“God Helps Those Who Help Themselves”

“God Helps Those Who Help Themselves”

Romans 5:6-11

I read a story this week about a Caelie Wilkes who wouldn’t let anyone care for her “succulent” plant.  Succulent plants require a lot of water.  This presents a unique need which only a handful of other plants also represent.  So, what does this have to do with Caelie Wilkes’ succulent plant? 

Caelie Wilkes was so determined to maintain what she believed to be a perfect plant that she would not let anyone else water the plant because she even had a plan for the way she watered it.  Wilkes said of her plant, “I was so proud of this plant. It was full, beautiful coloring, just an overall perfect plant … I had a watering plan for it, if someone else tried to water my succulent I would get so defensive because I just wanted to keep good care of it. I absolutely loved my succulent.” 

Eventually, Wilkes decided that it was time to transplant her plant into a larger vase so that it could continue to grow.  When she tried to remove her beautiful succulent plant from its vase, she was shocked to discover that the reason why it looked so perfect was because it was plastic.  Wilkes said of her discovery: “I put so much love into this plant! I washed its leaves. Tried my hardest to keep it looking it’s best, and it is completely plastic! How did I not know this? I pull it from the container it’s sitting on … Styrofoam with sand glued to the top!”

Some of you may have assumptions about what is in the Bible, thinking that they are actually found in the Bible, but all you have is something plastic and not real.  It looks real, but it has no life.  One such assumption is the belief that God helps those who help themselves.  One poll shows that 53% of Americans believe that that statement is true and about 81% believe that it came from the Bible.  I know from my own experience that I have heard Christians say this phrase numerous times.  But the question is whether or not it is actually true. 

God Helps the Helpless

In Romans 5:6-11, we are told that when it came to our need to be forgiven of our sins and to be reconciled to the God we have sinned against, God pursued us while we were weak (v. 6).  The Greek word used in verse 6 for “weak” is asthenēs which can also be translated powerless; the point is that Paul is describing a person whose condition is helpless.  This my friend, is the story of the Bible.  

Adam and Eve were created in the image of God and called to manage the Garden by the Creator Himself.  God concluded each day of Creation by declaring His creative acts “good,” but only after the creation of man and woman in His image did He ever say that what he created was “very good.”

There was harmony in creation like a marriage made in Heaven, but all of that ended in Genesis 3 when Adam bit into the forbidden fruit.  Adam and Eve rebelled against God, which brought disunity into what was once a creation unified within itself. The only creature created in the image of the Creator rebelled and declared his intention to usurp the authority of God and oppose him.  This is why Paul uses the word, “enemy” to describe the state of every person before faith in Jesus as the one who died for the forgiveness of sins (Romans 5:10).  

After Adam and Eve ate of the fruit, their innocence was stripped away. They sewed fig leaves together to cover their newfound shame over their newly realized nakedness and hid from God. Since that fateful day in the garden, our world has been characterized by shame and hiding. Adam’s sin resulted in a curse upon all creation.  Adam and Eve hid from the presence of God in the Garden; God did not wait until Adam and Eve were ready or willing to help themselves.  In fact, they tried to help themselves by sowing fig leaves to cover their nakedness and shame but came up short in remedying their problem.  God sought them, found them, provided what only he could give them, and then promised them the same Savior Paul mentions in Romans 5. 

It is in Genesis 3:15-16 that God promised that he would not leave the world cursed; theologians call this passage the Proto-Evangelion (the first Gospel). God promised Adam and Eve that He would one day make all things new, and He has been on a mission do so ever since.

The story of Abraham is not unlike Adam and Eve’s in that God did not wait for Abraham to call out to him for help.  The God of Adam and Eve was probably the furthest thing from his mind; it is most likely that Abraham worshiped the same Mesopotamian gods that his neighbors in the city of Ur worshiped.  It was God who sought out Abraham and spoke to him: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” It is important to note that Abraham’s name before God found him was Abram.

One finds an almost poignant irony in Abram, for his name meant “exalted father,” childless for the majority of his life. But when God spoke to Abram, he not only called him to a land that He would show him, He promised Abram the following: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:1-3). On five other occasions throughout his life, God promised him that He would bless him and do what Abraham could not do himself by making his descendants a blessing to the nations, promising to transform irony into outright blessing.

God promised Abraham that through a descendent from his own lineage, He would make of him a nation to bless the cursed nations of the earth. With every new chapter in God’s story of magnifying His glory and His pursuit to make all things new, He adds detail to how He intends to accomplish His purposes.

Eventually, Abraham’s descendants moved to Egypt to escape a severe famine, they wound up spending four centuries in Egypt, leading to their eventual slavery to the Egyptians. The Hebrew people were slaves in a land that they could not escape.

God didn’t wait for the Hebrew people to come up with a plan, nor did he wait until they were willing to follow someone with a plan.  Instead, God pursued Moses in the desert, commissioned him through a burning bush, and then sent him back to Egypt to lead the Jews out of bondage in Egypt to the land promised to Abraham. Moses understood that he was helpless to do the task God called him too and offered up all kinds of reasons why he picked the wrong guy.  God’s response is a good reminder to us all that He can do what only God can do; this is how God answered Moses: “Then the LORD said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD.  Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” (Exod. 4:11-12)? 

Why did God decide to rescue the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt?  Because he promised Adam and Eve a deliverer and he promised Abraham that it would be through his descendants that deliverer would come and bless the nations. Before the burning bush, Moses asked what he should tell the Hebrew people when they asked him what god sent him to them, God answered,

“I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’ “God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.” (Exodus 3:14–15)

God essentially told Moses, “You tell them that Yahweh sent you.”  The significance of this is that at the heart of God’s answer are four facts about himself for why the Israelites should believe God could do what no other could do for them:

  1. God is self-existent and not dependent.  God was unlike the Egyptian gods who were created by their own culture.  Yahweh is the Elohim over elohims (God over gods).  The great I AM was bigger than the plight of the Israelites as He is greater than any trouble in our own lives.
  • God is creator and sustainer.  God is the great I AM who alone holds the deed of creation because He is the owner.  Who wrote the Law of Thermodynamics?  It is he who governs the laws of gravity?  Who grants the Sun permission to get up in your morning?  Who wrote the song for the birds to sing?  Who owns the cattle on a thousand hills?  Who brings men into power, raises nations into prominence, and then brings them to naught? 
  • God is unchanging. Yahweh is the great I AM whose personality does not change.  He does not suffer from a multi-personality disorder.  He does not fit into any mold his creatures try to create for him.  He is unmovable because He does not change. Because Yahweh is unchanging, He is constant unlike the gods of the Egyptians or whatever idol we may have set up in our own heart.
  • God is eternal.  Because He is the great I AM, Yahweh never had a beginning nor will he every have an end.  Even though the fool has said there is no God, Yahweh is absolute reality with nothing before or after Him. The great I AM does not sleep, slumber, slack off, or slip into a daydream stupor.

Yahweh moved time and history to accomplish what only God could do.  He delivered Israel out of Egypt to give them a land he promised them and then, he sustained them through years of blessing and thriving and through many years of apostasy and some of the worst evils they were guilty of as a nation.  Through the years, God sustained Abraham’s bloodline through David, then Solomon, and then eventually through a young virgin by the name of Mary.  All of it, only God could do, and he did.  This is what the apostle Paul meant when we wrote in Galatians 4-5, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”    

God Rescues the Helpless

God doesn’t just help the helpless, he rescues the helpless.  While we were helpless, at the right time, “…Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6).  But that is not all!  The God of Adam and Eve, the God of Abraham and Moses, Yahweh, “shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (v. 8).  However, God did not send his Son to just die for us, for in dying for us, he justified us by his blood (v. 9a).  Why did we need to be justified by the blood of Jesus?  Because we all, from the moment of birth, were born cursed as a part of Adam’s race—the human race.  Our sin is Adam’s sin, or as Donald Grey Barnhouse reflected,

The New Testament tells us that when Eve sinned, she was deceived.  She thought she was doing a good thing.  The Devil had told her that by eating the fruit she and Adam would be as the gods, knowing good and evil, so she thought that it was a thing to be desired.  But when Adam sinned… he was not deceived (1 Tim. 2:14).  He boldly ate the fruit Eve offered him.  It was an act of rebellion, the equivalent of a declaration of independence; and from that time the entire human race has wanted to be independent of God.

We are the villain in God’s story.  At the core of our being is a desire to dethrone Yahweh, but it is he who not only moved time and space to rescue Adam’s helpless race, he sent Jesus to die to reconcile us to him; that is, he did what only he could do to make his enemies, his friends. Listen to Romans 5:10 again: “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” 

The story of the Bible is a story of a God who seeks and finds the helpless sinner to do what only Yahweh can do.  Our greatest need is God and to be reconciled to him through the forgiveness of our sins, this is why Jesus said of those who think that they have the ability to remedy their sin problem, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).  If there is any question as to what he meant by that statement, he also said, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

God Expects the Helpless to Respond

Although Adam and Eve could not help themselves out of a problem they created, although Abraham never would have left Ur if God did not pursue him, and although Moses had no power in and of himself to stand against Pharaoh and Egypt, each person God pursued could have refused his help.  Adam and Eve could have refused to put on the animal skins and they could have refused to have children.  Abraham could have stayed in Ur after God told him to leave.  Moses could have refused to go back to Egypt.  On some level, each person God pursues must respond in faith that in obeying him is life and thriving.  To experience what only God can do, one must respond to his call, and responding to his call in your life requires movement of your will, of your emotions, and of your person.  Of Abraham, we are told,

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:8–10)

Of Moses, we are told,

By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible.(Hebrews 11:24–27)

In fact, we are told in James 2:14-26 that faith without works is dead.  Faith in the God who helps the powerless will result in obedience to him and a faith that fuels action, but make no mistake, you and I are powerless to do anything apart from the God of creation who has given you the ability to respond to him in the first place. 

A wise person once told me something that is sage advice that I have never forgotten; this is what he said: “Keith, you can never work harder than the person you are trying to help.”  When it comes to humans helping other humans, I believe that that is true with some exceptions.  The advice I received, I believe is true most of the time, but not all the time.  However, when it comes to God helping the human race, it is true 100% of the time that I can never do what only God can do.  I am alive today because God is doing what only God can do, and it is my life and my breath that is in his hands.  My only response is to move, behave, and act in faith in response to follow his Son as the one who has reconciled me to the God I am made for. 

So, does Yahweh help those who help themselves?  Here is what I know: I know Yahweh is pleased when I respond to him in faith.  I know this because of what I read in my Bible: “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6).  By believing this, I am not trying to protect some kind of artificial faith, but one that is organic and growing and one that God is sustaining as I keep my eyes on him.