God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

Psalm 121

I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.

A guy was walking down a street when all of the sudden he fell into a deep hole. The walls were so steep that he couldn’t climb out and he began crying out for help. A doctor was passing by and looked down into the pit when the man yelled up, “Hey! Can you help me out?” The doctor thought about it for a moment, wrote a prescription, threw it down into the hole and kept walking.

Then a preacher came walking along and the guy shouted up, “Reverend, I’m stuck down here in this hole, can you help me up?” The pastor slowly put his hands together, said a prayer for the man, and kept walking.

Next, a sweet older woman from the local church came up and the man yelled, “Please help me. I’m stuck down here and I can’t get out.” The woman stared right into the man’s eyes and said, “Don’t you know that God helps those who help themselves?” And with that she went on her way.

Finally, a friend walked up and the man shouted, “Hey! It’s me down here! Can you help me out?” And the friend jumped right into the hole. The first guy said, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both stuck down here!” The friend said, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.”

A relatively recent poll found that better than eight in ten Americans think, “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible. In fact, more than half the people who responded to the poll were strongly convinced that it is one of the major messages of scripture.

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Guess what? It’s not in the bible!

Do you know where it actually comes from? There are hints of the phrase in ancient Greek mythology, but it became popularized by Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanac published in 1736.

And yet, a majority of people in this country believe it is a major aspect of Christianity straight from the lips of Jesus.

Of course, there is some, very small, truth to the statement. After all, if we sit around our dinner tables praying for God to miraculously provide us with food, we’re going to be disappointed. We can eat because God has blessed creation with abundance and through things like employment we can afford to provide food for our tables. God helps us because we work to help ourselves.

Likewise, focusing in school, listening to our spouses, nurturing our children, these things result in our lives being better because we have worked for them to be better.

But that pales in comparison to how “God helps those who help themselves” has been used by Christians to avoid our obligation to help others.

Like the woman walking passed the man in the hole, it blinds us from our responsibility toward others and frees us from feeling guilty for how broken the world is outside of our respective bubbles.

The truth is: some people cannot help themselves. Societal discrimination, generational poverty, institutional racism, and a host of other problems prevent people from helping themselves. Some people, in fact many people, are in holes so deep, with walls so steep, that they can’t climb out without help.

About a year ago, some of the pastors in Staunton got together to talk about ways we could minister to the homeless population in our community. We asked ourselves how our respective churches could work together to help the people that cannot help themselves.

At first we debated the pros and cons of establishing something like a computer lab to help individuals apply for jobs. The thought being that if they found work, they could have an income, and no longer be homeless. We discussed offering weekly classes in reading, mathematics, and financial management at the Valley Mission to teach important skills necessary for breaking free from the cycle of homelessness. But in the end, only after we finally connected with homeless community members in Staunton, we discovered what they really needed were showers and a place to do their laundry.

What we failed to realize was that all the best training and teaching would be meaningless if the individuals arrived to a job interview wearing the same clothes they had been sleeping in for months.

We, the pastors, had walked passed the hole many times and decided how to fix the problem from our vantage point, rather than jumping into the hole in the first place.

The Church, and I mean big “C” Church, cannot shrug off the responsibility to help others with the use of another trite and cliché sentence because God, over and over again, commands his people to take special care of the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the needy.

A cursory scan through the prominent stories of the Old and New testaments leads us to the biblical truth that God helps those who cannot help themselves.

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In Leviticus, God commands the farmers to not harvest all the way to the edge of the fields. Certain amounts of the produce were supposed to be left for the poor and the immigrant. Instead of consuming it themselves, or selling it for a profit, a portion was to be left for those who were not able to make ends meet or for the strangers in the land.

In another part of the Old Testament, God says that compassion for others is itself a form of worship. There are times when the priest and the religious leaders heaped up sacrifice after sacrifice, they had the perfect worship services with all the right prayers and all the right songs, and God tells them their worship has become lifeless.

            What difference does it make if we show up at a place like this for an hour a week if we ignore the people God tells us to care about the rest of the week?

In the New Testament, Jesus is forever going from town to town and seeks out the last, the least, and the lost. And when he finds them, the sick and the needy, does he say, “God will help you if you help yourself?” When the crowds gathered to hear Jesus speak, did he command the disciples to tell the hungry 5,000 that God will give them food if they go collect it for themselves?

No. Jesus helps them. He connects with their brokenness and brings healing. He sends the abandoned back to the villages that disowned them, he feeds the hungry out of the abundant grace of God, and he helps people precisely because they cannot help themselves.

Have you ever felt like you’ve been the one down in the pit? Have you ever encountered a moment in your life that felt so suffocating and oppressive that you knew you couldn’t get out of it on your own? Have you lost a job, or a spouse, or a child? Have you received a frightening medical diagnosis, or a horrible tip for the stock market, or a habit that you couldn’t kick?

We can claw all we want, we can plead on our knees with our hands clasped in the air, but sometimes the only way out of the pit is if someone jumps in to help us find the way out.

From where will out help come? We lift our eyes to the edge of the pit and we see that our help comes from the Lord. The Lord who sends us a friend willing to jump down into the depths of our despair, the Lord who never abandons us even when we feel alone, the Lord who was willing to jump down into the pit of humanity and be born into this fractured world of ours.

That, my friends, is the whole point. We help others who cannot help themselves because God helps us when we cannot help ourselves. God came into the world as a baby in the deep pit of fear and suffering of a couple all alone in the world. God went to the margins of society in Jesus Christ to sink low into the stink of the world and offer hope. God went to the broken families and the battered spouses and the abandoned children and showed the way out. God went to the very depth of death just so that all of us could find the way to salvation.

Tomorrow, some of us who work will not have to because of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It is a day set apart to remember the man who led this country through a particularly horrible period of racial injustice. His life, his teachings, his marches, and his protests all bear witness to his willingness to jump into the pit of his people’s suffering, in order to find a way out.

A father was with his four year old daughter last Christmas, and it was the first time she ever asked what the holiday meant. He explained that Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus, and the more they talked the more she wanted to know about Jesus so he bought a kid’s bible and read to her every night. She loved it.

They read the stories of his birth and his teachings, and the daughter would ask her father to explain some of the sayings from Jesus, like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And they would talk about how Jesus teaches us to treat people the way we want to be treated. They read and they read and at some point the daughter said, “Dad, I really like this Jesus.”

Right after Christmas they were driving around town and they passed by a Catholic Church with an enormous crucifix out on the front lawn. The giant cross was impossible to miss, as was the figure that was nailed to it. The daughter quickly pointed out the window and said, “Dad! Who’s that?”

He realized in that moment that he never told her the end of the story. So he began explaining how it was Jesus, and how he ran afoul of the Roman government because his message was so radical and unnerving that they thought the only way to stop his message was to kill him, and they did.

The daughter was silent.

A few weeks later, after going through the whole story of what Christmas meant, the Preschool his daughter attended had the day off in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. The father decided to take the day off as well and treat his daughter to a day of play and they went out to lunch together. And while they were sitting at the table for lunch, they saw the local newspaper’s front-page story with a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. on it. The daughter pointed at the picture and said, “Dad! Who’s that?”

“Well,” he began, “that’s Martin Luther King Jr. and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. We’re celebrating his life. He was a preacher.”

And she said, “for Jesus?!”

The father said, “Yeah, for Jesus. But there was another thing he was famous for; he had his own message and said you should treat everyone the same no matter what they look like.”

She thought about it for a minute and said, “Dad, that sounds a lot like do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The dad said, “Yeah, I never thought about it like that but it’s just like what Jesus said.”

The young girl was silent again for a brief moment, and they she looked up at her dad and said, “Did they kill him too?”

If we are serious about following Jesus, it’s going to cost us. It might cause embarrassment, or ridicule, or shame. It might cost us money, or time, or status. But jumping into the pit comes with a cost. Thanks be to God.

 

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