Archive for the ‘Things the Bible Doesn’t Say’ Category

This entry in the series “Things the Bible Doesn’t Say” is a recommendation from a pastor friend of mine.  I imagine you have heard this phrase numerous times whether you’re involved in a church or not.  ”Let go and let God” has become one of the American Church’s favorites, somewhere between a proverb and a cliche.

Every culture has its proverbs and its cliches.  Proverbs are short, catchy vehicles for some bit of wisdom.  What is important to understand is that proverbs, whether cultural and/or biblical, are not necessarily promises or truths that are relevant to every situation.  Some are intended to be.  Some are not.  For instance, is it better late than never or does slow and steady win the race?  Yes…depending on what the life situation is your are talking about.   As we’ve seen with some of the other “things the Bible doesn’t say,” there tends to be an element of godly wisdom/truth in many of our American Christian proverbs.  Problems arise when we try to make them into something they are not: an entire philosophy of life wrapped up in 12 words or less.

Which brings us to “Let go and let God.”  What is the good, solid, Gospel wisdom behind this pithy aphorism?  Well, I actually think there is Gospel right at the heart of it.  The Gospel (“Good News”) has many dimensions and can be expressed in a variety of ways.  But one of the keys to the Gospel is that it is something that God has done before it is something we do.  It is God who allowed an aged Sarah to give birth to the child of promise, God who liberated the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, God who fights his people’s battles for them, God who delivers Judah from the hands of the Assyrians, God who enters into the world and delivers people from sin,  God who raised Jesus from the dead, and God who is making all things new.  The list goes on and on.

In fact, you could point to story after story in the Scriptures where the whole point is that if we try to do things our way in our timing with our strength, we act futilely.  Think of Abraham and Sarah enlisting Hagar to bear the child God promised, and God’s rejection of that plan.  Think of the sound defeat of the Hebrew army when they presume to go into battle without Yahweh.  Think of God’s rejection of Saul as king because he took matters into his own hands.  Think of Paul’s wonderful words, “it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not of your own doing; it is the gift of God.”

So, might “Let go and let God” be a really helpful reminder?  Absolutely.  People who are striving for blessing instead of receiving God’s gift must let go of their preoccupation with earning and let God give them the gift of salvation.  People who think that they need to reach some standard to earn God’s love need to let go of their lone-ranger efforts and let God bring transformation into their hearts.  People who are clinging to certain ways of thinking and doing need to let go of their own ideas and let God guide them onto the Way of Christ.

Here’s the “but.”  But “Let go and let God” is not all there is to the Christian life.  As James reminds us, “Faith without works is dead.”  When Jesus teaches us how to love him, he speaks of obedience.  When people ask Peter on Pentecost, “What must we do to be saved?” Peter does not answer, “Let go and let God.”  He answers, “Repent and be baptized…”

As Dallas Willard has helpfully pointed out, there is a difference between earning and effort.  Earning is non-Gospel.  Effort is active participation in the new life of Christ.   There is also a difference between doing our things and responding to God.  Doing things on our own is non-Christian.  Responding to God’s call is the work of Christian discipleship.  In order to be helpful, the one who encourages another to “Let go and let God” must wisely discern if the situation is appropriate.  Let me finish by giving a little more concreteness to where “Let go and let God” will probably not be appropriate theologically or practically:

  • If someone is wrestling with something the Spirit has laid on their heart to do (think the rich man asked to give up all his possessions and follow Jesus).  In our culture, “Let go” may well imply passivity, whereas we dare not sit back “in God’s grace” and ignore some way we have been called to actively obey his commands.
  • Similarly, (it should go without saying) “Let go and let God” can be a pretty awful approach to the mission of the Church.  ”Let go and let God…” …feed the hungry?  bring the Gospel to remote parts of the world?  seek justice?  sit with the one who is grieving?  I don’t think so.
  • If someone is dealing with grief.  In fact, most pithy proverbs are utterly unhelpful in grief situations.  It is nearly impossible to simply “let go” of emotions.  It may not even be a good thing to begin with.  We often need to sit in our grief, loss, and disorientation until God meets us there and leads us on the path out.  In this case, it’s often the “comforter” who needs to “Let go and let God” bring deep healing and comfort to the person in grief while simply being present and available.
  • If it means sitting on the couch and watching The Bachelorette ;)  ”Letting go” doesn’t mean “do nothing.”  It is an active process of bringing whatever it is we need to let go of before the Lord.  There is a direction to our “let go.”  As Peter exhorts, “Cast all your anxiety on [God] because he cares for you.”  To “let go” of things that need to be let go of takes supernatural strength sometimes.  Addictions, anxieties, and sinful patterns rarely can just be “let go.”  ”Waiting on the Lord” is not passive.  It is a difficult movement–empowered by the Spirit–towards God, towards God’s Community, towards practices that form us into Christ-likeness

One of my favorite TV shows is Project Runway (yeah, I said it).  The designers focus on making a cool garment, and then they are availed of an “accessory wall” with shoes, jewelry, etc.  Tim Gunn, the designers’ “mentor,” always encourages them to “use the accessory wall…thoughtfully.”  Such is the case with proverbs.  “Let go and let God” can be a helpful encouragement…at times.  But use phrases like this…thoughtfully.  Know what they mean, when they apply, when they come up short, and when something more personal or nuanced might be better suited.  And just remember, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.  Am I right?


John Williams Waterhouse's "Echo and Narcissus" (cropped). Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection in the pool.

OK, everyone give yourself a big hug.  Now pat yourself on the back.  Now go to the “Applause” track on your IPod…soak it in…and take a bow.   Ahhh, isn’t it good to be loved…by yourself!  (…and Richard Simmons has left the building…)

Self-love is a popular idea in our culture–even in the church.  It wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to me if you had heard “You have to love yourself first” from a pulpit on Sunday morning.  You can hear it on Christian Radio for sure.  The idea of needing to love yourself first could actually be traced back (as far as I can tell) to 11th century France, and the famous monastic thinker Bernard of Clairvaux.  Yet, I’m not sure that any culture has loved this advice more than 21st century USA.   One place you cannot trace “Love yourself” to IS THE BIBLE.

Now, if you listen to people (Christians) who swear by this adage, they will probably take you to Leviticus 19:18 or Matthew 22:39: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus puts this right up with “Love the LORD your God” in the greatest commandment category, and so it carries authority.  The logic then goes: I’m supposed to love my neighbor as myself, therefore I must love myself; the greater my self-love, the greater my neighbor-love.  The journey to love like Jesus, then, begins with a journey to love oneself.

And I want to suggest that this is an entirely wrong-headed way of approaching both this text and the Christian journey–especially in our culture.  Let me explain:

  1. Let’s begin with defining “love.”  When people in our culture hear “love yourself,” they tend to think Bruno MarsPinkLady Gaga (3 super-catchy top hits, by the way), and an unconditional acceptance of everything “me.”  In other words, we think self-esteem: “I need to feel good about myself and accept that I’m all good just the way I am.”  Love in the Bible is less about feeling warm fuzzies, and more about “actively [seeking] the benefit of someone else.”*  The Bible absolutely never says, “You should feel better about yourself, because you’re really pretty good.”  So, at the very least, a Christian considering this advice will want to clarify the meaning of love.
  2. Let’s move on to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Just looking at the phrase in English, Jesus is clearly emphasizing our love for other people (not ourselves).  He apparently feels no need to turn us inward on ourselves.  If this neighbor-love is based on anything else, it is based on the previous command: “Love the Lord your God, with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.”  Looking at the phrase in Greek…nothing changes.  To put this with #1, Jesus is assuming that we already seek the benefit of ourselves, already focus on our own needs, and already spend a great deal of time/energy/thought on ourselves.
  3. But what about the person who is always giving, giving, giving (think the parent whose life seems to revolve around their kids or the person who is always caring for an addict) and getting burned out?  This is what psychology calls “co-dependence.”  Far from being “too much love for others,” the co-dependent is actually in it as much for themselves as for the other.  When we act in this way, we do so because we get a sense of fulfillment, purpose, self-righteousness, admiration, etc. from it, not because we love the other person so deeply.  Co-dependence is actually harmful to the person we are claiming to love.  In any case, the biblical solution is never to love self more.
  4. The problem, then, is this: If we feel like we need to love ourselves really well before we can love others, we are unlikely to actually get to the love others part. We will have built a model of life that is self-centered.  And this is the exact opposite of what Jesus or the Scriptures are interested in.
So, then, where do we start in the journey to love?  We begin with God.  Take a look at 1 John 4:7-11:
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
The key to our need for love is not to try to fulfill it ourselves, but to allow God to fulfill it.  It is far more important that we rest in the love God has for us than try to love ourselves.  For one, God is much better at loving than we are.  As I mentioned above, our efforts at loving ourselves are just as likely to be misdirected, inconsistent, and fleeting as others’ love for us.  We are all humans.  What we need is perfect, consistent, bottomless love, and that comes only from God through Jesus.  We need to be saved from ourselves as much as anything or anyone else.
I am constantly encouraging people to engage in solitude, silence, Scripture, prayer, etc.  And I suppose that these could be considered “self-love” if we are looking at the biblical definition of seeking the best for someone.  But the self-love is not really the intent at all.  First, we do these things because we need to soak in God’s love.  Second, we do these things because we love God (the greatest commandment).  Third, we do these things so that God will form us into people who reflect the love of Christ to others.  All of this is absolutely in our best interest, ultimately, but we are not seeking self; we are seeking Kingdom, and letting God take care of us.  Trying to love ourselves when we are feeling burned out from loving others is like trying to fill our car up with gas…using gas from our own tank.  Not only is it unbiblical, but it doesn’t even make sense.
The command to love ourselves first is not in the Bible because–in my opinion–we don’t need it.  I know that I don’t need any command to be self-centered, and nor does our culture if we look around.  We need not look inward, but upward and outward to really understand love.  I am aware that there is an epidemic of people in our society who think they are worthless and unlovable.  Please notice the irony of this epidemic in a culture where self-love is so widely preached.  Biblically, the solution is not to look at ourselves and conjure up some value.  The solution is to look at ourselves through God’s eyes, to see that we are valuable because we have been created in his image, and to understand that we are loved far beyond what we can imagine as evidenced in the Cross.  Again, what is the Bible’s solution to our need for love?  Point us to God’s love.
We need look no further than the classical myth of Narcissus to grasp that the people most intent on loving themselves are most useless in the call to love God and love others.  So I urge you, brothers and sisters, if you feel like you are in need of love, turn to Jesus, the love of God who walked among us.  And if you are talking to a friend who just needs to be loved, please don’t tell them to love themselves; point them to the God who loves them more deeply and perfectly than they could ever love themselves, and follow God’s call to embody the love of Jesus to them.

*Douglas Moo in his New International Commentary The Book of Romans

It’s been awhile since I introduced this sporadic series (I told you it would be sporadic).  But in that post, I told a story about a woman coming up to me after a worship service a few years ago, and asking, “Could you please show me in the Bible where it says, ‘God only helps those who help themselves’?  I have a lazy family member who needs to hear that, and he’ll listen if it’s from the Bible.’”  I had to summon up all the pastoral energy I could muster to restrain some of the feelings going on inside of me.  These feelings were based on 2 facts:

  1. This woman clearly wanted to use the Bible to make her own point.  Now, my frustration about this was quickly turned back onto myself, since I have done very much the same thing at times.  But that does not excuse such an approach to the Scriptures.  The Scriptures are meant to “teach, rebuke, correct, and train in righteousness,” not be used to tell us what our “itching ears” want to hear.  But the fact that is more relevant for this blog…
  2. This common proverb ISN’T IN THE BIBLE!

So where does this phrase come from and what does the Bible really say?  Glad you asked…

Apparently, this phrase originated as the moral in Aesop’s fable, “Hercules and the Waggoner” (though it refers to gods, not God).  And it was probably popularized in our culture when it ended up in Ben Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanack” (see 1736).

The point of the phrase, I think, is meant to counter laziness cloaked in piety.  For instance, I shouldn’t just sit in my house praying for God to drop a wad of cash into my lap so I can pay my bills instead of training and applying for a job.  In that case, the point of this little nugget is somewhat biblical.  For instance, there are a number of biblical proverbs about the importance of discipline and work and the dangers of laziness (note: biblical proverbs are general facts about life in God’s world, not infallible promises from God).  Likewise, Paul has little patience for those who simply consume the services of the church community without making any effort to contribute (note: this is about those who are unwilling to work, not those who are unable or cannot find work).  Just looking around us, we see that passivity and unwillingness to get our hands dirty is probably not going to lead to a fulfilling and prosperous life.  And the Bible affirms that laziness and idleness are neither characteristics of God nor characteristics that God desires for his people.

But let’s get back to the quote: “God helps those who help themselves.”  I get asked whether this is in the Bible so often that I have come up with a stock response: “The God of the Bible is a God who helps those who cannot help themselves.”  And it’s not just those who are unable, but even those who are initially unwilling.  This is the radical, controversial, and sometimes offensive Gospel of God’s grace.  Let me point to a few passages that I believe emphasize this point (some of these are about God, some are about how God calls his people to imitate him):

Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked (Psalm 82:3-4).

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion– to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor  (Isaiah 61:1-3, cf. Luke 4:14-19).

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  (Matthew 5:44-47)

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.  Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8).

Some of you might say, “What about the Law?  Didn’t God require the Israelites to obey the Law if he was going to bless them?”  And to that, I would say, “OK, great.  You want to get past the ‘proof texts’ and get into the greater Story.”  We must not take the Law out of its context in the Story, nor should we take God’s Covenant blessings and promises outside the context of the Covenant.  Remember that the Israelites received the Law (or, Instruction) AFTER God had delivered them out of slavery in Egypt.  And as you read the Law, that gracious initiative is always foundational for why the Israelites would WANT to trust and obey their God, why they would WANT to form a community around God’s instruction and wisdom.

Beyond that, I would suggest that the whole biblical Story is that of God’s gracious and undeserved world-saving, community-forming, creation-restoring activity.  To illustrate my point, look at how God treats Israel when they disobey and brazenly break the Covenant.  If “God only helps those who helps themselves,” Israel would have been out.  The pattern of Israel’s relationship with God is Deliverance-Sin-Consequence/Discipline-Repentance-Deliverance.  It is the pattern of a God who sticks with his people even when they fail to help themselves.

And the Story of Jesus: it is simply the Story of grace.  Born to lowly shepherds and pagans, eating with prostitutes and swindlers, forgiving his executioners, and dying for the worst of sinners.

The first posture of the disciple is not the posture solving, fixing, doing–of helping oneself.  It is the posture of prayer: asking, seeking, knocking.  When we try to help ourselves first, we are likely to create more problems than we solve.  When we turn to God first, we are able to bathe in his grace, freed to live in his wisdom and empowered to join the Spirit in helping others.

So remember, “God helps those who CANNOT help themselves”…and he calls us to do the same.

As a pastor, I have a lot of conversations with people on Sunday mornings, not to mention the continuous conversation going on in my own head: “What are the Words of Institution again?  Why isn’t the powerpoint working?  Why didn’t I use the restroom before the service started?”  So it takes a lot for me to remember a Sunday morning conversation I had two years ago after a worship service.  A congregant came up to me and asked, “Could you please show me in the Bible where it says, ‘God only helps those who help themselves?  I have a lazy family member who needs to hear that, and he’ll listen if it’s from the Bible.’”  Patiently–and much to the chagrin of this congregant–I explained that this particular quote is not in the Bible.  I told her there were scriptures that spoke to the value and calling to work, but that I wasn’t really into giving people biblical ammunition for their predetermined arguments to bring the hammer down on their opponent.  OK, maybe I didn’t say it quite like that, but you get the picture.

There are lots of things the Bible doesn’t say, which is one thing. There are a number of things that many people assume, think, or wish the Bible said that it doesn’t, which is a whole other thing. It’s these common ‘additions’ to the biblical text I’m going to examine in this sporadic series.  Every so often, I’ll take on one of these sub-biblical nuggets of gospel truthiness.  Many of them have hints of biblical wisdom, but either end before the whole story has been told or take a sharp turn away from the Bible’s message. 

Where do these misquotations come from?  Well, it varies.

1) Cultural proverbs: every culture has its proverbs or “words of wisdom.”  The Western world has been significantly shaped by Christianity and the Bible, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t come up with some of our own brand of proverbs.  With all the Bible quotes circulating in our culture, it can be easy to just lump all proverb-sounding phrases into biblical phrases.  (This, I think, is the case with “God only helps those who help themselves,” but we’ll save that for another time.)

2) The cliche-ification of faith: This stems, admittedly, from pastors like myself.  We try to distill a biblical lesson down into catchy, memorable phrases, and suddenly they become biblical.  Instead of reading and memorizing Scripture, people base their faith on cliches.  Now, I’m not against the practice of communicating in memorable ways, but oftentimes the quote is taken out of the lesson it was intended to sum up and takes on a life of its own.

3) Wishful thinking: combined with #1, sometimes we hear something we really want to be true and then canonize it.  We wish these quotes right into the Bible.

4) Selective listening: sometimes we have a situation in our lives to which we have a pre-determined response, whether it is out of our own preferred solution or what we see as the only viable solution.  We then hear a biblical message or text that sounds kind of like what we were already going for, and BAM! we’ve created our own Bible verse.

5) Historical layering: again, we live in a culture that for centuries has been filled with Christians interpreting, communicating, and creating art to depict the biblical Story.  Which is great in some ways (thank God for Handel’s Messiah, no?).  Except sometimes we too quickly assume that the interpretation or artistic rendering are accurate in every detail to the biblical text.  For today’s focus of “Things the Bible Doesn’t Say,”  I’ll give you one example of this last category that many of you probably already know.

  • The Bible doesn’t say that Adam and Eve ate an apple.  The text simply says “fruit.”  I suppose it could have been an apple, and I don’t think anyone is really missing out on the point of the text by assuming the fruit was an apple.  But still, where do we get an apple?  Possibly from a Latin play on words in which
    the word for evil and apple are practically the same (if this is the origin, it would be a good example of #2 as well).  It ended up being an apple in John Milton’s 1667 epic Paradise Lost (which contributes more to how many people think of the Fall story than Genesis 3 does), and was frequently depicted as an apple in Renaissance art.  All of a sudden, all the images of the Fall we see have apples in them, not to mention secular allusions to the story (ie. Apple, Desperate Housewives).  And so we assume the Bible speaks of an apple.

The example I’ve given here is relatively harmless.  I only use it to illustrate how these ideas are canonized in our minds and the minds of our culture.  And my point is not to blame artists, pastors, or cultural wisdom.  Rather, the common soil that allows these misquotes to grow is biblical ignorance, getting our scriptural knowledge secondhand instead of being rooted in the Biblical Story ourselves.  My ultimate reason for shining some light on these things the Bible doesn’t say is to highlight what the Bible actually says, what the Gospel Story is really all about, what God is truly saying to us.  My hope is that these misquotes will encourage us to delight in the sweetness of God’s Word, let the Gospel message cut to our hearts,  and to be enlivened by the Words of Life God is speaking to our hearts.