That’s Not in the Bible: The Lord Helps Those Who Helps Themselves

The Lord Helps Those Who Help Themselves

Isaiah 10: 1-4

2 Thessalonians 3:6-16

Throughout the week here at First Pres, we get people dropping by asking for assistance. To be honest, after almost 6 years here, I have still not been able to come up with a good system for us to determine who to help and how we will help. We’ve tried a number of ideas and introduced several different processes, but

There are basically three types of people we see:

The first is the most common. These are professional panhandlers who make it their business to make the rounds of churches and various other agencies to get whatever kind of assistance they can. They often have elaborate and almost unbelievable tales of woe to justify their requests. Our secretary Kay and I struggle to be polite to these folks. Those are the days when we remind ourselves that Jesus loves these people and then we are reminded that we are not Jesus.

The second is the rarest. These are the people who really do just need a hand to get back on their feet. The loss of a job or an injury or a relationship breakup has left them in a lurch and a little bit of help can get them back on track. These are the people who are really fun to help. You get to feel all warm and tingly and good about yourself after assisting these folks.

And then, there is the third type of people. These are our regulars. They don’t show up every week or even every month, but sporadically throughout the year. These are the people who just make poor choices. Whatever money they have, they manage poorly and often do things like writing hot checks or rob a coin operated Laundromat. Just take a moment to think about that last one for a minute and why it was a really bad idea. These are the people that frustrate me the most. For the most part they are nice, decent people, but they just can’t get it together. And they probably won’t ever get it together.

These are the people I think about whenever I hear the platitude “The Lord Helps those who help themselves.” Because I wonder who gets to decide who can help themselves? I’m not sure this third category of people who come through our doors can help themselves, so does the Lord just ditch them?

The statement, of course, is not Biblical. It comes from Ben Franklin by way of Aesop.

“A wagoneer was once driving a heavy load along a very muddy way. He came to a part of the road where the wheels sank half-way into the mire, and the more the horses pulled, the deeper sank the wheels. So the wagoneer threw down his whip, knelt down, and prayed to Hercules – did you hear the clue? – ‘Oh, Hercules, help me in my hour of distress.’ But Hercules appeared to him and said, ‘Man, don’t sprawl there. Get up and put your shoulder to the wheel. The gods help them that help themselves.’”

It sounds like something that might be in the Bible, and people using it as if it is, just makes us more likely to believe that it is. Talk show host Bill O’Reilly was interviewing a New York City pastor about a homeless ministry several years ago. O’Reilly told the pastor, “Jesus would have demanded that the homeless people shape themselves up or else, because, we all know the passage ‘The Lord helps those who help themselves.’”

But you can’t really blame Bill or anyone else for thinking the statement is indeed Biblical. It makes sense. We can pray for God to give us good health, but if we continue to smoke and eat fried foods and rarely move off the couch, we can’t expect God to do much about it. Or if we blow of studying for a test and make a last ditch appeal to God for an A, God is is probably not going to do much for us.

In fact, you can find places in the Bible where people are scolded for their lack of initiative. This passage from 2 Thessalonians is pretty harsh toward people who don’t work. But lets remember that Paul was not talking to 21st Century Americans. He was not stopping a homeless man on main street North Little Rock and telling him to get a job. He was talking to First Century Christians who had stopped working, not because they had no work ethic, but because they expected Jesus to return at any minute, so what was the point of working on “earthly” things? And Paul was trying to get a movement started. There was no room for people to sit around and do nothing, especially when those who weren’t working used that time to go around gossiping and stirring up trouble. So Paul had some good reasons for coming down hard on those who were slacking.

But today, this non-Biblical phrase that God helps those who help themselves tends to have a hidden agenda behind it. It is often spoken in relation to those in our society who struggle to make ends meet or who rely on governmental assistance to survive. These are folks on disability, on welfare, who eat subsidized school lunches and get checkups at taxpayer-funded medical clinics.

And the phrase is spoken not by the people who need help, but by those who are doing okay…for now. But not everyone has the same opportunities, the same environments, the same parents, the same education, the same good health as us. And each of us, no matter how much we think we’ve made it, are not as far from those brothers and sisters as we pretend to think.

But the real problem with the phrase is that it’s a cop out. In fact, if you been here throughout this “That’s Not in the Bible” series, you’ve probably seen this common thread emerge. From “God’s Got This” to “God Won’t Give You More than you can Handle” to “God Just Wants to Be Happy,” it seems that the one thing all of these non-Biblical phrases have in common is that they excuse the speaker from accountability or responsibility.

And today’s phrase is no different. To tell someone that “God helps those who help themselves” totally dismisses our responsibility to our neighbor. It ignores the web of interdependence that connects us all. Nobody gets out of this life alive and nobody makes it through all on his or her own. We need each other, and truth time, some of us need each other more than others. And some of us need each other more in certain times in our lives than in other times. But while the degrees of dependence may vary, it never completely goes away.

In the passage in Isaiah that we read today, Isaiah was railing against the Israelites because they were not taking care of the widows and orphans among them. Jesus told us over and over again how important it was to take care of the least of these. That when we feed the hungry and clothe the naked and visit the prisoner, we are doing those things unto him.

Kay and I will continue to work to figure out the best way to do the most good in terms of the people who show up at our doors looking for help. Dorothy Day, a founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, says that, “the gospel takes away our right forever to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.”

So instead of the mantra, “The Lord helps those who help themselves,” perhaps our rallying cry should be “The Lord helps. And so should we.”

–Rev. Anne Russ

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