He humbled you, by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 8:3 NRSV)
Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Therefore,
humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time; casting all your cares upon Him, for He cares for you.”
(1 Peter 5:5b-7 NKJV)
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3 NIV)
Helpless is not my favorite feeling.
But it’s been a more significant part of my life in the last several months than I’d have liked. I’ve felt helpless in the face of the pandemic and in view of our national politics in more ways than I can count: helpless to undo the widespread and growing division of our nation, helpless to halt the hurt of COVID. Yes, I can be a positive influence by voting according to my conscience while not denigrating those whose political allegiances are different from my own. And, yes, I can go masked (and sometimes gloved) in public spaces, carefully maintaining a safe physical distance, in order to be a helper in restraining the spread of the pandemic. But I cannot stay the tide of political meanness that swells around us daily, both in person and on screen; and I cannot hasten the end of the pandemic (at least not now). I’ve been forced to acknowledge my helplessness in those two arenas, for better or for worse.
Of course, the Bible doesn’t always portray helplessness as a negative...only sometimes. The helplessness of the disenfranchised in the face of the wicked wealthy does elicit a cry for help from the Psalmist: “Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God. Do not forget the helpless.” (Psalm 10:12, NIV) And the same perspective is found in the book of Proverbs: “Like a roaring lion or a charging bear is a wicked ruler over a helpless people.” (Proverbs 28:15, NIV) But in many places, the Scriptures paint a very different picture of human helplessness: in numerous contexts, feeling helpless isn’t so much negative as it is realistic. “At just the right time, while we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” (Romans 5:6, NIV) That’s us, folks; Paul is describing the human condition, and no one gets a hall pass from that. Only the love of Christ can redeem us from the human condition; we are helpless, powerless to change that on our own.
Elsewhere, Paul puts it a bit differently: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God - not of works, lest anyone should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9, NRSV) Recognizing our own helplessness is the prerequisite for receiving God’s saving grace. The Lord Jesus Christ himself hits the same nail on its proverbial head in his Number 1 Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Blessed are those who realize that there’s nothing they can bring to God’s table that merits a place at that table. As John Wesley so succinctly phrased it in his description of the orders of salvation (prevenient grace, justifying grace, sanctifying grace), “It is ALL a work of grace.” We are utterly helpless when it comes to saving ourselves. The good news is, we don’t have to; we may be helpless, but God is our Helper.
And, God being our helper, we do have the choice of response. How we respond to God’s saving grace matters. There are times when we behave as if God has saved us because we were so eminently worthy of it; Paul calls that response “pride” and indicates that God expresses divine displeasure by resisting the proud. (Re-read Deuteronomy 8:3!) In our better moments, when we have come to our senses and are in our right minds, we behave as if God has saved us because God is so gracious as to show us the love we can never deserve; Paul calls that response “humility” and affirms that God gives grace to the humble, and - in due time - even exalts them. And then Paul says the magic words: Cast all your cares on Him, for He cares for you. One part (maybe the best part) of God’s exaltation of the humble is that they are invited to cast all their cares on the One who has saved them. If the Savior can bear the burden of our sins on the Cross, and there redeem us, then we can confidently trust any other “care” into those mighty hands.
Whether we want to or not. I know, I know; we aren’t fond of words like “submissive” or “powerless.” The idea of God humbling his own people Israel by making them utterly dependent upon him right down to their next meal is a concept we don’t love overmuch. But there it is, a thread running throughout the Scriptures from the first words of Genesis to the last verses of Revelation: There is only one God - and we aren’t it. God is Almighty in power; we are often powerless. But the Almighty is the Helper of the helpless; we are weak, but he is strong. The God of all time and space invites us to cast all our cares on him. Not just the biggies. Not just the whoppers we know we can’t handle on our own, but the little bitties that tempt us to think, “I’ve got this one, Lord; no need to exert yourself this time.” (Cringe at the thought.) No exceptions are made in God’s generous command: All. Our. Cares. Thanks be to God for such an unfathomable gift.
I need thee every hour, most gracious Lord;
No tender voice like thine, can peace afford.
I need thee, O I need thee,
Every hour I need thee.
O bless me now, my Savior; I come to thee.
(The United Methodist Hymnal, #397)
Pastor Susan Pate Greenwood