Does God help those who earn God’s love? Or is God’s love something else…
That’s in the Bible, right?
Several centuries before Christ, a Greek slave was born with the gift of storytelling. One of his stories went like this:
A Waggoner was once driving a heavy load along a very muddy way. At last 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 Waggoner threw down his whip, and knelt down and prayed to Hercules the Strong. “O Hercules, help me in this my hour of distress,” he said. 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.”
That slave is attributed many such tales, collectively known as Aesop’s Fables.
Centuries later in 1698, Algernon Sydney, the English politician and political theorist, penned Discourses Concerning Government, a set of papers about the role of government. In Section 23, he would write this about the need for private military forces:
“An error is when a private man does not prepare to defend his estate with his own force, and expects the force of the magistrate should be a security to him: But such are ever left to perish with shame. Men cannot rely upon any league: God helps those who help themselves.”
Then, in the 1730s, a popular periodical in colonial America was a collection of quotes and weather forecasts and philosophy. The 23rd edition of this periodical began with the quote extracted from Sydney’s work “God helps those who help themselves.” Oddly, the 22nd edition ended with this quote “God heals, and the doctor takes the fees.” That periodicals’ success gave its author the ability to enter public life and transform colonial America as we know it. Today we thanks for Poor Richard’s Almanac, written by Benjamin Franklin.
Finally, in the 1990s, the pollster George Barna of The Barna Group polled America with this question to agree or disagree with: “The Bible teaches that God helps those who help themselves”; 77% of all Americans agreed. Of “born-again” Christians, 68% agreed. Another poll showed seventy-five percent of American teenagers polled believed that “God helps those who help themselves” was the central message of the Bible.
Isn’t it a bit odd how a line from a fable in Greek mythology, and a justification of standing armies, and a quote collection has now made its way into what folks think is in the pages of Scripture?
Works first, Grace second?
The bad news is contemporary American culture is saturated with the idea that whatever success we achieve in life is due to our own efforts, and if we are not successful then it’s our fault because we’ve been lazy. We see it in our public discourse disparaging people who are on food stamps, medicaid, or even homeless veterans. We teach the value of hard work to our children, which is commendable, but we extend our work ethic to everyone else regardless of their situation. Amazon.com was in the news over their grueling workplace expectations, where some workers who suffered from cancer, miscarriages and other personal crises said they had been evaluated unfairly or edged out rather than given time to recover.
Christians are called to see things differently. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, believed that God initiates love and grace in our lives before we are born. Before we are aware of God’s movement, God is there. Before we take that first breath, before the umbilical cord has ceased its life-giving work, God is there. Before we repent of our life choices and turn the whole of our existence over to God, God is there. No human action conjures up God, but every action of God evokes a human response.
In his sermon A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, Wesley said “God does nothing but in answer to prayer.” That seems like a justification of “God helps those who help themselves” as we pray for our world. But prayer was a lifestyle to John Wesley whose journals show he prayed for two hours each day. If prayer is a lifestyle, then God does not wait until we’ve prayed enough, until the point of exhaustion, until the last inch or minute, until we are wailing on our knees to intervene: God sustains us the whole while.
God is not a Blockbuster Video where you have to do the work, go to the store, and search to see if God is available for check-out. God is more like Netflix, constantly streaming and always available…if your connection is strong. [/metaphor]
Change One Word…
“God helps those who help themselves” is not to be found in the Bible, but if we change one word of it, it is.
The truth is: God helps those who help others.
That’s the basic building block of Christianity, it’s the basic building block of the sermon on the mount, and it’s the basic building block of every effort for the common good in history. We are capable of great things as a Church. We can live self-sacrificially like Mother Teresa. We can advocate for the oppressed and distressed. We can provide homes no matter how small for the homeless. We can change the environmental debate. And in each community throughout the globe, we serve one another, not to earn God’s favor, but because of it.
And John Wesley? He gave his last sermon in 1791 at the age of 88. Ten days later, John Wesley was on his deathbed, his last words being “best of all is, God is with us.” He exemplified even to the end that God, known through Jesus Christ, is a constant companion whether you are a waggoner stuck in the mud, or just stuck in the grind churning out the joy of your life.
May we also begin each day saying “Best of all is, God is with us” and seek a balance between self-care that heals and other-care that makes the world a better place.