That’s In The Bible Somewhere…: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves
II Thessalonians 3:6-8
This past Wednesday morning provided a unique start to the day here at First Baptist. We had a delivery of 200 chairs that arrived for our Adult Sunday School Classrooms on the third floor of the Cooper Building that have been getting new carpet, a fresh coat of paint and other improvements. The chairs were delivered by an 18 wheeler that was driven by one of the nicest, most helpful deliverymen I have ever met. For over an hour he unloaded chairs. But, the way his particular truck was constructed with no lift or ramp and the fact that we don’t have a loading dock here at the church meant that there was no way he could have done this job on his own even if he had wanted to do so. In turn, it became a team effort with members of our staff, our custodial staff and even our own site supervisor from Harper Construction joining in the fun of the unloading process. Together, the job was accomplished.
That act of unloading chairs on Wednesday morning is a lot like much of our lives. A large majority of our lives require a team effort. A significant portion of what we do and are involved in every day cannot be accomplished or tackled by you or I by ourselves even if we would like to act alone. And, yet, many of us act and carry ourselves as if we are self made. That’s why many of us also like the statement which is part of the title of our sermon for today that God helps those who help themselves. Indeed, we not only like this statement but we like it so much that we think it is Biblical.
George Barna, one of the lead researchers these days as it relates to Christian practice and Christian thought once offered this statement that God helps those who help themselves in one of his polls. As he did, Barna framed it this way, “the Bible teaches that God helps those who help themselves”. To that statement, he asked people if they agreed or disagreed. Amazingly, according to Barna’s research, 68% of Christians, not 68% of people, but 68% of Christians, felt that this statement was actually in the Bible or at least was what the Bible taught. (God Helps Those Who Help Themselves, wikipedia.com)
I have to agree with the writer Adam Hamilton who says that while this saying is not in scripture nor is it really a teaching of the Bible, we have to say that there is at some level of truth about it. That level of truth comes from the fact that the Bible is clear that the life of faith is a shared life between what God does for us and what God expects us to do for ourselves. In other words, the Bible never advocates that we are to be people who simply leave our lives in the hands God or the hands of God’s people while sitting around doing nothing. Our job most certainly is to seek God’s help and to welcome the help of others while always at the same time seeking to do whatever possible to help ourselves.
The clear biblical passage for this idea comes from II Thessalonians chapter 3 which we read early. The church at Thessalonica was one of the earliest Christian congregations. Evidently, in Thessalonica a very challenging situation had emerged. For one reason or another, some believers there saw in the church a group who would simply take care of their needs and thus give them the freedom to do very little for themselves. They had abandoned their responsibilities while gladly letting others carry all of their burdens. As he writes to the Thessalonians, Paul is clear that this is not the way things should be.
In essence, Paul was indeed saying, you must help yourself. And, that must be our expectation of others and of ourselves today too. Christianity does not give anyone the freedom to expect the church to be their ticket to laziness. At the same time, handing our burdens to God is also not an excuse or a right to do nothing when there are things in our own power that we can clearly do to help our own cause. We pray, we accept help but we also recognize our part. Again think of story that I began with today. The driver on Wednesday accepted our help, recognized the task wasn’t something he could do alone but at the same time was engaged every step of the way as we accomplished this task of unloading the chairs together.
So certainly, there is an element of truth and biblical truth in God helps those who help themselves and it may be a truth we need to hear if we are someone expecting others or God to solve our life problems while doing nothing ourselves in situations where there are clearly things within our power to do.
But, where the statement God Helps Those Who Help Themselves clearly falls apart as a biblical teaching is when we realize that both for others and for ourselves that are times where we simply cannot help ourselves.
There simply are things that we cannot do for ourselves and there simply are things that others cannot do for themselves. This is the point at which not only this statement but others life “pulling oneself up by our own bootstraps” or the idea that you or I are a “self-made” person are more myth than reality because there really is no such a thing as someone who is able to always handle life on their own.
This is where our other text for today becomes equally helpful. If II Thessalonians 3 is a passage to hang our hat on in support of the truth in God Helps Those Who Help Themselves then Matthew 20 is the text that reminds us of the dangers of the same statement.
The parable of the vineyard is the story of day laborers who go to work at various points in the day. Some work the whole day, others work a portion of the day and some work only an hour or two. Yet, in the end, the master of the field pays them all the same. When the pay is handed out, there is an outcry by those who have worked all day. The owner has been unfair they say. “Folks should get only what they deserve” these workers seem to suggest.
Of course, the point of the parable is that none of us get what we deserve. Life is not about God giving us what we deserve or what we merit. After all, none of us really want that. Instead, life is about God at times doing for us more than we deserve and in light of today’s sermon at times doing for us what cannot do for ourselves no matter how hard we try.
Again, we all have the image painted for us in our minds of people who do nothing to help themselves. But, this is often more a caricature or an exaggeration of life than the true way that many people live. In lots and lots of situations such as poverty issues, education challenges, family situations and spiritual struggles people can do all that is within their power and still not be able to help themselves.
Not long ago, I heard someone speak about helping adults learn to read. She told of the reality that there are many people in our own community who have never learned to read at even a basic level. As she spoke she talked about an elderly gentleman with whom she was working who simply wanted to be able to do basic things like read a menu in a restaurant or send a letter to his family members. It was a skill that he wanted to develop so desperately yet there was no way he could master it on his own. No matter how hard he tried he couldn’t help himself other than to present himself as a willing student in hopes of having someone who would help him. He was absolutely dependent on others to learn this skill. He could not teach himself.
Sure, I know we have YouTube these days which has further led to our false belief that we are self sufficient but think about all of the things we have already accomplished this very day that we know how to do only because somewhere along the way someone else taught us. For instance, most of us who cooked breakfast this morning learned how to do that from someone else. Likewise, if we are wearing a tie, most of us learned to tie that tie from someone else. If we drove here in a car, someone else taught us how to drive. And, if we read our Bible in Sunday School or church, someone taught us how to read.
Now, just in case any of us taught ourselves how to read, how to tie our own tie, how to drive our own car or cook our own food, let me push a little further. We didn’t manufacture our own breath today. We didn’t cause ourselves to wake up. And, we certainly didn’t play a role in the rising of the sun. All of which are things that were necessary to our well being in this moment. Nope, I am pretty sure God did all of that for us. Truth be told, God helped us even through we were unable able to help ourselves.
Yes, there is truth to the idea that the Christian faith is a tricky balance between the help of God, the help of others and our commitment to doing our own part. This is absolutely true.
But, there is even greater truth that the Christian faith so much of the time is our simple response to God’s grace when we are powerless. So too, this is the truth that should cause us to respond to others with the same grace, help and compassion that God has shone to us.
Thank goodness God doesn’t only help those who help themselves. Otherwise, you, me, all of us in this room, would be out of luck. Amen.