God Helps Those Who Help Themselves
Luke 5:17-26 New Living Translation
17 One day while Jesus was teaching, some Pharisees and teachers of religious law were sitting nearby. (It seemed that these men showed up from every village in all Galilee and Judea, as well as from Jerusalem.) And the Lord’s healing power was strongly with Jesus.
18 Some men came carrying a paralyzed man on a sleeping mat. They tried to take him inside to Jesus, 19 but they couldn’t reach him because of the crowd. So they went up to the roof and took off some tiles. Then they lowered the sick man on his mat down into the crowd, right in front of Jesus. 20 Seeing their faith, Jesus said to the man, “Young man, your sins are forgiven.”
21 But the Pharisees and teachers of religious law said to themselves, “Who does he think he is? That’s blasphemy! Only God can forgive sins!”
22 Jesus knew what they were thinking, so he asked them, “Why do you question this in your hearts? 23 Is it easier to say ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or ‘Stand up and walk’? 24 So I will prove to you that the Son of Man has the authority on earth to forgive sins.” Then Jesus turned to the paralyzed man and said, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and go home!”
25 And immediately, as everyone watched, the man jumped up, picked up his mat, and went home praising God. 26 Everyone was gripped with great wonder and awe, and they praised God, exclaiming, “We have seen amazing things today!”
2 Corinthians 1:3-10 New Living Translation
3 All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. 4 He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. 5 For the more we suffer for Christ, the more God will shower us with his comfort through Christ. 6 Even when we are weighed down with troubles, it is for your comfort and salvation! For when we ourselves are comforted, we will certainly comfort you. Then you can patiently endure the same things we suffer. 7 We are confident that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in the comfort God gives us.
8 We think you ought to know, dear brothers and sisters about the trouble we went through in the province of Asia. We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it. 9 In fact, we expected to die. But as a result, we stopped relying on ourselves and learned to rely only on God, who raises the dead. 10 And he did rescue us from mortal danger, and he will rescue us again. We have placed our confidence in him, and he will continue to rescue us.
God helps those who help themselves. Is this from the Bible? Here is the parable where the phrase may have first been used.
“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 horse pulled, the deeper sank the wheels. So the wagoneer threw down his whip, knelt down, and prayed to Hercules. ‘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.’”
Not in the Bible, then. Sixty-eight percent of born again/conservatives Christians, people known for their Bible knowledge think the phrase comes from the Bible, whereas 80% of all others religious or not, think so. Ben Franklin popularized the last phrase in that ancient Greek parable so that it is still part of common use today. Jay Leno when he was host of The Tonight Show used to do a segment out on the street where he interviewed passersby and asked them questions. The fun of it was how many people did not know basic things like how many states are in the USA or who the Vice President was. When Leno asked them about this cliché many of the respondents said it was one of the Ten Commandments!
Just because it is not in the Bible does not mean that people have stopped believing otherwise. For example, in his December 9, 2010 column called Keep Christ in Unemployment former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly countered a congressperson who was seeking more aide for the unemployed. He wrote, What does a moral society owe to the have-nots? How much public money should go to those in financial trouble? Every fair-minded person should support government safety nets for people who need assistance through no fault of their own. . . But being a Christian, I know that while Jesus promoted charity at the highest level, he was not self-destructive. The Lord helps those who help themselves. Does he not?
President Barack Obama once used it in a speech in 2011 about a jobs bill to shore up American infrastructure. “I trust in God but God wants to see us help ourselves by putting people back to work.” He got flack for bringing God into a national discussion and his spokesperson said it was a “common Biblical phrase.” Sigh.
It is very American to have a can do spirit-pull-yourself-up-with-your-own-bootstraps mind set. And despite the fact that this cliché does not occur in the Bible there are indeed occurrences where people are scolded for their lack of initiative. Paul did so to some people from Thessalonica because they quit working while waiting for Jesus to return in the so called Second Coming. He basically tells them to get off their you-know-whats and get back to work since that served Jesus better than mooching off one’s neighbors. Paul’s point is that there are things for which individuals are responsible and have to put in honest effort. If I want God to help me get a good grade, I do need to study, after all.
Hardwork, exercise, good eating, and more do help us help ourselves. But what about those who do such things and still have problems? What about my daughter who presently cannot find a job due to the Covid virus crisis even though she applies to ten a day? What about the kids who eat subsidized lunches since mom’s two jobs still do not make ends meet? What about the veteran with mental illness who finds himself homeless? These are not the people who say this phrase. Do people who quote this phrase have the impression that they did not need any help along the way in their lives?
For millions of people, no matter how hard they work, how much time they put in, this phrase makes God seem absent from them. Does God not love me? God is not helping me and it must be my fault.
St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth about a particularly trying time in his life and that of his companions. We do not know what he was going through but it almost overcame him. “We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, we thought we’d never live through it. As a result we stopped relying on ourselves and learned to rely on God.” His readers obviously needed to hear this since they too were facing trials and suffering.
Did they learn, like Paul that relying on God often means opening ourselves up to the help of others? Did they learn to graciously receive this assistance? Did they learn that God uses people around us a support system? Did that learn that that God is always the first source of help, not the secondary source after one has exhausted all one’s self help options?
We are an interdependent people. God Helps Those Who Help Themselves does not acknowledge that and instead calls an individual to be a lone ship on the horizon with nothing and no one nearby. We see the opposite in the story of the paralyzed man who was brought to Jesus by good friends. And what good friends they were to actually remove part of the ceiling to lower the man down to Jesus. Can you imagine seeing that? Everyone must have paused. Some likely complained that, “I was here first.” It was both tense and also beautiful to witness. Jesus healed the man not on the basis on what he did since he could not help himself. Jesus healed him based on THEIR faith—his friend’s HELP.
Pastor Kristen Capel of Nokomis Lutheran Church in Minneapolis told of a friend of hers from their seminary days. Laura’s husband had had cancer when Kristen and Laura were both students and he had died just three months into Laura’s first pastorate. During his illness and subsequent death Laura leaned on God. She embodied strength because she let others help her. Seven years later Laura herself was diagnosed with cancer and she wrote about it on the website, Caring Bridge, which allows family and friends to be connected with someone’s health journey.
Laura, in one of her posts there retold the story of the paralyzed man and emphasized the mat on which he lay to be lowered to Jesus. “All I can say is that that mat is a precious place to be,” she said to all those thinking of and praying for her. “You are carrying me. I know Jesus sees your faith and hope and love. I can’t think of a better place to be. It will be fine because you all have a hold of that mat.”
God Helps Those Who Help Themselves? Yes, God is always there when we strive, but more often our strength comes from our mat carriers. Theirs is the kind of God energy and rock steadiness that is often more than we can muster at the time.
We live in community. The Church is a community formed around God-love— helping, guiding, protecting, serving. Who are your mat carriers taking you to Jesus right now? Whose mat might you take up and lower into the gaze of Jesus?
Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ©1996, 2004, 2007, 2013, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.