“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” – John 8:32
Ever play the telephone game? You know, where a group of people whisper a phrase to the each other around the room and it changes over the chain from something like “These are a few of my favorite things” into something like “Doorknobs and doorjambs with hasps and strange hinges?” Along the way, each person is absolutely certain they’re passing along what they heard to the next person.
It turns out this also happens in the sharing of our faith.
Admit it – just like me, at one point or another you’ve said something to yourself or to a friend you thought was ripped right from the pages of the Bible when, in fact, it only sounds that way. Maybe to console, maybe to encourage, maybe just to have something to say, but still it isn’t quite the same.
We think these were truths handed down directly from God, like our own mini-versions of Moses’ trip to the mountaintop. After all, everyone just knows certain things are true, right?
There are many phrases, clichés, platitudes, and otherwise “common sense” sayings used by Christians every day, which have in fact, no biblical basis whatsoever! Rather, they’re subtle distortions of God’s message that serve only to steal from us the full joy of experiencing God and authentically sharing that experience with others.
When we replace the original message of God’s Word with the commonplace beliefs of today we’ll never truly experience God.
Living in God’s truth leads us from the bleak landscapes of despair and into the brilliant light of life. Sometimes that truth takes us through dark places and barren valleys before we reach the place God intends for us. And sometimes that truth is difficult to hear, running counter to our deepest desires. It’s natural to seek solace in faith that’s easier to digest, easier to incorporate into our worldview, easier to reconcile with how we believe the world should be.
This is the basic failing of false gospels that detour us from the Word and into more comfortable, indigestion-free diets of frictionless lives where any path (or all paths) lead to God. We see it in popular mega-church pastors who tell us all the “good things” God has in store for us without ever really explaining the commitment required. We see it in popular faith blogs that tell us how traditional Christianity is out of touch with the modern world, filled with antiquated notions and unenlightened artifacts from yesterday. We see it in each other when we profess but do not practice.
The “Capital T” TRUTH is that when we replace the original message of God’s Word with the commonplace beliefs of today, treating second-hand messages as first-hand truth, we’ll never truly experience God.
Over the next five posts we’ll look at a few of the most common and (sadly) popular misconceptions about what’s actually in – and NOT in – the Bible.
#1 GOD HELPS THOSE WHO HELP THEMSELVES
I love this one – partially due to its blatant and utter lack of biblical grounding, but mostly because I can show off the benefits of my liberal arts education (that would be sarcasm, in case there was any confusion).
A recent study by Christian demographer and pollster George Barna of The Barna Group indicated that 68% of “born again” Christians agreed with this statement. However even the most basic reading of the Bible proves it to be quintessentially anti-Gospel. Clearly God gives each of us gifts and talents to develop and enjoy. Yet the entire concept of pure self-reliance (or self-righteousness) and the idea that we should just try a little harder to earn our salvation actually conflicts with the work of God.
The phrase actually originates in ancient Greece and may initially have been proverbial. It’s illustrated by two of Aesop’s Fables and a similar sentiment is found in ancient Greek drama. Benjamin Franklin is often credited with bringing it to America, but the modern English wording appears earlier in Algernon Sidney‘s work.
The phrase has also found its way into popular culture. In a “Jaywalking” sketch on The Tonight Show, comedian host Jay Leno asked random people on the street to name one of the Ten Commandments. The most popular response given was “God helps those who help themselves.” Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly used it in responding to Jim McDermott who argued, “This is Christmas time. We talk about Good Samaritans, the poor, the little baby Jesus in the cradle and all this stuff. And then we say to the unemployed we won’t give you a check to feed your family. That’s simply wrong.” O’Reilly argued for a more selective approach to unemployment benefits, and the importance of individual responsibility, concluding “while Jesus promoted charity at the highest level, he was not self-destructive. The Lord helps those who help themselves. Does he not?” Stephen Colbert parodied O’Reilly in response, concluding in character, “if this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we’ve got to pretend Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition; and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”
Time and again, scripture points out that the lives of those who chase the myth of self-reliance end up, to quote James Bond in Casino Royale, “not well.” Spiritual self-reliance is inconsistence with God’s message. Simply look at Adam, Moses, Samson, Saul, Judas and 10 million unnamed souls since to find clear evidence.
While self-reliance on its own is never directly punished, God clearly favors helping those who cannot help themselves, which is what the entire concept of grace is all about (see the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, Ephesians 2:4–5, Romans 4:4–5).
The bottom line is that God helps those who help themselves to the extent their motives aligns with His divine Will. When Jesus faced his most traumatic moment of temptation while in the Garden of Gethsemane the knee-jerk reaction of those around him was to take action. Peter reportedly sliced off the ear of an assailant. Jesus replies: “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” (John 18:11). Peter took action to protect his teacher, regardless of God’s plan. Jesus took action but only in alignment with God’s will.
Better stated, God saves those who die to themselves: “Then Jesus told His disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’” (Matthew 16:24).
Words really do matter…