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The Curse of Unbridled Success:

The Curse of Unbridled Success:
A Necessary Lesson for Christian Churches

By Bruce Atkinson, PhD
Special to Virtueonline
September 9, 2019

"Intoxicated by unbroken success,
we have become too self-sufficient to feel
the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace
and too proud to pray to the God who made us."

--Abraham Lincoln

The Problem

A number of articles over the years have garnered my attention. For example in 2012, The New Yorker had an article pointing out that our children have been "spoiled rotten" (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/07/02/spoiled-rotten ).

And I would suggest that this spoiling process began in the post-war 1950's. Note the great fame and influence of pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose books on childrearing minimized discipline and focused on building self-esteem. While many of his teachings were simply common sense, Spock did lean strongly toward parental permissiveness-- especially when compared to the common view that if you spared the rod, you would spoil the child.

We Boomers were the first generation who kept thinking that everything was about us and that we could do whatever we wished--even into our 30's. The Great Generation were made tough and wise by weathering the Great Depression and World War II, but every generation since theirs has become increasingly spoiled and entitled. In 2017, Bill Muehlenberg, one of our Christian watchmen at the gate, wrote about the "generation of offended snowflakes." ( https://billmuehlenberg.com/2017/01/10/generation-offended-snowflakes/ ) And from a more socio-political perspective, Katelyn Stansbury wrote "We Are All Spoiled Americans" (https://www.theodysseyonline.com/spoiled-americans).

Here is the general rule. At some point in a hard-working, materially blessed culture, success starts to be taken for granted and the youngsters who grow up in it begin to feel entitled. The children of success are indulged and pampered. They lose the cultural memory of what it took to get there, which was work, blood, sweat, and tears... and more work.

This is what we are dealing with in the west. Protective, permissive, laissez faire (even lazy) parents have produced generations of over-sensitive, perpetually offended 'snowflakes' looking for 'safe spaces' and 'puppy rooms.' Even when they become adults, these coddled kids are unwilling to sacrifice much, they think that everything should come easy, and they tend to wilt under pressure. So what kind of leaders and parents are they going to be? Am I right to be concerned about our future?

The Effects of Success in Church History

How has this process of "success that leads to spoiling" affected the Church over the past two millennia? In the earliest Church, persecution and difficulties were pervasive... and the Church grew quickly. Rome is a good example; there was a period of intense persecution followed by unbelievable growth of the Christian faith. The young Church no doubt slowed the process of decadence that Roman world domination brought with it. But this material 'success' of Rome also affected the church when they became united; the Church itself became worldly and wealthy along with its attendant culture.

Through John the Revelator, Jesus addressed the result of this process in his letter to the church at Laodicea: "'I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire [hardship], so that you may be rich, and white garments [purity associated with faith in Christ] so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve [spiritual discernment] to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent." (Revelation 3:15-19)

But now let's move forward in time...

We all know about the amazing rise and then decline of churches in the west. The Reformation was sometimes ugly but virtually everyone in Europe was some kind of Christian. These times resulted in such monumental works as the King James Bible, Thomas Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer, and the Westminster Confession. The gospel was spread across the known world by a multitude of missionaries. The nascent USA became very close to being a "Christian nation."

But in the past century, prayer and God-talk were kicked out of public schools and government offices. Now there are far fewer baptisms than ever before and a precipitously falling Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) in churches in Europe and the USA. The influence of Christianity on the culture is greatly reduced. Immorality in our society has increased in virtually every way we can measure. Who could have imagined in 1955 what the future held, for example the Roe vs. Wade decision and the legal acceptance of same sex marriage? Back then, I imagine that 95% of the nation would have been over-the-top outraged.

Why did things change? It is like the "frog in the pot" metaphor, where the water is heated so slowly that the frog is unaware of what is happening until it is too late and he cannot jump out of the pot. This may not be a scientific fact, but it is an appropriate visual image of our cultural reality. In our churches, the process has been so gradual, deceptive, and pernicious, that it could only result in a hard-boiled frog.

There have been many contributing forces during the past century pushing secularism and attacking the Christian faith, for example the great popularity and influence of the big three: Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalyst buddies, Charles Darwin and his "Origin of Species," and of course Karl Marx and his socio-economic theories. The leaders of academia were first 'suckered in' and then leaders of the churches began following suit. And now the vitality of faith in all the mainline denominations have decreased to where nations like Great Britain and the USA are no longer considered Christian nations by almost anyone.

In 2009, professor Philip Jenkins published "The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia -- and How It Died." This book is excellent history and commentary. In an interview with Stan Guthrie discussing how churches die out, Jenkins said, "It's almost as if one door closes and another one opens elsewhere. I would not say God closed one eye and opened another, but when Christianity is at its weakest in one area, amazing new opportunities open elsewhere. My concern is that when we write Christian history, so often it's a matter of, 'Let's look at this expansion, and let's look at this growth and new opportunity.' We're not really seeing the doors that are closing."

Here is what closing doors look like: as the Holy Spirit leaves and moves elsewhere to spread His gospel seeds, the old church loses all spiritual power and influence -- it dies, as T.S. Eliot phrased it so well in The Hollow Men, "not with a bang but a whimper."

Note Jesus' advice in Matthew 10:14, "If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet." That is how the Holy Spirit works in spreading the gospel. He keeps moving on and spreading the seed where there is fertile ground. All of this is ordered by God and is not the result of human will:
"What He opens no one can shut, and what He shuts no one can open." (Rev 3:7b)

The problem in the western churches has not been about Protestant or Catholic, it has been about a loss of faith in Jesus Christ and in the scriptures, and the resultant movement elsewhere by the Holy Spirit.The Holy Spirit ran through the Mediterranean area and southern Europe (50 to 500 AD), then moved to Northwest Europe (1500-1700 AD) during the Reformation, and then to the United States (1700-1900 AD). There were true revivals and Great Awakenings. However, the Holy Spirit has backed off now in these areas and moved to the Global South because of our materialism and pride (our reaction to worldly success)-- which have allowed secularism (and lots of other '-isms') to take over.

As I noted in the quote at the beginning of this article, Abraham Lincoln diagnosed the end of our Age of Awakening with these words: "Intoxicated by unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace and too proud to pray to the God who made us." John Wesley (1703-1791) labored mightily and fruitfully for revival in 18th century England, but he recognized a bittersweet aspect to spiritual awakening: Revival generates a new work ethic, which in turn generates riches, which in turn threatens revival. As the American Puritan Cotton Mather expressed it, "Religion begat prosperity and the daughter devoured the mother!" 1 Wesley wrote: "I fear, wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion. Therefore, I do not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and love of the world in all its branches." 2

We need to remember that the Lord warned us how hard it was for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 19:23-24). 'Rich' of course is a relative term, but compared to 90% of the world, a middle-class American is truly wealthy. And by our attitude and behavior, we are spoiled and indolent, unable to become truly fired up about the most important things; we are unwilling to spend our lives (much less our careers or our material security) for Jesus' Kingdom. When our Lord warned the church at Laodicea about their lukewarmness, without a doubt He was speaking as well to today's nominal churches in the western "first world." It is never wise to become too comfortable.

The Revival Cure

Given the causes of the damage to the Christian faith in wealthy countries as we have noted, we could prescribe such treatment as the pruning processes inherent in financial depression, draughts, famines, riots, and anarchy. I cannot see us praying for such things. But God may choose to bring them anyway.

Instead, for another (and greatest) Great Awakening to occur in the west, it will require certain prerequisites. Of course, we would all advocate basic Gospel preaching... and prayer for the Holy Spirit to come in a big way. We would need to commit to the advice given in 2 Chronicles 7:14: "If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land."

Paul directed us to be "filled with the Spirit" (Eph 5:18) and this is required for multitudes of people in order to have a true Great Awakening. But how do we obey a passive directive? We are unable to fill ourselves with the Spirit as this is something only God can do. But we can first ask the Lord: "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" (Luke 11:13) Then we can prepare our spiritual sails to catch the wind of the Spirit when He comes. We prepare best by prayer and studying the scriptures. The living unstructured Spirit always works with us within the structure of the written Word of God-- for after all, He was intimately involved in its writing (2 Peter 1:20-21, 2 Tim 3:16).

Most of the mainline denominations, including liberal Anglicanism, have lost the vital Christian theology of the Word. You cannot have true faith and also disbelieve the authority of the Bible. When the doctrine of the authority of Scripture is removed, virtually any sin or heresy can become accepted by organized churches. The leaders of the revisionist churches (such as the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church of Canada, and even the Church of England) need far more than just a refresher course; they need a conversion experience.

Their heretical version of 'progressive revelation' asserts that the Holy Spirit at times brings truly new knowledge that may contradict or reinterpret the traditional understandings of Scripture. Those who believe this are grossly deceived. With such a view, there is no stability or trustworthiness in God or in His Word. It is as if God did not know any better in the past or did not know our future. It is as if our sovereign God were not powerful enough to make sure His chosen human instruments (prophets, Apostles, NT writers) would write exactly what He willed and inspired them to write.

Fortunately, God is omnipotent and does not change ("I, the LORD do not change." - Malachi 3:6) -- and neither does His Word ("The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever." - Isaiah 40:8). Only Jesus had the authority to correctly interpret the scriptures for all time and thus He has no need for us to re-interpret them ("Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." - Hebrews 13:8; "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away." - Matthew 24:35).

We believe that the Bible is called the written word of God because the Holy Spirit made sure that what ultimately emerged was exactly what God wanted. God is the sovereign Almighty who cares greatly that we receive an accurate representation of Himself and of His will. He is powerful and wise enough to communicate this truth. And so we today have zero authority to revise the scriptures.

We cannot encourage a Great Awakening by allowing ourselves to be co-opted by the values of our current culture. We have discovered that the Church becomes irrelevant precisely when it marries the pagan-inspired Zeitgeist -- the spirit of the age. As A.W. Tozer wrote in "The Set of the Sail":. "The Church's mightiest influence is felt when she is different from the world in which she lives. Her power lies in her being different; its power rises with the degree in which she differs and sinks as the difference diminishes."

The current culture is an enemy of God and thus an enemy of the Church. Jesus named this enemy "the world" (Matthew 24:9, John 15:18-20, John 17:14, cf. James 4:4). Never forget that we are in a spiritual war. Among Anglicans, in contending for the faith once and for all delivered (Jude 1:3) we must bring back the all-important doctrine of the authority of Scripture (as indicated in Articles VI, VII, and XX of the Anglican Articles of Religion). Paul made clear in Ephesians 6 that the written Word of God is our "sword of the Spirit." We need to develop and practice using our skills with this divine weapon.

As the Lord repeated a number of times to the Asian churches in Revelation: "Whoever has the ears to hear, let them hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches." Church leaders, it is time to put on your ears and set your sails, before it is too late!

1. Quoted in Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 63.

2. John Wesley, quoted in Robert Southey, The Life of Wesley: And the Rise and Progress of Methodism (London: Frederick Warne and Co., 1889), 516.

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