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Three Things We Shouldn't Say

There are certain little religious expressions or sentiments you hear repeated so often that you start believing they’re based on Biblical truth, even if they aren’t. Three things we, as people of faith, really shouldn't say.

“God helps those who help themselves” is one such sentiment.

Well...that’s true insofar as it goes: yeah, sure, God helps people who participate in their own well-being. No problem there. You want to help yourself get better or stronger or kinder or more generous, sure, God’ll be more than happy to help you help yourself.

The problem is, that expression is often said so as to imply that the opposite is NOT true: that God doesn’t help those who don’t help themselves.

And – Biblically speaking – that’s just…how shall I say it?... mean-spirited b.s.  

God is constantly helping those who cannot (or will not, or choose not) to help themselves. In other words, God is constantly helping the help-less. In fact you might say God is a God OF the helpless, not to mention the hapless, the hopeless and the homeless. In fact, those are -- we, in those times are! -- the people God helps the most

So I wish that expression would go away.

Here’s another one: “Everything happens for a purpose (or reason).

This sentiment is often spoken in a well-intended way. Like when it’s said to people undergoing confusing or disappointing news.

In those cases, I guess people are trying to convey the idea that “it’ll all work out in the end,” or that seemingly terrible situations at the time and in the moment can actually be blessings in disguise. Like when high school romances, or a job, ends, and you don’t end up actually spending The Rest of Your Life Together.

Okay, fair enough, if that’s all people mean, and that's the only time they say it. 

But unfortunately, people also say this when people are undergoing serious personal tragedy or trying to make sense of some other wider tragic situation. Like when someone dies. And some (again, well-intentioned) person says a version of "Everything happens for a reason," such as “God needed him/her in heaven,” or “their time was up.” And a particularly perverted version of this is when someone’s child dies and they hear, “God needed another angel.”

Wrong. Wrong on so many levels.

While some things DO happen for “a reason” (known or unknown, revealed now or later, or never) that’s not the same thing as saying “everything” happens for a reason.

No – biblically speaking, everything does NOT happen for a reason. Towers of Siloam fall, and the people killed are no better or no worse than others. Rain falls on the crops of wicked people, while drought comes to the righteous. And – read the story of the man born blind – Jesus went out of his way to break the association between someone’s suffering, and sins.

Here's something I wish I could write in the sky and get across to as many people as possible: 

As Jesus did with the blind man, God can bring good out of tragic and terrible situations, but that is NOT the same thing as saying that God causes every tragic or terrible situation to happen in the first place.

So those are two faux-religious sentiments that are simply un-Biblical, and that I wish would just go away.

And here’s a third one: it’s one I’ll explore a bit more in my sermon coming up this Sunday at The Falls Church Episcopal, (which, by the way, is going to be the first part in a five-part series on the Lord’s Prayer, titled, “Lord, Teach us to Pray.”)

And that sentiment -- a third thing we should'nt say -- is “You can’t bargain with God.”

Biblically speaking: Baloney!

This is not to question God's sovereignty (a theologicl term for God's independence, or self-rule) but here's the thing: the very fact that God is sovereign means God can do whatever God wants! And apparently part of what God wants is to listen to, and respond to, human beings who earnestly petition him. 

Just read the remarkable story we’ll be hearing from the Old Testament: Abraham has just been visited by God’s angels, and God tells Abraham that he is dispatching the angels to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, to destroy them because of how debauched they'd become. 

So the angels start off on their way, and Abraham is left standing in front of God. Abraham asks God if God found fifty righteous people in the city, would God really destroy them along with the rest of the city: “far be it from you to do that, God!” he says.

And when God says, “okay, if there are fifty righteous people, I’ll spare the city,” Abraham starts this elaborate bargaining process: “suppose five of the fifty are missing, really, God, because of five people you’d do that?” and from then down to forty...and thirty...then twenty...and finally, Let’s Make a Deal, TEN.

From fifty down to ten!

(Okay, turns out that Sodom and Gomorrah was such an awful city, not even ten righteous people were there, and the city ends up being destroyed, but that’s another story and another sermon.)

The point is, here, and elsewhere (read Luke 18:1, the case of the persistent widow, and the case of Nineveh, Jonah chapter 3, for two examples) God does seem to change his mind. (God is God, after all…why wouldn’t God have this ability?)

And when Jesus' disciples ask him to teach them to pray, and Jesus gives them what's now known as "The Lord's Prayer," what's the very next thing Jesus says? 

He tells them a couple stories. 

The first story is about the value of persistence in prayer (using an example of some one going to their friend, not getting what they want initially, but persevering in asking until the friend yields). 

What's the point in persevering (in this, in anything) if there's no hope of change? 

The second story is about God's goodness. About how God wants, really wants, like a good parent, to give good things to his children. 

The point in both stories is that it is appropriate that we human beings engage God…

…there is a give and take with God…

…there is conversation with God, and conversation is by definition two ways.

And so in our first lesson on the Lord’s Prayer, we’ll see, I hope, that prayer is engaging, really engaging God in a give and take, in two-way conversation.

We’re not praying to a brick wall. We're praying to one who helps those who can, and cannot help themselves, and we're praying to One who helps us bring good out of senseless tragedies. 

We’re praying to God who is alive, and moving, and dynamic, caring, and constantly creating.  

Just like we humans -- created in God’s image -- are supposed to be.


  1. Everything does indeed happen for a reason. Your blog entry made it clear that the things referenced didn't happen for the reasons people thought they did. But that's not the same as saying they happened for no reason at all. I would find it far more hurtful for someone to tell me that, in the end, a personal tragedy or horrific event was pointless. One may not understand why something happens, but please don't tell me that this or that occurrence was absolutely pointless. I can't imagine anything causing more despair.

    1. Thanks, Sam: I tried making room for part of what you're saying when I wrote "While some things DO happen for “a reason” (known or unknown, revealed now or later, or never) that’s not the same thing as saying “everything” happens for a reason." So while I would grant that one could say in some circumstances, "the reason for this is unknown (or not now revealed, and may never be revealed to us)" still...I would not want to go so far as to say that everything, everything, everything happens for a reason. Thanks for reading.

    2. I disagree. You might be able to find meaning in something, but that doesn't mean there was a 'reason' for its happening. Obviously, something *caused* it to happen, but in the sense that God/Gods/The Universe had some cosmic plan which involved a group of elementary students being gunned down is not biblical, logical, or accurate. Many things, both good and bad, happen for no reason whatsoever. However, pointlessness is not the same as without reason. Whether there is a point to tragedy depends entirely on how individuals respond to it. You can choose to give meaning to an event, or you can choose to allow it to be meaningless, but whether you do the one or the other, ascribing divine reason (or blaming God, as the case may be) to a reasonless event is at best poor theology, and at worst offensive to the very nature of God-as-revealed-through-Christ.

  2. The wisdom of your thoughts is diminished by the English and spelling errors throughout.

    First one: "...that expression is often said so as imply that..." leaves out the "to" following "as". It should read "that expression is often said so as TO imply that..."

    Later you spelled it sovereign and two lines later soverein. The first is correct, then second not.

    I'd didn't catalog them all, but I'd guess I noted 6-7 errors in all. Not being serious and thorough with English and spelling implies that you are likewise not serious and thorough with substance as well. If you're not good at it, have someone who is read it before you post.

    David Sutton

    1. Thank you, David, for the compliment in saying there is wisdom in these thoughts, and for pointing out the typos. Errors corrected. Thanks for reading.

    2. The narrow focus of this comment solely on syntax/spelling/grammar reminds me of another Unapologetic Theology post, in which Father John discusses the dangers of staring into the distracting headlights when one should be focusing on the direction of the road being traveled.

  3. Another one is, "God never gives us more than we can handle." Utter rubbish. People do not do well in saying this to others because: 1) God does not "give" us problems so that we can handle them, 2) There are plenty of problems in life that we just cannot handle. They are too large for us and we need help, 3) A god that gives problems and "tests" us to see if we're faithful is a cruel and capricious god that I want nothing to do with. We know God is different from that god, whomever he or she is.

  4. I dislike those expressions as well. They are simplistic and shallow, although usually well-meaning. People who don't know what to say should just nod and listen. And to David Sutton- all you could take away from this were the errors? I was an English major and when you are hot on writing something and getting your ideas out there, not graded, a few errors are acceptable. Yeesh. Read for content the next time. Your icky pickiness makes you appear as if your point was to diminish the writer perhaps because you disagreed with his point of view and were not capable of writing a rebuttal.

    Sharon Moore

  5. Some very harsh criticism above. I appreciate the post. It's brave to challenge the conventional wisdom. The pursuit of truth always does. Reminds me of the words of poet Langston Hughes: "Hang yourself with your words ... otherwise you are already dead."

    In other words, please continue shaking things up.

    1. My apologies for a slight misquote of Mr. Hughes above. It should be:
      "Hang yourself, poet, in your own words.
      Otherwise, you are dead."


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