THE PROSPERITY TRAP
(This is Chapter Nine from my book How Saved Are We?, Shippensburg, PA: Destiny Image, 1990)
All of us have read the Parable of the Sower. A farmer went out to sow his seed (his seed was the Word of God). Some of the seed “fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up” (Mark 4:4). This represents those who hear the message about the kingdom and do not understand it. Immediately “Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them” (Mark 4:15). It never really entered their hearts.
Some seed “fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root” (Mark 4:6). This stands for those “who hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away” (Mark 4:16-17). Yet these people knew the Lord!
Look carefully at what the Scriptures say: the people whose hearts are like rocky soil hear the Word, and at once receive it with joy. Luke tells us that “they believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away” (8:13) — because they have no root! It is not because they reject the message. It is not because they do not believe. It is because they have no depth. Their commitment is only skin deep. When pressures mount, when troubles arise, when persecutions come, their whole walk with God collapses. This is a picture of many of us!
Let’s be honest with ourselves. If real persecution came our way, most of us would cave in. We would deny the Lord! We’re not being faithful in the little, how can we expect to be faithful in the big? If we succumb to peer pressure and the fear of man now, when our homes and jobs are not at stake, how will we fare then, when our very lives could be on the line? “For if men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:31)
We are deceiving ourselves if we think that one day we will boldly proclaim Jesus as Lord — even at gun point under threat of death — when today we deny Him out of fear of offending our in-laws or neighbors. How will we pass the great test when we consistently fail the small test? If we are always falling into Satan’s little snares for our lives — those nagging “minor” sins and everyday temptations — we can not expect to resist the devil’s all out final assault.
Remember: the condition of the shallow-hearted hearers was only fully revealed when trouble and persecution came. What “heart condition” will be revealed in us when real testings arise? “If you have raced with foot men and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses? If you stumble in safe country, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?” (Jer. 12:5f.) Now is the time to deepen our walk. Now is the time to fortify our faith. We can not afford to wait and see!
And then there is the seed sown among thorns “which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain” (Mark 4:7). This represents those who hear the word, but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth, and the desires for other things come in and “choke the word, making it unfruitful” (Mark 4:19). What an illustration this is of a great part of the American church!
There are so many thorns all around us: the worries of this life, the pleasures of this world, the deceitfulness of wealth, and the desire for other things. Because of these thorns, most of us “do not mature” and the Word in us becomes unfruitful (Luke 8:14; Mark 4:19). Just think of what our lives would be like if these thorns were removed! There would be no more anxiety about finances or concern about our future earthly security; no more seeking fulfillment from worldly pleasures; no more putting our trust in money or living for material gain; no more being motivated by outside desires — by the insatiable drive to be someone, to have something, to go somewhere, to find our satisfaction everywhere but in Jesus.
But the American church not only lives among thorns, we now preach a “thorny” gospel! We tell worldly minded people that following Jesus is the path to success. “If you walk with the Lord,” we say, He will make you wealthy!” But that is not the gospel. “Take up your cross” does not mean “become rich and famous.” “Leave everything and follow Me” is not the same as “get everything by following Me.” We are catering our gospel to carnality!
Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. [This verse is often quoted to prove that God wants all of us to be rich! But that’s not what Jesus said. Let’s keep on reading.] Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:32-34). Where are our treasures being stored?
It is because our Father has been pleased to give us the kingdom that we can freely sell our possessions and give to the poor. “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). But we have got it backwards again! We say, “Because our Father, the King, has given us the kingdom, we ought to start living like King’s kids now! Let’s not sell our possessions; let’s accumulate more possessions!” We act as if the kingdom of God were a matter of eating and drinking, of wanting and having, of fancy cars and luxurious homes, of big bank accounts and expensive designer clothes. We have lost sight of the object of our faith — Jesus the Son of God.
Oh yes — God can and will supply all our needs, and there is nothing shabby about His provision. He is not glorified through our poverty and lack. He gains nothing by us groveling in debt. He is a God of infinite wealth. He can afford to share it with us. All that we need is found in Him. As we seek His kingdom first, it will all be provided for us. But God “will not aid men in their selfish striving after personal gain. He will not help men to attain ends which, when attained, usurp the place He by every right should hold in their interest and affection” (A. W. Tozer). Material wealth is never to be our goal.
Paul could not have possibly warned us more clearly: “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Tim. 6:9-10). Let us not read these verses lightly. Our very salvation could be at stake. Paul speaks of “temptation and a trap”, of being plunged into “ruin and destruction”, of “all kinds of evil”, of “wandering from the faith.”
And so Paul exhorted Timothy in no uncertain terms: “But you man of God, flee from all this [today we run after it!] and pursue righteousness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. For godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that” (6:11, 6-8). But are we really content? Or are we like the Pharisees who loved money and sneered at Jesus when He taught against greed (Luke 16:14)?
The Book of Proverbs says that “there are three things that are never satisfied, four that never say, ‘Enough!’: the grave, the barren womb, land, which is never satisfied with water, and fire, which never says ‘Enough!’” (30:15-16) Today we can add one more: the materialistic American church! We are like the two daughters of the leech who cry “Give! Give!” (Prov. 30:15). We never have enough!
This is what has happened to our modern day prosperity gospel: it has run aground on the shallow shores of greed and ambition; it has capsized in the turbulent waters of selfishness; it has sunk under the weight of covetous hearts. May it never sail again!
How could we be so blind? We have encouraged people to “want to get rich.” We have told them that it is all right to be “eager for money.” We have taught carnally minded believers who have not died to the world to pursue worldly wealth. And we try to make the whole thing so spiritual, as if the reason God exists is to meet all our wants. Some even teach: “You can have whatever you say, so just speak it out all the time — a swimming pool, a giant screen TV, a mink stole. The Lord wants you to have an abundant life!” And now many of us are trapped. We have taken our eyes off Jesus and put them on earthly treasures. The “deceitfulness of wealth” has tricked us again. It has stolen eternity from our hearts! Some of us have even become “fools” — we have stored up things for ourselves but are not rich toward God (Luke 12:20-21).
Two thousand years ago Jesus sounded an alarm: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). Yet today we glorify greed and sanctify selfishness — under the guise of great faith. We measure heavenly blessing by earthly bounty and equate real spirituality with financial success. Have we forgotten that “God has chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom He promised those who love Him” (Jam. 2:5)? Do we realize that “what is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight” (Luke 16:15)? It is the man who lives for riches who “will fade away even while he goes about his business” (Jam. 1:11). Let us cleanse our hearts now of all covetousness!
James accused his readers of being adulterous people, friends with the world. This was one of their symptoms. “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (4:3). Yet our new teaching has fostered such praying! We have given it biblical support. Today we really know how to “use the Word” — to get new cars and diamond rings! And we actually think all this is spiritual. God have mercy on us!
There is so much idolatry in our midst. How much longer can we survive? Paul said that a greedy person is an idolater, and that idolaters do not enter the kingdom of God (Eph. 5:5). Are we selling our inheritance for a piece of bread?
No — there is nothing wrong with having possessions. But there is something wrong with possessions having us! There is nothing wrong with being rich — as long as being rich is not the purpose of our being! We cannot serve both God and Money (Mat. 6:24).
Here is something to consider. Idolatry has taken on a new twist in our day. People who would never even put a portrait of Jesus on their walls for fear of having a graven image now put pictures of BMW’s on their refrigerators so they can see them all the time. They are believing God for a new set of wheels! They have graduated from the “Cadillac kind of faith” and moved right into “foreign-sports-car confession.” They think they have become giants in the Lord. But they are sadly mistaken. Maybe God has given them over to their “spiritual lusts.” The true faith giants have their eyes on eternity. In heaven we walk on the gold!
Let’s carefully consider our motives. We ask God for an abundance of funds so that we can help to spread the gospel worldwide, yet only the tiniest fraction of our income is given to reaching the lost. Has it ever occurred to us live on less (that’s right, to sacrifice!) so that we might have more to give? Could this be the New Testament gospel? We boast about our tithing. But for many of us it is simply a good financial investment. We give ten percent for the sake of our wallet, not for the sake of the work. Sure we love the Lord. But we love what He can do for us even more. That’s what it means to be blessed! What if our “hundred fold” return came in the form of many souls saved? Would we somehow feel shortchanged? How deeply have we died to this world? Let us examine our hearts and take stock of our lives. This is our chance to be free.
How then do we live among thorns? What must we do to avoid being choked? Listen again to the words of Paul. “Command those who are rich in this present world [that applies to almost all Americans!] not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life” (1 Tim. 6:17-19). That is fulfillment in Him!
There is hope for us all in the Word. We can uproot the thorn bushes and pull out the weeds. We can make our soil healthy and sound. And we can bear fruit for the Lord. There is seed sown on good soil too! This “stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop . . . multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times” (Luke 8:15). May this be our story and song.