by Pastor Cherie Dearth
Isaiah 49:8-16a NIV
8 This is what the LORD says: “In the time of my favor I will answer you, and in the day of salvation I will help you; I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people, to restore the land and to reassign its desolate inheritances,
9 to say to the captives, ‘Come out,’ and to those in darkness, ‘Be free!’ “They will feed beside the roads and find pasture on every barren hill.
10 They will neither hunger nor thirst, nor will the desert heat or the sun beat down on them. He who has compassion on them will guide them and lead them beside springs of water.
11 I will turn all my mountains into roads, and my highways will be raised up.
12 See, they will come from afar— some from the north, some from the west, some from the region of Aswan. ”
13 Shout for joy, you heavens; rejoice, you earth; burst into song, you mountains! For the LORD comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones.
14 But Zion said, “The LORD has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.”
15 “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!
16 See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.
We are starting a five week sermons series, The Bible Doesn’t Say That, and we are starting with the phrase that the highest percentage of people thinks is in the Bible. “God helps those who help themselves.”
According to Christian pollster, the Barna Group, 75% of Americans believe that this phrase is in the Bible or is what the Bible teaches, self-reliance. But this is not where it comes from.
Most Americans are familiar with it through Benjamin Franklin and his Poor Richard’s Almanac, but even he did not originate this phrase. It first appears in Greek and Roman writings, such as with Sophocles, Euripides, and Ovid. It was adapted in Aesop’s Fables.
A waggoner was once driving a heavy load along a very muddy way. At last he came to a part of the road where the wheels sank halfway into the mire, and the more the horses pulled, the deeper sank the wheels. So the Wagoneer threw down his whip, and knelt down and prayed to Hercules the Strong. “O Hercules, help me in this my hour of distress,” quoth he. But Hercules appeared to him and said”
“Tut, man, don’t sprawl there. Get up and put your shoulder to the wheel.
“The gods help them that help themselves.”
Franklin could have gotten it from there or any of the Greek or Roman authors. He also could have gotten it from Algernon Sydney, and English political theorist in his book, Discourses Concerning Government, written in 1698.
The issue is that this catchy slogan sounds like something that could have come out of Proverbs or something, but it did not.
The philosophy that God helps those who help themselves, teaches is about a god that does not have a relationship with his creation. That would fit very much with Benjamin Franklin’s theological model, along with many of the Enlightenment thinkers. They were much more likely to ascribe to what is called deism.
The word deism is derived from the Latin word, deuce, meaning god. It is a philosophical position which says that God does not interfere directly with the world. It also rejects revelation, for example the Bible, as a source of religious knowledge and asserts that reason and observation of the natural world are sufficient to determine the existence of a single creator of the universe.
It would be Benjamin Franklin’s position that since God does not interfere directly with the world, there will be no help coming, so we have to do it ourselves anyway. A way of making it palatable for a Christian might be what encouraged him to say God may help those who help themselves.
While there are contemporary deists, we see them every day, what is more common in our churches and in American society is something that is called Moral Therapeutic Deism. True deists may not consider this term entirely accurate, but the premise is that God created the universe, but doesn’t get involved unless we ask. It’s kind of like the Magic 8-Ball or a genie type of god. God sitting there, patiently waiting until we need help and give a rub on the lamp.
The other day I saw that they are remaking a live-action version of the story of Aladdin starring Will Smith as the genie. I remember the Disney animated film starring Robin Williams as the genie. One night, Aladdin is on a date with the princess, and Genie is waiting to see how it will all turn out. Aladdin is having trouble thinking of the right thing to say, and finally he asks for help. Genie swoops in (as a bumble bee in order not to be noticed). Another time, Genie is called out when he is in the middle of a bubble bath.
How many of you remember the TV show from the 70s, I Dream of Jeanie? Jeanie was supposed to wait in her bottle waiting until Major Nelson asked for her help. Moreover, she was under his orders. It didn’t always work out “as planned,” but she was supposed to comply with his wishes. Have you ever done that when praying to God? “God, here’s my problem, and this is exactly the way that I want you to solve it.”
One of the things with these stories about the Genie in Aladdin and Jeannie in I Dream of Jeannie is that there is a relationship with the supernatural being and the human, in these cases being Aladdin or Major Nelson. The god in the phrase God helps those who help themselves implies no personal relationship.
This stands in direct contrast with the Bible in both the Old and New Testaments. The Bible is a library of books telling the story of God, who wants to be in relationship with Humanity, both in general and as individuals. There are Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, the Israelites, Gideon, Deborah, David, Mary the mother of Jesus, the Disciples, Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. Even Esther and Mordechai, which we will look at later this fall, in the Book of Esther where God’s name is not even mentioned in the book. Still there is a relationship there. The Bible tells the story of a God who wipes our tears and cares about the most intimate parts of our lives.
We heard in the Scripture earlier from Isaiah:
But Zion said, “the Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.” Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has born? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have you engraved on the palms of my hands. (Isaiah 49:14-16a)
This is an intimate personal relationship that is described here. Not some cold and remote super entity that we can’t understand and have no relationship with. We may not be able to understand God fully, but we must remember that we are made in God’s image. And there is nothing in that detached kind of super entity that can relate to humanity. That is certainly not like the flesh and blood Jesus that God sent to live as humans do, teach and to sacrifice himself.
Today’s scripture describes the way that God cares for us. It comes from Luke 12:22-31.
Luke 12-22-31 NIV
22 Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. 24 Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! 25 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? 26 Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?
27 “Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 28 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29 And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. 30 For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
In our culture today of insurance policies: car, health and life, and retirement plans, this admonition not to worry, not to concern oneself with the future can seem irresponsible. Just before this passage is the parable of the rich fool. It tells the story of a farmer that had such a great harvest that his barns could not contain it all, so he tore down his barns and build bigger ones. He’ll have enough saved up for many seasons. That seems prudent, right? Tearing down the old barns rather than adding on might seem a bit extravagant, but really wouldn’t this seemed to be the thing to do? Isn’t this the same thing Joseph did for all of Egypt when God warned Pharaoh of a coming famine back in Genesis?
Yet, in Jesus’ parable, God pronounces the rich man a fool. “He is a fool because he is thinking of his own pleasures and behaving as if there is no God” (c. f. Psalm 14:1) (Tannehill, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Luke).
This is the teaching of the phrase God helps those who help themselves at least as it applies to Ben Franklin. No help is coming, so you have to do it yourself. As a deist, good ol’ Ben would not have thought God was going to help in any case.
That is the question. Do you believe that God continues to be an active agent in the world? If you believe the Word of God, the answer has to be, yes. In this, the Word of God, can mean the Bible or Jesus, the biggest indicator or proof that God still is active in human events.
This does not mean that we have no active part to play in our lives, that we wait to be acted upon. We’re not supposed to sit around eating bon-bons. There are many examples, especially in Proverbs. Initiative is good, but it is not in the absence of God. It is with God. We get the idea that we’re in this thing all on our own, so we must do it, but we are not. As Jesus says at the end of Matthew, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20 b).
This week, I want you to be on the lookout for evidence of God’s activity in the world. It can be something you see on the news. I saw many things in the time right after hurricane Harvey. There was one story where a pastor around Houston weighed into chest-high water to check on all the cars he could see to make sure that there was no one trapped inside. Did I mention that he cannot swim?
Did you hear about the flotilla of boats from Louisiana who came to help the trapped people out of their flooded homes? They didn’t base their decision of who to rescue based on the color of their skin or their political affiliation. They didn’t ask their stand on Confederate statues or national monuments. They just saw someone in trouble and helped them. I’m sure in the aftermath of Irma, which is hitting Florida right now, we will hear of many other instances where God is working through people to help each other.
Be on the lookout. Take your, See All the People Notebook, and write down where you see God at work and bring them back next week. If you don’t have one, there are some on the table in the back of the Sanctuary and on the table in the coffee area after worship.
There is one area where it is impossible for us to help ourselves. Many of us think we can have spiritual self-reliance. We can figure out things on or own, however we are all helpless when it comes to sin. As it says in Isaiah 64:6, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filth: we shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.”
That is what the concept of grace is all about. It is not God simply being nice to us. It is God doing for us what we cannot do ourselves. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, described it this way. Before we even know God, God helps us to know him. In our own natural state, we are so selfish and self-centered in our wretchedness that it is impossible for us even to reach out to God. So, God does it for us. God changes us, so that we even have the desire to seek out God. John Wesley described this as Prevenient Grace, the grace that we receive from God before we are even aware of God.
Then throughout the whole rest of our lives through the Holy Spirit, God continues to transform us. This is something we are unable to do on our own. We have a God that wants to be in close relationship with us, a God who cares about us so deeply and personally that he sent his Son to save us, to sacrifice himself, to bridge the gap between us and God in a way that we could never do on our own. So rather than the Bible saying God helps those who help themselves, what the Bible really teaches is that God helps those who cannot help themselves.
Thank you Lord for that! May we always have the awareness that all of our strengths and abilities come from you. As it says in the song, “You are my strength when I am weak. You are the treasure that I seek. You are my ALL in ALL!” Amen!
Remember next week to bring in those places where you have seen God at work, from the most minute, after all God dresses even the Lilies of the Field, to the biggest, like the awesomeness of the eclipse.
Next week we will look at the concept of following your heart. Is that something that the Bible tells us to do? Find out more next week.