"Hardship's Help, Prosperity's Peril"

Oct.9/05 Thanksgiving Deut.8:1-20

Aren't You Forgetting Something?

The table is set - a magnificent display of turkey, roast potatoes, stuffing, with delicious aromas wafting through the air. The guests are assembled, eyeing with anticipation the delicious meal at hand. The hostess is on the verge of inviting them to be seated, but over and over through her mind races a single question: "What am I forgetting?"

It would be a shame to get started into a Thanksgiving meal and then realize something's been forgotten. Like having ample turkey but forgetting the cranberry sauce. Or having two pumpkin pies ready but the whipped cream completely slipped your mind. Sometimes the salad has been left in a side room to provide more space in the kitchen, only to be forgotten until it's too late. Or the rolls were put in the oven to warm, and you discover they're still warming when the dirty dishes are being stacked.

Forgetting something really important is no picnic. You feel bad and the other person can feel very hurt and disappointed. Edwin Ray admitted in a Reader's Digest article, "On a business trip in California, I realized that I had forgotten my wife's birthday. Assuming I was in big trouble, I went to the jewellery section of a San Francisco department store. After explaining to the saleswoman that I desperately needed a gift to make up for my forgetfulness, she quipped, 'I'm sorry, but we don't have anything that expensive.'"

Husbands, you don't want to find out the consequences of forgetting something as important as that! Yet as people all over the country sit down to sumptuous meals this Thanksgiving, someone even more important than a spouse too often gets forgotten amidst the feasting. The Bible cautions us that it's foolish to forget God who provides the food, for whom we are to live; relationship with Him is what life's supposed to be about, not just consuming the plenty with which He's blessed us.

Our Real Resource: Good Land or Godly Living?

The more you travel, the more you realize how blessed Canada is, compared to many parts of the planet. It's basically clean, not littered with garbage. We don't have dangerous bugs like malarial mosquitoes or worse parasites, like the flies which made it necessary to iron all the kid's clothes after hanging them to dry in Nigeria. When there's an oil shortage - Albertans are smiling, and our loonie skyrockets in value among world currencies. We take for granted our marvelous public health care system; international companies have occasionally relocated to Canada because they don't have to bear the cost of medical plans for their employees. We are so blessed; no fear of hurricanes or earthquakes. The "big news" or front-page concern of the week is that Don Cherry's back, and finally devotees who survived withdrawal can enjoy "Hockey Night in Canada" again!

We who live in Canada's agricultural heartland, not far from the mineral riches of the Canadian shield, can relate to Moses' description of the 'good land' the Israelites are about to enter in Deuteronomy 8:7-10: "For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land-- a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates [apples for us!], olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills. When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given you." Doesn't that sound like our homeland, too? Truly a "good land."

At Thanksgiving, we mustn't overlook the obvious - such a wonderful country which is so essential for our economy. We're the envy of most of the world's population. But Moses reminds Israel that life is not primarily "about" being consumers - about feeding our stomach, or piling up wealth; life instead is about daily dependence on God, who is the hidden Provider behind all the prosperity. V3 tells us God's trying to "teach you that man does not live on bread alone BUT on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord." Life's not about just bread alone. It may fill your gut for a few hours but soon you're hungry again. Satisfying our transitory appetites cannot be our be-all and end-all; that leads all to soon to a mechanical or jaded existence. We know in our soul we're BUILT for much more than that. God made us spiritual creatures as well as physical so we could enjoy knowing Him. Jesus advised, "Do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it...Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes." (Lu 12:29,23)

Our Creator designed us for Godly Living, not just living off the Good Land. He is our most valuable resource, not our agricultural or mineral wealth. "It is He who gives you the ability to produce wealth..." (18) He built us for knowing Him, and tests us to see if we give a care about more than temporal things. God arranges our circumstances to test what's in our heart. In v2 Moses says God led them in desert for 40 years "to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep His commands." It's the tough circumstances that show who we really are; it's trials that test our mettle, show our true colours. Through Jeremiah (17:10) God declared, "I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve." God's Spirit searches us, examines us, to reward us for choosing priorities that revolve around His Kingdom, not our own satisfaction.

The book of Hebrews (11:6; 10:38) states that without faith (relying on God, trusting Him as the groundwork in our worldview) it is impossible to please God, that God is a rewarder of those who seek Him; "My righteous one will live by faith - and if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him." Living by bread alone - pursuing foremost materialistic matters - causes us to shrink back spiritually. With regard to eternal purposes, we diminish to dwarf size. There's a danger in switching to longer belts and fatter wallets that we may actually showing shrinkage on the spiritual scale. The Lord's checking up on us to see if Godly Living is our goal, rather than just living off the Good Land.

The Peril of Prosperity: Affluenza's Alzheimers

Generally speaking, as in most Canadian congregations this morning, there are two categories of people here today (and it's not necessarily easy to tell which is which): some of you have a little reserve built up economically / materially; others of you are "just getting by" - you're scraping through, but the wolf is never far from the door. You know who you are, and please don't jump to conclusions about anyone else. Our Scripture addresses both groups; let's look at what it says to those who are prospering first, those that are feeling relatively safe and have some reserve to spare.

Moses knows the people are soon going to be getting settled in their new land, so warns them against "fattened folly". Starting at v12(-14): "Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery." V17, "You may say to yourself, "My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me."" See what he's saying? They're forgetting God, developing a sort of Alzheimers bred by affluence, congratulating themselves that "I've done it all myself, I've earned the easy life." Vv 19-20 predict the devastating results of this line of thinking: "If you ever forget the LORD your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed. Like the nations the LORD destroyed before you, so you will be destroyed for not obeying the LORD your God."

The general tendency in our fallen human constitution is to follow this chain of events: prosperity leads to pride - a heart that's lifted up, high, lofty. The proud person is focussed on what they've achieved, what self can do, and they forget God. This leads to ignoring Him and rejecting His guidance. We think we're such an important person, we excuse ourselves for taking liberty with what should be absolute matters of right and wrong. Instead of praising and being thankful to God, the proud person celebrates themselves, but ends up being destroyed. Our fallen nature curls in on itself, draining and alienating those around, and God consigns us to the dark hole we've created by our choices.

For the sake of illustration, Moses refers to the nations Israel is about to displace in order to possess Palestine. It's because of these nations' sinfulness that God enables Israel to triumph. Back 400 years earlier when the Lord was explaining the big picture to Abraham, he noted Abe's descendants wouldn't return from Egypt to Palestine until the fourth generation "for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure" (Gen 15:16).

The Old Testament contains several examples of rulers who were destroyed by their proud attitudes in response to prosperity. Ephraim or northern Israel is criticized by Hosea (12:8): "Ephraim boasts, "I am very rich; I have become wealthy. With all my wealth they will not find in me any iniquity or sin."" The northern kingdom was overrun and exiled before the southern, never to return. The king of Assyria is another example in Isaiah 10(8-14). And following him, Emperor Nebuchadnezzar cracks mentally just after he says to himself in Daniel 4(30), "Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?" Suddenly the polished politician became a wild recluse, eating grass like cattle, until he learned it's not about him but about honouring the Most High.

Success and prosperity can be dangerous and destructive unless we learn to attribute it to our Creator rather than our own hard work or ingenuity. Hetty Green was possibly America's greatest miser. She died in 1915, leaving an estate valued at over a million dollars, but she always ate cold oatmeal because it cost too much to heat it. (As an idealistic youth I once criticized my parents for using toast because the extra energy requirement had a negative environmental impact.) Hetty Green's son had to undergo a leg amputation unnecessarily because Hetty wasted so much time looking for a free clinic that he wasn't examined early enough. This eccentric old woman was wealthy, but chose to live like a pauper. Crazy? Perhaps, but nobody could prove it. She was so foolish that she hastened her own death when she suffered a stroke by becoming too excited over a discussion about the value of drinking skimmed milk! (Another subject that causes my offspring to groan...)

Prosperity has its own peril. Money can make us less than human when we don't fear God and keep it in perspective. Psalm 39(6) says, "Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro: He bustles about, but only in vain; he heaps up wealth, not knowing who will get it." A recent movie about industrialist and millionaire Howard Hughes tells how he was almost destroyed by his grandiose movie schemes, and an obsessive-compulsive mental disease. His real treasure as the story goes on becomes more obvious: the few people who cared about him and surrounded him when he had cracked, a team that protected him at his worst - his trusted financial counsellor, former friends who came and talked to him in isolation and helped him shave when he couldn't shave himself, his co-workers who literally picked him up and carried him from public view when his mind lapsed and he couldn't stop repeating a phrase. Money couldn't save him; his circumstances highlighted how much he needed others who showed him grace.

The Valuable Lesson of Daily Deliverance

Maybe you're not in that first group - those who are prospering, who have a little reserve stored up. Maybe you're just getting by, barely scraping through. You can be especially thankful at Thanksgiving! James (1:9) says, "The brother in humble circumstances ought to take pride in his high position." That doesn't make much sense until the next chapter (2:5) when he explains, "Has not God 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?" When you're just getting by, your faith is exercised from necessity; you have to be trusting God to come through on the essentials.

Moses recalls the journey of the Israelites through the wilderness as an exercise by which God was training His people to rely on Him, step by step. Vv 3-4 say God "humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna...Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years." The Lord intervened supernaturally to minimize wear and tear. V15, "He led you through the vast and dreadful desert, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock." It was tough going - plenty of danger all around from wild things - but God brought a crowd of a couple million people 40 years through the desert! Now that's an achievement! After coming through that, they must have been ready for anything. They'd learned to follow His lead - otherwise you might end up where there's no water hole.

Moses frames this in the language of loving discipline: training, mentoring. V5, "Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the LORD your God disciplines you." It's because God loves us and cares about us that He allows hardships to happen; going through them with us, He designs these things "to test [us] so that in the end it might go well with [us]" (16). God allows some trials not by way of punishment but to prepare us, to stretch us in Christlikeness and grow our character. He wants us, when we're feeling the pressure, to turn to Him and acknowledge our need for Him daily. "It is He who gives you the ability to produce wealth" (18); "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Php 4:13). He is our supply, our Provider, because of His covenant choice and grace.

So the Lord's daily deliverance for those who are just scraping by carries an extremely valuable lesson: when we're following His directions, we can trust Him with the matter of our daily bread. Just like in the Lord's Prayer: "Give us this day our [not weekly or monthly - that would get stale anyway! But] daily bread." It's not just bread we live on, but the commands and guidance, every word that comes from God's mouth. A wise man named Agur Prays in Proverbs 30(8f), "give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, 'Who is the Lord?' [there's forgetting God again] Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God." Even in hardship - perhaps especially then - honouring God is important.

Coming to the New Testament, James(4:6,10) reminds us, God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble...Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up." 1Peter 5(6f) echoes that then adds, "Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you." (I like that!) Elsewhere we're told, "Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, 'Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.'" (Heb 13:5) Whatever our state, well-off or wolf at the door, God values us and responds to us trusting Him and following His Word. He's going to stand by us and somehow bring us through. That's an assurance having all the money and possessions in the world can't provide.

Bud Robinson was a preacher whose friends took him to New York and showed him all around the city. That night in his prayers he said, "Lord, I thank You for letting me see all the sights of New York.And I thank You most of all that I didn't see a thing that I wanted!"

Give Thanks - for Fleas?!

The Lord wants us to avoid prosperity's peril, which tempts us to forget Him and suppose our wealth is the product of our brains and hard labour. Ignoring Him leads to destruction. But He is glorified when we praise Him even in hardship; He supplies a peace and provision we wouldn't experience any other way.

Corrie ten Boom in The Hiding Place relates an incident that taught her always to be thankful. She and her sister Betsy had just been transferred to the worst German prison camp they had yet seen, Ravensbruck. On entering the barracks, they found them extremely over-crowded and flea-infested. That morning, their Scripture reading in 1Thessalonians had reminded them to rejoice always, pray constantly, and give thanks in all circumstances. Betsy told Corrie to stop and thank the Lord for every detail of their new living quarters. Corrie at first flatly refused to give thanks for the fleas, but Betsy persisted, and Corrie finally did.

During the months at that camp, they were surprised to find how openly they could hold Bible study and prayer meetings without guard interference. It wasn't until several months later that they learned the reason the guards wouldn't enter the barracks was because of the fleas!

God can make all things work together for good to those who love Him (Rom 8:28) - even fleas. What hardship has been chafing at you lately? What trinket has been distracting you from giving the Lord your full attention? Haven't you been forgetting something?

Let's pray.