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God helps those who help themselves? [False ideas Christians believe about…difficulty. Part 3]

13 Mar
Photo by J W on Unsplash

“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.”

A biblical murder mystery? [Crime & Punishment – Deuteronomy 21, part 1]

14 Jan
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Do you like crime dramas? Last year I watched a Netflix documentary called Making A Murderer.  It was gripping, often feeling like an extended episode of the TV show, Law & Order.  There were many interesting characters and plot twists, but in this documentary, all of it was real.  No actors.  Real interviews. Courtroom and TV news footage.  Making A Murderer follows the story of one family over the course of many years, as a police department investigates a murder, as the justice department builds a case, and eventually as suspects are convicted and thrown in prison.  But they appeal, and the appeal process takes time, and there are more court room scenes.  Surprisingly there is an acquittal.  Then there is another murder seemingly involving the same family, which leads to another investigation, court case, imprisonment and appeals.  The process is messy and expensive and time-consuming, and you never know what really happened.  I was glued to the screen.

In this series of posts in our study through Deuteronomy, we have three illustrations of crime and punishment, and the first one looks a lot like a murder mystery. 

If you’d like, see for yourself by reading Deuteronomy 21. What we are seeking is to learn more about God’s heart through his teaching to Israel about crime and punishment.

Look at verse 1, our first crime. As you can see, the text gives us a couple clues that this an unsolved murder case.  The first clue is the word “slain” at the beginning of the verse.  This is a vivid word in the Hebrew, better translated by our English word “pierced.”  It gives us the image of body that has been pierced by a sharp object, like a knife or sword.  The second clue that this is a murder is the phrase, “and it is not known who killed him,” at the end of the verse.  So we have a body that has been pierced and is dead, but we don’t know who did it. 

My mind immediately thinks: murder mystery!  I want to know more about this body and who did killed the person, and why.  But interestingly, the circumstances surrounding this death are barely in view in this passage.  There is no mention of tracking down the perpetrator, or anything like that.  It simply says, “it is not known who killed him,” which is vague.  We have no idea how much they investigated.  Was the body just found that day?  Have they been working this case for weeks?  We don’t get any details.  You might be thinking, but those are important details!  Shouldn’t God care about justice for the victim?  Absolutely, he does.  In fact he already dealt with that, as we will see below. 

God has another reason, however, for bringing up unsolved murders here in chapter 21.  Look at the middle of verse 1.  The body is found lying in a field, and yet notice how he describes the field.  It is “in the land the Lord their God is giving them to possess.”  That should sound familiar, because throughout our study of Deuteronomy we have heard a lot about the land. 

The land they are about to possess is the Promised Land, Canaan, the land of their forefathers, the land flowing with milk and honey.  God references the land 178 times in the book of Deuteronomy, and in all but three chapters.  I don’t know that it would be possible to overstate how important the land was to God and to the people.  For a people without land of their own, it is incredibly emotional when they obtain land.  Think about how you felt when you rented your first apartment or purchased your first house?  Overjoyed!  You had a space of your own.

So jump back with me to chapter 19, verse 10, as there is a mention of the land that connects to what God is talking about here in chapter 21.  In chapter 19, you might remember, God gives his people instructions for creating cities of refuge in the land.  People can flee to these cities if they have accidentally killed someone.  In those cities, they will be protected from any family members of the deceased who might want to take revenge on them.  And why?  Chapter 19, verse 10 tells us: “Do this so that innocent blood will not be shed in your land, which the Lord your God is giving you as your inheritance and so that you will not be guilty of bloodshed.”

In another place, Numbers 35:33-34, God teaches Israel something similar: “Do not pollute the land where you are. Bloodshed pollutes the land, and atonement cannot be made for the land on which blood has been shed, except by the blood of the one who shed it. Do not defile the land where you live and where I dwell, for I, the Lord, dwell among the Israelites.”

Teachings like these, and many others we have seen throughout Deuteronomy, illustrate how deeply God wanted purity in the land and in his people.  He not only wanted the physical land, the dirt, the earth, to be pure, but he also wanted the same for his people.  The Canaanites who were living in the land, though, did evil in God’s eyes.  They practiced the sacrificing of babies in worship, they were ruthless and murderous.  God wanted Israel to be different, to be holy and just, as he was.  So he is particular about purity.  There must be no innocent bloodshed.  When blood was shed, Numbers 35 tells us, the murderer must pay the blood guilt with his own blood (death penalty), and then God declares that the land will be pure again.  But what if the murderer can’t be found, or is unknown?  How will the blood guilt on the land be dealt with?  In other words, they still need to deal with the body!  So God gives them a method to deal with the blood guilt in the land when an unsolved murder happens Deuteronomy chapter 21, verses 2-9.

In part 2, we’ll examine what turns out to be a very strange ritual.