A wealthy man from Athens was making a sea voyage with some companions. A terrible storm blew up and the ship capsized. All the other passengers started to swim, but the Athenian kept praying to Athena, making all kinds of promises if only she would save him. Then one of the other shipwrecked passengers swam past him and said, “While you pray to Athena, start moving your arms!”
A farmer was driving a heavy load along a dirt road. The road became very muddy, and his wheels sank half-way into the muck. The more the horses pulled, the deeper the wheels sank. So, the farmer knelt down and prayed to Hercules the Strong. “O, Hercules, help me in this, my hour of distress!” Hercules himself appeared to the farmer, but instead of helping, he said, “Put your shoulder to the wheel, man, and urge on your horses. Do you think you can move the wagon by simply looking at it and whining about it? Hercules will not help unless you make some effort to help yourself.” When the farmer put his shoulder to the wheel and urged on the horses, the wagon readily moved, and soon the farmer was happily riding along, having learned this lesson: “The gods help those who help themselves.”
Both of these stories are attributed to Aesop, of Aesop’s Fables. Aesop lived in ancient Greece around 600 BCE, and his stories illustrate what was likely already a popular saying: “the gods help those who help themselves.” Later Greek authors and playwrights included it in their works, too. Benjamin Franklin used the phrase “God helps those who help themselves” in his Poor Richard’s Almanac in 1736, and he’s gotten most of the credit for it. But he actually “borrowed” it from a British political theorist named Algernon Sidney, who used it in one of his publications in 1698.
Lots of people are sure this phrase is in the Bible. In fact, if you look it up on line, you may even find a Scripture reference for it: Hezekiah 6:1. But, this phrase is not in Bible (and there’s no Book of Hezekiah in the Bible, either). I’m happy to report that everyone here who was brave enough to turn in their “Bible or Not” quiz got it right.
Not only is the phrase not in the Bible, many people get pretty steamed up when they hear it quoted as though it is. They say that it’s the exact opposite of the Biblical message: that, through Jesus, God saved a fallen world that can’t save itself. I have no argument with that. But, I’m not so sure that there isn’t some truth in the saying. God does help those who help themselves. But, they aren’t the only people God helps. God also helps those who can’t help themselves and even helps those who won’t help themselves.
There’s a fair amount of evidence in scripture about people whose own efforts were rewarded. Chapter 28 of Deuteronomy is all about material rewards for obedience (followed by an even longer list of the consequences of disobedience, but that’s a topic for another time). Naaman grudgingly washed himself in the Jordan and was cured of leprosy. A poverty-stricken widow followed Elisha’s instructions to gather up a bunch of jars from her neighbors, and they were filled with oil. Psalm 112 is all about the good things that come to those who do what God has commanded. The Book of Proverbs is full of advice to work hard, with the promise of material rewards to follow. Even Jesus told a parable about some servants who followed their master’s instructions about how to handle his money in his absence, and then were rewarded with his praise (and the money that had been given to the guy who didn’t follow instructions).
Helping ourselves by doing what is right is not a bad thing, in and of itself. Hard work, dedication, and perseverance often do pay off in this world. In fact, in the 1700s, the efforts of the early Methodists to live a Christian life in the Wesleyan tradition led to healthier, more educated, upwardly mobile congregations. They were beginning to accumulate some wealth and wear fine clothes—a situation John Wesley wasn’t too happy about, given is concern for the poor.
If we work hard, many times success will follow. If we live righteously and faithfully, often things will go well for us. And, we believe that God is with us in all things, so we can expect that as we are doing those things, God is present, strengthening us, guiding us, and cheering us on. But the thing to remember is that our hard work isn’t the price we have to pay for God’s help. God’s presence, and all the help that comes with it is pure gift from a God who loves us. God doesn’t help those who help themselves because they help themselves. Those who help themselves are among those God helps out of God’s gracious love.
God also helps those who can’t help themselves. There are so many reasons why some people can’t move up the social and economic ladder, if they can even get a foot on the first rung. The pandemic exposed a lot of those reasons, but they have existed for a long time. The shortage of affordable housing leaves many scrambling for a permanent address that they can call home. Families have to spend an outlandish proportion of their pay on child care, or it’s unaffordable or unavailable so they can’t go to work. Sick and elderly family members need care, so someone leaves the work force to take on that role. Jobs are available, but transportation isn’t. Medical treatment is available, but insurance won’t pay for it. Mental and emotional illness takes its toll, with the added stress of stigma and judgmental attitudes towards those whose suffering is often invisible. These barriers affect not only someone’s present situation but their future as well.
And, yes, there are social forces at work that make it more difficult for some to help themselves than others. Racism limited opportunities for some that many of us take for granted: well-equipped schools, the chance to buy a home in any neighborhood we (or our ancestors) chose and could afford, where services like grocery stores were near at hand and banks gave access to loans so that we (or our ancestors) could invest in the future. Historic limitations based on things like race, gender, age, and disability left a legacy that continues to shape today’s reality for many people and their families.
In our culture, we celebrate—maybe even idolize—independence. Like a bunch of toddlers, we want to “do it ourselves.” We don’t want to admit that we need help, and we look down our noses at those who do admit it and accept help when it’s needed. So, what are we to think when someone can’t help themselves, or who’s trying to help themselves with little apparent success? Should we conclude that God won’t help them because they aren’t helping themselves (or helping themselves as much as we think they should be)? If we can’t seem to help ourselves in the midst of life’s challenges, should we conclude that God’s not helping us because we’re not doing enough, or doing the right things, in order to convince that we deserve God’s help?
No. We know that God helps those who can’t help themselves, because we see it over and over again in Scripture. The Jews were powerless slaves in Egypt, and God rescued them. They were starving in the wilderness, and God fed them. They were exiles in Babylon, and God restored them. Over and over again, we read about God’s concern for the poor and powerless.
“The Lord watches over the strangers,” Psalm 146 tells us, “He upholds the orphan and the widow”—those who have no connections, those who are unable to speak on their own behalf. And then there was Jesus, who was more likely to be found among the poor and outcast than among the rich and famous.
God is pretty specific in Scripture about how God helps those who can’t help themselves. God helps them through people who can help them. In the very first chapter of Isaiah, God says to the people, “Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” Grain is to be left in the fields and grapes in the vineyards for the poor to gather. Jesus said it plainly: the hungry are to be fed, the thirsty given a drink, the naked clothed, the stranger welcomed, the sick cared for, and the prisoner visited. God helps those who can’t help themselves and, to do it, God uses those who can help themselves and can help others.
I’ve been focusing on the material challenges of our world, because that’s usually what we’re talking about when we quote “Hezekiah 6:1.” But we have needs beyond what we require for physical survival. We need to know that we are valued. We need to know that we are loved. We need to know that there is a place where we belong. We need to know that we are not alone, either in our joys or in our sorrows. We need encouragement and strength and comfort. We may be able to find these things in our human relationships. But we can always find them in our relationship with God through Jesus. They all add up to the peace that passes all understanding—the peace that Jesus promises each and every one of us.
We all face one situation in which we cannot help ourselves. The situation is that we all suffer from human sinfulness. There’s not a one of us who can save ourselves from it and, without God’s help, it will be the death of us. Paul spells it out plainly. “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world.”
I think we can include among the world’s courses all those ideas that we are the masters of our fates, the captains of our ships, the lords of our manors, and that we always can and should help ourselves. This course is soul-killing and death-dealing. Does God give us gifts and desire that we use them to the best of our ability? Yes, of course. But we must always remember that we are entirely dependent on God for everything that we have and need. “Independence” is not in God’s vocabulary, and we need to be very cautious about what place we give it in ours. Thinking that we can “do it ourselves” denies our dependence on God, which leads us into all manner of trespasses and sins. We absolutely cannot save ourselves from the sinfulness that leads us down that path.
As I was thinking about this, another phrase came to mind that kind of goes hand-in-hand with our saying for today. It’s “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” (That’s not in the Bible either, by the way.) When we say it, we mean that any success we have is ours alone, achieved by our own efforts, especially if it was a struggle, and if we’ve done it, other people can and should do the same. But I learned something interesting about that phrase. It didn’t always mean what we think it does.
In the late 1800s, a physics textbook exercise asked the question, “Why can’t a man lift himself by pulling up on his bootstraps?” Think about that for a minute. The question assumes a man can’t do that. The phrase morphed into a common colloquialism about social and economic advancement, suggesting that such advancement was a hopeless task.
Trying to save ourselves is the spiritual equivalent of trying to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. It’s impossible. We can’t do it. We can’t help ourselves.
Fortunately, God doesn’t expect us to. Salvation is pure gift. I can’t say it more plainly than Paul did: “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works.”
Paul goes on to say that “we are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” But this way of life—these good works—aren’t a price we have to pay or a bribe we have to give to get God to help us. This way of life—these good works—are our grateful and joyful response to the saving grace and love poured over us and into us by God through Christ Jesus.
So, God helps those who help themselves, and God helps those who can’t help themselves. What about those who won’t help themselves? We may encounter people who seem to refuse to help themselves satisfy their material needs. In my observation, there are far fewer of those folks than we think. We are often guilty of the sin of being judgmental—judging people based only what we see, the rumors we’ve heard, and the attitudes and prejudices we cling to. We would do better to get to know them and learn their stories.
But what about those who refuse to acknowledge their need for spiritual help? We all know and love people who have turned away from God. They run the gamut from those who declare that there is no God to those who haven’t rejected God so much as drifted away. They don’t see a need for God anymore, or the sins that are committed in the name of God convince them that, if that’s what God does, they don’t want any part of it. We might say these are people who won’t help themselves, insofar as they won’t turn to the God who can and will help them. Does God help them and, if so, how?
God does help them, too. Psalm 145 tells us that “the Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made”—no exceptions. God’s goodness and help for those who don’t know they need it comes through what we call “prevenient grace.” God’s grace surrounds even the most resistant non-believers, even when they think they don’t need God, or even that there is no God. God continues to woo them, in ways they may not even recognize: when they attend the baptism of a friend’s baby, or witness a wedding, or pay their respects at a funeral. When they hear of a church that is serving in the community and decide to lend a hand. When a Christian listens to their views with non-judgmental attention and care. When they go to a worship service just to please Grandma, and they take communion, not because they believe, but because they don’t want to disappoint her.
These moments become what we call the “means of grace.” They are the means by which God gives a taste them a taste of grace. And, I am convinced that eventually, that grace will lead them back to the God who created them and loves them and helps them.
There’s one last thing that occurred to me as I thought about this idea of helping ourselves. There’s another way we use the phrase, “Help yourself.” We use it as an invitation. We load up our table with good things to eat and tell our guests, “Help yourself.” A friend or family member asks to borrow a piece of clothing; we open the closet and say, “Help yourself.” A neighbor needs a hammer or a screwdriver; we open our toolbox and say, “Help yourself.”
Jesus invites us to help ourselves in the same way. “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” Help yourself! “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” Help yourself!” “I am Living Water; I am the Bread of Life.” Help yourself! “This is my body, given for you. This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” Help yourself.
In a few minutes we will come to the Lord’s table. Everyone is welcome there. Each one of us comes as someone who depends solely on God’s grace, but at this table, you really can help yourself. God invites you to help yourself to Christ’s presence in your life, made possible by the Holy Spirit and made visible at the table. Help yourself to God’s forgiveness. Help yourself to God’s salvation. Help yourself to God’s love. Help yourself to the riches of God’s grace, given in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young