Blessing Can Become a Curse: The Spiritual Perils of Earthly Success

Some of the darkest, most irresistible temptations come in the wake of blessing. As we enjoy some provision or breakthrough or triumph, whether in life, or work, or ministry, our spiritual defenses often come down. We might coast. We may begin neglecting disciplines and relationships that have kept us close to and dependent on Jesus.

Suffering, by comparison, often has the opposite effect. Suffering simultaneously raises our defenses (vigilance), and brings us to our knees (humility). Suffering disabuses us of self-reliance, and removes the luster of earthly pleasures and indulgences. Suffering often makes spiritual and eternal reality more vivid and tangible, putting the urgency of earthly life in greater perspective and focus.

“Some of the darkest, most irresistible temptations come in the wake of blessing.”

But blessing, ironically, can dull our spiritual senses and deplete our spiritual resolves. And it can open us to new and subtle temptations. Powerful men fall into this trap over the histories of Scripture. King David, for instance, defeated his tens of thousands with a heart like God’s, only then to crumble before another man’s wife while he enjoyed the comforts and spoils of his victories. The adversity and vulnerability of caves drew the best out of him, while the luxury of his palace exposed the worst.

Another king’s fall, however, provides a uniquely enlightening (and cautionary) map to failure in the midst of blessing.

Illusion of Strength

As Daniel 4 begins, our spiritual alarms should be sounding loudly: “I, Nebuchadnezzar, was at ease in my house and prospering in my palace” (Daniel 4:4). Nebuchadnezzar had himself witnessed God rescue three men from a raging furnace, leading the proud king to humble himself and worship God (Daniel 3:28–29). Such an experience should have produced an enduring awe and vigilance against his former arrogance, but instead we find the king lounging in complacency, allowing the luxuries of his kingdom to feed and stroke his pride. So God attempts to shake his soul awake with a dream (Daniel 4:5).

No magician or astrologer could make sense of the terrifying dream — a giant, beautiful, and fruitful tree suddenly being cut down. And so, Nebuchadnazzer calls Daniel, who had interpreted his dreams before (Daniel 2:30). This new dream is too intense and unsettling, even for Daniel (Daniel 4:19). He warns the king, “It is you, O king, who have grown and become strong. Your greatness has grown and reaches to heaven, and your dominion to the ends of the earth” (Daniel 4:22). You will be chopped down. You will be driven from your throne and home. You will lose your sanity, bending down to eat grass like an animal (Daniel 4:16, 25). And this disastrous madness will plague you for years.

Nebuchadnezzar had been richly blessed, with wealth and power beyond anyone in the world at that time, and yet blessing had become for him a curse. “Therefore, O king,” Daniel pleads, “let my counsel be acceptable to you: break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your prosperity” (Daniel 4:27).

How Not to Respond to Blessing

King Nebuchadnezzar had been humbled twice already and confessed to Daniel, “Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings” (Daniel 2:47). With all that he now knew and had seen, as he lounged at ease in his home, how would he respond to this new and more severe warning? As he walked along the roof of his palace several months later, he marveled to himself,

Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty? (Daniel 4:30)

If you want a recipe for how not to respond to blessing and success, look no further than the blindness and foolishness of this man’s pride. The ingredients are warnings to each of us for days when God prospers the work of our hands.

Pride

Is not this great Babylon, which I have built . . .

Pride receives the blessing of God as something earned and deserved. Like Nebuchadnezzar, it looks out on the family we have, the work we have, the reputation and influence we have, the ministry we have, and quietly says to itself, Look what I have built. Pride inflames arrogance and coddles insecurity. “Of course God would give you all of this. How could he not? Look how strategic, articulate, hard-working, and charismatic you are.”

Humility sees any progress or provision, any success or expertise, for what it really is: a gift. “A person cannot receive even one thing,” John the Baptist wisely says, “unless it is given him from heaven” (John 3:27; James 1:17). Not one thing. Nothing good you have or do is ultimately owing to you, but to God.

Self-Reliance

Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power . . .

Self-reliance receives the blessing of God as proof of our own strength and ability. The sinful impulse certainly overlaps with (and is rooted in) pride, but notice how it peeks out in the king’s words: by my mighty power. He doesn’t merely take credit, but boasts in himself — not just my power, but my mighty power. He has seen God, with his own eyes, save three men from a blazing furnace, and yet he’s still flaunting the pitifully little he can do.

Those who have tasted the grace of God in Jesus, however, develop an allergy to boasting. When blessing comes, they say instead, with Paul, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10). They work hard, but credit God. “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7; 1 Chronicles 29:14).

Self-Indulgence

Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence . . .

“Humility sees any progress or provision, any success or expertise, for what it really is: a gift.”

Self-indulgence receives the blessing of God as a warrant for selfishness. When Nebuchadnezzar looks out on Babylon, he sees a royal residence — a place of comfort and satisfaction for the king, for himself. He sees his whole world as a means of fulfilling his own cravings. We have watched this kind of mindset corrupt and ruin ministry after ministry, haven’t we? How many pastors or leaders have risen in prominence, and eventually taken advantage of their influence to serve themselves (losing their reputations in the process)?

Grace, on the other hand, receives blessing as an opportunity for love. “As each has received a gift,” Peter charges the blessed, “use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10). Paul also writes, “You were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13). The humble learn to follow Jesus, who used his power and position to lift others up, even when that meant lowering himself “to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). In Christ, God blesses us so that we are equipped and motivated to bless others (2 Corinthians 1:3–4).

Vainglory

Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?

Vainglory receives the blessing of God and bows to worship self. Nebuchadnezzar looked out on what God had given — what God had enabled to be built and to prosper — and he mistook it all for his own glory. While the wise sang, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1), the king also stopped to marvel: “Look how majestic I am.” A later king would be struck dead for the same sin (Acts 12:23).

We might think Nebuchadnezzar a strange and tragic anomaly if we had not tasted the same temptation at some point in our family, job, or ministry. If we had not gloated to ourselves over this achievement or that possession, over this good deed or that wise word. How often have we, whether we would ever say it out loud, stopped to bask for a moment in the false sense of our own majesty?

Again, grace does worship, but it never worships self, and never has any illusions of its own majesty. Grace gladly sings, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!” (Psalm 115:1). The godly serve and work and love “by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 4:11).

So, whether you eat or drink, succeed or fail, experience abundance or need, do all — and receive all — to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). Refuse the foolish seduction that felled King Nebuchadnezzar, and enjoy the satisfying and fulfilling reward of knowing that all we have, and all we do, is from God, through God, and to God.

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