Although its origins are ancient, going back to Aesop and his fables, the phrase “God helps those who help themselves,” is most accurately attributed to Benjamin Franklin. Most people, however, believe that it is biblical, and a rather large number of them believe that it is the very heart of the biblical message. Apparently, though, they have failed to catch the irony of the phrase, for the people who can help themselves are the ones least likely to need the help of others, including God. For those who are able to help themselves, at best, God’s help is thus reduced to something like the luck that the diligent find more often than slackers do. This, of course, would have suited Benjamin Franklin’s mind quite satisfactorily, since as a deist he didn’t believe that God intervened in human affairs, anyhow.
So, there is a certain irony about the idea that God helps those who help themselves. But there is a certain bitter irony about the far more genuine biblical truth, namely, that God wants to help those who can’t help themselves, that God wants to give his gifts and his friendship to those who need them most, namely, us. That irony is not in what God wants to do, but in the fact that it is a psychological and spiritual truth about us that those who need help most are the ones who are least likely to seek it out or even appreciate it when it is given. Addicts, alcoholics, narcissists and recidivist criminals are examples. For those who work with them or who are part of their families, it seems that there is no amount of help that can be offered them but that it never seems to make a difference. In less extreme examples, counselors will tell you of case upon case of people who come to them with problems but who just won’t listen, who won’t accept help that would let them do something about their problems. They always assume that it is the world that is upside down, not them, which is, of course, the way that the world looks like to somebody who is, in fact, upside down himself. So they don’t listen, and they don’t get the help they need, even when there are people of good will to offer it. They don’t and can’t hear what is being said to them and things get worse for them, which is to say, they become even less able to take help.
This is a persistent human trait. It is particularly obvious in the case of those who have severe mental health issues. It may well even help define what it means to have such issues. Perhaps the best illustration I can give is of a man with whom I spent a great deal of time in a previous congregation. He had suffered for over thirty years from severe bi-polar disorder, and had all the results of that disorder. When I knew him, he was in a severely depressed state. There wasn’t much that one could do to help him, or to get him to do anything. Any suggestion given to him was met by an immediate and detailed response of why it couldn’t possibly work, and why it was over with him, whatever “it” was. Finally, a social worker and I convinced his estranged family to help out, and to get him into an assisted living home. After he had been there for a short while, I went to visit him to see how he was doing. Back on medication, he was really much better. But as I left, he said he had something I probably should do something with. He then somewhat sheepishly handed me a one-pound coffee can. When I opened it, I found that it was filled to the top with anti-depressant medication. There were literally hundreds of pills in it. As it turned out, he had been saving them out from his daily dose, because during the last several years he was so worried that he would be cut off from his medication, that he thought he should save them against that day. Worried that he would run out and have no help, he effectively did run out and had no help. Needless to say, that was one of the chief sources of his problem. His is the most obvious sort of case, but it isn’t just crazy people who refuse the help they need, and who consequently slide deeper and deeper into their problems. Other people do it all the time. It may well be at the root of the problem that St. Paul gave expression to when he claimed that in his inmost heart he wanted to do what was good, but there was something that had him doing the opposite. It is, as such, the very problem of sin.
Now, this rather common phenomenon I believe helps to explain an otherwise very confusing thing that the prophet Isaiah says in today’s Old Testament lesson. For he says, “But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself, we transgressed.”
Most commentators on this passage, both ancient and modern, have assumed that there is something wrong with this text, and in getting written down that it was somehow turned around. After all, it makes a great deal of biblical sense to say that we sinned and then God got angry. It doesn’t seem to make sense to say that God got angry first, and then we sinned. Yet, the examples I just gave you do seem to make some kind of sense of that thought. Frequently, when things are not going well, when the sun is not shining brightly on us, we respond with some rather spectacular mistakes. When God hides his face, and remains hidden, we pretty regularly don’t and can’t help ourselves, and the harder we try, the worse we seem to make things and the worse things get. When God gets angry, instead of doing what it would take to make things better, we do the thing that makes them worse.
Isaiah’s claim that this is the way it is, is hardly unique in the Bible. The psalmist says, to the same effect, in psalm 73: “When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was stupid and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you.” And he also says in Psalm 104: “When you open your hand, all are filled with good things. When you hide your face, they are dismayed; when you take their breath away, they die and return to their dust.”
Now, it is not at all clear why God would get angry or hide his face, just as it is not clear why he let Job, who was righteous, suffer the way he did. Perhaps this anger is not really anger but simply the way that we sometimes experience the hiddenness of a God who “dwells in light inaccessible, whom no one has seen nor can see” and whose ways are beyond us. If we depend on God, and God is hidden, we might be justified in calling that anger simply because of the way that we experience it. Perhaps, in that respect, too, it is what we have to say theologically in the face of what is otherwise called natural evil, or what we have to say in the face of the evil that is launched into human life when there are inexplicable accidents. Whatever this side of it is, the effect is the same: we are rarely patient; we don’t help ourselves; instead, we act ignorantly and like beasts, we are dismayed, and we get deeper and deeper into trouble, and we can’t and don’t look for help.
Not that it is always our fault. This is the nature of evil itself, to which we may or may not intentionally contribute. We would like to think that evil is simply somebody’s fault, and that blame and punishment, and stupidity and stubbornness and dismay is directly related and proportioned to the sin and to the person who committed it. But it isn’t always this way; in fact, it is rarely just this way. Often the evil that one does is visited upon the children of the father unto the third and fourth generations; often it is a like a fungus that has a life of its own, that has a capability to spread where it was not first planted. Evil as we know it in this world has, surprisingly, the power of making even the innocent guilty. That is the dark mystery of evil.
Think here simply about what violence does to people. Rather frequently, as we know only too well, there are innocent victims. Sometimes they are innocent bystanders, sometimes they are the victims of accidents, biological, genetic, social, or they are victims of just plain old car or household accidents. Yet, once touched by force and broken by it, even for a moment, some of these innocent victims do not remain unscathed inside. Often some victims, who deserved nothing of what happened to them, become very unhappy people, and many remain broken. Many become burdens on their families, and soon self-loathing creeps in, and anger at God and humanity becomes the lot of their life. They can become objects of resentment, and the caretakers who resent them become worse people. As Simone Weil once put it, they become afflicted. Then they, too, start acting out. They become angry and resentful; they want to hurt people as much as they have been hurt. In such cases, the evil of the violence does not remain with the perpetrator. It gets passed on from generation to generation. It takes on a life of its own, and it touches the innocent and makes them sinners. That is the great mystery of evil. Evil is not a philosophical mystery, a puzzle we can’t figure out, not knowing why God or anybody else would allow it. The real mystery of evil is its ability to make even the innocent complicit and capable of spreading its contagion. The great mystery is “Why me?”
Often the worst of it is the paralysis that we experience in such cases with respect to asking for and accepting help. Sometimes that happens because we are proud, and the worse we get, the prouder we become. Sometimes it is because we are deluded about the state of our souls. Sometimes it is because we are depressed and beaten. But in any case, we are stuck if we can’t ask for help, and can’t open ourselves to receive it.
Understand how deep a problem that is spiritually. Martin Luther once spoke about the idea of temptation with respect to the popular superstition that the devil was the one who tempted us to do evil. He denied that the devil actually tempts us to do bad things; rather, he thought temptation lay somewhere else. Luther said: “The devil doesn’t have to tempt us to do evil, because we already belong to him. What he tempts us to do is to deny Christ, who is the only one who can help.”
What Luther meant by this can be seen in this example. For some years I was on a presbytery administrative commission dealing with a church that had some truly disturbing and ugly problems within the congregation. But the most troubling incident that I can recall was a rather simple one. One woman, who had actually been helpful in trying to bring proper order to the church’s governance, finally told the pastor that she could not take communion with those on the other side of the argument. What was most troubling about her refusal was not her lack of love for her enemies; even if that needed work, it was understandable, particularly if you knew her enemies. Rather it was that she was refusing the very help that God provides to heal us and make us whole. For communion is not a celebration of our present unity, and it is, therefore, not hypocritical to take it alongside our enemies; it is an instrument of God’s grace that may be the only help we have to keep us from continually hurting ourselves and our enemies. Refusing it, refusing God’s grace, is to refuse God’s help and to give oneself wholeheartedly to the very thing that destroys us.
So, what is the solution to the evil that beset us, to the sin that clings so closely? Is there hope for those who, out of despair, reject hope?
Isaiah spells it out two verses later when he says: “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” What that means is simply that between us and God there is a deep and special relationship. By virtue of creating us out of nothing, and by virtue of his own Spirit keeping us in being, and by virtue of making us in his own image, God does not stand afar off, simply watching us act badly. God, even when hidden, remains at the very center of our being, and sometimes because we are so bad at self-examination, being at the very center of our being may be why God is so hidden to us. We never seem to look for God there. But, in any case, Isaiah simply reminds us that God is our Father, and that God therefore cares because he has chosen to be a part of us. Therefore, we have reason to hope, even though we often reject the help we need, that the one who helps us is never far from us, and never forgets us. We simply need to wait and to hope, for “from of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who works for those who wait for him,” as Isaiah goes on to say.
Today we begin the season of Advent, the season in which we anticipate Christ’s coming. It is not a season where we simply delay gratification, and wait for Christmas in such a way that when it comes the experience may be more intense. It’s not a build-up. No, it is the season in which we need to come to grips with what is inside us and need to come to grips with the sort of help we need – the help that will teach us how to accept help. And if we do, we may come to understand what God is really doing in becoming man, for it is nothing less than, as Isaiah also says, rending the heavens and coming down, making the mountains quake, of making his name known, and then working good for those who wait him.