Thursday, April 3, 2014

Lenten Blog Post Series: "The Myth that God Helps Those Who Help Themselves"

I had not arrived at an idea of something to add a spiritual practice for Lent--an idea that is increasingly more and more popular in the church, (until) this blog post series--something that I have not done since my "We Are Legion" week of blog posts nearly a year ago. One of the things that has become a great labor in my work (both with folks inside and outside of the church) is attempting to debunk some of the more harmful myths that exist about God and about the church. 

And so one of my Lenten practices, for this plus the following five weeks, is, in effect, asking for another fast for y'all--a fast from some of those hurtful myths that we tell ourselves (or allow other people to convince us of) about God. 

The week of March 9: The Myth that God Considers You Worthless
The week of March 16 The Myth that God Wants You to be Rich
The week of March 23: The Myth that God Wants the Poor to be Poor
The week of March 30: The Myth that God Helps Those Who Help Themselves
The week of April 6: The Myth that God Tells Us Exactly When Jesus is Coming Back
The week of April 13 (Holy Week): The Myth that God is Dead

In the late 90s/early 00s, the Barna Research Group conducted a series of polls about the religious beliefs of Americans and discovered that, among other things, 82% (nearly 5 in 6) of us believe that the aphorism "God helps those who help themselves" is in Scripture.

No such quote actually exists in Scripture.  Some attribute this saying to Benjamin Franklin, others to the 17th-century British politician Algernon Sidney, and still others believe the sentiment goes as far back as the Greek fable-teller Aesop, but none of those fellows were among the authors of the Bible.

In point of fact, there are a great many verses in Scripture that speak to God advocating for those who cannot advocate for themselves, and encouraging us to do the same.  James 1:27 is representative: "True devotion, the kind that is pure and faultless before God the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their difficulties and to keep the world from contaminating us." (CEB)  In a world without a social safety net, "orphans and widows" represented those most on the margins, those most at-risk, those with the least forgiving of cushions.

And God speaks out for them.  For those who cannot help themselves.  God calls upon us to help them.

This is also to say nothing of the fundamental reality that God's justice is a justice of reversal: while the poor are blessed, the rich are cursed (Luke 6).  God doesn't just call for help to those who cannot help themselves, He also actively judges negatively those who help themselves to too much.

A God who helps those who helps themselves is a convenient God for us as western capitalists.  And while much might be said for capitalism as an economic system, the notion that it is somehow endorsed by God is fiction.  No earthly economic system could be endorsed by God, because we have yet to come up with an economics that does not marginalize at least some people.

But God should not be convenient for us.  God, I have to think, never meant for Himself to be convenient for us.  While Jesus does say that His burden is easy and His yoke is light, it is a burden and a yoke regardless (and this is to say nothing of the demands He makes upon His followers and those seeking to follow Him, like the rich man told to sell all he owns and give the proceeds to the poor).

We may view God as a God helps those who help themselves, but we are projecting our wants upon God rather than allowing God to project His wants to us.  We use a myth to turn a radical, loving, amazing Creator into simply a patron deity of entrepreneurship.

And so, it is not the God, but the myth--like many myths--that is convenient and comforting to us.  And we would do well to shy away from such myths--the myth that God helps those who help themselves, or the myth that God wants us to be rich.  Because those myths ultimately fall into the same category as the burnt sacrifices of old--we may think that God wants them, but what God really wants from us is quite simple: to love Him wholly, and to love others like ourselves (Matthew 22).

As the great rabbinic teacher Hillel is said to have put it, everything else is commentary.

Yours in Christ,

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