It all started with a resolution (H.CON.RES.13) that passed in the House on Tuesday. The roll call was 396-9 in favor of reaffirming the motto “In God We Trust”. I am not sure why the House decided that this was the time to put forth this resolution, but the President was quick to jump on it.
“I trust in God, but God wants to see us help ourselves by putting people back to work.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney tried to clarify that remark:
Carney said Obama was trying to make the point that “we have it within our capacity to do the things to help the American people.”
“I believe the phrase from the Bible is, ‘The Lord helps those who help themselves,'” Carney said.
The White House later clarified that the phrase – “‘the Lord helps those who help themselves” – is not in the Bible.
Perhaps Obama and his team should have watched the Colbert Report. Last year in his “Jesus is a liberal Democrat” rant, Colbert chastised Bill O’Reilly for writing that “God helps those who help themselves” in response to Congressman Jim McDermott. McDermott at the time was pushing for passage of the latest bill to help the unemployed.
In the span of one year we have Obama using the phrase to justify passage of a bill enacting federal help for those in need and O’Reilly using it to validate the opposite point of view. O’Reilly was emphasizing individuals taking responsibility for helping themselves. Obama was emphasizing the nation taking responsibility for helping itself.
So who is right?
Neither. God does not help those who help themselves. He offers help to those humble enough to recognize they are in need of help and are unable to help themselves and who accept the help He offers. In a spiritual sense we are all poor and carry a burden of debt that we are unable to pay.
In the letter to the Ephesians (2:1-10), it is clear that we are dead (helpless) and unable to help ourselves. Only the mercy, grace, and the gift of God can help those who are truly needy :
And you were dead … But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ … For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God
It is easy to forget this fact when we are doing well in terms of worldly goods but we are all in dire need of God’s help. In the message to Laodicea (Rev 3:15-22), Jesus said:
For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.
There is more that could be said here, but I want to look at the practical aspects as they relate to social justice and helping others.
Love the poor and serve the needy – without condition?
In that same rant Colbert closed with this:
If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor either we’ve got to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are
or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.
Colbert captures here the meme of many in our nation who see Christians as hypocritical and unloving. However Colbert is overstating the case when he says that Jesus says to serve the needy without condition. Especially if he or the White House are going to claim that God would endorse the solutions found in their bills.
Does God want people to help others?
For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land. (Deut 15:11)
I think all people can agree that God does want people to help others. As we consider how to help others as a nation, as churches, and as individuals there are four principles that should be considered.
- God encourages voluntary and sacrificial giving. God has commanded us to be generous in our giving and to pay our taxes, however these are not the same thing. God holds individuals accountable for how they use what they are given (1 John 3:17; James 2:15-16). But there is an emphasis on doing so cheerfully, voluntarily, and out of love (2 Cor 8:2-4; 9:6-8). God is looking for people who will work to meet their own needs and the needs of others (Eph 4:28). It is here that many Christians are falling short and where Colbert’s rant stings with convicting truth. As Christians we must remember the message found in the parable of the Rich Fool. That parable does not end with God applauding the person who pursued the “American Dream” and achieved and hoarded great wealth. God requires those who are given much to be generous to those in need (Luke 12:48).
- God does not encourage debt. While not forbidding debt, the Bible warns us that borrowers are slaves to the lenders (Prov 22:7). Furthermore we can infer that God discouraged debt because under the Law every 7 years debts were absolved (Deut 15:1-2). I believe that God gave this provision because He understands how debt can destroy people and wanted to limit the extent to which people could place themselves into these stressful situations. The bottom line is that debt that is incurred is always repaid with interest and therefore always costs more in the long run. Taking on debt also allows us, as a nation and as individuals, to delay hard decisions and push the costs down the road for someone else to deal with. Failing to deal with our problems and dumping them on our children and grandchildren is completely irresponsible.
- God encourages giving based on what we possess. We are asked to honor the Lord with the first of what we produce (Prov 3:9-10). Under the Law the tithe was established. The tithe was 10% of what a person earned or grew (Deut 26:10-13). The emphasis here is on what we produce and possess. No where in Scripture will you see God requiring people to take out loans to pay for the needs of others. The parable of the Good Samaritan did not end with him asking the government to provide federal aid, healthcare benefits, or disability. Nor did the Samaritan take out a loan to care for the wounded traveler. The Samaritan used the resources that he possessed.
- God does not encourage helping the lazy. The phrase – God helps those who help themselves – actually comes from an Aesop Fable. The intent of that fable fits best with the principle of self-responsibility and hard work. In the fable a traveler’s wagon gets stuck in the mud. He jumps off and beats his horses who can’t get it out. Dismayed he prays for help and is rebuked for not getting in the mud and pushing the wagon out himself. The morale of this fable is that if you are able to work you should not ask for help from others. This is a principle found in Scripture. God does ask us to help the needy. However the needy in the eyes of God are those who are truly disabled and without anyone else to care for them. There is caution against rewarding the lazy and the unmotivated (Pr 13:4; 6:9-11; 2 Thess 3:10,14-15). God wants able bodied people to work hard and earn money to meet their own needs (Eph 4:28).
These principles can be summarized as:
Avoid debt and Give generously.
Taking in both these principles I think that Jesus would have a hard time supporting many of the proposed spending bills but would have an equally hard time praising the giving of many Christians.