What The Bible Doesn’t Say: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves - Ephesians 2:1-10 (Wednesday Night Reflection)
I’ve heard it two different ways: either “pick yourself up by your bootstraps,” or “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” It pretty much means the same. It means that you should improve your situation by fixing it yourself. That’s all well and good if you are like me and wear boots with bootstraps. However, what is a person supposed to do that wears clogs or tennis shoes, high-heels or flip-flops, or operates in my preferred mode, barefoot? See how those statements could be problematic? Maybe we should seek out some advice that is a little more comprehensive, since we are a church maybe something Biblical might cover things better…
How about this? “God helps those who helps themselves.” Can anyone tell me where this particular statement about God appears in God’s Word? If you said, “Nowhere,” you are right. Good thinking since we are in the midst of our “What The Bible Doesn’t Say” series. This often-quoted statement, attributed to God, and mistaken as Biblical, is of uncertain origin. Some suggest it is from Benjamin Franklin and some trace its origins as far back as ancient Greece and Aesop’s Fables. I have heard faithful Christians quote this passage over and over again through the years. The thing is, my friends, the phrase actually should be problematic for Christians to accept, rather than cherished. The notion behind it is that God is only going to help those who do something about their plight—in other words, God is only going to help someone who really doesn’t really need any help.
Someone may ask, “so what is the problem?” The problem is that the notion that God is only around to help those who can help themselves is actually the opposite of what we read in all of Scripture. From the time of God’s covenant with the people of Israel, God has always stressed the importance of caring for those who cannot care for themselves.
God repeatedly reminds the Israelites that they are to care for the orphans, the widows, and the aliens in their midst—those whose status meant they had no standing in the public square and therefore could not do anything to improve their situation…they had no bootstraps to pull themselves up by. Isaiah puts it this way: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
Jesus, Emmanuel, God in the Flesh, comes along and when criticized for hanging out with the sinners, those who couldn’t help themselves, rather than hanging out with the religious elite, those who claimed to have helped themselves, Jesus tells them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” In other words, Jesus says, “I didn’t come to help those who think they can help themselves, but those who can’t help themselves.”
What we have to understand is that truly none of us can help ourselves. Without the help of God, without His grace being extended to us, none of us can do anything for ourselves. That’s what God’s grace is all about. God reaches out to us before we are even aware that we need help and draws us toward himself (John Wesley called this prevenient grace), God declares that we are righteous based not on our helping ourselves, but based on the righteousness of Christ, his willingness to die in our place for our sins (justifying grace), and then through the power of the Holy Spirit, not our own power, God begins to transform us, making us Christlike (sanctifying grace). All these things God does for us because we cannot do them for ourselves.
Paul reminds the Ephesians of this very fact:
All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through 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 the result of works….
So, if God only helps those who can help themselves, those who can pick themselves up by their own bootstraps, then none of us would ever be helped. However, Paul tells us that while none of us could ever help ourselves, God, out of His love for us, in His mercy, reached out and helped us, took us from certain death, and gave us life. Just in case any of us were to think that God did this because we made an effort, because we tried to help ourselves, Paul reminds us that God’s helping of us is a “gift…not the result of works….”
We were helpless. God helped. God calls each of us to do likewise, for God created us in His image…we are called to live out our lives as a reflection of God to the world…we are called to be the living body of the resurrected Christ to all of those around us. We are called to help those who cannot help themselves…to help those who cannot pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
We are called to look out into the world and search out those who cannot help themselves:
Those who cannot help themselves because of their age…they are too young or too old to help do anything about their circumstances.
Those who cannot help themselves because of their health…physical impairments prevent them from doing anything to help themselves.
Those who cannot help themselves because of their education…they do not know what needs to be done to improve their status.
Those who cannot help themselves because of their social status…their gender, their skin color, their language limitations, their ethnicity, keep them from having the same opportunities as everyone else.
Those who cannot help themselves because of their upbringing…they were never taught any life skills to care for themselves, they were never taught personal responsibility, they were never taught anything other than to lie, cheat, beg, or steal to get what they need.
To operate in God’s grace means to reach out to each of these, right where they are, without expecting them to do anything to make them deserve our efforts. God’s grace comes to us where we are, it does not demand that we meet Him halfway…likewise, we are called to go to those who need our help where they are, not demand that they come to where we are, or even meet us halfway. We cannot demand they make an effort first, any more than God demands that we make an effort before He offers us grace.
I can hear the concern now. Why should we help anyone who won’t make an effort to change or who keeps doing the same thing? Before we say that, we must remember that God reaches out to us before we make any effort to change. He keeps reaching out to us while we keep sinning. Some would ask, “If we help those who could do something to change their circumstances, won’t that just enable them to continue to live where they are, without changing, without doing anything for themselves…won’t it continue to foster a society where folks just depend on everyone else to do for them? Don’t we see that now?”
Not if we help as God helps. God helps by reaching out to where folks they are and entering into a relationship with them…and as He pours forth His grace, as He enters into relationship, and His grace has expectations…
Adam and Eve were expected to tend to Creation…
Noah and his family were expected to repopulate the earth…
Abraham was expected to trust God and surrender all things, including his son to God…
The Israelites, freed from slavery to those in Egypt, helped when they couldn’t help themselves, found themselves at Mt. Sinai were given the Ten Commandments, and other laws to live by…
The lepers Jesus encountered and healed by the side of the road were told to go and present themselves in the Temple and re-enter the community (rather than continue to beg for their livelihood).
The woman caught in adultery and pardoned, though she had done nothing to deserve pardoning (she was guilty), was forgiven, then told to go and sin no more.
Every act of grace that God offers comes as a free, undeserved gift…and as we open that gift, we find that to fully experience the grace that God has offered, we are called to surrender our lives in service to God. Paul tells us that we have been saved by grace through faith, not by our own efforts, but that we have been “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” God has saved us and begun making us more and more like Christ—the One who was sent not to help those who claim to be able to help themselves, but to help those who may not even have a bootstrap to grab hold of. We are called to enter into the lives of those who cannot help themselves with the same grace God extended to us, helping those who cannot help themselves, entering into a relationship with them, as God has with us, and walking alongside of them as instruments of God’s transforming Grace.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.