Half-truths

? God Helps Those Who Help Themselves ?

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HALF TRUTHS - PART 4

? God Helps Those Who Help Themselves ?
Sunday, July 21, 2019
Psalm 18:6, 16-17, Psalm 121:1-2, Philippians 2:12-14, Ephesians 2:4-10

However, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace!

Ephesians 2:4-5

“God helps those who help themselves.”

Odds are you have probably said or heard this exhortation at some point in your life. Most Americans believe it is found in the Bible, though no such Scripture exists. In truth, the source is unknown, although it is often attributed to Benjamin Franklin who popularized the phrase in the 1730’s.

At first glance, it seems to express good Biblical truth even if it is not directly quoted from Scripture. Surely God doesn’t want us to just sit back and do nothing. As James writes, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:17). Likewise, Paul writes to the Philippians to “carry out (or work out) your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12-13)

Anyone working for social justice knows that one of the most important tasks is to help people stand on their own, to break the cycles of poverty, addiction, crime, or whatever else holds them back from being productive members of society who live with a sense of purpose and dignity. We “teach people to fish” rather than simply giving them an endless stream of free handouts.

Honestly, this is all good and true. We should encourage hard work and discipline both in life and in our journey of faith. We do have to “practice what we preach”. We must live out our salvation by fulfilling our baptismal covenant through our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. When we pray, God empowers us and guides us into action. Adam Hamilton writes, “Those who fought for civil writes did not simply pray at church. They prayed and then marched, knowing they were likely to be beaten and arrested and that God would somehow see them through.”

So what’s wrong with saying “God helps those who help themselves,” even if it’s not directly quoted from the Bible?

The trouble comes at two key points… when someone cannot help themselves, or when we cannot help ourselves.

We often see others in need and respond by saying that if they work hard and “help themselves,” God will help them out of whatever pit they find themselves in. In some ways, however, this says far more about our cultural work ethic and rugged individualism than it says about God. After all, if we could truly help ourselves, what need have we for God? Why pray at all if we could simply work harder and help ourselves solve whatever dilemma presses in?

More than that, it often becomes an excuse not to help others. Scripture consistently calls us to care for the poor, the orphan, the stranger, the widow, and the needy. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us that whatever we have done for the least among us, we have done for him, and likewise whatever aid we have refused to others, we have refused for him. Rather than seeing those in need as people who should “pick themselves up by their own bootstraps”, we are called to see in them the face of Christ struggling under the weight of his own cross, and like Simon of Cyrene, perhaps God is calling us to help him carry it for awhile by bearing the burden of others (Matthew 27:32).

Challenging this well worn cliché is not a blanket affirmation of sloth or laziness. Rather it is a recognition that no matter how hard we work, there are times when we simply cannot help ourselves. Despite popular belief, not everyone was born with the same opportunities, abilities or connections. This is why God uses others to answer the cry of the needy, to help them when they don’t have a leg to stand on.

In the end, God helps those who CANNOT help themselves.

God is the God of the hopeless, the God who walks with us even in the valley of the shadow of death. This is grace, amazing grace, that saved even a blind wretch like me who could never save myself from the shackles of sin. When it comes to our salvation, not one of us can help ourselves.

Rather than condemning the helpless, perhaps it would do us well to sing that great hymn again… remembering that we were all lost and helpless, but God rescued us from the pit that we might sing His glorious and “Amazing Grace” all the more.



? God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It ?

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HALF TRUTHS - PART 3

? God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It ?
Sunday, July 14, 2019
Matthew 5:17-48, Deuteronomy 23:12-14, 2 Timothy 2:14-15, 2 Timothy 3:15-17, John 1:14-18, John 8:2-11, Leviticus 20:10, 21:9

You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell.

Matthew 5:21-22


“You have heard it said… but I say to you…”

Such a statement from almost anyone would quickly raise a red flag today. We hear and use the arguments all the time. “What do you mean, “you say”?” “We’ve always done it this way. Are you telling us we’ve been doing it wrong all this time?” “Who are you to say my parents and great grandparents were wrong?”

I was talking to a group of church people once using a similar sentiment. I have had these kinds of conversations on a wide range of subjects. People have told me I did not preach God’s Word because I didn’t use the King James Version. Another man said I would “burn in hell if I didn’t get my wife to repent because she is a pastor,” which in his mind is clearly against God’s Word. The most extreme I have ever seen involved a church leader who actually believed that God’s commands to Joshua to drive the Canaanites out of the land also applies to white American Christians who are charged with ridding our nation of all minorities and non-believers, especially Muslims. His wife proceeded to send me a series of gruesome and inflammatory internet articles about extremist groups and they warned me that my Muslim friends would rape and mutilate my daughter, who was only 2 years old at the time.

Of course these are extreme distortions of Biblical teaching, but the truth is that Scripture has been used throughout history to oppress women, to endorse slavery, and to justify countless wars, the burning of so-called “witches”, the excommunication of scientists, and many other unjust atrocities throughout human history. This is the kind of violence and extremism that results in an “Us vs. Them” culture where God always just happens to be cheering for our team.

Yet Jesus himself said these words… “You have heard but I say,” not once but several times in His famous Sermon on the Mount. Jesus consistently re-frames the people’s understanding or interpretation of the law, not to undermine it, but to get to the heart of God’s intent. Lust is just as bad as adultery and hating someone is the equivalent of murder. “An eye for an eye” becomes, “love your enemies” and the Sabbath should never prevent us from doing good and bringing healing to others.

It’s easy to affirm, at least in words, because Jesus said it. But we must remember that Jesus’ audience did not attribute to him the same divine authority Christians recognize today. When they accused him of breaking the Sabbath or condemned him for defiling himself with sinners, they could just as easily have pointed to any number of scriptures to make their case and declared… “God said it, that settles it.”

If anything, Jesus, Paul, and other New Testament writers demonstrate that it’s not quite that simple. Scripture, just like any other text, can be twisted and distorted to say just about anything. Dr. Joy Moore talks about those preachers who have a verse for everything stating, “If you’ve got a topic, I’ve got a text.” Whether the text actually applies to the topic hardly matters, so long as it came from somewhere in the Bible, or at least “sounds Biblical.” Dr. Ben Witherington III is known for saying “A text without a context is a proof-text for anything you want to say.”

If God truly says something, and if we truly understand the meaning for our context, then yes, it may be fairly black and white. But more often than not, we are not as clear or certain as we would like to think. Let’s take murder for example. The command, “Thou shalt not murder” is one of the most black and white laws in Scripture and in almost every religion and law code throughout history. But even here we argue about gray areas. What about war, euthanasia, self-defense or the death penalty? Do these controversial issues count as “murder” and if so, are they justified? Some would even take it to the extreme that we must not kill animals, but even if someone could prove that was God’s intent, I imagine few of us would become vegetarian.

There’s no one-size fits all interpretation or even a universal method of Biblical interpretation throughout Christian history. We must wrestle with issues of language, context, socio-historic realities, literary styles, authorial intent, original audience and countless other exegetical and interpretive concerns. Rarely will all Christians of all times and all places ever fully agree on what it is that God actually said.

While I believe we must continue to study and wrestle with the meaning of the text in the context of the global Christian community throughout history, we must be careful making absolute statements that we and we alone have the only “right” interpretation on any given issue. Every time we are certain we are right, we will likely find another sincere Christian scholar interpreting the same passage in a very different way.

Understanding what God actually “said” or “meant” is no small task. If we’re honest, most of the time we are not even as clear as we thought we were about what our spouse means. This complex reality should not paralyze us to Biblical interpretation and study, but it should at the very least give us pause and keep us humble in our beliefs and out judgments against the beliefs of other Christians.

Two final words of advice.

  1. Remember that the Word became flesh… not text.

    When in doubt, always interpret the text through the lens of Jesus’ life for he is the only person to ever live out the fullness of God’s Word on this earth.

  2. Take to heart the wisdom of Mark Twain who writes, “It is not the parts of the Bible I do not understand that worry me, it is the parts I do understand.”

    For as much as Christians argue over the interpretation of obscure and controversial scriptures, we all know far more scripture than we actually put into practice. First and foremost, let us become doers and not merely hearers of those parts of the Word of God that are crystal clear… to love God and love our neighbor (which includes everyone)… to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our Creator.

    This alone may take more than a lifetime to master, and the world will be far better for it.

Special thanks to my wife, Rev. McKenzie Sefa, who preached this challenging topic today in our first of two pulpit swaps during this “Half-Truths” series. You can here her full message at the link below.



? God Won't Give You More Than You Can Handle ?

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HALF TRUTHS - PART 2

? God Won’t Give You More Than You Can Handle ?
Sunday, July 7, 2019
1 Corinthians 10:12-13, James 1:13-17, Psalm 46:1-3, 2 Corinthians 1:8-11, 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

No temptation has seized you that isn’t common for people. But God is faithful. He won’t allow you to be tempted beyond your abilities. Instead, with the temptation, God will also supply a way out so that you will be able to endure it.

1 Corinthians 10:13

“Don’t worry, God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

Before we dig into what God does and doesn’t give us, let’s first consider the source of this unhelpful cliché. It is an adaptation of the passage above from 1 Corinthians 10:13

The actual statement from 1 Corinthians 10 reads: “God won’t allow you to be tempted beyond your abilities.”

James elaborates on this point when he writes:

No one who is tested should say, “God is tempting me!” This is because God is not tempted by any form of evil, nor does he tempt anyone. Everyone is tempted by their own cravings; they are lured away and enticed by them. Once those cravings conceive, they give birth to sin; and when sin grows up, it gives birth to death.

James 1:13-15

The ability to overcome temptation and the ability to handle any circumstance that comes our way are two entirely different things. God does not tempt us to sin, but he promises that he will give us the strength to resist temptation. The lure of sin does not have power over us if we are walking in the Spirit because we have died to our sinful nature and been raised to walk in the light of Christ. The good news of the gospel, in fact, is not simply the forgiveness of sin so that we can go to heaven, but the power over sin granted to us by the same grace which saved us in the first place.

Clearly the statement, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” is a misquoted version of this favorite memory verse from 1 Corinthians. But what do we do with the broader idea? It has become so vital to our faith to believe that no matter how bad things get, we will not get overwhelmed because God won’t give us more than we can handle.

This favorite half-truth often follows right behind “Everything happens for a reason” as a second pillar of our “Bumper Sticker Christianity.” In fact, it utterly depends on the idea that everything happens according to God’s plan and that God causes every bad thing to happen. “God won’t give you more than you can handle” implies first and foremost that everything you have to handle, no matter how tragic, must be from God for some greater divine purpose.

If you missed last week’s message, now may be a good time to go back and check out “Everything Happens for a Reason”.


Two key points to keep in mind:

  1. Not every circumstance you have to handle is from God.

    It is just as likely that the struggle you face is the result of the natural ebb and flow of life, or perhaps even the result of sinful and destructive choices, whether yours or the harmful choices of others that may have had nothing to do with you at all. Nevertheless, the consequences are very real and painful.


  2. Though we may very well be overwhelmed by circumstances beyond our control, God will see us through any circumstance we face.

    This is where we draw hope from the Apostle Paul.

I was given a thorn in my body because of the outstanding revelations I’ve received so that I wouldn’t be conceited. It’s a messenger from Satan sent to torment me so that I wouldn’t be conceited.

I pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me alone. He said to me, “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.” So I’ll gladly spend my time bragging about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power can rest on me. Therefore, I’m all right with weaknesses, insults, disasters, harassments, and stressful situations for the sake of Christ, because when I’m weak, then I’m strong.

2 Corinthians 12:7-10


“God will help you handle all that you’ve been given” (Adam Hamilton).

As he tells Paul, “My grace is sufficient because my power is made perfect in your weakness.”

Take some time to sit with all of the circumstances in your life that overwhelm you. Imagine them circling around you like a storm as you stand with Peter on the water in the middle of the sea. Look up to Jesus and reach out your hand. Invite him to grant you peace, and even if he doesn’t calm the storm, pray that the Holy Spirit might calm the storm in you.

Listen to the sermon below for more on the half truth: “God won’t give you more than you can handle”. For now, let us us pray together with the Psalmist:

God is our refuge and strength,

a help always near in times of great trouble.

That’s why we won’t be afraid when the world falls apart…

Psalm 46:1-2a (CEB)

? Everything Happens for a Reason ?

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HALF TRUTHS - PART 1

? Everything Happens for a Reason ?
Sunday, June 30, 2019
Romans 8:22-28

We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose.

Romans 8:28

Long before Twitter limited our communication to 140 or even 280 characters, Christians have attempted to distill the great mysteries of God and the universe into short catchy and memorable clichés and sound-bites. The result is what I like to call “Bumper-sticker Christianity” or “Street Theology.”

Adam Hamilton calls them “Half-truths” because these clichés often contain just enough truth to sound quite Biblical, but when taken to their logical conclusions they can be misleading and sometimes even hurtful or harmful to the faith of others. We will look at five of these so-called “Biblical” statements over the next few weeks beginning with one of the most common: “Everything happens for a reason.” Other variations on this theme include, “It was God’s will or God’s plan,” or “It was just God’s time.”

At best these sentiments sound like the bad advice of Job’s friends who try to explain away his suffering. At worst they make God out to be not only the author of tragedy, but perhaps even of sin.

God is sovereign, but God also created human beings with free will to make choices for both good and evil. To say that everything that happens is God’s will or God’s plan eliminates the possibility of human choice or responsibility. Consider the following examples as we move beyond this limited and un-scriptural explanation for human suffering.



Scenario 1: Natural Disasters

Two Christian families and next door neighbors pray for safety during a tornado warning. One house is demolished leaving the family with nothing while the house next door remains untouched.

Did God answer the prayers of one family and not the other? Did one family have less faith than the other? Did one family deserve this tragedy more than the other? When the family whose home survived says they were “Blessed by God”, does that mean that the other family is not blessed? Where was God’s grace and protection for them?

Natural disasters are called “natural” for a reason. God does not orchestrate such tragedy for some larger purpose beyond our understanding. Storms come. Sickness and disease ravages the human body and death will catch up with every one of us eventually. This is the nature of life in a fallen world. This is why we place our hope in eternity, but it does not mean that every bad thing that happens is part of God’s perfect will or plan. The truth is, some things “just happen.” The question is “how we will respond?”



Scenario 2: Shootings

School shootings have become all too common in our nation. If it is true, however, that everything happens for a reason, then what role does God play in these tragedies?

When an individual dies, we often say, “It was just their time.” Is that true for all of those children? Was it “just their time” all on the same day? Did God lead the gunmen to sin in order to fulfill that purpose? Did God allow these children to be sacrificed so others might “pray to be saved” when the gospel is preached at their funerals?

Clearly such implications are appalling. No matter how much we say that God’s ways are beyond our comprehension, there is no way that God’s goodness could be so radically different than ours to justify such horrors. Our sense of goodness, righteousness, and justice may be shadows of God’s wisdom and it is true that God’s ways are not our ways, but surely our good is not the opposite of God’s good. If we are made in the image of God, we at least have some sense of what is truly good and what is evil.

Evil is the natural result of sinful human choices. Attributing pain, suffering, and even evil to some inexplicable Divine plan implies that God led the perpetrators of such evil to sin and it removes our personal responsibility as we are called to bear faithful witness to the presence of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. What other sins can we commit and simply respond by saying “The devil made me do it” or “It was God’s will anyway”?



Volumes of similar scenarios could be written to demonstrate the danger in chalking everything up to God’s perfect will or plan but we do not have the time or space here for such exhaustive reflections.

One final thought.

What do we do with the “good things” that do come as the result of horrible circumstances? When the nation came together in love and charity after 9/11 or when family members reconcile their long-held grudges in the face of a loved one dying from cancer, how do we respond? Did God cause these tragedies in order to bring about such good outcomes?

Not necessarily.

Romans 8:28 says that “all things work together for good,” but that does not imply that all things are caused or necessary in order to bring about that good. We cling to inexplicable reasons for every tragedy because we need our suffering to have meaning, but what if we have it backwards? What if the meaning and value of our suffering and tragedy comes not from its cause or reason, but from how we respond?

How is God strengthening us and leading us to grow in love and faith as a result of whatever happened? Do we harden ourselves in anger or do we grow even more urgent in our desire to pour out the love and mercy and grace of God to a hurting loved one and a broken world?

God works with us to bear good, meaningful fruit out of every circumstance, natural or sinful, but just like us, God grieves over the tragedy itself. God weeps with us in our loss and screams with us in our anger against evil and injustice.

The rain falls on the righteous and unrighteous alike. This is the nature of things. Perhaps the real question is not the reason or cause, but what meaning and goodness will grow in the softened and fertile fields of our hurting hearts and souls.


Not everything happens for a reason, but God can make meaning out of everything that happens.

In her book, “Everything happens for a reason and other lies I’ve loved”, Kate Bowler wrestles with the “easy answers” we so often give in the midst of tragedy and suffering. Her raw and honest experience of God’s truth in the midst of her own tragic circumstances calls us to consider how we might leave our easy answers and cliché explanations behind and instead be willing to sit with others in the midst of their grief and pain as a reminder of God’s healing presence through it all.

Check out her story in this video from TED Talks.

You can find her book on Amazon here.





Click here to listen to entire sermon series - “HALF TRUTHS”