“Then she came and told the man of God. And he said, ‘Go, sell the oil and pay your debt; and you and your sons live on the rest'” (2 Kings 4:7 NKJV).
A common characteristic of people in poverty, and of some undeveloped societies, is to develop a sense of helplessness. They see no way to solve their problems, or to improve their situation in life. This can lead to giving up and throwing oneself upon the mercy and compassion of others. It is as if they are saying, “You have to help me because I cannot do anything for myself.”
Those with the ability to help others are challenged by God to do so (Luke 3:11; 2 Corinthians 8:13-15). Christians must show compassion for the needy (Matthew 25:34-36), and be good stewards of the gifts and resources entrusted to them by God (1 Corinthians 5:2).
Yet this principle does not relieve the needy of responsibility. The fact that one is poor and that someone else has more than he needs does not take away the ability of the poor to respond positively on his own behalf.
In 2 Kings 4:1-7 we find a story that illustrates this principle. Elisha the prophet was approached by a poor widowed mother who was in danger of losing her sons to creditors. Elisha first asked what she had, recognizing that no one is ever totally void of some sort of resource. She answered, “Your maidservant has nothing in the house but a jar of oil” (verse 2).
Elisha then instructed her how to use that oil to attract a gracious gift from God, and then how to make further use of the gift to solve her problem. Elisha almost certainly could have miraculously provided the necessary money to pay off the debt, or otherwise dealt with the issue without the widow being required to do anything. But he did not do that.
Rather, his solution involved her and her sons’ participation in four distinct acts. First they were to borrow vessels (large pots) from the neighbors (verse 3). Second, they were to pour the oil into the pots (verse 4). When that was done and all the pots were filled they were, third, to sell the oil, and then, fourth, pay the debt, living off of the excess (verse 7).
Why did Elisha make the widow and her young sons do so much? Was it so they would earn the gift, making it payment from God for their efforts? Certainly not! I may not know all the reasons for the prophet’s instructions, but this we can observe with certainty: the actions required gave opportunity for the expression of her faith.
Elisha did not specify the exact number or size of the pots the needy family was to acquire, nor did he explain how they would be used. He just instructed them to gather pots and said, “Not a few.”
It is easy for us, reading the story long after the fact, to see that the more pots they found the more oil they would have and the more money would result. But could she have realized that? Probably not. She knew only that the more effort she and her sons expended, the better the results might be. So they borrowed and filled until “there [was] not another vessel” (verse 6). Only then did the source of the oil dry up.
Not only did Elisha’s solution prove the widow’s faith, it also proved her own faithfulness. No trustee was appointed over the oil or the money to ensure that the debt was fully paid. No precautions were taken against possible temptations of indulgence or wastefulness. God provided; it was her task to ensure that her needs were properly satisfied.
Just as some become dependent physically or financially, so there is also the danger of spiritual dependence. It is undeniable that all accountable humans sin and need salvation (Romans 3:23). It is also true that we cannot save ourselves by meritorious works (Ephesians 2:8-10). Our salvation is and must be “by grace . . . through faith, and that not of [ourselves]; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).
But does this lead to the conclusion that salvation is by grace only? That man cannot do anything of any kind to participate in the process? Such a doctrine leads to dependence. If God does everything and man has no responsibility, then salvation seems cheap and of little value. Further, if man can do nothing to be saved, then salvation must be either universal or wholly arbitrary, based only on God’s “whims.” The Bible is clear that neither is the case.
There are many commands and teachings in the New Testament imputing responsibility to us. From the jailor’s question “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30) to Paul’s command, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12), we are continuously reminded that God’s gift is to be received and responded to. We cannot in any sense save ourselves, or earn salvation, but we can and must participate.
Our participation, like the widow’s, confirms our faith in God and manifests our faithfulness before him. “By grace you have been saved through faith.”