Receiving Help for God’s Glory
“Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.” (John 5:2-9).
What is it about the human heart that it hates asking for help? In John 5 we see a paralyzed man met by the gracious savior Jesus, who has already been identified in John’s gospel as the Messiah (4:25-26), the Son of God (1:34, 49), the Lamb of God (1:29), and “the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:14). We expect Jesus to be able to help him. And yet this paralyzed man appears stuck in helplessness, and for whatever reason he is unable or unwilling to recognize just who it is who asks him, “Do you want to be healed?” (5:6).
This invalid illustrates what is inside all of us to some degree. When someone offers to help, like this man we say, “I know you mean well, but there’s really no way you could possibly help me. No one has helped me in 38 years so why would you be different? I will just keep doing this thing on my own, thank you very much.”
Why don’t we ask for help? We don’t want to admit inadequacy; don’t want to give up control; don’t want to rely on another and be disappointed; don’t want to be indebted; don’t want to be an inconvenience; and the list goes on.
Even more strange, why don’t we accept help when it is offered? Perhaps for all the same reasons above. Maybe we don’t trust the person is truly willing to help, suspecting a hidden motive, some kind of quid pro quo.
There are all kinds of logical reasons asking for and receiving help is healthy and appropriate. Saint Augustine recently helped me see a reason that was quite surprising. If you asked Augustine why we should let others help us, what would he say? I’ll give you the paraphrase first:
Let others help you so they and you can enjoy God together.
Yes, Augustine said that. Here are his own words:
“Now of all those who are able to enjoy God together with us, some we love as people we can help, some as people we can be helped by, some as ones both whose help we need, and whose needs we help to meet, while there are some on whom we ourselves confer no benefit, and from whom we do not expect any either. Still, we ought to want all of them to love God together with us, and all our helping them or being helped by them is to be referred to that one single end.”1
Jesus said the great and first commandment is to love God with all that we are. Augustine believes this means that all other loves, particularly love of neighbor and love of self, are to be directed to love for God. As translator Edmund Hill puts it, “When I love you for God’s sake, I thereby (in Augustine’s use of the term) necessarily love you for your own sake, for your truest, deepest sake, because it means I am loving you, and hence “enjoying” you, in God, where you properly belong, and am wanting you to join me in enjoying God forever.”2
Now help is a form of love (1 John 3:17-18). The purpose of helping others is obviously, as Augustine notes, “for their benefit”.3 Augustine goes on to say, however, that “in some way or other we also benefit ourselves, because God does not leave unrewarded the compassion we show to those in need. And the supreme reward is that we should enjoy him and that all of us who enjoy him should also enjoy one another in him.”4 That is the kind of sentence that calls for rereading. Let’s try and break it down:
Because God is the supreme reward, the purpose of life is enjoying him. (It’s surprising, by the way, that Hill, a Roman Catholic, should so closely echo the Westminster Shorter Catechism with the phrase “enjoying God forever”.) Does that mean we are to find no enjoyment in our fellows? Well, no, it would be wrong to enjoy another without enjoying her in God. That is the decisive matter.
“But when you enjoy a human being in God, you are really enjoying God rather than the human being. You will be enjoying the one, after all, in whom you find your bliss, and you will be delighted to have reached the one in whom you now hope, in order to come to him at last. It is in this sense that Paul writes to Philemon. “In this way, brother,” he says, “let me enjoy you in the Lord” (Philemon 20). But if he had not added “in the Lord”, and had merely said “let me enjoy you”, he would have been placing his hopes of bliss in Philemon.”5
God created us with the capacity not only to enjoy him, but also to enjoy each other in him. And that is the surprising connection for giving and receiving help.
In the irrational, upside-down pride of our fallen nature, we feel selfish asking for and receiving help. But if you offer me help, and I refuse, I am denying you the experience of enjoying God. How selfish of me! Somehow sin has so twisted our minds that we really don’t believe Jesus when he said “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). 15 or more years ago a close friend pointed out to me the connection between Acts 20:35 and receiving help. He said, “Don’t you see that by saying no to another’s kindness you are depriving them of blessing?” That was a powerful thought, and it has stuck with me since. But it is entirely possible to limit that blessing to just feeling good by doing good. Nothing wrong with that per se, except the very real potential for legalism (think the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9-14). Augustine protects us against such self-absorption by showing us that the blessing from giving help is found only in the enjoyment of God.
Recently our church organized a Saturday morning of repairs, maintenance and improvements of our building. It was a sweet time of work and fellowship. The organizers wisely tasked me with painting the walls of an HVAC supply closet where no one would see the quality of my work (or lack there of). I spent most of the work with 2 other men and enjoyed getting to know them, sharing stories,, and listening to worship music together. It had all of the ingredients we have been discussing: service, enjoying others, and most of all, enjoying God in all of it.
The next time someone offers you help, pause, take a breath and think before you politely decline. Even if you truly don’t need help, or the particular help they are offering, consider whether or not you may be of more service to them by letting them help you. When I was 7 my dad paid me $1 to polish his work shoes every week; I think it was more of an excuse to let me earn money than for really benefiting from my shoeshining skills. Aside from the dollar, I sure felt important!
Here is Augustine one more time:
“He [God], after all, takes pity on us because of his own goodness, while we take pity on each other, not because of our own goodness but again because of his. In other words, he takes pity on us, so that we may enjoy him, while we take pity on each other, again so that we may all enjoy him, not one another.”6
By allowing others to help you, you are allowing them to enjoy God, and both of you get to enjoy God together. For that is the chief end of man: to glorify God by enjoying God, and enjoying in him all he has made, forever.
1 Teaching Christianity, translated by Edmund Hill. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press (1996), p. 123. I highly recommend this series of Augustine translations, The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century.
2 Teaching Christianity, p. 118-119, n. 22.
3 Teaching Christianity, p. 126.
4 Teaching Christianity, p. 126, emphasis added.
5 Teaching Christianity, p. 127.
6 Teaching Christianity, p. 125.