When I lived in the nation’s capital, I used to notice how often the Washington papers reported suicide leaps from the Calvert Street Bridge. This happens so repeatedly that the site is often called “Suicide Bridge.”
Sensing the human drama behind these brief notices, I often thought there was probably a common denominator in all these tragedies. Each person must have felt helpless.
And I have thought, If I could speak with such persons at the zero hour, I would try to stop them with the thought that helplessness is one of the greatest assets a human being can have.
For I believe that the old clichÈ “God helps those who help themselves” is not only misleading but often dead wrong. My most spectacular answers to prayers have come when I was helpless.
The psalmist says: “When I was hemmed in, Thou hast freed me often” (Ps. 4:1, Moffatt). Gradually I have learned to recognize this hemming-in as one of God’s most loving devices for teaching us that He is real and gloriously adequate for our problems.
One such experience occurred during the writing of my first book under my own name. As the young widow of Peter Marshall, I was attempting what many felt was the rather audacious project of writing his biography. About midway through the manuscript, I received devastating criticism from one whose judgment I trusted. He told me bluntly, “You haven’t even begun to get inside the man Peter Marshall.”
And he was right—that was the sting of it. The realization of my inadequacy as a writer was not only an intellectual one. It was also emotional; there were plenty of tears. But out of the crisis came a major realization: In my helplessness, there was no alternative but to put the project into God’s hands. I prayed that A Man Called Peter be His book and that the results be all His, too.
And they were. I still regard as incredible the several million copies of A Man Called Peter circulating around the world. But numbers are of little importance compared to what I hear from time to time of individual lives changed through this book.
Why would God insist on helplessness as a prerequisite to answered prayer? One obvious reason is that our human helplessness is bedrock fact. God is a realist and insists that we be realists, too. So long as we are deluding ourselves that human resources can supply our heart’s desires, we are believing a lie. And it is impossible for prayers to be answered out of a foundation of self-deception and untruth.
Then what is the truth about our human condition? None of us had anything to do with our being born, no control over whether we were male or female, Japanese or Russian or American, white or yellow or black. Nor can we influence our ancestry, nor our basic mental or physical equipment.
After we are born, an autonomic nervous system controls every vital function that sustains life. A power that no one really understands keeps our hearts beating, our lungs breathing, our blood circulating, our body temperature at 98.6 degrees. A surgeon can cut tissue, but he is helpless to force the body to bind that severed tissue together again. We grow old relentlessly and automatically.
Did Jesus have any comment about all this? Yes, as always He put His finger on the very heart of the matter: “‘Without Me you can do nothing'” (John 15:5, NKJV).
Nothing? That seems a trifle sweeping! After all, human beings have made great progress. We have almost eliminated diseases such as smallpox, bubonic plague, tuberculosis, polio and most of the communicable diseases of childhood. We have learned to control our environment to quite an extent. We have put men on the moon. How can all that be helplessness?
Most of us do not enjoy that idea. The cult of humanism since the Renaissance has trained us to believe that we are quite adequate to be masters of our own destiny.
Yet not only did Jesus insist on the truth of our helplessness; He underscored it by telling us that this same helplessness applied equally to Him while He wore human flesh: “‘The Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do'” (John 5:19). In this as in everything else, He was setting the pattern for imperfect humanity.
The Scriptures spell out for us point by point how helpless we are in relation to our spiritual lives as well as our physical ones.
We feel an impulse toward God. We think we are reaching out for Him. Not so, Jesus told us. “‘No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him'” (John 6:44).
We want eternal life and release from our sins. We think we can earn this salvation. No. The truth is, “It is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).
So far as the virtues and graces we long for in our lives—faith, joy, patience, peace of mind—there is no way we can work up such qualities. Paul tells us in Galatians 5:22-23 that these are gifts of the Holy Spirit; they can be had in no other way. “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven” (John 3:27).