Cobwebs on the Soul
By Brenda Evans
In the middle of thinking about prosperity, I decided to invite dinner guests. My kind husband Bill agreed and said, “You cook; I’ll clean.” He plugged up the vacuum and got out the yellow-handled Swiffer duster—two good implements we use when people who might notice cobwebs are coming. “Remember the dining room light,” I yelled while chopping red bell pepper for the casserole.
House spiders love light fixtures, especially over dining room tables, the ones you don’t notice until your persnickety dinner guest looks up to admire your intricate fixture, drops her jaw, and loses her noodles. Dangling from the light’s prettiest curlicue are strands of abandoned cobwebs.
Obviously, when his webs lost their stickiness because of my house dust, Mister Spider picked up his eight jointed legs, walked out, slammed the door, and left his cobwebs to me. I’m glad he went. He embarrassed me. I hope he sashayed across the street to somebody else’s dining room.
Despite the embarrassment, I like the word cobweb. It’s a true-blue 14th century English word, a strapping word. Maybe it was born when some British Isles charwoman gouged gauzy stuff out of nooks and crannies with a twig broom. Company was a-coming. Maybe she hissed and grouched at the spiders who had left them there, but with a poetic wink and nod, she put together coppe (spider) and web to make a new-fangled English word: cobweb. I like it.
In the middle of the red pepper chop-chops on the cutting board, I thought about another poet’s cobwebs. My mind tumbled the words over and over, cobwebs and prosperity, cobwebs and prosperity, while I stirred up the casserole.
I don’t agree with the poet Emily Dickinson on theology, but I think she’s right about cobwebs: “Crumbling is not an instant’s act, tis first a cobweb on the soul, a cuticle of dust, an elemental rust—devil’s work, consecutive and slow.“
Dickinson’s not specifically talking about prosperity. Her poem is about any number of things that collect cobwebs in our souls. I thought of biblical principles
we haven’t dusted off recently. Values that gradually rust and crumble. It happens “consecutive and slow.”
We notice a little “slipping,” as she says later in the poem. It seems minor, a little loss of grip, or a tiny slide. We don’t pay attention until crumbling and cobwebs lead on to “crash’s law.”
A little slip-slide here, a little there, is how the “devil’s work” has eased into our lives on the subject of prosperity. And so the good word prosperity is dusted over and obscured. Only rarely do we hear prosperity apart from expressions of wealth, assets, property, or money. Even flourish and thrive bow their knees to making a bundle and cover up prosperity’s biblical meaning: making a good and wise and godly life. We have dollar signs in our eyes, and prosperity is about multiplying those dollar signs.
MONEY IS A HUMAN INVENTION, BUT HEAVEN FORBID THAT OUR CONCPET OF PROSPERITY BECOMES A HUMAN INVENTION AS WELL.
I Shop Therefore I Am, a 1987 work of art by Barbara Kruger, currently hangs in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden alongside the National Mall in Washington. It will be there for several months. It’s a 30-year-old pictorial satire of American life. Kruger must have been asking in 1987 if shopping, buying, getting, spending, having, and owning had become our national pastimes. Thirty years later, they aren’t just a pastime; they are an obsession.
In Deuteronomy, when Moses talked about prospering (just before Joshua led God’s people into the land), he made his meaning clear. It’s as if he said, push forward, progress in all ways—spiritually, economically, socially—but always deal wisely while you do it. Handle prosperity; don’t let it handle you. Take it on cautiously, graciously. Tackle it, go with it, thrive, advance, but oversee your success wisely. Rule it, so it doesn’t rule you. Use it compassionately and with gratitude. Go forward with God. Wow! How we American believers have slipped in our understanding of prosperity. Kruger’s art has become our mantra: I shop, therefore I am.
For several weeks now, I’ve read surveys, indexes, and essays on the current concept of prosperity. One index uses nine “pillars” for measuring prosperity. Another focuses on 12 “quantitative and qualitative factors” for assessing an individual or nation’s economic health. Both make relevant assessments of how governmental policies hinder or bolster economic prosperity, but neither mentions anything close to biblical precepts. Many seem to agree with the “I deserve” commercials rampant in the media.
I read an essay on happiness economics that explores the “joy center” of the brain. Some scientists say this part of the brain scans and measures a person’s happiness. Money lights up the joy center, it suggests, so money lights up a person’s life. Another study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that a person’s happiness or emotional wellbeing is not a simple function of income. Nevertheless, we still measure the good life, the prosperous life, by wealth.
“If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren’t Spending It Right” is a 46-page discussion of economic prosperity and its relation to happiness. Early on, the authors say, “The relationship between money and happiness is surprisingly weak...Most people don’t know the basic scientific facts about happiness—about what brings it and what sustains it—and so they don’t know how to use their money to acquire it.” They follow that up with eight principles on how to “buy” happiness. Only three of their principles touch on the concept that moving outside ourselves to consider the needs of others is a way to use our money well and be happy and prosper, a concept quite clear in the Bible, from Moses on through the New Testament. None of the eight principles even hint that God has a better idea on prosperity than they do or that He and Scripture are credible guides to authentic thriving.
Money is a human invention, but Heaven forbid that our concept of prosperity becomes a human invention as well. God has spoken often and well on the subject. Deuteronomy is one of those places. Moses repeatedly linked prosperity not only to milk and honey, real estate and agriculture, weapons of harm and instruments of peace, but to spiritual purity, obedience, generosity, and gratitude. I won’t look at these passages today, but dive into Deuteronomy chapters 8 and 30. Let God’s view shape our own views.
David’s end-of-life comments about prosperity in 1 Chronicles 28 and 29 are even more thorough. Death was upon him, and he was ready to pass along to Solomon the plans and materials he had gathered for building and embellishing the temple. He called a grand assembly of Israel’s leaders: officials, commanders, stewards, priests, officers, mighty men, warriors, along with his son Solomon who was about to be installed as Israel’s king.
Prosperity is about possibilities, David told them. It is conditional, contingent on attitudes and actions. In one brief spurt of about a hundred words, David used the word if three times. If you do this, God will do that. In the rest of his speech, David emphasized that prosperity is contingent on obedience, willingness to use skills, giving attitudes and actions, devotion to God and to work, praise, and gratitude—acknowledgement that all in heaven and on earth is God’s. After David’s death, “Solomon sat on the throne of the Lord as king in place of David his father. And he prospered…” (29:23).
We know the rest of the story. As long as Solomon kept the conditions for prosperity that God laid out through David, he thrived. When he thumbed his nose at those principles, cobwebs gathered, and “consecutive and slow” Solomon crumbled and fell.
Maybe it wasn’t a British Isles half-poet, half-charwoman who invented the word cobweb, I don’t know. The point is, if, like a charwoman, we sweep out our cobwebs and let the spiders start over, they will. We need to clean the cobwebs from our souls and start over about this thing called prosperity. It’s time we believers think about prosperity the way God thinks about it.
About the Writer: Brenda Evans is a freelance writer living on the edge of Appalachia in Ashland, Kentucky. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.