Psalm 10: 12-18; 2 Thessalonians 3: 10-12
God Helps Those Who Help Themselves
Thank you for that. We’re continuing our series today on things God never said; the things that sound true but are not completely true. Today, we’re looking at the phrase God helps those who help themselves. And we really like this phrase, in part because it’s got a little bit of truth to it. I pray every week up here “give us this day our daily bread,” and yet I know that when I go home today that bread will not magically appear on my kitchen table, but rather I have to do something in order to get it. And people had to do something before that bread got to the store that I went to go and buy it. So God may have sent rain in order to feed this community, but if we didn’t have farmers that put seed in the soil the rain would not have done anything. If we didn’t have people who harvested that grain and who did the hard work to turn that grain into bread, then it wouldn’t be feeding this community. So there is some truth to the phrase.
But there’s a couple ways we can really go awry, and one of them is when we take it and we use it way too much. For instance, is God going to help those who help themselves in looking for a better parking place? If I pray to have a good parking place at the store, and then I don’t ever take my car to the front of the parking lot but just stay in the back and find the best spot, God may well have been helping me, but because I didn’t help myself I didn’t get a good spot. But, are we really going to say that I didn’t help myself enough if I go up to the front and there’s not a good parking place up there?
Or, the week that I’m writing this Hurricane Florence is coming in on North Carolina and Virginia. I heard that Pat Robertson had asked people to pray and to rebuke the storm so that it wouldn’t come and hit where Pat Robertson lives, and dump a lot of rain on that area. And, of course, the storm hit anyway (now, It did hit weaker than expected, so there’s that). So, was Pat Robertson not helping himself enough? Were the people who are praying not doing that right? How does this work? In other words, there is a sense where this phrase is true, but we can get into trouble when we start trying to apply at in our lives.
We really do like this phrase. And one of the reasons we like it is that is it is so embedded in the Protestant work ethic that the Puritans brought to this country, and that is woven into the fabric of our very country. And it is true that if you are able to help yourself, and you don’t help yourself, it is unlikely (though not unheard of) for God to pick up the slack. Right? If you are able to be employed, and you are unemployed, and you just sit around your house, it is highly unlikely that someone is going to just call you up and say “hey, you want to job?” You have to go and do something to put yourself in position, and then maybe God can help.
That’s really the heart of the 2 Thessalonians passage. Paul had come to this place, and he had preached the Good News, and said that Jesus was coming back. And so the people rejoiced that Jesus was coming back and they decided that Jesus must be coming back quickly. And so they quit their jobs, and they quit doing what they need to be doing, they quit living life in the community, and they just kind of sat around waiting for Jesus to come back. And Paul is saying here, “no, you’ve got to be working. You’ve got to live your life. You’ve got to be in the community. You’ve got to do all these things because you can’t force Jesus’s hand. You don’t know when Jesus is coming back; it might be tomorrow, it might be 2000 years from now.” That message holds true for us as well.
And part of the reason that I think this phrase has caught on so much is because there is uncertainty about God’s timing. We want to know for sure that God is going to do God’s part of the deal. We want to leave nothing to chance. I’m a math person; I like algorithms. I like to know that if I do step one, step two, and step three, then the same result will always happen no matter what. That’s why I like videogames, right? I know in a video game that if I go talk to this person, with this item at the top of my inventory, with this style of hair, I will always encounter this glitch that will really make me powerful. I know that will happen because it’s in the code, and as an algorithm that says, “if I do step one, step two, step three, then step four will happen.” And that step four is always good because I’ve intentionally made that happen.
That’s what we want life to be like. We want to know, for sure, that the good outcome we’re hoping to achieve will happen if we just do step one, step two, step three. This is why we worship celebrities, and no I don’t think worship is too strong of a word. We worship celebrities because we think in the back of our minds “if I just figure out what they did, and just do that myself, then I too will be rich, I too will be famous. We’re looking for the algorithm; we’re looking for the code that they found in life. This is also what is at the heart of the false prosperity gospel: those people who tell you that if you just think happy thoughts, then you will get good things or God will bless you, or if you just give money to this project or to this church, if you plant seed in the form of this money then you will reap benefits 100 fold.
But the thing is, we don’t control God. God is not a cosmic vending machine, and we are not God‘s master. And as a pastor, when people are bringing out the prosperity gospel in all of its many forms, it pains me. Because I know who’s going to have to pick up the pieces when that person does not become rich. I know who is going to have to pick up the pieces when that person doesn’t find joy in thinking happy thoughts. I know that because they’re going to think that that there was something wrong with them; that they didn’t help themselves enough. The mountain didn’t move, so therefore I must not have faith the size even of a mustard seed.
And that’s really what we’re trying to avoid. We want good things to happen in our lives, yes, but in reality what we want more is to avoid the bad. We want to avoid that feeling of being forsaken. We want to know what’s going to cause God to be there for us, what’s going to cause God to do his part. We remember back to the group projects in school. When I was in school that was the big huge thing: group projects. People would work together on this thing and get one collective grade. But the problem was that little Jimmy didn’t do his part in the thing, and so even though you worked for hours on your end, little Jimmy did nothing. And little Jimmy still got the C, but your grade went down to a C. And it hurts. And we transfer some of those human things that happen onto God. And we want to make sure that God does not play the part of little Jimmy, so we ask, “what do I do? How do I help myself correctly to ensure that God is going to help me?” And we think this phrase, “God helps those who help themselves,” so therefore if I help myself, then that ensures that God will do God‘s part.
As I’ve said, there is the problem that nothing we can do can force God’s hand, and so in that sense even if we help ourselves it doesn’t ensure that God’s going to help us. But the real danger in this phrase actually comes from the reverse side: when we simply cannot help ourselves. Because there are times in all of our lives, and for some of us a lot more times in our lives; that we just simply cannot help ourselves. And in those moments we rely upon God. We must trust that God is going to help someone who cannot help themselves.
That’s what this Psalm is about. Here in Psalm 10, we can see that David is trapped. The Psalmist tells us the David has been trapped by Saul’s armies, and in that moment he cannot help himself. And he cries out to God, “deliver me!” The part of this psalm that I had read this morning is all about David crying out that God would save the oppressed from the wicked because, simply put, they cannot save themselves from the wicked. It is a cry to God for God to intervene, to help someone who cannot help themselves, and for God to lift someone up who does not have bootstraps to pull on. The reality is that throughout world history, including today, including in this country, there are always millions who flat out do not have bootstraps upon which to pull themselves up and who rely entirely upon God.
And God is a God who helps those who cannot help themselves. That’s what the entirety of the Gospel story is really about: God looking upon a group of sinners who were so deep in sin that they could not get themselves out, and God having compassion on them, and coming and helping them. I thank God for that, because if you haven’t figured it out yet, you and I, and all of us, were those people who were so stuck in sin that we couldn’t help ourselves.
Helping ourselves, if we’re capable does not, guarantee that God will help us, but I will also say doesn’t hurt. There is a long tradition in church, which began as a monastic idea, of praying and working. Those two things going hand-in-hand. From the 500s, maybe even earlier, to Pope Francis saying, “you pray for the hungry then you go feed the hungry.” We pray and then we work.
And often times what I find is that God’s answer to our prayers, the way God works, the way God helps those who cannot help themselves, is through the actions of faithful Christians and faithful people who are praying and then working. Saint Francis of Assisi had a prayer, it’s number 481 in your hymnal: “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace…Where there is hatred, let me sow love.” The prayer goes on like that: where there is a problem, let me be the solution. Let me help in that spot. Pray, then work.
I include this in our prayer time here is often as I can remember, and I hope you begin to incorporate that in your prayer life as well: I pray “God, use me to answer this prayer. Use me in whatever way you can to bring about your blessings, to bring about the kingdom of God, to answer this prayer and bring healing to people.” We pray and then we work. And the way you do that is that you pray and then, when you say amen or maybe even before you say amen, then you stop and you listen. You wait for the Holy Spirit’s direction. Or if you do say amen, you go back rest your day in a different mindset so that if the spirit needs to speak you’re ready to stop what you’re doing and listen. And then, after the spirit has given you direction, then you go and do what the Spirit says to do.
There immense importance in that last part. I’ll leave you with one final story from the Bible: the story of Naaman. Naaman was a Syrian military leader who had leprosy. The Syrians were coming and conquering the Israelites and one of the Israelites they had taken back was a servant for Naaman. The servant told him, “Oh, if only you had a prophet like the one in Israel, you would be cured of this leprosy.” And so Naaman gathers a bunch of tribute and he goes to see this prophet that his servant spoke of to see if he could be healed. And what he’s doing there is he’s praying to God; he’s going to a prophet to try and get an answer from God. And then when he arrives at the prophet’s place, he stopped and he listened to what the prophet had to say, or to what the Spirit tells him to do through the prophet. And he has brought gold, and animals to sacrifice, and all sorts of a great many things from his great multitude that comes with a powerful position in a powerful nation. He’s ready to do whatever it is this God asks of him. He’s ready to pay whatever it costs.
But the Spirit, through the prophet, tells him to go and wash in the Jordan River seven times and he’ll be healed. That’s it. And Naaman almost doesn’t do it! He gets offended because the asking price was so low. And he says, “the Jordan River! That’s a creek. We have flowing rivers, grand rivers, back home. You don’t want my animals? You don’t want to use the good rivers of Assyria? Do you know who I am?” He prayed and he listened for what the Spirit had to say, but he almost didn’t do what the Spirit said to do. And therefore he almost didn’t get the help that God was offering. Ultimately he is convinced that he gets no harm from trying it, and so he goes down to the Jordan River and bathes seven times, and he is healed of his leprosy. Pray, and listen, and then do.
This week I encourage you to pray for God’s help. This week I encourage you to continue to listen to what the Spirit has to tell you. This week I encourage you to work alongside God wherever it is that the Spirit directs you to work. And my hope is that through your work God’s Kingdom would truly come on earth. Amen.