church, praying, seeking Him) that He is going to “do for us” because, after all, we are His children. Right? Aren't we His little cosmic pets living on a spherical terrarium we call Earth, being fed directly by His hands and never having to be concerned with lack or want? Isn't He required to clean our litter boxes and resupply our food bowls?
Such an attitude is bred into the minds of a people who are obsessed with the idea that prosperity is defined in the narrow frame of earthly material accommodations (both body, property, and money). It is almost inconceivable to us in the West that prosperity from God can occur through suffering and even lack. It is almost inconceivable to us that prosperity can exist outside the realm of complete health and wealth. Sadly, such a view is as unbiblical as it is asinine - and it doesn't hold muster in the vast life of the Church beyond American shores, where continued suffering and slaughter is a regular recurring reality. Again, I digress.
Is it any wonder that the Scriptures are replete with cautioning us about worldly success and prosperity for fear it will distract us spiritually? In fact it is quite sobering just how much the Bible tells us about this. We are told that when we have eaten and been satisfied we tend to become proud and forget God (Deuteronomy 8:10), that confidence in riches tends to lead to gloating (Job 31), that trust in abundance versus God is evil (Psalm 52:7), that when we trust in riches we will fall (Proverbs 11:28), that abundance can lead to rebellion and blasphemy (Nehemiah 9:25), that wealth brings spiritual satisfaction and forgetfulness (Hosea 13:6), that the love of money is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10), that one cannot serve God and wealth (Matthew 6:24, Luke 16:13), that wealth has a deceitfulness that chokes the Word and spiritual fruitfulness (Matthew 13), and that the desire for riches tends to plunge us into ruin and destruction (1 Timothy 6:8). There are so many more examples, but the point is made that we are creatures that all too often simply cannot handle prosperity. John Newton (1725-1807), the great 18th Century hymnist and abolitionist, spoke poignantly on such a point when he said,
“Experience testifies, that a long course of ease and prosperity, without painful changes, has an unhappy tendency to make us cold and formal in our secrete worship…. When things go on much to our wish, our hearts are too prone to say, ‘It is good to be here.’”
What Newton is getting at is a profound truth: Prosperity has this seemingly inevitable effect of making living in a fallen world more comfortable for us. Lewis echoes this by saying that prosperity tends to “knit us to the world” and produce in us “a sense of being really at home in earth.” This is so true, even in thinking in my own life! Even worse, we get to a place where we centralize our earthly abundances and begin to, as Lewis says, “believe that earth can be turned into Heaven at some future date.” In short, it has the effect of reprioritizing our values and desires towards the secular as opposed to the sacred, to see the eternal through temporality rather than the temporal through the eternal.
PUTTING PROSPERITY IN ITS PLACE
I cannot get around the need for us to have an eternal perspective in combating our struggles with prosperity. I have come to this theme on multiple occasions concerning battling other struggles, but it applies here as well. The “deceit of riches” (prosperity) happens when we slowly lose sight of eternity and focus more on the finite fulfillment with no clear focus of how they only echo the deeper Reality found in Christ we are longing for through them. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) said it like this,
In this life there is no true and solid satisfaction, that all our pleasures are mere vanity, that our afflictions are infinite, and finally that death which threatens us at every moment must in a few years infallibly face us…. The only good thing in this life is the hope of another life, that we become happy only as we come nearer to it, and that, just as no more unhappiness awaits those who have been quite certain of eternity, so there is no happiness for those who have no inkling of it.
Pascal is not saying anything here that is not in line with Scripture. I have said this before, but it bears repeating, over and over again the Scriptures remind us to think of life through the lens of the eternal, and even death itself, for by this our souls are grounded to the Greater Beauty that truly fulfills. When we do this we realign our values and desires, we transform our views of the spiritual disciplines, and we begin to even see prosperity in a new light. The Apostle Paul declared,
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. 5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you…
The central means by which we curb our obsessive slips into the deceits of riches is to “seek the things above.” When we think eternally, “where Christ is seated,” what we desire and pray for, how we view health and safety, what we fear and long for, transforms because it is revalued through the work and person and nature of Christ.
Before closing, I cannot help but be reminded of the wisdom of Agur in the Book of Proverbs. In chapter 30 of the book, we are given the only prayer that exists in the entire set of proverbial writings in the Bible. It just so happens that such a prayer has a major focus on prosperity. Agur declares,
7 Two things I ask of you;
deny them not to me before I die:
8 Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that is needful for me,
9 lest I be full and deny you
and say, “Who is the Lord?”
or lest I be poor and steal
and profane the name of my God.
Think of the gravity of this prayer. How many times have you heard preachers pray, “God, I pray that these people do not have too little…and do not have too much”? How many of us have ever prayed that we would not have riches as much as we pray about not having poverty? But why such a prayer? Agur affirms, for “lest I be full and deny you” oh God. Fullness comes from abundance, which in turn breeds satisfaction which in turn makes us forget the LORD – it is the loss of the eternal perspective. I wonder if it could be possible that our Health-n-Wealth obsession in America is one of the reasons our churches are so ineffective in bringing lasting spiritual change. We are so focused upon God “giving us” abundance as a sign of blessing that we forget that “giving us” lack can also be a blessing to us. If that is the case, and it is, then perhaps we need to pray that God staves His hand of riches in our lives to drive us towards Him rather than be content and full of earthly things. God help us in this.
 C.S. Lewis, Signature Classics, The Screwtape Letters (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2003), pg. 267-268
 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as quoted in Tyron Edwards, A Dictionary of Thoughts (United States: F. B. Dickerson Company, 1908), pg. 450
 G. Michael Hopf, Those Who Remain: A Postapocalyptic Novel (Michael Hopf, 2016)
 George Horne as quoted in Tyron Edwards, A Dictionary of Thoughts (United States: F. B. Dickerson Company, 1908), pg. 451
 Tertullian, Apologeticus, L.13, (c. 197 A.D.) https://www.tertullian.org/works/apologeticum.htm
 John Newton, Letter V, Cardiphonia or, The Utterance of the Heart, vol. 2 (United Kingdom: Murray & Cochrane, 1807), pg. 22-23
 Pascal, ibid, pg. 191-192
 Consider these scriptures that deal with the evanescence of our lives and seeing life through eternity and death: 2 Samuel 14:14, 1 Chronicles 29:15, Psalm 90:12, Psalm 144:4, Job 14:1, Ecclesiastes 1:4, Isaiah 40:6, James 4:13-14. All of them call us to have a healthy understanding of death so that we may have a proper understanding of life.
11/10/2022 12:28:51 am
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Michael H. Erskine is a high school Social Studies Teacher, has an M.A. in History & School Administration, serves as a Bible teacher in the local church, and is happily married to his beautiful wife Amanda.