Danger of Riches


JEREMIAH 45:5.—“Seekest thou great things for thyself? seek them not.”

MAN is a creature of aspirations. His constant question is: Who will show me any good? It matters not whether we try him in the highest or the lowest ranges of society, we find him always and everywhere reaching out after something. It is an error to suppose that ambition is confined to the Alexanders and Napoleons of the world. The most retired hamlet has its village aspirants, whose minds and hearts dilate with the same emotions in kind that urged on “Macedonia’s madman” in his career of conquest from the Euxine to the Indus, and that stimulated the French emperor through his hundreds of battles from Lodi to Waterloo. To the human eye, there is, indeed, a great difference between the aspirations of a Julius Cæsar and the aspirations of a county politician; but to the Divine eye there is no difference at all.

Mathematicians tell us that all finite numbers are reduced to the same level, when compared with infinity; that ten thousands or ten millions are just as far from infinitude as ten hundred, or as ten, or as one. So is it in morals. The ambition and aspirations of an earthly monarch, or an earthly conqueror, in the sight of Him who is from everlasting to everlasting, are just as insignificant as the struggles of a village politician to acquire a village office, or the toils of a millionaire to add a few more thousands to his treasures.

“Our lives through various scenes are drawn,
And vexed with trifling cares;
While Thine eternal thought moves on
Thine undisturbed affairs.”

If we could but look at human life from the position of eternity, and measure it by the scale of infinity, we should perceive that the common distinction which we make between the great things and the small things of earth is not a real one; and that all human ambition, be it that of a king or a peasant, is the same poor and futile attempt of a creature to pass a line which the decree of the infinite and eternal God has made it impossible for him to pass. “Men of low degree are vanity, and men of high degree are a lie; to be laid in the balance, they are altogether vanity.”

The prophet Jeremiah, in the text, recognizes this proneness of man to inordinate and ambitious aspirations, and warns against it. “Seekest thou great things for thyself? seek them not.” The putting of such a question implies that this is the common weakness and sin of man. As if he had said: “Are you one of the common mass of mankind, and is your eye dazzled with visions of glory, or pleasure? Are you reaching out after an unlimited measure of earthly good? Are you seeking the praise of men, and not the praise of God? worldly enjoyment, and not heavenly blessedness? Cease this struggle and attempt to find solid good in the creature.” Let us, therefore, consider some of the reasons for not aspiring after the “great things” of earth and time; some of the dissuasives from worldly ambition.

I. The first reason for not seeking the great things of earth and time is, that they will not be attained.

We do not deny that the energy and perseverance of an ambitious man will accomplish great results, but we affirm confidently that he will never attain what he desires. For his desires are continually running ahead of his attainments, so that the more he gets the more he wants. He never acquires the “great thing” which he is seeking, in such a way as to sit down quietly and enjoy contentment of heart.

Alexander, we are told, having conquered all the then known world, wept in disappointment because there were no more worlds for him to overrun and subdue. The operation of this principle is seen very clearly in the narrower sphere of private life. A young man begins life with the aspiration after wealth. This is the “great thing” which he seeks. This is the height of his ambition.

We will suppose that he limits the sum which he seeks to one hundred thousand dollars. After some years of toil and economy, he acquires it. But this sum is no longer a “great thing” for him. Now that it is actually in his hands, it looks small, very small. The limit is enlarged, and he aspires to be a millionaire. The “great thing” which he now seeks is one million of treasure. This too is secured, but with the same result. The “great thing” shrivels up again now that it is actually in his possession, and he once more enlarges his limit, only to meet the same disappointment, unless death interrupts him with the stern utterance: “Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee, and then whose shall those things be which thou hast provided?”

In this way, it is apparent that he who is seeking great things here upon earth will never obtain them. He is chasing his horizon. He is trying to jump off his own shadow. As fast as he advances, the horizon recedes from him; the further he leaps, the further his shadow falls. His estimate of what is a “great thing” is continually changing, so that though relatively to other men he has accumulated wealth, or obtained earthly power and fame, yet absolutely, he is no nearer the desire of his heart—no nearer to a satisfying good—than he was at the beginning of his career. Nay, it is the testimony of many a man, that the first few gains that were made at the beginning of life came nearer to filling the desires of the mind, and were accompanied with more actual contentment than the thousands and millions that succeeded them.

“As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” The value of all earthly good depends entirely upon the views and feelings which we entertain concerning it. There is no fixed and unchangeable worth in temporal things, as there is in eternal. Hence that which appeared great and desirable to us yesterday, appears small and undesirable today. Like the chameleon, it changes its color according as we bend over it, and cast light or shade upon it. He who loves God and truth, loves an object that is the same yesterday, today, and forever. But he who loves wealth, or pleasure, or fame, loves a continually shifting and varying object. God is always great, and always good; and the heart that has made Him its supreme portion never finds Him falling short of its expectations. But he who fixes his affections upon the things that are seen, and temporal, is subject to a constant series of disappointments. As fast as one thing is attained, it proves to be different from what was anticipated, and gives way to another, which in its turn is chased after, and in its turn is flung away in disgust when reached.

We find, then, that a really great thing cannot be secured within the sphere of earth, and sense, and time, because there is no really great thing within this sphere. There are many things that seem great while the struggle for them is going on; but there is not a single thing in the wide realm of creation that is absolutely great. God alone is great. Nothing but the infinite and adorable excellence of God is large enough for the desires of an immortal being like man. Well, therefore, may the prophet say to every ambitions and aspiring man, whether his aspiration reaches out after wealth, pleasure, or power: “Seekest thou great things for thyself? seek them not.”

II. A second reason for not seeking great things is, that if they could be attained they would ruin the soul.

It is fearful to observe the rapidity with which a man’s character deteriorates as he secures the object of his desire, when the object is a merely earthly one, and the desire is a purely selfish one. Take, for illustration, the career of that military genius to whom we have already alluded. Napoleon Bonaparte sought “great things.” He aimed at a universal empire in Europe. And just in proportion as he approached the object of his aspirations, did he recede from that state of mind and heart which ought to characterize a dependent creature of God. We do not allude so much to outward vices and crimes—though the life of the great captain will not bear inspection in this particular—as to that gradual deadening of the humane emotions, and that Lucifer-like self-exaltation, which transformed the young Corsican of comparatively moderate desires and purposes, into the most grasping and imperious soul that ever lived upon earth.

Meekness and humility are traits that properly belong to every finite and dependent creature; and He who came upon earth to exemplify the perfection of human nature said to all the world: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly of heart.” But who can think of meekness and humble dependence upon God, in connection with the character of Napoleon? On the contrary, we always associate him with those pagan demi-gods, those heaven-storming Titans, who like the Lucifer of Scripture are the very impersonation of pride and ambition. But such a spirit as this is the worst species of human character. It is the most intense form of idolatry—that of egotism and self-worship. It is the most arrogant and defiant form of pride. It would scale the heavens. It would dethrone the Eternal.

The same effect of mere worldly success is seen also in the walks of everyday life. Cast your eye over the circle in which you move, and select out those who are the most greedy of earthly good, and are the most successful in obtaining it, and are they not the most selfish persons that you know? Does not their character steadily deteriorate as the years roll away? They do not become any the less grasping and avaricious, for their success; but, on the contrary, their appetite grows by what it feeds upon. The fact which we have alluded to obtains a remarkable exemplification, in their case. The instant the “great thing” which they have been seeking after has actually come into their possession, it seems a small one; they are not satisfied with it, and enlarge their limits. This intensifies their cravings; and this stimulates them to yet more convulsive efforts. They override everything that stands in their way, and opposes them in the attainment of their projects, and thus acquire an arrogant and exacting temper that renders them hateful and hated.

It is here, that we see the moral benefit of failures and disappointments. Were men uniformly successful in their search after “great things;” did every man who seeks wealth obtain wealth, and every man who grasps after power obtain power, and every man who lusts after fame become renowned; the world would be a pandemonium, and human character and happiness would be ruined. Swollen by constant victory, and a sense of superiority, successful men would turn their hands against one another, as in the wars of the giants before the flood. There would be no self-restraint, no regard for the welfare of others, no moderate and just estimate of this world, and no attention to the future life.

Nothing but the failures and disappointments that so crowd the career of man on the earth, prevents the world from becoming a theatre of contending factions that would ultimately destroy each other. This man is reduced from affluence to poverty, and he is made submissive, and moderate, and reasonable in his temper. That man fails to reach the summit of his ambition, and quietly settles down into a useful and happy sphere of labor. Thus the providence of “God only wise” educates ambitious and grasping man into sobriety, and a judicious estimate of both the great things and the small things of this transitory existence.

III. A third reason for not seeking “great things” lies in the fact, that “great things,” so far as they are attained at all in this world, are commonly attained indirectly.

Saul the son of Kish was sent out by his father to find the asses that had strayed, but he found a kingdom instead. Disappointed in his search for the lost animals, he betook himself to the prophet Samuel for information, and Samuel anointed him king over Israel. He did not obtain what he went for, but something greater and better. This illustrates the manner in which “great things” are generally acquired in this world. They come indirectly.

Look into literary history, and see how this is exemplified. The most successful creations of human reason and imagination have rarely been the intentional and foreseen products of the person. The great authors have been surprised at their success; if, indeed, success came to them during their lifetime. But more commonly their fame has been posthumous, and their ears never heard a single note of the pæan that went up from the subsequent generations that were enchanted with their genius. Shakspeare and Milton never read a single criticism upon their own works, and today they neither know anything of nor care for the fame that attends them upon this little planet.

Wordsworth writes to a friend who had congratulated him upon the estimation in which his poetry was held: “I am standing on the brink of the vast ocean I must sail so soon; I must speedily lose sight of the shore, and I could not, once, have conceived how little I am now troubled by the thought of how long or short a time they who remain on that shore may have sight of me.”

Speaking generally, the great authors left something so written to after times as men would not willingly let die, not because they aimed deliberately, and with a straining effort, at such a result, but because in the prosecution of other aims—in following their own tastes and impulses, or their desire to be useful to their fellow-men—this result came to them in the providence of God. Said one of the most celebrated of modern poets—one who sprang into notoriety during his lifetime, without any preconceived purpose, or any laborious effort to this end—“I woke up one morning and found myself famous.”

Look, again, into the circles of trade and commerce, and observe how often great and lasting success comes incidentally, rather than as the consequence of preconceived purposes and plans. The person aimed simply at the discharge of his duties to his family, to the state, and to his Maker. He laid out no plans for the acquisition of a colossal fortune, but endeavored to provide for the present and prospective wants of those dependent upon him, with prudence and moderation. He obtained, however, far more than he calculated upon. Wealth came in upon him with rapidity, and that which he did not greedily seek, and which he never in the least gloated upon with a miser’s feeling, was the actual result of his career in the world.

The words of our Lord are true in reference to secular, as well as sacred things: “He that findeth his life shall lose it; and he that loseth his life shall find it.” If we directly seek “great things,” we shall fail of their attainment. There are a few exceptions to this general rule, it is true; but a careful observation of the common course of events will show, that reputation, wealth, and secular blessings generally, fall to those who are not especially anxious concerning them—who pursue the ends of life with wisdom and moderation and are rewarded by Divine Providence with an overplus of temporal good that formed no part of their original purposes and expectations. The great majority of those, on the contrary, who set up fame, wealth, or pleasure, as their idol, and made everything subservient to its attainment, have been miserably disappointed.

They were destined to fail inevitably. For, in case they obtained the glittering object they aimed at, it grew pale and dull in their possession, like that radiant little insect which the child chases in the summer evening, and grasps in his hands, only to find a black and repulsive bug. And in case they failed altogether, in securing the prize which they sought, their anxious and spasmodic efforts after it only left them tired, and disgusted with human life.

Seekest thou, then, great things for thyself? seek them not. They will not come by this method. Seek first of all the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and then all these minor things, which the world and the deluded human heart denominates “great things,” shall be added unto you. Be faithful to your duties in the family, in the state, and in the church, and then that measure of secular blessings which will accrue to you of itself, will exceed all that you will be likely to attain even by the most engrossing and violent efforts devoted to the sole purpose of obtaining them. If you will lose your life, you shall find it; but if you insist upon finding your life, you shall lose it.

IV. A fourth reason for obeying the injunction of the text is found in the fact, that great sorrow springs from great aspirations when those aspirations are unattained.

There is only one species of aspiration that does not weary and wear the soul, and that is, the craving and cry of the soul after God. “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee O God.” The desire expressed in these words of the Psalmist can never satiate, or disgust the human spirit, for the reason that God is the real and true portion, the substantial, eternal good of the creature. But all other aspirations dispirit and discourage in the end.

“He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” The sadness and melancholy of the man of letters is well known. One of the most equable minds in literary history, singularly calm and balanced by nature, and remarkably free from passionate and stormy impulses, confessed at the close of a long life of eighty years that he had never experienced a moment of genuine repose. Humboldt, who had surveyed the cosmos, and who had devoted a long existence to placid contemplation of the processes of nature, and had kept aloof from the exciting and passionate provinces of human literature, said in his eightieth year: “I live without hope, because so little of what I have undertaken yields a satisfactory result.”

This is the penalty that ambitious minds pay for seeking “great things.” There is an infinite aspiration and an infinitesimal performance. The hour of death, and the falling shadows of an everlasting existence, and an everlasting destiny, bring the aspiration and the performance into terrible contrast. Most impressively do such facts and experiences in the history of marked men reiterate the prophet’s injunction: “Seekest thou great things for thyself? seek them not.”

Go down, once more, into the sphere of active life, and see the same sorrow from the same course. Look at that man of trade and commerce who has spent his life in gigantic, and, we will suppose, successful enterprises, and who now draws near the grave. Ask him how the aspiration compares with the performance. He has generally accomplished, we will assume, what he undertook. The results of his energy and capacity are known, and visible to all in his circle and way of life. His associates have praised him, and still praise him; for he has done well for himself, and for all connected with him. But he writes vanity upon it all. When he thinks of all the heat and fever of his life, all his anxious calculation and toil by day and night, all his sacrifice of physical comfort and of mental and moral improvement, and then thinks of the actual results of it all—the few millions of treasure, the few thousands of acres, or the few hundreds of houses—he bewails his infatuation, and curses his folly. He perceives that great sorrow springs out of a great aspiration, when that aspiration terminates upon things seen and temporal.

Such, then, are the dissuasives to ambition. These are the reasons for heeding the injunction of the prophet, not to seek the great things of earth. They will not be attained, because as fast as they come into possession they lose their value. If they could be attained, they would ruin the soul, by inordinate pride and self-exaltation. So far as they are partially and approximately attained, it is by indirection, and not by preconceived aims and purposes. And, lastly, a great sorrow always springs out of a great aspiration that is unfulfilled.

1. In the light of this subject and its discussion, we perceive, in the first place, the sinfulness of ambition.

Some speak of a “holy ambition;” but there is no such thing, any more than a holy pride, or a sanctified avarice. Ambition, as the etymology of the word denotes, is a circuitous method (ambio). It is not the straightforward search after a good thing, simply because it is good; but it is the roundabout endeavor to obtain a “great thing,” for the sake of the personal advantage that it yields.

If the student toils after knowledge, not for its own sake but because it brings fame and worldly gain with it, he is an ambitious student. He does not proceed straight to the mark, and acquire learning because it is good in itself, but that he may convert it into a mere means to some ulterior end.

If a man seeks religion, not because it is intrinsically excellent, but that his standing in society may be advanced, he is actuated by an ambitious motive. He does not move straight and direct towards the good thing, and choose it for its own pure excellence. It is impossible that such a spirit as this should be virtuous, or of the nature of virtue. On the contrary, it is sinful in the utmost degree, because it is the very essence of selfishness and pride. Such a person employs all the good things, and all the great things, of this world and the next, as mere means for the accomplishment of his private and ambitious ends.

It was by this sin, that the angels fell. They were not content with loving God because he is lovely, and obeying law because the law is holy, just and good. They desired to obtain some private and personal advantage, separate from, and over and above the joy, peace, and blessedness of serving God for his own sake. And the fallen archangel plied our first parents, with the same motive. He promised them that if they would eat of the forbidden tree, they should “be as gods.” He wakened in them the feeling of ambition, and by ambition they, too, fell.

2. In the second place, we see in the light of this subject, the complete and perfect blessedness of those who are free from all ambitious aims and selfish purposes; Who can say: “Whom have I in heaven but Thee? and there is none upon earth that I desire besides Thee. Thou, O God, art the strength of my heart, and my portion forever.”

We cannot find a perfect happiness upon earth, because we cannot find a soul that is perfectly unambitious and unselfish. The best of men will confess that the lingering remains of this Adamic sin, this desire to be as gods, this straining after superiority, are continually stirring within them, and interfering with their spiritual peace and joy. And they long for the time when they shall be satisfied with the Divine likeness; when they shall not be envious in the least of the happiness and the privileges of others; nay, when they shall not be disturbed in the least to see others placed above them. For such will be the state of feeling in the heavenly world.

The spirit of a just man made perfect, who is satisfied from himself because he is satisfied in God, does not envy the exaltation of the angel above him; the angel feels no pang of jealousy on seeing the cherub higher than himself; the cherub does not begrudge the seraph his glory and joy, and none of all these have the slightest desire to drag down the archangel from his lofty place in the celestial hierarchy. Each and all of these ranks of happy intelligences know that God is infinitely greater and more glorious than his universe, and in him they all delight according to the measure of their powers and capacities.

And only as this spirit animates the hearts of Christians here below, does the Church resemble the heavenly state. But, alas! Ephraim envies Judah, and Judah vexes Ephraim, and the kingdom of the meek and lowly Redeemer is torn with intestine struggles. And the heart of the individual believer is also torn by an intestine struggle. How difficult it is to obey the injunction of St. James: “Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted, but the rich in that he is made low.” How difficult to desist from seeking “great things,” and in the simple, godly, conscientious discharge of daily duties, seek first of all the kingdom of God and his righteousness, free from all pride and all ambition.

But “to this complexion must we come at last.” To this frame of mind we are summoned by our Redeemer, and to this must we attain. Therefore cultivate this meek and lowly temper. By prayer and supplication; by constantly remembering that the things which are seen are temporal; by frequent meditation upon the vanity of earth and of man as mortal, and upon the glory and eternity of heavenly objects; by such methods as these, and only by such methods, can we rid ourselves of our pride and ambition, and obey the command of God by his prophet: “Seekest thou great things for thyself? seek them not.”

William G. T. Shedd, Sermons to the Spiritual Man

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