Wednesday, May 27, 2015

God Helps Those Who Can't Help Themselves

Comedian Jay Leno once conducted a “man-on-the-street” interview by asking random people to name one of the Ten Commandments. The most common response was something that wasn't even on God's original list—“God helps those who help themselves.” That phrase, which is often used to emphasize a get-your-act-together approach to salvation, is often attributed to the Bible. In fact, according to a recent Barna poll, eight out of ten Americans believe that the saying, “God helps those who help themselves” is Biblical.[1]  

But the phrase is more closely tied to non-biblical sources. In a first century A.D. Greek fable, a wagon falls into a ravine, but when its driver appeals to Hercules for help, he is told to get to work himself. One of Aesop's fables has a similar theme. When a man calls on the goddess Athena for help during a shipwreck, she tells him to try swimming first. Both of these stories were probably created to illustrate an already existing proverb about helping yourself first.

A French author from the 1600s once said “Help yourself and Heaven will help you too.” But it was the 17th century English thinker Algernon Sidney who has been credited with the now familiar wording, “God helps those who help themselves.” Benjamin Franklin later used it in his Poor Richard's Almanac (1736) and it has been widely quoted ever since. A passage with similar sentiments can be found in the Quran, Chapter 13:11: “Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.”

The idea that “God helps those who help themselves” is not merely extra-biblical; it is unbiblical. It’s the polar opposite of the Gospel. It’s an enemy of grace. The Bible insists that God helps the helpless. This is the great offence of the Gospel. We can have no part to play in earning or meriting God’s forgiveness. Perhaps, the clearest verse on this is Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” As Augustine famously said, “Grace can only be accepted with empty hands.”

Humanity has a real difficulty in accepting grace because it runs counter to our sense of pride. As Erwin Lutzer explains, “God’s grace is difficult for two different kinds of people; first, those who are awash with guilt: drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes, and the like. They think, God is so mad at me that there is no way that He would accept me. When we explain God’s grace to them, they feel too unworthy to accept it. A second class of people who find it difficult to accept grace are the self-righteous people who do volunteer work, who have never been in trouble with the law, who pay their bills and keep their noses in their own business. The hardworking folks who are basically honest, who can look around and see a dozen people who are worse off than they are, find God’s grace offensive. The very notion that they cannot contribute to their own redemption is an insult to their sense of accomplishment and wellbeing.”[2]       

When it comes to salvation, God always takes the first step. Why? Because before Christ arrives on the scene we are spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1), fallen in own depravity (Jer. 17:9), blinded by Satan (2 Cor. 4:4) and a slave to sin (John 8:34). The dead cannot raise themselves any more than a prisoner can loosen his chains. Our contribution to salvation is do what Lazarus did; respond when God calls us. The idea that we can help Jesus out by doing good works is an insult to the Cross. We must merely believe and receive.

[1] Erwin Lutzer, 10 Lies about God (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2009), 173.
[2] Ibid., 181. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Risking the Rescue

In 1826, when Grace Darling was 10 years old, she and her family moved to Longstone Lighthouse on the Farne Islands in Northumberland, England. Her father, William Darling, was the lighthouse keeper– this was very hard work. The lantern had to be kept burning all the time. On September 7, 1838, Grace spotted a shipwreck and survivors offshore. The crew of the SS Forfarshire had been driven onto some rocks by fierce winds and formidable waves.

Together, Grace and her father courageously rowed their boat a mile through rough waters to rescue the surviving crew. Nearly all sixty passengers died, except nine crew members and one passenger who escaped in the Darling’s lifeboat. Grace and her father took the survivors back to the Longstone lighthouse, where they tended to their wounds and cared for them for 3 days, until the storm finally passed.

​In the English world, Grace became a legend for her compassionate heart and steady hand in risking her life to rescue others. Tales of her bravery even reached Queen Victoria. Sadly, Grace died young, only 26 years old, in October of 1842 from tuberculosis.  

Grace’s example made me think of a couple of Scriptures about risk and rescue. Remember, the parable that Jesus told about the daring shepherd who left his fold of ninety-nine sheep to seek after the one lost lamb (Luke 15:1-7). Then there is the episode from Paul’s life where we wrote of Priscila and Aquila who, “risked their own necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles” (Rom. 16:3-4).

We are not told exactly what “risk” Paul was referring to, but with beatings, imprisonment, shipwrecks, and threats of death so common to Paul’s ministry, it’s not hard to see how this couple could have put themselves in harm’s way to help their friend. Rescuing others—whether from physical or spiritual danger—often carries a risk. The shepherd could have lost the rest of his flock while searching for the one. Priscila and Aquila could have been jailed or worse for trying to help Paul. The Good Samaritan that Jesus spoke of staked his reputation, finances and safety to take care of the wounded man on the road to Jericho (Luke 10:29-37).

The spiritual lesson here is that when we get involved in the ministry of the church there will be risks and things will get messy. Many people will not understand our compassion and some may even criticize us, it happened to Jesus often (Matt. 11:19). There will also be a cost entailed on our part—it will involve time, money and the added frustration of having your schedule thrown by the wayside to meet the needs of others. When you put yourself out there, there is the rick that your heart may be hurt later when the people who you are trying to help seem to make progress, then lapse back into old habits.  

Paul spoke of another risk involved—the creeping influence of pride. In Galatians 6:1-2 he warned, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” In the process of the rescue we can become victims of our ego which would dupe us into believing that the sins which so easily ensnare others are not a hazard to us.

The risks are real, but the reward is even greater. Think of all the souls that have been snatched off the shipwrecked debris of a sinful life and restored by Christ, simply because someone cared enough to take the risk. Not only is there the thrill of the seeing someone have their life turned around (Luke 15:7), but one day there will be eternal rewards at the Judgment Seat of Christ (1 Thess. 2:19-20). A compadre and crown in heaven for risking the rescue, what could be greater than that? -DM     

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Overcoming Hypocrisy

I came across a news report the other day which left my head shaking in disbelief. After selling his pickup truck, 22-year-old Westley C. French, decided he wanted it back. So Westley and a few friends mugged the new truck owner, beating him with a two-by-four. Then Westley and his friends fled the scene in their getaway car—a green Nissan 240 SX. The muggers thought they had a foolproof plan to avoid police, as they covered the green Nissan with a fresh coat of black spray paint. By changing their car's color they were able to outrun the Washington state police for five hours.

Unfortunately for the criminals, as Westley and his buddies headed north in Washington they never bothered to change the North Dakota license plates. The police easily spotted their getaway car and Westley was sentenced to one year in jail. According to one news story, “Now he might be making license plates.”[1]

As I thought about the ridiculousness of that car thief the thought occurred to me that often times we try to do the same thing in our spiritual lives. Is this any less preposterous than people who try to “spray paint” over their lives without allowing Christ to transform us from the inside out? We try to fool people from detecting our true nature by glossing over the undesirable things in our lives with a show of religiosity. But, eventually our disguise will start to crack and crumble and we will be exposed.    

Jesus warned about pretending to be someone we are really not. The word He chose to describe it was “hypocrisy,” which literally means “to hide behind a mask.” In Greek theater of that day, actors would hold masks in front of their faces when they were playing a part. Thus, they made their living by hiding behind a mask and putting on a show as another character.

Jesus said in His most famous sermon, “Be especially careful when you are trying to be good so that you don't make a performance out of it. It might be good theater, but the God who made you won't be applauding” (Matt. 6:1, MSG).

Later on while blasting the Pharisees, the professional thespians of first-century Judaism, Jesus said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt. 23:27-28, ESV).

Mark Twain used another word picture to convey a similar thought: “Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.”

The Pharisees Christ was chastising were some of the most religious people of their day. They were the equivalent of Bible-carrying believers—and as those who consider ourselves into God’s Word, we more than anyone are the possible contemporary parallel for the Pharisees. Our goal here is not only to learn how hypocritical the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were but to grab a mirror and examine ourselves. The value of recognizing hypocrisy is not so we can relish pointing it out in others, but so we can spot it in our own lives.

Are we tolerating hypocrisy in our lives today? Some of us claim to be following Jesus publically, yet privately we are feeding an addiction, walking the tightrope of sexual sin or acting like another person around our lost friends. Some of us say we are forgiven by God, but deep inside we harbor feelings of bitterness and resentment towards others. At some level, if you dig deep enough we are all guilty of duplicity, myself included.

Whatever it is God knows, and He loves us enough to call us out. God's love for us is great enough to see through the fa├žade and not shy away in disgust, but rather to say, “Would you like some help taking that false person down?” Is the thin coat of paint you’ve sprayed over the ugliness of a prideful person starting to peel? Are you tired of always being “on stage?” Then let’s get real with Christ and others so that authentic spiritual transformation can begin.

Oh, and by the way, in case someone uses the ole’ hackneyed excuse, “I don’t come to church because it’s full of hypocrites!” just say in response, “Yes, the church is full of hypocrites and there is always room for one more!” -DM

[1] Caleb Hutton, “Fleeing robbery suspect gets 1 year for eluding deputy near Nooksack,” The Bellingham Herald, 30 August 2013 <>

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A Mother's Fierce Love

Mary Thomas was a single mom of nine children living in Chicago's rough West Side neighborhood. Seven of Mary's nine kids were boys, young men constantly stretching the boundaries of their tired mother's authority and patience. One day in 1966, Mary opened her front door to find 25 street thugs on her stoop. The men, members of the notorious Vice Lords gang, had come to recruit her seven sons. Mary, hearing their intentions, dropped her gaze, said “Hold on just a second," and closed the door.

When the door opened again, the first thing the Vice Lords saw was the barrel of a loaded shotgun. “There's only one gang around here, and that's the Thomas gang.” As you might imagine, the gangsters scattered like a bunch of scalded dogs and never came back again. Ms. Thomas and her babies weren’t to be trifled with. 

With that same fortitude, Mary Thomas ushered each of her nine “gang members” to their high school graduation. You may have heard of her youngest son—pro basketball player and Hall of Famer Isaiah Thomas. When Mary Thomas passed at age 87, Isaiah told an ESPN reporter about her influence:

“My mom was very simple and very humble, and she loved helping people. On her dresser in her bedroom, she has a saying: 'What's done in life soon will pass. What's done with love will always last.' She just had a way of looking at you that made you feel like everything was all right. The way she observed me and perceived me and the way she looked at me, I felt like most loved person in the world, and I'm going to miss that."[1]

There is nothing more beautiful, stronger or fierce than a mother’s love. A mother thinks about her children day and night. Even if they are not with her, and will love them in a way they will never understand. Novelist Agatha Christie wrote, “A mother's love for her child is like nothing else in the world.  It knows no law, no limits; it dates all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path.”

So many times on Mother’s Day we talk about the beleaguered, exhausted, frazzled mother who is pulled in a million directions. While that picture may be true, mothers are masters at multi-tasking, we also forget what drives her is a force that is to be reckoned with. Her love is as tender a rose, immovable as granite, powerful as a thunderstorm, and when tested that same love can react with the ferocity of a wild animal.

Where would be without the God-given instincts of a mother who would risk life and limb for her family? Jimmy Dean, the country-western singer, does a number that always leaves me with a big knot in my throat. It’s titled “I Owe You.” In the song, a man is looking through his wallet and comes across a number of long-standing “I owe yous” to his mother . . . which he names one by one.

Borrowing that idea, I suggest you who have been guilty of presumption unfold some of your own “I owe yous” that are now yellow with age. Consider the priceless value of the one woman who made your life possible—your mother. Think about her example, her support, her humor, her counsel, her humility, her hospitality, her insight, her patience, her sacrifices. Her faith. Her hope. Her love.

If she is alive today tell her how much she means to you. Then shower her with gifts of love and service. If she’s gone on to be with the Lord, then say a prayer of thanksgiving praising God for such a beautiful person. Thanks mom for fighting for our family. -DM 

[1] Melissa Isaacson, “One Tough, but Sweet Mother,” ESPN, 17 January 2010, <>