In the final section of his letter to the Philippians, Paul writes:
"I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need." (4:12)
We often think of the unique challenges and opportunities that facing lack/need presents. In those situations we are faced with the choice of trusting God for provision, or grumbling as the Israelites in the wilderness did (cf. Exod 16–17). But less frequently recognized are the dangers that abundance/prosperity brings. There are at least four that come to mind:
- Our hearts become more enamored with what God has given us than God himself. The more that we have, the easier it becomes for us to find our greatest joy in those things rather than God. It is this very danger that Jesus warned of when he said "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. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Matt 6:19-21).
- We let our guard down against the enemy. We tend to think that Satan is most dangerous when we are facing lack/need, but he is just as dangerous (if not more) when we face abundance/prosperity. Suffering tends to sharpen our spiritual senses, driving us to realize our need for God. But when things are going well it becomes easy to put our lives on cruise control and start to doze off at the wheel. But our abundance/prosperity does not change the fact that "Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour." (1 Pet 5:8)
- We conclude that our prosperity/abundance is the result of our godliness. There is a sense in which the OT points in this direction. After all, under the Mosaic Covenant God makes it clear to Israel that obedience/faith will lead to blessing, while disobedience/unbelief will lead to cursing (cf. Deut 28). But several qualifications need to be made to encompass the totality of the OT's teaching. First, the Mosaic Covenant functioned on the national level, indicating that the nation as a whole would be blessed or cursed based on their obedience or disobedience to the covenant. Applying this at an individual level is far more complicated. Second, one cannot conclude from a person's suffering or prosperity the extent of their obedience or disobedience. That is one of the major points of the book of Job; his friends were insistent that his suffering was proof of disobedience. God's answer makes it clear that Job's suffering was not the result of sin. Similarly, Psalm 73 describes how the wicked prosper in this life. Third, while there are passages that correlate personal obedience and God's blessing of abundance (e.g., Ps 112:1-6), we must not think of this as a quid pro quo in which man earns what he receives or that God is somehow obligated to bless in response to obedience. God does tend to bring blessing to those who are obedient, but even in those cases it is a gift of his grace since the very obedience in view is a product of God's own work in that person's life (Phil 2:12-13).
- Our trust/confidence is placed in what we possess rather than who possesses us. Paul identifies this as a great danger when he writes to Timothy "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" (1 Tim 6:17). Those who have abundance are less inclined to place their trust in God, because there is the appearance of security in their prosperity.
In Philippians 4:12 Paul claims he has learned the secret of contentment in either lack or abundance. That secret is knowing that our security rests not in our current financial situation but in the one who loved us and gave himself for us (Gal 2:20). No matter what your economic situation is today, whether rosy or bleak, God wants us to find our security in him. Beware the dangers of both lack/need and abundance/prosperity.