One of my Christmas gifts this year was the album "Native" by OneRepublic. I was excited to get the album because my interest in the band has been growing ever since I had the chance to see them in Central Park this summer on our youth servant trip to New York City. My interest was further piqued when I noticed a song on the album titled "Preacher" and I eagerly listened to this song that shared a name with my profession.
The song deals with the singer as a young man and his grandfather, who was the titular preacher of the song. What I love about the song is the positive light the grandfather is shown in and the closing line of the chorus: "He was a million miles from a million dollars, but you could never spend his wealth." I love those parts because most popular media portrays my colleagues and I as an unbending hell-fire moralist (like John Lithgow in "Footloose") or as a well-meaning, but somewhat clueless grandpa figure. We are almost never portrayed as complex, real people (both men AND women) living ordinary lives. (The closest example I can think of are the Edward Norton and Ben Stiller characters in "Keeping the Faith.")
So, thumbs up for singing about pastors as down-to-earth, hard-working people, because most of us are (or try to be). But then the song includes this line: "He said God only helps those who learn to help themselves."
I hear this verse quoted a lot by Christians and I get it. It is an attractive idea to believe God rewards or blesses those who have first done something to deserve it. It fits in with everything else we are taught in society, right? Work hard and you'll get the promotion, etc. The phrase is simple and easy to remember and a good motivator to live properly.
And all that is fine and good, except for the fact that it isn't a Bible verse. The phrase "God helps those who help themselves" doesn't appear anywhere in scripture. (It actually comes from Greek philosophy.) In fact, when we read the Bible, we actually find God frequently helping those who can't help themselves. Many of the people God calls are cowards, dimwits, or weaklings. The chosen people of Israel (with the exception of a few glorious years under David and Solomon) are usually the schoolyard chumps, getting kicked around by their bigger and stronger neighbors. When Jesus is wandering around Palestine, he is helping and healing those who are most desperate and vulnerable and none of the Gospel writers remember him saying, "So what have you done to cure your leprosy on your own?" And, in places like the minor prophets and Matthew 25, God gets angry with humans that don't help the helpless, too (i.e. the poor, the sick, the hungry, etc.).
Rather than demanding people help themselves before gaining any divine attention, the Bible speaks of a God who seeks out the helpless and blesses them. In the church, we have a technical term for this kind of thing. We call it grace.
Grace is the belief that every good thing from God -- God's love, forgiveness, special attention in our time of need -- are not something we earn or deserve, but are a gift. They come to us not because we have "helped ourselves," but because God chooses to be generous. And this grace is a cornerstone of Christian thinking.
It's a crazy idea. It's crazy to us as industrious, goal-oriented North Americans. We want to earn things, to deserve them. But it was a crazy idea in ancient history, too. In one of the readings my church used last weekend, St. Paul tells the church in Corinth that this thinking is "a stumbling block" and "foolishness" to most of the world. While it may seem natural to us to take pride in earning rewards, or boasting in our spiritual accomplishments, grace doesn't leave any room for that. As Paul writes in that passage, "Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord."
For me, grace may grate on me when I want to take credit for the good I do, but it is good news on those days when I seem incapable of "helping myself," when I am painfully aware of my mistakes and shortcomings. On those days, hearing that God loves me and can do good in spite of me truly is a wealth that cannot be spent.
"Dreaming about the things that we could be." -OneRepublic, "Counting Stars"