Last Friday, I ruined a Bible verse for everyone
Well, that’s because it’s not really in the Bible at all. The verse, oft quoted by well-meaning Christians is “God will never give you more than you can handle.” Whenever life is rough, you can count on a Christian friend trying to perk you up with that little saying.
As the comments rolled in, and I thought over the weekend, I realized we were on to something bigger. Much bigger.
Several people shared ways in which God is giving them more than they can handle. It was amazing and humbling to read their stories.
As I read what many of you were saying, it struck me that we were only touching the tip of the iceberg. We’ve actually uncovered an extremely pervasive false gospel that permeates the whole of American Christianity. It goes against everything the gospel teaches.
It is the false gospel of self-reliance.
You Can Handle This…So Don’t Ask Me to Help You
How do fish know what “wet” feels like when they are always in water? They don’t.
It’s the same with American Christianity. We are soaked in it, so we often don’t realize the American myths that have polluted it.
From the time we are born, we are Americans. We are taught the history of our country, founded by Pilgrims, expanded by tough, salty pioneers who drove wagons across the wilderness. We worship the pure determination and grit that forged our culture as we know it.
We are indoctrinated with the gospel of self-reliance, of individuals pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. When we say that “God will never give you more than you can handle,” we are hoping our downtrodden friend will read between the lines: “Buck up! You can handle whatever God throws at you…by yourself. Please don’t ask for my help. You can handle this.”
We believe that “God helps those who help themselves” is also in the Bible. That’s actually Aesop’s fables, borrowed by Ben Franklin. Not God.
Godless Christian Socialists
When I read in Acts that “none of the poor Christians lacked anything because the rich people sold property and provided for their needs” (my summary) it makes me uncomfortable. Because it sounds a lot like socialism. And we’re used to jeering Europe and muttering under our breath about the godless socialists. (Of course the difference is that socialism in first century Christianity was voluntary, not compulsory. That’s why it worked.)
But it makes little difference. I read about those poor Christians getting hand-outs from the wealthy, and my American mind balks that they aren’t working for their food. Probably a small fraction of the community was providing for the needs of the many. Did the church cut the unemployed off after 99 weeks? Did the poor people start popping out extra kids so they could get a bigger hand out from the church?
See how our American gospel is a two-edged sword? I want to be self-reliant, but it also hardens my compassion against those in need, because I believe they should be self-reliant too. Since I’m part of the half of the country that pays income tax, I take my righteous indignation about the American economy, and transfer those godless Christian socialists two-thousand years ago.
The funny thing is, if we actually met those early American pioneers who were so “self-reliant,” they would seem downright superstitious in their reliance on God to provide silly things like rain.
Stop Relying on Yourself
Think about all the examples of God providing something for his people. He gives Abraham a family and a home country. He gives the Israelites manna, quail, water, and the law. He gives Joshua the Promised Land. He tells Ezekiel that He will take out the Israelites hearts of stone and give them hearts of flesh. He tells Malachi that if people tithe, He will bless their crops so much they can’t even handle all of it. Jesus provides salvation for humanity, the Holy Spirit provides fruitfulness in the Christian life.
God is busy.
It is clear that our American gospel of self-reliance is not God’s gospel of reliance on Him. The most important things that happen in the Bible are not the accomplishments of mankind. It’s not when people “handle” what God throws at them. It’s not when people pull themselves up by their bootstraps. It’s not when people forge their own path with grit, self-reliance and determination.
The greatest things happen when people learn to stop relying on themselves, stop trying to handle everything, and start to rely on God’s actions.
What do you think? Does the description of the Christians “freeloaders” in Acts make you queasy? Have we bought a false gospel that’s more American than it is biblical?