In the wilderness, Israel's abandon of trust in God arises not only from fear, but also from success. At this point in his first speech, Moses is describing the prosperity that awaits the new generation about to enter the Promised Land. Moses points out that success is likely to breed a spiritual complacency far more dangerous than failure. “When you have had children and children’s children, and become complacent in the land, if you act corruptly by making an idol in the form of anything…you will soon utterly perish from the land” (Deut. 4:25-26). We will come to idolatry, per se, in Deuteronomy 5:8, but the point here is the spiritual danger caused by complacency. In the wake of success, people cease fearing God and begin to believe success is a birthright. Instead of gratitude, we forge a sense of entitlement. The success for which we strive is not wrong, but it is a moral danger. The truth is that the success we achieve is mixed from a pinch of skill and hard work, combined with a heaping of fortunate circumstances and the common grace of God. We cannot actually provide for our own wants, desires, and security. Success is not permanent. It does not truly satisfy. A dramatic illustration of this truth is found in the life of King Uzziah in 2 Chronicles. “He was marvelously helped [by God] until he became strong. But when he had become strong he grew proud, to his destruction” (2 Chr. 26:15-16). Only in God can we find true security and satisfaction (Ps. 17:15).
It may be surprising that the result of complacency is not atheism but idolatry. Moses foresees that if the people abandon the Lord, they will not become spiritual free agents. They will bind themselves to “objects of wood and stone that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell” (Deut. 4:28). Perhaps in Moses’ day the idea of religionless existence did not occur to anyone. But in our day it does. A growing tide of secularism attempts to throw off what it sees—sometimes quite correctly—as shackles of domination by corrupt religious institutions, belief, and practices. But does this result in a true freedom, or is the worship of God necessarily replaced by the worship of human-made fabrications?
Although this question sounds abstract, it has tangible effects on work and workplaces. For example, prior to the last half of the twentieth century, questions about business ethics were generally settled by reference to the Scriptures. This practice was far from perfect, but it did give serious standing to those on the losing side of power struggles related to work. The most dramatic case was probably the religiously-based opposition to slavery in England and the United States of America, which ultimately succeeded in abolishing both the slave trade and slavery itself. In secularized institutions, there is no moral authority to which one can appeal. Instead, ethical decisions must be based on law and “ethical custom,” as Milton Friedman put it. Law and ethical custom being human constructs, business ethics becomes reduced to rule by the powerful and the popular. No one wants a workplace dominated by religious elite, but does a fully secularized workplace simply open the door for a different kind of exploitation? It is certainly possible for believers to bring the blessings of God’s faithfulness to their workplaces without trying to reimpose special privileges for themselves.
All this is not to say that success must necessarily lead to complacency. If we can remember that God’s grace, God’s word, and God’s guidance are at the root of whatever success we have, then we can be grateful, not complacent. The success we experience could then honor God and bring us joy. The caution is simply that over the course of history success seems to be spiritually more dangerous than adversity. Moses further warns Israel about the dangers of prosperity in Deuteronomy 8:11-20.
Milton Friedman, “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits,” New York Times, September 13, 1970.