Surely everyone reading at one time or another in their lives has heard the popular phrase I’m writing about today. You’ve heard it on T.V., heard it from well-meaning friends, read it in books and if you type it into Google you will find approximately 11,200,000 results. As a Pastor, I’ve had numerous people in the church quote it to me as clear Scriptural truth. It is a phrase very fundamentally American in its outlook (some even say Benjamin Franklin is the originator although in reality it seems to go back much further than him), and truth be told, it is a phrase that aptly describes the main idea of just about every religion in the world (I said “just about”). That phrase is of course, “God helps those who help themselves.”
Now let’s just state upfront the truth about this phrase in case there was any confusion: It’s not in the Bible.
But I’m pretty sure part of us wants it to be in the Bible. I mean think about it: If it is true than it means, at least to some extent, we have some control over our lives. Actually in this equation, not only do we have control over our lives, we even have control over God. In this equation, God almost becomes like a spiritual vending machine: Do certain things well and God will help you. Don’t do certain things well and God won’t help you. And the reality is, at least in our relationship to the world around us there is a sense in which this sentiment is true: Work hard, be rewarded. Loaf around or do “bad stuff” and suffer the consequences.
However, when it comes to how we relate to God, how we’re saved by God, how we walk and mature with God, there actually couldn't be a more false statement. As a matter of fact, the very antithesis of this statement is actually the truth: God only helps those who CANNOT help themselves....
Yep it’s true, the diagnosis of humanity is much too dire to suggest that God only helps those who help themselves because…. we simply can’t. The Bible tells us that naturally, we’re born rebels (Psalm 51) and enslaved to sin. Ephesians 2 tells us we’re spiritually “dead in trespasses and sins.” In maybe the most damning passage in the Bible towards the “God helps those who help themselves” way of thinking, the Apostle Paul writes in warm and fuzzy words, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:11-12). Add to this the fact that the standard by which we’re called to live is perfection (Matthew 5:48) and folks, it’s game over.
And the reality is we don’t even need the Bible to tell us that we can’t help ourselves right? Something in us knows that no matter how hard we work in this life, how much success we may have, there will always be this sense in it of ourselves that something’s not as it should be, that something’s broken. I see it in myself all the time. For example, I always resolve to spend more time with my kids. I really mean it. I really want to be present more. But as the day wears on, what will you find me doing more often than I want to admit? Sitting there on my I-Phone ignoring my kids to tweet some great insight I’ve just had about parenting! Last year I totally resolved to start eating different. I was gonna lose weight and start working out. I did. I lost weight and I gained muscle. I have now successfully gained all the weight back and I’m flabbier than ever.
I’m just getting started planting a church in NYC in and around the East Village of Manhattan. So right now, what that looks like is me spending my days at cafes and other meeting spots introducing myself to scores of people and having conversations. A lot of these people are pretty optimistic about all they can accomplish in the “big city”. One guy when I asked him “What gives you hope?”, replied, “Me, because I’m smart and I work hard” (or in other words, “God helps those who help themselves”). But there have also been many conversations with people that have begun to see that hard work and smarts just won’t cut it for fixing what’s wrong. One guy I talked to who once owned a successful restaurant in SoHo with his wife, told me of how within 5 years of moving here he went from being at the top of the world, to losing the restaurant, divorcing his wife and living alone. He said to me, “Erick, this city exists for one purpose: To edit out the weak.” To that person, to the drug addict, to the drunk and to the poor, “God helps those who help themselves” just won’t work. They’re closer to the kingdom of God than they might now realize….After all, the Bible's prescription for God's help is the very recognition we can’t help ourselves.
Alcoholics Anonymous has understood this for over 80 years and has helped millions get sober. How? They begin with this: “We admit we are powerless over alcohol—that our lives have become unmanageable.”
I could give numerous examples of how this recognition of helplessness actually leads to freedom, but one of my favorite illustrations is found in Luke 18. Jesus says, “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus (Sorensen paraphrase): Thank you Lord that I am not one of the weak. Thank you that I don’t do drugs and don’t hang out with people who do. Thanks for making me a great husband, a great Elder at my church and a father that others can aspire to be. Oh yeah, also thank you for making me soooooo super faithful in my tithing…. I’ve really been rocking that lately.” In other words, what is the Pharisee saying? “God I thank you that I have helped myself.”
“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” All he does is confess his failure to live up to God’s standards- he confesses that he hasn’t helped himself and then pleads for mercy. What does Jesus say? “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Thus the Bible tells us that the way to receive God’s help is through confession that we can’t help ourselves. 1 John 1 says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
But this brings up a question that hasn’t really been addressed yet and that is the question of how it is God can help us by simply confessing our inability. I mean if He’s just, doesn’t our imperfection have to be dealt with somewhere? The answer to that question leads us to the main reason God helps those who can’t help themselves: Because Jesus already did everything to insure God's help for you….
In Matthew 5:17 we’re told that Jesus came to “fulfill the law for us.” In other words, he came to be our substitute because we could never do it ourselves. He lived perfectly in your place. Instead of you being punished for your inability to help yourself, He took the punishment for that on the cross. Therefore, the Gospel declares that God graciously saves us from ourselves by doing everything for us. Listen again to Ephesians 2: And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world……
BUT GOD, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Do you hear that? That’s why God doesn’t help those who help themselves. It’s all by Jesus’ work- His life, His death, His resurrection, His ascension and His intercession- It’s all given as pure gracious gift to those who realize they can’t help themselves…. You wanna know what God helping those who can’t help themselves looks like? Consider this story….
On September 8th, 2008, Thomas Vander Woude and his son Josie were out working on their family farm in Nokesville, Virginia. Josie was 20, but he wouldn’t be moving out any time soon. He had down syndrome. So Josie became Tom’s constant work companion out in the field. On this day, while Thomas was working out on his 26 acres of field, Josie was off in a different part of the yard when a broken septic tank cover gave way under his feet. The tank was 8 feet deep and filled near to the top with sewage. Thomas saw his son fall in and so he rushed over to help. He pulled and pulled on his son’s arm to no avail. Even worse, no matter what he did, Josie was continually sinking into this pit of filth. Thomas knew that his son would surely die if he sank beneath the waste. So this father did the only thing he could to save his boy: He got down into the filth with him. He treaded in the sewage in an attempt to keep Josie’s head above the water line, but sadly Josie was still sinking. Vander Woude would not give up though. Taking a deep breath, he plunged his whole body into the sewage head first and held his boys body up from underneath so that Josie could keep his head above the water. When rescue crews arrived, they pulled Josie out of the tank alive, but Thomas, 66 years old, was dead.
That’s what Jesus does for those who can’t help themselves. He has plunged himself into the filth and always holds us up so that we can live! So if you’re helpless, be of good cheer! Your Savior Jesus Christ has done and will continue to do everything necessary to help you.
Erick is married to Melissa and they have 3 boys together. He earned his Master of Divinity Degree from Lutheran Brethren Seminary and has served as a Pastor in Fontana, California and Staten Island, New York. He also serves as the Chairman of Fifth Act Church Planting. In September of 2015 Erick started to plant Epiphany Lutheran Church in Manhattan.