Sunday, January 8, 2012

That's NOT in the Bible! "God helps those who help themselves" (Jeremiah 17:5-10)

Thus says the Lord: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord. They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is in the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.

The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it? I the Lord test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.

Today we are beginning a new series of messages called “That’s NOT in the Bible!” We’re taking a look at popular phrases that are frequently attributed to Scripture that aren’t actually anywhere to be found in the Bible. What I have come to realize is that the Bible is one of the most-beloved books in America. It is also one of the most misquoted. From preachers to presidents, motivational speakers to political pundits, coaches and athletes and celebrities, there are all sorts of people giving the Bible credit for things it doesn’t actually say.

Several years ago, research was conducted when people on the street were asked to identify which phrases, out of a list of 25, were taken from the Bible. The list included actual Biblical quotes as well as many other wise-sounding proverbial sayings that weren’t from the Bible.

Overwhelmingly, people chose the non-Biblical phrases more often than they chose the actual Biblical quotes. Many of those sayings are on the bookmark in your bulletin, and we’ll be looking at them over the next several weeks. They run the gamut – some are close to Biblical phrases, some are based on Biblical ideas, some are just silly, and others are actually antithetical to the Gospel message revealed to us in Jesus.

Certainly, for some, these phrases may serve as a guiding principle in life, a statement of their deeply-held values and beliefs. In a country where 75% of the population claims to be some version or other of Christian – that’s self-reported, by the way, I have serious doubts about whether 3 out of 4 people on I-77 are modeling their life after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – but if that much of the population claims to be Christian, then certainly the Bible still has a place of perceived authority for most people.

So it only makes sense that, upon encountering a phrase that matches one’s worldview, one would naturally associate the phrase with an authoritative source such as the Bible. After all, it is true that, though God made humankind in God’s image, we’ve been trying to return the favor ever since.

My hope throughout this series is to untangle these nuggets of popular worldly wisdom from what the Bible actually says about who God is, how the world works, and how those who claim to be followers of Christ are to live in the world. And so, turn to your sermon notes as we start today with one of those worldview-defining phrases that doesn’t come from the Bible: “God helps those who help themselves.” May we pray.

So the phrase “God helps those who help themselves” can’t be found anywhere in Scripture. Spoiler alert: neither can any of the other phrases on your bookmark! So it’s not from Scripture, but it had to come from somewhere, right? Let’s take an informal poll and see if you know. We’ll look at four choices, and once we’ve looked at all of them, I’ll ask you to vote for the person you think said it, ok?

Choice A – Ayn Rand (1905-1982), the Russian-American novelist, playwright, and philosopher, her best-known books are The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, developed a philosophical system: Objectivism.

Choice B – Ben Franklin (1706-1790), one of the more colorful of American founding fathers, he was an inventor, a politician, civic artist, and scientist whose theories were influential in the American Enlightenment.

Choice C – Aesop (620-564 BCE), the Greek philosopher and writer whose fables and stories are foundational to all types of literature, he made his home in Samos.

Choice D – Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), the American essayist and poet who was seen as a champion for individualism and a consistent critic of social pressures and norms of philanthropy and charity.

The person who said, “God helps those who help themselves” is Ben Franklin. However, 2300 years earlier, Aesop said, “The gods help those who help themselves.” Truth be told, any of these four, as well as a host of others, even if they haven’t said this exact phrase have said and written things that are so close to it that they basically capture the same sentiment.

Just one small problem: it’s a nugget of worldly wisdom that is just that – worldly. You are welcome to keep right on believing that “God helps those who help themselves,” but for those who wish to follow Jesus and pattern their lives based on what the Bible actually says and not simply what we want it to say, let us realize that the Bible presents a radically different picture.

Over and over again, the Bible encourages us to move beyond reliance on ourselves and instead place our faith and trust in God. In the text we read a few moments ago from Jeremiah, God says, “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength” . . . but “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord.” In other words, placing your trust in people – even your own person – is a losing proposition. The author of Jeremiah compares such a person to a plant in the desert, cut off from the true source of its life and nourishment, and the result is that it withers and dies.

And over and over again, that's exactly where God continued to find God's people - parched and withering, thirsting for the living water of God, with no relief in sight. But God doesn't want us wasting away out in the desert, God wants us rooted in his life-giving water, which is precisely why Jesus came. It's what Jesus came to do - to bring water into the desert of our lives. This is the joy that St. Paul proclaims in his letter to the Romans: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). It doesn’t say, “Once we stopped sinning, once we deserved it, once we got our act together, once we had helped ourselves, God decided to help us.” No. While we sinners. While we were undeserving. Christ died for us, because we couldn't help ourselves.

It’s the reason a cross is the central symbol of the Christian faith. Every time we look at the cross, we are reminded that God reached out to offer us help in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus – at precisely the time we deserved it the least and needed it the most. The cross is a reminder that God helps us when we can’t help ourselves, even though we were so rebellious and sinful against God that God may as well have counted us more God’s enemies than God’s children, God was still offering us grace because that’s just who God is.

For this reason, the cross is central to our faith, just as it is central to this worship space. Any time we are tempted to make our faith or our church or our lives together about anything other than the grace-filled love of God which was reaching toward us before we asked for it or deserved it or had done a single thing, the silent witness of the cross continues to proclaim the message of God’s love and grace for sinners like you, and sinners like me. The Bible couldn’t be any clearer on this point: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

It's at that point where we admit we can't help ourselves - call that confession or repentance - where transformation begins to happen. It's one of the reasons I respect 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous so much. I'm so excited about the AA and NA groups that are now meeting here - they are an organization that exists to help people experience transformation in their lives and guess what, so are we! I can't think of a better partnership relationship between two organizations!

No doubt you are familiar with the 12 steps of recovery – even if you’ve never been to an AA meeting or don’t know the steps themselves, you’ve certainly heard of the 12 steps. What I love about their model is that it places everyone on equal footing before each other and before God. Just take a look at the first three steps:

Step 1: we admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.

Step 2: came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Step 3: made a decision to turn our lives & our wills over to the care of God as we understood Him.

When I see or read these three steps, I see a statement of grace that throws “God helps those who help themselves” right out the window. The playing field is immediately leveled, because everyone comes before their problem, before each other, and before God on the same terms. No one is better than anyone else, there is no ranking of whose sins are worse or better than anyone else’s – just a level playing field in which everyone approaches God equally.

The first thing you have to do is say, “I am done trying to help myself, because I’ve come to realize that I can’t help myself. I don’t have it within me to do as I should and become the person I should be. I don’t have the strength, I don’t have the ability, I’ve looked deep inside, and on my own, I don’t have what it takes. The only way I am going to make it is if I admit my reliance on a power that is bigger than me and then live my life in God’s life.”

Now, maybe you’re sitting there thinking, “Well, that’s for alcoholics. I have my stuff together, my life is pretty good, I don’t have that problem, and I don’t need to do that because I’m better than that.” Here me carefully – none of us is better than that. Every single one of us stands in constant need of God’s grace – no matter where we are on our spiritual journey, we can’t do this discipleship thing on our own. On our own, we end up in parched desert places. For an alcoholic, the first step is admitting the root of the problem: that they can’t help themselves and try to continue to manage this thing on our own. Likewise, for those who follow Jesus, the first step is admitting the root of the problem: that we can’t help ourselves and try to continue to manage a godly life on our own, and then to place our trust in God, who was standing there offering the way to that transformed, godly life even before we knew that’s what we were looking for.

That’s called grace, and it’s the heart of the Gospel. The Gospel is not “God helps those who help themselves,” it’s “God helps all of us, even particularly those who can’t help themselves.” Trusting in God rather than ourselves, that’s the way to go every time. In our text from Jeremiah, such a person is compared to a tree planted right next to the water, where its roots can reach down deep and always find a constant source of life and nourishment, where it continues to grow healthy and strong.

The plant that is by the water – its leaves stay green, it continues to bear fruit, and even in the drought, it is not anxious. Likewise, the person who is rooted in God and has placed their trust in God’s divine life-giving presence is not anxious, even in the dry and parched places of life through which we all walk from time to time.

Friends, I look around our world right now, and I see a lot of anxiety and its close friend, fear. Moving into an election year, the rhetoric that already dominates the campaign, no matter what political party it comes from, is based in anxiety and fear. Listen to the news, and it’s just more anxiety and fear there, whether we’re talking about the economy, unemployment statistics, domestic or foreign policy about any number of issues.

Just look around; we live in the midst of an anxious people! I believe it’s because too many have bought into the fallacy that God only helps those who help themselves, and the consequence of such a worldview is that those who trust in themselves more than they trust in God are, as the Scripture says, like a shrub planted in the desert, rooted far from the true source of life and nourishment, and subject to anxiety and no longer able to bear fruit as it seems no relief is in sight.

Too many in our world have bought into the fallacy that God only helps those who help themselves, and that fallacy has failed because it falls far short of the Gospel. At best, you're in the small boat of people who might actually be able to help themselves, which means you live with the constant pressure of having to get it right in order to be blessed by God. At worst, you're nowhere near that boat - you're somewhere out in the desert and let's face it, you're S.O.L.! In either case, it's not the good news proclaimed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; Jesus promised that he came so that we might have life, and have it abundantly.

I don’t know about you, but I sure am glad that God is always there, whether I happen to acting particularly helpful to myself or others. Thank God that God’s help for me is not dependent on what I have or have not done to receive that help. Thank God that God can't help but to help us all, all the time, no matter what we do or don’t do.

All in all, the phrase "God helps those who help themselves" isn't so much incorrect as it is incomplete. Yes, God helps those who help themselves. But, God also helps those who don't help themselves, who can't, who don't even know they need help. God helps people who are confused, God helps people who don’t believe, God helps people who don’t know. God helps children and fools, God helps saints and sages. God helps those who trust God and God helps those who don’t. No matter where we are on life’s journey, God helps me, and God helps you. Thanks be to God!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this group of sermons. I teach Sunday school for ages 9-17 at Cornish Mountain Baptist Church in Oxford, GA. We've been memorizing verses, beginning with John 3:16 (which most of my class knew). As we study the inerrancy of the Bible, it will be helpful to look at statements like these which don't come from God's holy word. I so appreciate your firm focus on God's love!