Most of us in the West can only imagine what it’s like to be caught up in the toils and tragedies of war. War has been a feature of the world ever since the fall, and both its consequences and its prevention remain key concerns of the high-minded.
But war not only confronts us globally, between people groups; it also confronts us individually, within our very natures. The Westminster Confession of Faith describes Christians as engaged in “a continual and irreconcilable war” between the flesh and the spirit as sin seeks to maintain its hold on our lives.
In Genesis 13 and 14, through a story of war, captivity, and rescue, we see an illustration of this reality. Caught up in a battle between kings that his own side lost, Abraham’s nephew, Lot, found himself in enemy hands until Abraham mustered troops to win his freedom. Yet Lot was in this situation because of another battle he had begun and lost: a flirtation with worldliness. In his story we find a kind of parable for the Christian’s own struggle against sin.
A Choice and Its Consequences
Lot lifted up his eyes and saw that the Jordan Valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar. (This was before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.) So Lot chose for himself all the Jordan Valley, and Lot journeyed east. Thus they separated from each other. Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled among the cities of the valley and moved his tent as far as Sodom. Now the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the LORD. (Gen. 13:10–13)
Lot was not a totally unspiritual man. Like Abraham, he worshipped God. But some of Lot’s crucial decisions could best be described as worldly. As he determined where he would settle, he was influenced primarily by what his eyes saw. He selfishly coveted the well-watered Jordan Valley, and he pitched his tent on the plain.
It’s tempting to say Lot’s choice was a good one—that he looked at the options before him, considered the resources available, and made the decision that was best for his household (his family and his employees, so to speak). We might say, “Boy, Lot had it made!” In modern terms, he’d made partner at his firm and had begun building a new home on a sprawling suburban property. He had financial security for his family for many years, and he could make the most of life with them.
Yes, Lot had it made—but he didn’t realize what he had made. Along with his choice came new company: the men of Sodom, who “were wicked, great sinners against the Lord.” What Lot was to discover was that the richness of the land’s soil was more than matched by the severity of its inhabitants’ sin. The choice he made with his eyes introduced a challenge to his soul that he didn’t anticipate.
It may be significant that in Genesis 13:12, we read that “Lot settled among the cities of the valley and moved his tent as far as Sodom”—or, in the NIV, “near Sodom” (emphasis added). By 14:12, we learn that “Lot … was dwelling in Sodom” (emphasis added). It’s human nature to see a boundary and see how closely we can approach it before we cross over. You can warn a child not to fall into the canal, and their response will likely be “I only want to look.”
The choice Lot made with his eyes introduced a challenge to his soul that he didn’t anticipate.
So it was for Lot. Perhaps he only ever intended to move “near,” but ultimately, he moved “in.” He followed a progression that’s recounted throughout the Scriptures: bad choices, bad company, bad future. Lot saw prosperity with his eyes—security for his household—and he was willing to cozy up to sin to get it. In his calculation, wealth took the forefront, and faithfulness to his God fell by the wayside. So he went down to the Jordan Valley and pitched his tent on the plain.
The Danger of Worldliness
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 2:15–17)
Many Christians enjoy prosperity—and those who don’t usually hope for it in one degree or another. Our churches, jobs, homes, families, possessions, and opportunities for relaxation are good gifts from God, and we should treat them as such. He intends us to enjoy them and to get the best out of them. But, as Lot’s story teaches us, God’s good gifts can all too easily become our idols.
We may say, “We’re not like the Canaanites or the Greeks. We have no Asherah poles or altars to Baal, no temples to Artemis or Zeus. We’re not idolaters!” Yet the rise in our day of the quest for leisure and entertainment, attention and favor, big muscles and thin bodies, new cars and smart homes—to mention only a few—is a clear indication that we are all prone to worship at the shrines of our day. We often mistakenly believe the goal of life is to achieve worldly prosperity—a certain amount of wealth, a peculiar kind of satisfaction, a particular dosage of popularity. And in so doing, we often neglect asking whether we are glorifying God.
Simply put, we are never to take God’s good gifts and give them the love that He alone is due. Nor are we to allow them to become the impetus for disobeying God, permitting our hearts to be invaded by ungodly ambitions and desires. To do so is the very definition of worldliness.
Those who follow Christ are to march to a different drum than the world does. As Paul writes, before we came to faith, we “were dead in the trespasses and sins in which [we] once walked, following the course of this world, … and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:1–3). But now we have been quickened and made new. We have been transformed. And consequently, we ought to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, accepting whatever measure of prosperity God gives us as nothing but gift (Matt. 6:33). God’s glory must be our primary concern.
We are never to take God’s good gifts and give them the love that He alone is due.
Jesus taught that we cannot serve both God and the world (Matt. 6:24–26). When the apostle John wrote, “Do not love the world or the things in the world,” he was saying this to those of us who are tempted to think like Lot: “If you are running after the prosperity and promises that you can get in this world, you’re going to be caught up with the cravings of sinful man, with the lust of your eyes, with boasting in what you have and do. You’ll find that you are not walking with God at all!”
Don’t Let the Top Go
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds … fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.” …
“As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.” (Matt. 13:1–4, 7, 22)
Prosperity isn’t wrong. Abraham and Job, for example, are two of the wealthiest individuals in all of the Bible, and yet they are held in high spiritual regard. The question is not whether we are prosperous but whether we are holding on to prosperity too tightly, as if it were the be-all and end-all of life. The harder we grasp worldly comfort or status, the harder it grasps us back—and ultimately, it will only choke us and make us unfruitful.
In his book Quiet Talks with World Winners, S. D. Gordon tells a story of a group of climbers making the ascent of Mont Blanc in the French Alps. The mountain guides told them that if they were going to reach the summit, they would need to do it with only the basic essentials and nothing more.
The harder we grasp worldly comfort or status, the harder it grasps us back.
One young Englishman, however, thought he could make it to the top with all of his equipment and would be better off for it. So he set out laden with wine and delicacies, notebooks for recording his impressions, a camera for capturing views of himself and his party, and other parts and parcels. But those who came up the mountain after him began finding various bits and pieces along the trail. First, they found his food and delicacies, then his notebooks and his cameras, and then his other trappings. Eventually, they found him at the summit, tired and breathless, having sacrificed everything that wasn’t absolutely essential to get there. That had been the only way to reach the top.
D. Gordon writes of the young Englishman, “Most of us do just as he did.” Worse still, he says, “many of us, when we find we can’t reach the top with our loads, let the top go, and pitch our tents in the plain, and settle down with our small plans and accessories. The plain seems to be quite full of tents.”
Not even the greatest worldly pursuits or treasures are worth neglecting God’s promises to pitch our tents on the plain. If we would learn from Lot and follow Christ, we must be prepared to say, “I will seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and whatever prosperity He gives me I’ll be thankful for—but I won’t seek it as if it were the meaning of my life, because my life is all Yours.” Although we may lift up our hands to heaven empty, God will surely put more joy in our hearts than when all earthly goods abound (Ps. 4:7).