Half Truths: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

Preached on July 16, 2017
Rev. Shawn Coons

We are on our second week of the “Half-Truths” series where we are looking at sayings that are commonly associated with Christianity and said by well-meaning Christians. But when we look closer at these sayings we find that they may not be as true or as Christian as represented.  Last week was “Everything Happens for a Reason” and this morning we are moving on to “God Helps Those Who Helps Themselves.”

In a survey done by the Barna Group, eight in ten Americans responded that they were pretty sure that “God helps those who help themselves” could be found in the Bible, and more than half of the people responding were strongly convinced that this was a major message found in Scripture.  In fact, the saying pre-dates much of scripture and can be traced back to Greek mythology five centuries before Jesus.  It’s been used by a number of people throughout the ages but possibly made most famous by Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanac.

It’s probably a saying that a number of us have said at one point or another, and often what we mean by it is that you can’t sit back, be lazy and expect God will take care of everything for you.  If you want a job, then put together a resume, get out there and start applying for jobs, don’t just hang out at home, pray for a job, and then hope the phone will ring with a job offer. God helps those who help themselves.

When we say this, we sometimes mean don’t offer prayers to God for something unless you are also willing to work for it to.  Sometimes God answers prayer by saying, I’ve given you the brains, the strength, the resources to attain what you are asking my for, so get to it.  I came across this story on Facebook one day:

I dreamed I was face to face with God, and so I asked God, “There’s so much suffering in the world, so much poverty, so much violence, racism and sexism. People are treating each other so horribly. God, why don’t you do something about it?” Then God looked at me and said, “That’s interesting. I was just about to ask you the same thing.”

Adam Hamilton, in his book “Half-Truths” which this series is based on writes:

We don’t sit around waiting for God to miraculously right the wrongs in society. As Scripture reveals over and over again, God works through people. We are the instruments God uses to change the world. Our times of prayer are meant to empower us for and guide us into action. Those who fought for civil rights did not simply show up at church and pray; they prayed and then marched, knowing they were likely to be beaten and arrested but that God would somehow see them through.

But then what about people who seem incapable of helping themselves. Who seem, for any number of reasons, helpless to get out of a situation? What about someone trapped in circumstances that have gotten out of control?  Will God help them?  Just a moment ago, Steve read from Psalm 18.

The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of perdition assailed me; the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me. In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help…He reached down from on high, he took me; he drew me out of mighty waters. He delivered me from my strong enemy, and from those who hated me; for they were too mighty for me.

That sounds to me like someone who is unable to help themselves. So what does God do? Say to them, well you got yourself there and you’ll have to figure how to get yourself out?  No, God reached down from on high. It says “God delivered me from my strong enemy.”  Think about that wording. God delivered me. Delivered. I have an image of a UPS driver delivering a package.  Does the driver get help from the package?  Does the driver only deliver those packages that help deliver themselves?  No. If God delivered you then you were passive in that rescue. God delivered you because you couldn’t.

Let’s turn now to the Gospels and see if Jesus only helps those who help themselves.  We’ll be reading from Mark 5:1-13.

They came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes.* 2And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. 3He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain;4for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. 5Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. 6When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; 7and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ 8For he had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ 9Then Jesus* asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’ 10He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; 12and the unclean spirits* begged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them.’ 13So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake.

We have a man here in the grip of demonic forces. Trapped by forces beyond his control. These forces are making him do strange and destructive things. Things that no person in their right mind would do by choice.  Here is a man in need of help when he cannot help himself.  Today we have people in the grip of forces beyond their control. People in need of help who cannot help themselves. People trapped by poverty, war, violence, racism, sexism.

And while we may admit that people are mired in circumstances too deep to get out of on their own, sometimes we want to nuance a little bit and so we may say a version of “God helps those who help themselves.”  “God helps those who don’t get in that kind of trouble in the first place.”  We go beyond saying use what God has given you to help yourself, and we move on to labeling people, judging people, to implying that they have made choices that have led them to a place where they may not deserve God’s help.

We say “God helps those who help themselves” but what we mean is that you made your bed, now lie in it!  You made some bad decisions and now you deserve what’s coming to you, you don’t deserve God’s help.  So we see someone homeless on the street asking for money, and we question whether they truly deserve our help or God’s help because surely they must have done something to get there. They didn’t work hard enough, they did drugs, they spent excessively.

I think at the heart of this is hopefully a simple desire for God to be fair.  We want God to be fair, at least what we see as fair. We want people who do good things to get good things, and people who do bad things to get bad things.  To borrow from another faith, we want karma.  Is it do bad to want God to be fair?  Maybe not, but be careful.  This idea that God is fair (by our definition) can expose a deeper unhealthy belief. George Barna writes that the “God helps those who help themselves” belief “exposes our theological cornerstone - that we are the center of all things, that it is up to us to determine our destiny, and that God is merely our assistant, not our foundation.”

This belief can allow us to labor under the illusion that you and I have earned every blessing God has given us, while others are not as hard-working as you and I, and they are probably on divine welfare.  Surely, we deserve every last blessing and help God has given us, we have done no wrong, but others… But if God is truly fair, the real possibility is we might get what we deserve and not what God has blessed us with.

I don’t think we can impose our idea of fairness on God.  God is not fair, at least not if being fair means being unmerciful, or even being without grace.  Jesus didn’t ask the man possessed by demons how they got there. What did you do to deserve this? You know, if you somehow invited them in then you don’t deserve my help.  No, Jesus helped him.  I don’t remember a single story in scripture where Jesus pre-screened somebody to see if they deserved help. What did you do to become sick? What bad choices did you make to become hungry?

Jesus didn’t ask those kinds of questions.  He did just the opposite, in John 8 Jesus comes to a woman accused of adultery, the Pharisees, stones in hand, are ready to convict her and punish her according to the law.  Did she deserve help?  Fair is fair, right?  She sinned so she must pay the price. She was helpless, defenseless before the law, but Jesus helped her even when, especially when, she couldn’t help herself.

This concern for those in need defined Jesus’ ministry. It defined Jesus. Really, this is a fundamental characteristic of God, this is what defines God isn’t it?  God helps those who are in a hole so deep they can’t get out. That hole can be poverty, racism, war, violence, but like the woman sometimes we dig ourselves into a hole, and even still God comes to us.  Adam Hamilton again. He writes:

Thankfully, the idea that God helps those who help themselves does not capture the truth of the Bible. Sometimes we can’t help ourselves, not because we are poor or destitute or without resources but because we have descended too deeply into sin or despair. God is the God of the hopeless cause, the God who loves sinners, the God who walks with us through the darkest valleys. He is the God who brings light into our darkness and helps us find peace amid our times of anxiety and despair. God rescues, redeems, and forgives. We receive blessings from God even though we cannot earn them and don’t deserve them. Even when we have made a mess of things and can’t fix them, God extends mercy to us. There’s a word for God’s mercy toward those who cannot help themselves. We call it grace.

This concept of grace is central to the Christian gospel. It is the undeserved work of God in our lives, the unmerited favor of God. Grace is not something we earn, buy, or work for. We cannot help ourselves into grace. We can only ask for and accept it. The essence of grace is that God helps those who cannot help themselves!

The core message of our faith is that God helps those who cannot help themselves! Paul writes in Romans that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.  Not when we had gotten our act together, or when we had taken the first step and God was sure we were really trying.  God looks on those who are most helpless and has mercy on them.  God is judge, but God is a merciful judge.  Much like Judge Frank Caprio of Providence in dealing with a woman and a number of overdue parking tickets. Let's take a moment to watch Judge Caprio (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EqK80Neavq8)

Rev. Adam Hamilton again:

There are times when we can help ourselves, and we should. God is counting on us to do the best we can—to pray and to work. There are times when people cannot make it on their own, and God prompts us to help. We become the hands of God. We become God’s answer to someone else’s prayer, God’s instruments of grace.

But you will find, if you haven’t already, that a time will come when you cannot help yourself. There are things from which you simply cannot save yourself, no matter how hard you try. You will not have the strength or the resources or the knowledge. And there may be times when you don’t believe you deserve help because you know you are responsible for the difficult situation in which you find yourself.

In those moments, we cry out to God, the only one who can help us. And despite the fact that we are poor and pitiable, weak and afraid, and that we have made a mess of things, God reaches out and picks us up and makes us clean. God says, “I love you and will not abandon you. Put your trust in me. Together we can make this right.” This is the message from God that we find over and over again in Scripture.

“I am here,” says God. “You matter to me. Your life has meaning. Nothing, no matter what you may have done or been unable to do, can separate you from my love.”