Sermons at Union Congregational Church
Preached by The Reverend Gail L. Miller, Pastor
October 22, 2017 Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
2 Thessalonians 3:10-13
God Helps Those Who Help Themselves
This is the fourth in our sermon series: Christian Clichés, based on the book by Adam Hamilton, Half-Truths. By now you’ve noticed that all these clichés we’re looking at are NOT in the Bible. But THIS one is the one that MOST people (Americans in general) think IS. In fact, eight out of ten think God helps those who help themselves is in the Bible, and more than half of those people think it is the major message of all of Scripture.
It does appear in Greek mythology in the 5th Century before Christ, and has been repeated by philosophers through the centuries, but came to the fore in American thinking in 1736 in Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac.
Adam Hamilton titles his book Half-Truths because these clichés are “half” true – that is they contain some biblical truth. But this one is only a “third” true even as it does hint at an important aspect of our Christian faith.
When I sit down to eat and say a mealtime prayer thanking God for the food before us – it’s not because GOD did all the work to make that meal appear! Mike and I have worked for that meal by earning a paycheck. We went to the effort of grocery shopping and preparing the meal.
So that prayer of thanksgiving is as much a prayer for the ability to earn a living to provide the meal as it is for the food itself. I’m also thanking God for a planet that sustains our life, for all the farmers who worked to plant and harvest the crops, for the truckers who brought it to the store, and for the people who handled it before it got to us. Ultimately the food I eat comes from God; but it only appears because I and many others did our part.
Similarly, if someone were unemployed and simply sat around praying, “God please give me a job,” It might take a long time! We need to prepare a resume, update our contacts, actively look for openings, submit applications, go to interviews, and try to convince the employers that we’re right for the job.
Adam tells the story of a couple who were trying to sell their house. They prayed, they turned in prayer requests during worship, they even borrowed a plastic statue of St. Joseph and buried it headfirst in the yard. But nothing. All along, their real estate agent kept telling them they were asking too much for the house; but they just kept praying.
They went to Adam and shared their disappointment with God for not answering their prayers. He suggested that given their agent’s advice, they’d really been praying for God to send them someone willing to pay $10,000 more than their home was worth. When they lowered the price by $10,000 the house sold within days.
The moral: God is not going to drop food on your table, force someone to hire you when you’re not the right person for the job, or make people spend more for your home than it’s worth. We can pray and pray, but we also have to do some work along the way.
God blesses us with brains, strength, and wisdom….as well as providing other people to advise us. These are God’s gifts to us to use. So we pray – yes – and we work.
The first Bible passage we read this morning is the foundation for this “one third” truth. Paul had started a church in Thessalonika in Greece. And he had taught people to trust in Jesus and to trust that he might come back at any moment. And so, some in the church mistakenly came to believe that trusting in Jesus meant they could quit their jobs and wait for his imminent return. They thought they didn’t have to work or be careful in their spending – God would provide for them.
When Paul heard this, he wrote back to them….By the Lord Jesus Christ, we command and encourage such people to work quietly and put their own food on the table. (2 Thess. 3:12)
The monks have a phrase: ora et labora – pray and work. That is what Paul meant. Trusting in Jesus does not mean that you pray and then God takes care of everything. Our faith is meant to move us to action even as we trust in God. We pray and we work.
Take the civil rights movement which came to a head in 1965. The starting point for the marches and demonstrations was the Christian faith of the leaders. Before they walked from Selma to Montgomery, they met for worship in their own churches, and then gathered at the AME church to pray again before stepping out. They prayed and the worked.
If the African American community and its supporters had only prayed for civil rights…nothing would have happened. If Martin Luther King Jr. had prayed quietly and not marched, the great wrongs of the time would have remained.
So in a sense there is truth to the idea that God helps those who help themselves. We don’t sit around waiting for God to miraculously right the wrongs in society. God works through people. Prayer is meant to empower us for and guide us into action.
So that’s the ⅓ truth of God helps those who help themselves. The other ⅔ of this saying are NOT true.
The first of those has to do with God’s concern for the poor and needy, because sometimes this phrase is used as an excuse to avoid our obligation as Christians to help others.
Because the truth is that some people truly cannot help themselves.
Those who find themselves trapped in poverty or struggling financially simply cannot summon the will and pull themselves up by the bootstraps. Some people are in a hole so deep, they can’t climb out without help.
Adam tells of a time when he was young and starting out as a pastor, when he endeavored to help a homeless man get a job. Naive to the full reality of how or why someone has become (and remains) homeless, he tried to help the man write a resume. Discovering not much education or job history, they took to the want ads to find something suitable, only to again come face-to-face with the reality of this homeless man’s abilities and limitations.
Sometimes people face challenges they don’t know how to overcome on their own, or they simply don’t have the resources to do it.
Our calling is not to shrug off responsibility for helping our neighbors by invoking that phrase, God helps those who help themselves. Instead, God commands his people to take special concern for the poor.
There is plenty in the Bible to bear this out….In the Old Testament farmers are commanded to leave the edges of their fields unharvested so that immigrants and the poor can find a way to make ends meet.
This command involves compassion and charity, but also the dignity of work. The poor can then harvest a portion for themselves.
This also acknowledges that God is the ultimate source of what we have. We are not actually being required to share our wealth – because technically, it’s not ours. Everything we have – even the things we work for – actually belongs to God (because don’t forget – WE belong to God).
Releasing our firm grasp of “mine mine mine” is how God makes sure those who are struggling have enough.
These commands to take care of others is all through the New Testament as well.
True Devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties. (James 1:27)
Faith working through love is how we are saved. (Galatians 5:6)
And of course the parable of the Good Samaritan.
The biblical truth – in contrast to the half truth or the ⅓ truth – is that God helps those who CAN’T help themselves. Showing compassion and mercy for those who struggle is who God is, and what Christians do.
I have never seen supernatural beings sent from God bringing food and clothing and shelter from heaven. But I have seen you and plenty of others give in small and large ways to help those who need help.
We can, and should, debate the best ways of helping and not hurting, of creating independence and not dependence. What is NOT debatable is our calling to help.
The second way in which God helps those who helps themselves does NOT capture the truth of the Christian faith is that sometimes we CAN’T help ourselves, not because we are poor or destitute or without resources, but because we have descended too deeply into despair or sin – whether by our own doing or by virtue of the situation around us.
God does not expect you to muscle yourself out of an illness – whether physical or emotional. God DOES bring light into our darkness and helps us find peace during anxious times. God rescues, redeems, and forgives.
We receive blessings from God even though we cannot earn them and don’t deserve them. Even when we’ve made a mess of things and can’t fix them, God extends mercy to us. There’s a word for this – GRACE.
Jay Stanton is a young man from Groton who is a graduate of Teen Challenge who has shared his story here in past years. He was a full-on addict, in and out of jail in his teens. He was at the end, the bottom, whatever you want to call it. So he decided to end it all. Doped up on drugs, he got into his car, did not put his seatbelt on and headed 60mph into a tree. When he hit the tree, he felt an arm across his chest holding him in his seat, keeping him from dying. It was the arm of Jesus and Jay is an example of someone who could not save himself, and by all earthly measures did not deserve to be saved.
But, to anyone who feels unloved or worthless, God says, “You are my beloved child! You matter to me! Trust me and walk in my love.” And when we do, everything changes. In God’s willingness to help us when we don’t deserve it, we discover grace.
As the Psalm says,
I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. (121:1-2)
How comforting it is to know that God is our help in times of trouble, that God is gracious and merciful.
Grace is not something we earn, buy, or work for. We cannot help ourselves into grace. We can only ask for it and accept. The very essence of grace is that God helps those who CANNOT help themselves!
There are times when we can help ourselves, and we should.
God is certainly counting on us to do the best we can – to pray and to work.
There are also times when people cannot make it on their own, and God prompts us to help. We become God’s answer to someone else’s prayer, God’s instruments of grace.
And there are things from which you simply cannot save yourself, no matter how hard you try; as well as times when you don’t believe you deserve help; when you will find yourself receiving grace beyond measure.