They are simple phrases. They sound Christian—like something you might find in the Bible. We’ve all heard these words. Maybe we’ve said them. They capture some element of truth, yet they miss the point in important ways.
Join Adam Hamilton in this 5-week Bible study to search for the whole truth by comparing common Christian clichés with the wisdom found in
Scripture. The clichés include:
- Everything happens for a reason.
- God helps those who help themselves.
- God won’t give you more than you can handle.
- God said it, I believe it, that settles it.
- Love the sinner, hate the sin.
The Youth Study Book helps young people in grades 6-12 understand how to apply God’s truth to these simple Christian clichés. Written in an engaging style that will capture the humor and imagination of young people, it can be used as a book study only or in combination with the DVD.
About the Author
Adam Hamilton is senior pastor of The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, one of the fastest growing, most highly visible churches in the country. The Church Report named Hamilton’s congregation the most influential mainline church in America, and he preached at the National Prayer Service as part of the presidential inauguration festivities in 2013.Hamilton is the best-selling and award-winning author of Creed, Half Truths, The Call, The Journey, The Way, 24 Hours That Changed the World, John, Revival, Not a Silent Night, Enough, When Christians Get It Wrong, and Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White, all published by Abingdon Press. Learn more about Adam Hamilton at AdamHamilton.com.
Read an Excerpt
Half Truths Youth Study Book
God Helps Those Who Help Themselves and Other Things the Bible Doesn't Say
By Adam Hamilton, Mike Poteet
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2016 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
EVERYTHING HAPPENS FOR A REASON
[Then Moses said to the Israelites,] "I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days."
— Deuteronomy 30:19-20a NRSV
Gather Around God's Word
Lead me in your truth — teach it to me — because you are the God who saves me. I put my hope in you all day long.
Open the Bible and light a candle.
God of truth, we admit your ways often seem hidden from us, and we confess we often claim more knowledge of your will than we actually possess. May your Spirit guide us to humbly seek signs of your work. Help us place less trust in our own wisdom and more trust in your Son, Jesus Christ, who became wisdom from you for us, to make us righteous and holy and to save us. Amen.
Sing or read "Be Still, My Soul" (words by Katharina von Schlegel)
Jesus said, "You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teaching. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." (John 8:31-32)
Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6)
Spend some time browsing recent issues of your local newspaper or a magazine focused on current events and/or some local, national, and world news websites. Clip or copy two or three headlines that grab your attention. Spread them before you and look at them as you think about these questions:
Which, if any, of these headlines make sense to you? Which ones agree with your understanding of how the world works, or ought to work?
Which, if any, of these headlines leave you shaking your head and asking why?
In which, if any, of these headlines do you think you see glimpses of God at work? Why?
What do you imagine Jesus would say if he were reading these headlines with you?
Study the Scripture
Read Deuteronomy 30:11-21. Moses is addressing the Israelites at the end of their forty years of wandering in the wilderness, just before they enter the land God has promised them as their new home.
In your own words, what is Moses' main message to the Israelites? What does he want them to do?
What reasons does Moses give for the Israelites to do what he is telling them? (See especially verses 11-14, 16.)
What consequences will the Israelites face if they fail to do what Moses tells them? (See especially verses 17-18.)
In your experience, how easy or difficult is it to do what Moses is telling the Israelites to do? Can you talk about a time when you either did or did not make the choice Moses wants them to make? What happened?
Do you think Moses' message accurately explains why we experience "blessing and curse" (verse 19)? Why or why not?
How much freedom do you think God gives us to choose what we do and what happens to us? Explain your answer.
Read and Reflect
Do We Choose Our Own Adventures?
In middle school, my favorite books were the Choose Your Own Adventure series. In these books, "you" are the hero — sometimes an ordinary kid in such extraordinary circumstances as a haunted house or a lost civilization; sometimes someone more exotic like an astronaut, secret agent, or circus performer. "You" start reading on page 1, but what pages you turn to next depends on how you respond to various decision points in the text.
Some choices are pretty routine stuff: "If you go west, turn to page 5. If you head east, turn to page 13." But other choices seem more consequential. Will you trust the mysterious wizard to lead you out of the cave? Turn to page 29. Will you tell the unidentified alien ship that you welcome it in peace? Turn to page 42.
I never felt really satisfied unless I got to make at least a dozen choices before hitting those dreaded words in bold face at the bottom of the page: The End (usually preceded by "your" sudden, terrible demise).
Choose Your Own Adventure books can be a lot of fun, but the series title is a little misleading. Sure, you make decisions that affect how you read the plot — but the book's author has determined in advance all the choices and their consequences. Everything that happens in these books, including every single forced choice the reader makes, is put there for a reason — the writer's reason, not yours.
Thankfully, in real life we really get to "choose our own adventures," right? While none of us have completely blank pages handed to us at birth — we can't control where or to whom we're born, for example, or whether we're born in good health — we're more or less free to make our own choices and write our life stories for ourselves. Aren't we?
Not if you believe this half truth Christians often say they believe: "Everything happens for a reason."
What This Half Truth Gets Right: God Cares and God Rules
People often tell this half truth to themselves and others when everything is going badly — really badly. A loved one dies. A storm does terrible damage. A job is lost. "It's sad and terrible," they'll say, "but, even if we can't understand it now, we have to believe it happened for a reason."
This half truth is what theologians call a theodicy (thee-ODD-ih-see), a defense of God's goodness and power in the face of what could be evidence to the contrary.
Try and think about the following three statements, all of which Christians claim are true, all at once:
1. God is all-loving.
2. God is all-powerful.
3. Suffering exists.
If all these statements are true, how can an all-loving, all-powerful God let suffering happen?
Maybe God is all-loving but not powerful enough to stop our suffering. But is a god who is powerless against suffering the God we read about in the Exodus, or in stories of Jesus healing sick people?
Maybe God is all-powerful but doesn't really love us, meaning God is content to let us suffer. But Scripture shows us a God whose love leads to the relief and ultimate end of suffering. (For example, see the description of God's promised future in Revelation 21:4.)
Maybe suffering is an illusion. That conclusion seems to fly in the face of millennia of human experience, but at least it keeps God's hands clean. Some world religions do teach that suffering isn't real, but classic Christianity never has taught that — how could it, when Jesus suffered and died?
No single theodicy satisfactorily juggles all three of those statements at once. And, as theodicies go, "Everything happens for a reason" is better than some. It avoids two big theological mistakes: atheism, which claims there is no god, and deism, which affirms God's existence but claims that God took a "hands-off" approach to the world once God finished creating it.
The idea that "everything happens for a reason" agrees with biblical teaching that God cares about and stays involved with the world. It's really a statement about God's providence. Here's something you can impress your teachers with: The word providence comes from the Latin prefix pro, "before," and the verb video, "to see." God sees what is best for us, and provides accordingly.
If you had been a young Protestant Christian in sixteenth-century Germany, you might have had to memorize and recite this definition of God's providence:
The almighty and ever present power of God by which God upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty — all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.
There's no question the Bible teaches about God's providence. The psalm-singer praises God for feeding people and wild animals alike (Psalm 104). Jesus said if God can be trusted to give birds food and wildflowers beauty, then God can also be trusted to give us what we need (Matthew 6:25-32). But do "all things" come to us directly from God's hand? Is random chance really never at work? Does God actually choose who will get good weather and who will get bad, who will grow rich and who will stay poor? Does God ever cause bad things to happen?
What This Half Truth Gets Wrong: It Can Paralyze Us and Hurt Others
If we press this view of providence too far, we end up with a god who looks less like a loving parent and more like a Choose Your Own Adventure writer. If "everything happens for a reason" in a divinely micromanaged way, then we aren't really free, and our choices don't really matter, because God has already plotted our lives down to the last page.
A belief that God has plotted our lives and everything else for a reason could suck a lot of wind out of our sails.
Why study for that algebra test? God has already decided if you'll get an A or an F.
Why work up the nerve to ask that good-looking girl or guy to prom? If God has picked out a soul mate for you, she or he will show up when God is good and ready.
Why should fast-food employees demand a higher minimum wage? God has already determined their earning potential and place in life.
Why should we race for cures, wear rubber bracelets, and issue ice bucket challenges to raise money for disease research? Whether you make it through life with a clean bill of health is up to the divine doctor, isn't it?
If we're not careful, the idea that "everything happens for a reason" can leave us paralyzed and passive before a god who's holding all the cards, who moves us around like characters in a book for purposes unknown and unknowable.
Besides paralyzing us, the saying can hurt others. Does the tragic death of a parent or sibling or friend really "happen for a reason"? In using this saying to help friends who are suffering, we can inadvertently cause them pain, because these words seem to imply that God caused the tragedy, that God manipulates us like chess pieces for unknown purposes. Because of this implication, using the saying with friends might actually damage their faith in a time when they need it most.
Beyond theodicy, beyond logic, beyond definitions, Christ calls us to love. When we use the half truth "Everything happens for a reason," there's a possibility that instead we will hurt others.
Really Choosing God
Deuteronomy 30 gives us another way of thinking about God's providence. The Israelites, who used to be slaves in Egypt, are about to enter the Promised Land. Moses tells them they have a serious decision to make: they can choose to obey God and build their community according to God's will or they can choose to go it alone, ignoring God's guidance, following make-believe gods in hopes that those gods will bring blessing. One choice leads to life; the other, to death.
Moses urges the Israelites to choose life by choosing God. God has seen what is best for God's people and has provided; God has freed them and brought them to a new home. But God hasn't robbed them of their ability — their responsibility — to make choices that matter.
God's commandments aren't arbitrary rules designed to make life less fun. They show us how we are most likely to experience God's goodness: by worshiping God, by telling the truth and keeping our promises, by respecting and loving our neighbors. When we make these kinds of choices, choices that line up with God's priorities and values, we're more likely to choose adventures in which we "live and thrive" (Deuteronomy 30:16), as God wants us to.
Of course, choosing these adventures isn't as simple as turning to one page instead of another. Godly choices don't always lead immediately to good outcomes; think of the martyrs throughout Christian history — and even today, in some parts of the world — who lose their homes, their jobs, even their lives because they remain faithful to God. And not all people who suffer bring it on themselves. Sometimes wrong choices affect other people more than they do the person who made them; sometimes bad things do happen by chance.
God doesn't make everything happen for a reason — but God can bring meaning out of anything that happens. "We know," wrote the apostle Paul, "that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28). Nothing that happens, and no choice we make, can ultimately derail the great adventure God has chosen for us and for all creation, because "nothing can separate us from God's love in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:38).
1. It's a Good Thing/Bad Thing
Play this improvisational performance game with a partner: One of you starts the game by announcing some crazy, make-believe event (for example, "My neighbor's house was swallowed by a dinosaur last night"). Your partner gives a reason why the event was a good thing ("That's good; now the dinosaur won't go hungry"). You respond with a reason why it was a bad thing ("But now my neighbor has no place to live"). Your partner responds with another positive ("Your neighbor can move wherever she wants to"); you respond with another negative ("But the dinosaur will follow her wherever she goes") — and so on, and so on ... the more outrageous, the better.
How is this game like and unlike people trying to determine why and whether "everything happens for a reason"?
2. Watch a Movie
Signs (Touchstone Pictures, 2002; directed by M. Night Shyamalan) is about a former pastor, Graham (played by Mel Gibson), who discovers mysterious crop circles on his farm. Soon, strange lights start appearing in night skies around the world. Graham struggles not only to protect himself and his family from extraterrestrial invaders but also to make sense out of confusing, unresolved events from his past and present.
In one scene, Graham tells his brother: "See, what you have to ask yourself is, what kind of person are you? Are you the kind who sees signs, sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky?"
Which kind of person do you tend to be? Why?
What answers, if any, does this movie give to the question, "Does everything happen for a reason?" Do you agree with its answers? Why or why not?
3. Plot a Personal Timeline
On a separate piece of paper, plot some major events of your life on a timeline. Illustrate it if you wish, with sketches or photos. Now modify your timeline in these ways:
Draw a square around events you had no control over.
Draw a diamond around events that were shaped, to some extent, by your choices; above or below those events, jot down notes about the choice you made, why you made it, and what you imagine might have happened had you made different choices.
Draw a cross at those points, if any, when you were confident you felt God's guidance.
Draw a question mark at those points, if any, when you were less sure of God's presence.
If you feel comfortable doing so, talk about your timeline with a Christian friend you trust.
4. Make a Mobile
Mount headlines and pictures clipped from newspapers and magazines to circles and squares cut from construction paper. Cut various lengths of string or yarn; tape one end of each length to the back of the construction paper and tie the loose ends to a wire coat hanger. Experiment with adding and removing paper clips to the construction paper in order to make the mobile as balanced as possible.
How do you think your mobile might be an image of how God is at work in the events of our world and our lives?
Daily Bible Readings
Day 1: Genesis 3:1-13
Some people argue that God is ultimately responsible for human sin. Why did God put a forbidden tree in Eden in the first place? Didn't God know Adam and Eve would eat its fruit? Do you think God is somehow to blame for what happened? What does this story tell you about human beings' freedom and responsibility to make choices?
Day 2: Job 2:1-10
Job accepted all his suffering as "from God" (verse 10) — patiently in these verses, but not so much in most of the book! Can we thank God for the good in our lives without also blaming God for the bad? Have you ever demanded God tell you why bad things happen, as Job demands in the rest of the book? What happened?
Day 3: Ecclesiastes 9:1-12
The author of Ecclesiastes didn't believe that "everything happens for a reason" but did write a lot about how random chance and death affect everyone, good or bad. What do you think of his advice for living? Can you believe that some things "just happen" and at the same time believe that Jesus' resurrection changes our attitude toward death?
Day 4: Luke 13:1-5
The people around Jesus want to find a deeper meaning in Pontius Pilate's murder of people as they worshiped at the Temple. Jesus rejects their conclusion about this event, as well as another one — a tower's sudden collapse — and says the people should draw a different lesson. What choice does Jesus say tragedies and disasters like these should motivate people to make?
Excerpted from Half Truths Youth Study Book by Adam Hamilton, Mike Poteet. Copyright © 2016 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. Everything Happens for a Reason,
2. God Helps Those Who Help Themselves,
3. God Won't Give You More Than You Can Handle,
4. God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It,
5. Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin,