God Knows We Can’t Help Ourselves
By Beth Demme
Maybe it’s my American-ness or maybe it’s just my personality, but I kind of like the expression, God helps those who help themselves. I like it because I believe I know how to help myself, at least a little.
It’s as if I can obligate God to be on my side if I do at least some of the work.
The problem is, when I read the Bible I’m reminded again and again of how wrong I am to think that way.
When I read the Bible, I find that God is on the side of the weak and powerless. One of the themes of the Old Testament is that God’s people are the underdogs, made powerful only because God is with them. The powerful don’t really need God, they take what they want/need, rather than relying on God to lead them and provide for them.
God is often presented as a shepherd – a caretaker of a helpless animal. (Psalm 23) In Isaiah 40, God “gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart.” (Isaiah 40:11, NIV) God “brings princes to naught and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.… He gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.” (Isaiah 40:23, 29, NRSV) Or as the Psalmist says, “the Lord heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.… The Lord lifts up the downtrodden.” (Psalm 147:3,6)
The lambs, the faint, the powerless, the brokenhearted, and the downtrodden epitomize those who cannot help themselves.
This is true in the ministry of Jesus as well. Think about all the people Jesus healed. They couldn’t help themselves; they needed Jesus to do what they could not.
The first person Jesus heals in the Gospel of Mark is Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. (Mark 1:29-34) (Jesus casts an unclean spirit out of a man just before this, but that is not presented as a healing. The man probably felt healed, but the Gospel focuses on the unclean spirit, not the man.) Simon Peter’s mother-in-law wasn’t lying in bed, apparently on the verge of death, because she didn’t want to help herself. Jesus doesn’t ask what she’s tried so far to see if she’s done enough to earn his intervention. Jesus does what Jesus does. He walks over, takes her by the hand, and lifts her up.
Me, too. I have felt the restorative power of Jesus’ unconditional love. I know what it’s like to go from hopeless to helped.
Have you ever heard of the Indian Dalits? India is a Hindu nation and the Hindu sacred texts approve of a hierarchy of castes. The Dalits are the “untouchables,” so low on the caste system that they aren’t really even part of it. The word “Dalit” means something like broken, opened, or crushed. They live in extreme poverty and perform the work no one else wants to do, the unclean and “polluting” menial work. Because of engrained social prejudice, they are unable to “help themselves” to a better life.
And yet, the Dalits relate to Jesus. They relate to the fact that he was born, not to the ruling elite, but as a social nobody. They relate to the fact that Jesus was broken, opened, and crucified. The Dalits say that Jesus took our “Dalitness” with him to the cross, opening the way for us—all of us, including the Dalits—to experience our full humanity. The Dalits understand they bear the image of God, regardless of how others in society classify them.
I find hope and encouragement in the Dalit understanding of Jesus. I know that there are parts of me that feel outcast, broken, and worthless. I also know that I am powerless to change, or heal, those parts of myself on my own. The Dalits remind me that I worship the shepherd God who gathers helpless lambs like me in his arms and carries us close to his heart. The Dalits remind me that Jesus isn’t pausing to ask whether I’ve done enough to deserve his help before he reaches his hand out to lift me up.
I don’t need to try to do “enough” to obligate God to help me. God is already willing, and able, to help me … even when I can’t help myself.
What about you? Do you tend to live as if God will help you only if you first help yourself? Had you ever heard of the Dalits? Are there parts of you that feel broken open or crushed that you can turn over to Jesus? Tell me about it in the comments, in an e-mail, or on Facebook.
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