Sermon – Half Truths: “God Helps Those who Help Themselves”

Here is part two in the Half Truths series. Yesterday we looked at this popular saying, which many people are convinced is in the Bible. Spoiler alert: It isn’t! But, this does not mean that it doesn’t have an element of truth. As you will see, we are called to take some responsibility for our lives and not to just simply wait around for God to do something. Often God does things through us and through other people. Christians are people of action, not of sitting around and waiting for something to happen. I hope you gain some meaningful insight from this sermon. As always, feel free to leave any feedback you would like. A note: There is a portion where I quote from a scene from “The Help.” I chose to play the clip of the scene for the congregation. If you would like to watch it for yourself, you may click here. – Jonathan

Half Truths: “God Helps Those who Help Themselves”
A Sermon Preached at Shiloh United Methodist Church – Stanton, KY
Rev. Jonathan K. Tullos
August 21, 2016

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 (NLT)
And now, dear brothers and sisters, we give you this command in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: Stay away from all believers[c] who live idle lives and don’t follow the tradition they received[d] from us. 7 For you know that you ought to imitate us. We were not idle when we were with you. 8 We never accepted food from anyone without paying for it. We worked hard day and night so we would not be a burden to any of you. 9 We certainly had the right to ask you to feed us, but we wanted to give you an example to follow. 10 Even while we were with you, we gave you this command: “Those unwilling to work will not get to eat.”

11 Yet we hear that some of you are living idle lives, refusing to work and meddling in other people’s business. 12 We command such people and urge them in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and work to earn their own living. 13 As for the rest of you, dear brothers and sisters, never get tired of doing good.

A while back I was watching one of the TV news shows and they were polling people about things that are in the Bible. They would read something that either was or was not in the Bible and the person had to answer true if it was in the Bible and false if it was not. Out of five people the interviewer read “God helps those who help themselves” to, four answered true, indicating they believed it was in the Bible. Let’s do a show of hands: If you believe this saying is in the Bible, raise your hand… Ok, now if it’s not in the Bible, raise your hand.

If you guessed that “God helps those who help themselves” is not in the Bible, you’re correct. To say that this saying is in the bible is completely false because it appears nowhere in the scriptures. It does sound kind of biblical though, doesn’t it? It’s not unusual that when we hear a saying like this and especially when it catches on and becomes popular, we like to think it has some authority behind it. This is exactly what happened with this saying. The Greek philosopher Aesop was the one who coined, “The gods help those who help themselves.” About 2300 years later, Benjamin Franklin appropriated it and changed it “God helps those who helps themselves” when he published Poor Richard’s Almanac. The expression became widely popular and eventually people began believing that it was found in scripture.

While the saying is not found anywhere in scripture, this is one of the sayings that we will look at which I believe does have some truth to it. Let’s explore some ways that this saying does have some truth to it:

Adam Hamilton gives several examples in his book Half Truths: Hamilton states when he says grace before a meal he thanks God for giving us a planet where such bounty can grow and survive, he thanks God for the farmers who grew the vegetables or raised the animals, the people who harvested and processed it, and even the truck drivers who delivered it to the store. If one of those components was not there, we would not be able to go to the store and buy our food. Because they did their part and we did ours by obtaining money with which to go buy food and actually took the time to go to the store and cooked it, we’re able to eat a delicious meal.

Another example would be with employment: It’s alright to pray that God gives you guidance as to a job you should apply for. However, it’s not going to likely be very productive if you just stop there. Without building a resume, filling out applications, going to interviews, you’re going to have a hard time finding a job. God will certainly give us guidance if we ask him to but he also expects us to not just sit around and let him do all the work. We have to take some ownership of our situations and we have to take some action. Otherwise, all the prayer in the world is not going to do us any good. Prayer is certainly talking to God but it is also listening. And when we pray, we also have to be prepared to move and to act. This is God helping us.

While I do not believe that God’s help comes with strings attached, I do believe that God does not call us to simply wait on him to do a miracle. As I mentioned a moment ago, Christians are not called to just simply sit and wait for God to do something, we are called to accept some responsibility for what happens to us.

When Paul started the church at Thessalonika, he taught the converts there that they should trust Jesus and trust that he would return someday, possibly even soon. Paul eventually left but apparently some of the converts took Paul’s telling them to “trust Jesus” a little too literally. Eventually word reached Paul that many of them had actually quit their jobs with the idea that God would just provide for all of their needs without their needing to work. This is why Paul wrote the scripture we had above, because he wanted to be clear that trusting Jesus did not mean quitting our jobs and waiting for manna and money to appear out of the sky. In other words, Paul was wanting them to exercise their common sense. Yes, God will provide and he will send help. However, this does not free us from the responsibility of doing our part for securing our provision.

Perhaps you heard the story of the man who was caught in a flood. The waters were getting deeper and deeper, inching closer and closer to his house. He had ignored the pleas from the media and others to evacuate before the waters because he was convinced that God would help him. The flood waters were up to his porch and some men on a boat came by and offered to take him out of there. “No, I’m not leaving. God will help me.” They pleaded with him and he continued to refuse so they left. Soon, the water had gotten much higher and driven him to the roof of his house. A helicopter searching for victims flew overhead. The crew saw him and lowered a rope, shouting on the loudspeaker, “Grab the rope and we will pull you in!” Again, the man refused. “God will help me.” The helicopter left and soon the man was overcome by the water and died. When he appeared before God the man was upset “God, why didn’t you help me?” God looked at him and said, “Son, I sent you a boat and a helicopter with a rope dangling from it. What more did you want?”

We must help ourselves, at least to some extent. God did not call us to be robots who just wait for a push and a shove toward something or to be told to do something. God expects us to be able to idenity our needs and to accept his guidance for how he intends to provide for them. The man in the flood example was expecting God to perform some type of miracle which would save him from his plight. Perhaps the reason he did not accept the help that was given was because he had a misconception about how God works. Perhaps he wanted a solution to where God would come down in a cloud and restore everything to the way it was, his home, his stuff still intact. Instead, God sent help in the form of a boat and a helicopter with a rope which would mean that he would lost his stuff but still have his life. Because he did not help himself with the help offered to him, he lost his life.

God’s help does not always come in the form of a big miraculous spectacle that is the lead story on CNN. Often, God’s help is found in subtle ways, often in ways that we never expected. God often uses other people in order to help us and we see this time and time again in scripture with God using people in the course of his work. The biggest example I can think of is medical providers. There are some very wonderful and well meaning believers who think that God’s healing only comes from him, that doctors and other medical professionals are not necessary because God will heal. I believe that God’s healing is done through doctors, nurses, and countless other types of medical providers. The knowledge of the human body and the know how to figure out which treatments will work or others that can be tried if one fails is nothing short of astonishing. I believe God works his healing through their hands. But in order to receive it, we have to do our part and go to that clinic or to the hospital in order to be healed. In this sense, we have to help ourselves.

So far we have spent our time this morning talking about how the idea that God helps those who help themselves has some truth to it. But not I want to shift gears and talk about how this saying is untrue. To give away this part of the sermon: It’s often used to justify abuse of the poor.

Our scripture from 2 Thessalonians 3 is often used to justify not helping the poor, particularly verse 10 where Paul writes, “Even while we were with you, we gave you this command: “Those unwilling to work will not get to eat.” Let’s say you’re down on your luck. You have tried all you can do. You’re starving. Your family is starving. You go to your best friend and ask for help. Instead of helping, your friend simply tells you, “No. God helps those who help themselves. And remember what Paul said about not working and not eating? That’s you.” Those of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus Christ know that this simply is not acceptable. Even in the Old Testament book of Leviticus, there was instruction for people to leave part of their fields unharvested so that the poor could glean from them for their survival. On and on in scripture we see instruction to help the poor, how the poor have a special place in God’s heart.

When we apply “God helps those who help themselves” in this manner, we are shrugging off the responsibility that we have been given to care for the poor in our midst. We are called to show compassion. I recall a scene from The Help in which Yule May is talking with the family she works for and is asking for a loan of $75 so that she can send both of her twin sons to college for the upcoming school year. The lady she works for, Hilly, is particularly mean. She listens to Yule May’s request and replies like this: “As a Christian, I’m doin’ you a favor. God doesn’t give charity to those who are well and able. You need to come up with this money on your own.” Hilly had an opportunity to show compassion and to help two young men start on a path to a better life but, instead, she invoked “God helps those who help themselves” as a way of using God as justification for not helping.

Later on in the movie, the main character Skeeter who has written a book based on the stories of the African American housekeepers working for Caucasian families in Jackson, Mississippi receives her royalty check. She chooses to split the money between all of the housekeepers in appreciation for their stories and for their help in writing her book. She did not have to do this but she chose to and the housekeepers were grateful to receive this blessing.

God does indeed help everyone. We do bear a certain responsibility for our own lives but God will show us a way. The rub is, we have to be willing to take it. And likewise, we are called to have compassion and be a blessing to those who need a little hand every now and then. Invoking “God helps those who help themselves” to justify our own stubbornness or unwillingness to help is simply false. In this world of contrasts, do you want to be the person who trusted God to help them find a job and thus applied for jobs or do you want to be like the man who had chances to get to safety and refused because he was so sure that God was going to help in another way? Likewise, do we want to be like Hilly who had an opportunity to be a blessing and chose not to or do we want to be like Skeeter who chose to be a blessing? God does help those who help themselves but he also helps those who can’t. Perhaps he will use you in this work. May it be so in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – amen.

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