Accepting help from others is hard to do. The reasons vary. It might be as simple as not wanting to inconvenience a friend. Or it could be that saying, “I did this all by myself,” brings with it a sense of accomplishment, as though we’ve passed a test or proven we’re a little more capable than people thought.
But there’s a dark side to it. Resisting help often leads to arrogance because to need help is to admit weakness. Did we cultivate that garden, do that kitchen remodel, come up with that idea, or write that article by ourselves? Or did we need someone’s help? Who do we want others to think is the hero when we retell the story? It’s even in little things, like carrying the groceries inside. I find an inordinate amount of satisfaction in carrying all the bags in by myself, in one try, without any help. My wife is never impressed.
The same message also pokes at us from the outside. You could say it’s one of the premier cultural mantras of our day, the simple phrase “You got this.” Is there any type of motivational jargon that’s spoon-fed to us more often? It builds an impenetrable shell around us, most resistant to the fact that we need help in more ways than we don’t.
This tension is basic to human experience, and it brings me back to how basic it is to Christian theology. Not in the sense that we need God’s help (though we do, more on that later) but that there’s something at the core of what it means to be human that seeks to resist God’s help. It’s as involuntary as breathing. But God doesn’t waste our resistance. He uses it to underscore how one-way love operates in the world around us and in our very lives.
Take the story of Jonah as exhibit A. When God sends the storm upon the ship, he has something more in mind than turning Jonah around. He’s not mad. Nor is it punishment per se for Jonah’s disobedience. It’s a chance to let some of the B-level characters in the story have their moment — in this case, the rowers.
After Jonah realizes the storm is his fault, he offers a surprising, albeit disturbing solution: “Throw me in the sea and the storm will quiet down for you.” The rowers respond how we’d all respond to inexperienced, outlandish advice on how to do our job: they ignore him and try to row out of the storm themselves. But the storm grows worse until they are left with no solution but to take Jonah at his word and throw him overboard, right into the belly of a huge fish, which makes the storm instantly stop.
At that point, it’s hard to know whether to cheer or gasp in horror. But therein lies the theology, because this isn’t the only time in the Bible those two emotions go hand-in-hand. In the New Testament Jesus likens himself to Jonah by saying, “As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt 12:40).
These stories have an echo to them. A common rhythm. And the point isn’t just that Jesus saves us from the storm by being thrown into it himself. It’s that he saves us from our futile efforts at rowing ourselves out of our problems. Like Jonah’s death doesn’t cooperate with the rowers’ muscles, so does Jesus’s blood not mix with our works.
This lopsided grace can be difficult to accept, even for Christians. Just look at Peter. Whether resisting a foot washing from Jesus, or trying to prevent Jesus’s arrest, or even promising to die for him (!), it was all another expression of what plagued the rowers: seeking to replace the substitutionary death of a prophet with the self.
People have been trying to minimize the cross and even manufacture an outright cross-less Christianity since the day Jesus died. But mixing in a little human achievement here and there doesn’t add. It subtracts. Fortunately, no matter how much we try to row against it, the current of God’s grace is too strong.
What matters, in the end, is not the muscles in our arms, the oars in our hands, the good intentions in our minds, or the pious deeds in our hearts. Salvation isn’t doled out in response to us “doing our best” (Jonah 1:13). Doing our best is never, ever enough. In fact, it only makes the storm worse. We need help — not mere assistance but wholesale rescue — through the Jonah-like self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the one who loved us to the belly of the beast and back again, and whose grace alone contains the power to break through the hard shells of our stubborn self-reliance.
This post originally appeared on mbird.com