The impossible problems before us are not ours alone to solve.
God helps those who help themselves. I imagine most of us have heard this phrase before. Historians like to attribute this theology to Ben Franklin, but he was merely repeating an old and popular idea of God — one that continues to resonate with American culture to this day. Pollsters estimate that roughly 75 percent of Americans believe this saying is found in the Bible. I even found a citation for it on the Web: “God helps those who help themselves” – Hezekiah 6:1.
The problem is that the book of Hezekiah doesn’t exist. But I can imagine why someone would make it up. The notion that God helps those who help themselves affirms the deeply American myth that individuals should get only what they deserve and that God blesses the successful and punishes failures.
This is a myth that I, from time to time, have bought into, if not intellectually, then at least through my actions. I spend a lot of time working on moving myself and our church toward God’s goals. However, it isn’t that unusual for me to leave God out of the equation! I get so caught up in the busy-ness of doing my church work that I forget that it is God’s business in which I am supposed to be engaged. When this happens, I become easily distracted, discouraged, and even afraid. The problems and challenges become overwhelming to me, and when I think of the (fake) Hezekiah axiom, I wonder if I am not working hard enough or if God has abandoned my efforts.
It is at times such as these that actual scripture becomes a great corrective! In the Gospel of John (20: 19-25), we find the disciples in a situation of distraction, discouragement, and fear. Jesus has been crucified, and the authorities are searching for his followers. The disciples lock the doors and bar the windows. Mary Magdalene has reported that she has seen Jesus, yet the disciples doubt and wallow in their fear.
This is a story that begins not in strength – at least not in the strength of God’s followers – but in weakness. Have you ever sat in a dark room and despaired? Over your life? Your family? Your job? Your church? Your faith? Clearly, we fall in a long line of distinguished Christians who have done this! If God does indeed only help those who help themselves, then the slightest crack in our resolve can only lead to this place of fear and desperation.
And yet, John tells us that the disciples are richly blessed. The doors are locked, but Christ enters. The room is dark, but Christ gives light. The disciples are sinners, but Christ gives them the power to absolve sin. The message of the true Gospel is that God’s blessing belongs to everyone: even to those who are unable to help themselves. The myth that God only helps themselves permits us, in our wealth and happiness, to look down upon those who do not share our fortune. Even worse, it absolves us from participating in ministries of justice, particularly to work to address not only individual needs but to address systems of oppression.
When we understand that we are all sinners who stand in the need of grace and that our God as revealed in Jesus Christ truly does love everybody (whether they are hard workers or lazy, whether they are saints or sinners) then we come to know that we can and should participate with God in revealing and creating God’s Kingdom. Furthermore, we find that we are not on our own. The impossible problems before us are not ours alone to solve. God provides even (especially?) for those who need God the most and for those who think that they do not need God at all. And finally, there is HOPE!!! The future is not completely dependent on us. God remains deeply interested and involved in the life of God’s people (and by the way, that includes people who don’t even acknowledge that they belong to God).
God provides that which we, in our weakness, need to grow in faith, advance in discipleship, and serve the least, the last and the lost. It is not our strength or our ability to help ourselves that produces these gifts; it is only our willingness to place our hands in the side of Christ and our fingers in the holes in his hand.