“If you are unemployed and need a job, and you pray for a job, don’t expect God to give you a job if all you do is collect unemployment while you sit on the couch all day watching Netflix and eating chips. Stop making excuses and get to the unemployment office!”
What do you think of that quote? Kinda sounds true, doesn’t it? We even have biblical examples of this. Nehemiah, for example, when he was leading the people to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem, and they were being threatened with an attack, he didn’t just pray for God to rescue them. He prayed and posted a guard.
Or take dieting, another contemporary example. If you want to lose weight, it is good to pray about it, asking for strength, but you must also do the work of eating healthy and exercising.
Why am I talking about this combination of prayer and work? Because the next phrase we’re fact-checking is “God helps those who help themselves.” We’re in the middle of a series looking at commonly-held ideas Christians have about dealing with difficulty. Earlier in the series we suggested that “God won’t give you more than you can handle” (here and here) is a phrase Christians should discontinue. But what about “God helps those who help themselves”?
Dealing with difficulty must be seen as the responsibility of both God and us. So this phrase seems like a good one. For the most part, I think it is a good phrase, but I do have one important clarification.
Does God ONLY help those who help themselves? We can sometimes think like this. When people are struggling, we can become very judgmental about them, very cynical, as it doesn’t seem like they are doing as much as we think they should do to deal with their difficulty. So we start thinking, “God will never help them.” Or we can become very negative thinking, “God SHOULD never help them.” Almost as if it would be wrong for God to help them because they aren’t doing enough.
Doesn’t God, though, sometimes help those who don’t help themselves? What if you are in a situation where you can’t help yourself? Is it okay to pray for God’s help?
Sometimes we need God to intervene! We can’t put God in a box. He often responds uniquely to our pain, sometimes in surprising ways. We would do well to be careful about becoming judgmental against those who are struggling, when we start feeling they should be doing a lot more to get themselves out of the difficulty.
As Christians who are part of church families, we should not force people to handle pain all by themselves. We are a part of community with a mission to love and help one another.
A few weeks ago, our home’s hot water started running out way faster than it should have. It had happened years ago, and the plumber changed the heating elements on our water heater as they got corroded with build-up. So I thought, I’m going to do it myself this time, and save money. I bought the new elements, and I looked up a couple YouTube videos to learn what to do. It seemed simple! I put the socket on the bottom element to try to remove it, and though I pulled hard, it wouldn’t budge. I tried harder, and the socket slipped, and my hand slammed into a sharp part of the heater, cutting it up, blood dripping everywhere. I learned quickly that I needed help. So I contacted a friend from church. He’s got the right tools and much more experience! The next evening he came over, and sure enough, helped me out.
Sometimes that’s what we need in our of struggles; people with more tools and experience in different areas than we have. This is why God wants us living in community, in church families.
Remember the story of lame man? His friends brought him to Jesus for healing, but the house where Jesus was teaching was so crowded, they couldn’t get in the door. Their solution was to open up a hole in the roof, as roofs in those days were made of materials that you could open up. They dropped the guy down on a stretcher right to Jesus. Take notice of a prime detail in the story: the lame man could not go to Jesus himself, so his friends brought him. It could be said, “that man didn’t help himself.” But it didn’t matter. His friends stepped in on his behalf, sought Jesus, and Jesus responded. In fact Jesus says that he healed the man because of his friends’ faith!
Does that mean that if you seek Jesus you will be brought out of whatever circumstance you are in? Does this mean that if you remain in a difficult circumstance it is because you aren’t working hard enough and so Jesus has decided he won’t help you? Not at all.
This is why when people in our church are in hardship, we should be the loving community that visits them, makes meals for them, prays for them, loves them. We don’t expect them to do it all alone.
The general rule, though, is that when we ourselves are in hardship, we should pray and work towards healing and resolution. And thus, the statement “God helps those who helps themselves,” has some value, but it absolutely needs the clarifications we discussed.
Check back in to part 4 of the series as we fact-check “During times of suffering you’ll be closer to God.”