“God Helps Those Who Help Themselves” Part 3 of “Shoot Christians Say”

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“God helps those who help themselves.”

Most frequently, I hear the phrase from people in relation to the poor and/or homeless.  “Well, as the Bible says, ‘God helps those who help themselves.’”

Except it doesn’t say that.

Benjamin Franklin said it.  And others before and after him.  But Jesus didn’t.  No one in the Bible did either.

Paul did say something like it.  What he said is recorded in 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “If anyone is not willing to work, he should not eat.”  

In some people’s minds, the two phrases go hand in hand.  Paul’s words to the church in Thessalonica are even heard on Capitol Hill in debates on funding for the poor.  

I get amused by those debates.  People use the same Bible to support their completely contradictory views.  A person who wants to cut aid to the poor quotes the “don’t work don’t eat” text.

A person who doesn’t want to cut aid to the poor quotes verses like Leviticus 23:22.

Using the Bible can be so confusing!    

Back to Paul.  Obviously, Paul wasn’t writing to Americans.  He didn’t see a homeless person on the street and say, “If you don’t work you don’t eat.”  What he did see were church members not working because they thought Jesus was going to come back any minute.  “Why go to work when Jesus might come back?”  

I like N.T. Wright’s take on that:  “Jesus is coming- plant a tree!” 

Back to “God helps those who help themselves.”

Using this phrase to avoid helping the poor misses the whole point of Jesus and the Scripture.

Those who enact unjust polices are as good as dead, those who are always instituting unfair regulations, to keep the poor from getting fair treatment, and to deprive the oppressed among my people of justice (Isaiah 10:10-2).  Let’s put that on a plaque and hang it in the halls of Congress!

Don’t mistreat widows or orphans or foreigners or anyone who is poor…(Zechariah 7:10).

If you don’t help the poor, don’t expect to be heard when you cry out for help (Proverbs 21:13).

The Lord’s Spirit has come to me…to tell the good news to the poor…to free everyone who suffers (Luke 4:18).  

Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well” – but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing.  What good does that do (James 2:15-16)?

So, let’s forget about this phrase absolving us of our responsibility to help the poor. 

Let’s feed and clothe. 

Let’s challenge and change unfair legislation and structures.  

Let’s identify with the poor. 

What’s good about the phrase?

*It reminds us that God uses people to change the world.  We’re partners.  ‘Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9).  It’s a “God plus us” thing.  

*It reminds us that we do have some responsibility.   It doesn’t make any sense to ask God to help me not eat so many potato chips unless I quit buying potato chips.   

“There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.”  J.K Rowling

Here’s my biggest problem with the phrase:  It seems to me to go against grace – you know,  “unmerited favor” – as I learned in Sunday School.  

God gives me love and acceptance when love and acceptance are undeserved.  

“While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” Paul writes. 

I love this from Philip Yancey, “There’s nothing I can do to make God love me more.  There’s nothing I can do to make God love me less.”  

Now that’s something we should be saying!

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A “Chat” Seasoned with Grace

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I don’t look forward to talking to tech support.  I’m not always my best self.  My frustration seems to grow with each minute.

Why is it necessary that every time one tech support person transfers a call to another one, I have to repeat my name, last 4 digits of my social, blood type, etc?

 If the problem is explained to the first person, why can’t she/he pass that information on to the next person so I don’t have to repeat it, and repeat it, and repeat it?

You could add your own frustrations.

But today was different.  This morning I wrote an article for the church I pastor clarifying what a “win” looks like for our church.  The second “win” out of three is this:  When people pursue a life that looks like, loves like Jesus.

 Then I went online to contact support for a billing issue on some software and chose the “chat” option.  After a long process of explaining and giving information there was this exchange:

Tech support: “I thank you so much for being so kind and patient with all this.”

Me: “I should be the one thanking you.” 

Tech support: “Oh it’s not a problem.  You’re the nicest person I’ve had so far today J.  Normally at this point with an issue like this, my head has been bitten off, chewed up, and spit back out.  Haha.”

Me: “I don’t know how you all in support work do your job.  Sometime people suck.”

Tech support: “Very patiently. Haha.

Me: “I would think that most of the time the problem is like mine: user fault.”

Tech support: “To most of our customers their thinking process is that their issue is our fault or we’re out to get them. It’s just really, extremely very nice to get someone like youJ”

 I didn’t tell her that I’m not always nice.  But I’m not.  Today was different.

Nearly 2000 years ago, Paul instructed the Colossian church, “Let your conversation be always full of grace.”  There’s that word grace.   Grace can’t be earned, bought, or forced.  It can only be freely given and freely received.  If my conversation is to be filled with grace, then each word is to be a gift to the hearer – or reader.

Today, my words were a gift to the support person.  Why was today different than some days?

Today, I actively pursued living, and loving like Jesus.

Today, I let the mind of Christ be in me (Philippians 2:5).

Today, I pictured the person typing and helping as a person loved and valued by God, deserving my respect and kindness.

Today was a good day.

I can’t wait for tomorrow.

A Taste of Grace

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A  highlight of my week is a 30 minute lunch with my “lunch buddy” at a local elementary school.  The “Lunch Buddy” program, administered by Big Brothers/Big Sisters, pairs an adult with a kid who needs a good adult role model.

 “Big Brothers” thought I would fit the bill -as the adult.

I was paired with a 6-year-old kindergartner.

Sitting in the school library for our first lunch together several weeks ago, we unpacked our lunches.   I opened my Zip-Lock bag of apple slices.  He opened his Spider Man lunch box filled with three bags of chips, 2 cereal bars, and a Capri-Sun fruit juice.

Maybe he felt sorry for me. “How sad,” he may have thought, “all this man has to eat is an apple.” Because each time he opened a bag of food, before taking some food for himself, he would hold it out to me,  “Mr. Bill (that’s what he calls me – I’m good with that –  “Phil”- “Bill” sound the same), do you want one?”

“Thank-you, but (How do I explain Celiac to a 6 year old?),  I have some food allergies. I’ll just eat my apple.”  Not being able to comprehend eating only an apple for lunch, he persisted.  He unwrapped his cereal bar, tore off a piece, held it up to me, “Can you eat this?”

“No, thanks though, I really can’t.”

He was relentless.

“How about chocolate?  Can you eat chocolate?”

“Yes,  I love chocolate.”

So, like a miner digging for diamonds the little fella dug into his cereal bar with those little 6-year-old fingers until he pulled out a bit of chocolate.  “Here you go,” he said with a beaming smile, “here’s some chocolate for you!”

Forget cross-contamination – a Celiac’s fear.
Forget where those fingers may have been.
How could I say “No” to such a face, to such grace?

Some of the best chocolate I’ve had.

I wonder if Jesus had this boy in mind when he said,

“Most certainly I tell you, unless you turn, and become as little children you will in no way enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3)?

I signed up to be a “lunch buddy” to inspire a kid.  The kid inspired me.

Greasy Grace

I don’t do grease.  I don’t cook with it (My choice these days is olive or coconut oil).  I used to grease my car back when cars weren’t so complicated, but no more. I pay someone else to do that.  I don’t even know if cars get greased anymore. In the 60s I would grease my hair – “a little dab’ll do ya” – now it’s pomade or something like that.

I found out a few days ago, though, that when it comes to Christianity, I am greasy.

A person who attends the church I pastor and who is part of a small group to which I belong told the group that he was accused of going to that “Greasy Grace” church. I wonder if the guy who made the statement has ever been to the church on which he slapped the label.  Has he heard me preach? I don’t know.

“Greasy Grace” church?  I had never heard of the term.   A quick Google search and I realized that the statement was not intended to be a compliment. I didn’t think it was.   People who make such statements usually make similar statements such as, “That preacher is soft on sin”, or “He is just giving them a license to sin” and, “You just don’t understand what it means to live holy.”  Oftentimes, “greasy grace” is combined with the catchy term, “sloppy agape.”  Nice.

I do preach grace.  No doubt about that.  I believe that:

– grace is the “good news”
– Jesus replaced a law-based religion with a grace-based relationship.
– Jesus replaced an obedience driven by fear, guilt and bargaining (If I am good, then God will be good) with a fresh motivation to follow Him out of love and joy.
-everything comes to us by grace.  To believe that we have to work for God’s blessings is to try and buy that which is not for sale.
– instead of following lists of rules Jesus calls people to follow Him.
– sin is overcome by grace.

The accusations against pro-grace people have been around a long time.  Paul was accused of promoting sin and reckless living.  Listen to what he said:  “And some people even slander us by claiming that we say, ‘The more we sin, the better it is!’ Those who say such things deserve to be condemned” (Romans 3:8 NLT)  Tough words.

These guys follow Paul’s lead… What do you think?

From D. Martin Lloyd-Jones:

There is no better test as to whether a man is really preaching the New Testament gospel of salvation than this, that some people might misunderstand it and misinterpret it to mean that it really amounts to this, that because you are saved by grace alone it does not matter at all what you do; you can go on sinning as much as you like because it will redound all the more to the glory of grace. That is a very good test of gospel preaching. If my preaching and presentation of the gospel of salvation does not expose it to that misunderstanding, then it is not the gospel… I would say to all preachers: If your preaching of salvation has not been misunderstood in that way, then you had better examine your sermons again, and you had better make sure that you really are preaching the salvation that is offered in the New Testament…

Romans: The New Man, An Exposition of Chapter 6

From Charles Swindoll, commenting on the above comment:

“To all fellow ministers, if you claim to be a messenger of grace, if you think you are really preaching grace, yet no one is taking advantage of it, maybe you haven’t preached it hard enough or strong enough.  I can assure you of this: Grace-killing ministers will never have that charge brought against them.  They make sure of that!”

The Grace Awakening

Grace is big. Too big for me to understand.  I just re-read a book by Steve Brown, Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Reformed Theological Seminary.  Check out these quotes:

“You ought to live your life with such freedom and joy that uptight Christians will doubt your salvation.”  Steve Brown, A Scandalous Freedom

“The only people who get better are people who know that, if they never get better, God will love them anyway.”  Steve Brown, A Scandalous Freedom

“Religion can make people mean, angry, gloomy, critical, judgmental, and neurotic.  Religion can also become an abuser of Christians.  I have seen so many people hurt by religion that sometimes I think it would be better to be a pagan.  Worst of all, religion can keep you from God…Something about institutional Christianity (as necessary as it is) will kill your freedom if you aren’t careful.  Steve Brown, A Scandalous Freedom

Sounds greasy.

The statement made to my small group friend may have been intended as a criticism.  I think I’ll look at it as a compliment.

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I’m frequently asked how a Christ-follower can grow toward maturity without the law (rules)?  It happened again this week.  I love the question – most of the time.  Some of the time I don’t love it – times when the question is a set-up or even an attack instead of a genuine effort to understand how to be more like Jesus.

I do appreciate people who really want to grow in likeness to Christ.   I also understand people who get pretty passionate over their position.  I can be one of those passionate persons:)

I read again this week, Acts 15, which  records a debate between some pretty passionate people over the same topic.  In the early days of Christianity almost all Christians had been Jews. In Antioch, though, a lot of Gentiles (non Jews) had come to faith in Christ.  These new converts knew nothing about the laws of Judaism which really bothered the leadership. “Don’t non-Jews have to become Jews to follow the Jewish Messiah?” “Sure. Let’s give ‘em a list.”

One thing on the list was especially troublesome – especially to the men – surgery. Yep, circumcision.  “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1).  The list didn’t stop there.  The new converts were required to submit to the entire law!! This ticked off Paul and Barnabas, whom the Bible says were in “sharp dispute and debate” (Acts 15:2).  They couldn’t come to an agreement so they took it up with the big boys in Jerusalem – James and Peter.

The “passionate” debate continued.  Paul and Barnabas presented their view (grace) and their opponents countered with “No! The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5).  I love Peter’s reply: “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?”   In other words, “Come on guys!  Get real.  How many of you keep all the law?  No hands? I didn’t think so.  So why are we making Gentiles keep it?” Peter concludes with a clear statement of his position: “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” (Acts 15:11).

Game over, right?  Not yet.  It’s James’ turn.   “Peter’s right, guys. It is my judgment that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:14-19).   I wish James would have stopped there, but he doesn’t. “Let’s just make them do 4 things – 1. Eat no food sacrificed to idols, 2. stay away from sexual sin, 3. no eating animals that were strangled, 4. no eating bloody meat.  Really, James?  What are you saying?

Some commentators say that James was offering a compromise between the two groups.  His decision wasn’t so much theological as it was relational.  I like that view.  Others say that James was a legalist and really messed this one up.  Maybe so.   Or, there is the view that the stipulations still apply today!  I hope not.   I like my steak rare.

So, how does all this apply to maturing in our spiritual life.  How can we grow in Christ and help others grow?  Paul, one of the passionate debaters in the Acts 15 event makes the following contrasts in 2 Corinthians 3:1-18:
Old covenant – New covenant
Of the letter – of the Spirit
Etched in stone – written in our hearts
Kills – gives life
Brings condemnation – brings righteousness

Can we agree that the goal of spiritual growth is likeness to Christ?  Then what method is going to get us there?  Following rules or depending on the Spirit?

Paul concludes his thoughts in 2 Corinthians 3 with this  affirmation: “And the Lord, who is the Spirit, makes us more like him as we are changed into his glorious image (2 Corinthians 3:18).  I think I’ve got the answer for me.

A New Way of Life at Moody Bible Institute

Image“Booze no longer banned!”  This was the headline that shook up a lot of church folks when it appeared on September 27.  Moody Bible Institute (MBI), a long-time bastion of conservative theology has dropped its ban on alcohol and tobacco consumption by its 600-some faculty and staff.

Some “slippery slope” folks are worried.

So, what’s up?

Insiders say that this change at Moody, which was founded by the 19th century evangelist, Dwight L. Moody, is a smart business move.  According to board member and author, Jerry Jenkins (have you heard of Left Behind?)  potential faculty and staff were put off by Moody having a “bunch of lists of rules,” calling the list “kind of pharisaical.”

“Bunch of lists of rules” and “kind of pharisaical” bring up a more significant issue – an issue of the very heart of Christianity.  To me, this really isn’t about alcohol. It’s about Christianity.

Christianity is Jesus.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.

Christianity is a person.  Christianity is not a performance.

Being a Christian doesn’t revolve around or even involve a list of do’s and don’ts.
Being a good Christian means understanding that Jesus is our life and allowing Him to live through us.  It is the person of Jesus performing His life through us – His life, His love, His values.

We can’t look at a list of rules and focus on Jesus at the same time (Galatians 5:1-5; Hebrews 12:1-2).  In fact, rules are the very things that “hinder” us from being and behaving “Christianly.”

As we live out our connection with Him, our behavior will take care of itself!

Let’s go back to the Moody decision.  According to Christine Gorz, VP of Marketing and Communications at MBI, the decision reflected a desire to create a “high trust environment that emphasizes values, not rules.”

Inherent in a rules-based faith is control – control people’s behavior.
Inherent in a Christ-based faith is trust – helping each other depend on, trust in the Spirit to live out the life of Christ in us (Galatians 5:16).

Way to go Moody.

Free From the Law, O Happy Condition

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I’ve heard some questions, and some protests, about my position that Christians are not under the law:

“If we don’t have to obey the law of Moses, what’s to keep us from sinning?”
“Isn’t anything sin anymore?”

Behind these questions lies a fear that the grace message is an invitation to sin.  We’ve seen that fear before:

“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” (Romans 6:1),  the Roman Christians ask in response to Paul’s grace message in Romans 5.

Paul’s answer?  “By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Romans 6:2).

Then, Paul speaks to the Law issue, “For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.  What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means!” (Romans 6:14-15)

Two things seem real clear:
We are not “under the law.”  I really don’t know how we miss that.  How can Paul be more plain?
Being out from under the law does not give us a license to sin.

I’ve got a couple of questions of my own:

Why does a Christ-follower choose to live by the Law instead of the Spirit? I don’t get people who don’t like chocolate and I don’t get Christians who live by the Law.

“Law following” Christians claim to want to live like Jesus.   I believe they really do. But following the Law won‘t get us there.
“through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:2) – The law brings death, not life.

“So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.” (Romans 7:4)  There’s no fruit on the Law-tree.

“You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.  For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope.” Galatians 5:4-5)  If we choose to live a “righteous” life by following the Law then we cut ourselves off from the resources provided by God – His grace. Paul gives us a choice: Grace or Law?  We can’t have it both ways.

Paul asks my next question. It’s a tough one:  “O,  foolish Galatians! Who has cast an evil spell on you?  For the meaning of Jesus Christ’s death was made as clear to you as if you had seen a picture of his death on the cross.  Let me ask you this one question: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the law of Moses? Of course not! You received the Spirit because you believed the message you heard about Christ.  How foolish can you be? After starting your Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort?  Have you experienced so much for nothing? Surely it was not in vain was it?” (Galatians 5:1-4

Paul doesn’t hold back.  He doesn’t sound happy.  He uses some harsh language: “Foolish” literally – a “non-thinker.”  “Cast an evil spell” -under the spell of false teachers.   He sounds frustrated and angry that people are buying what the Judaizers are selling – the teaching that Christ-followers have to follow the Law.  Maybe he’s mad at the sellers as well.  He calls them “dogs” in Philippians 3:2.

“Let’s think this through, “ Paul seems to say.  “If we aren’t saved by obeying the Law then we don’t live the Christian life by obeying the Law.”  There’s a new sheriff in town.  His name is the Holy Spirit and His law is love.

“If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right.” James 2:8

“…for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” Romans 13:8

“Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” Romans 13:10

“For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Galatians 5:14

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel…” Galatians 1:6

“…because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.”  Romans 8:2

Back in my childhood in every Baptist church to which I belonged, we sang songs by Philip P. Bliss: “Wonderful Words of Life”  “Jesus Loves Even Me” and this one:

Free from the law, O happy condition
Jesus has bled and there is remission,
Cursed by the law and bruised by the fall,
Grace hath redeemed us once for all.

Now we are free, there’s no condemnation,
Jesus provides a perfect salvation.
“Come unto Me,” O hear His sweet call,
Come, and He saves us once for all.

Paul got it.  Philip Bliss got it.  I want to live the rest of my life getting it.