God Helps Those Who Help Themselves? Nope!
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
According to Barna research, 82% of the general population believes that the phrase, ?God helps those who help themselves? is in the Bible. Fortunately, Christians know better than to believe this. That is why only 81% of Christians surveyed believe that this is in the Bible? a full percentage point better than your average Joe Heathen walking down the street.
Sorry to ruin your day but the Bible doesn?t actually say, ?God helps those who help themselves.? Your Mum says this when she wants you to stop whining about life, get up off the couch and go and get a job because you?re a grown up for goodness sake? now act like one. God helps those who help themselves is a statement that really means, ?Get your act together.?
No, ?God helps those who help themselves,? is not in the Bible anywhere, so where did it actually come from? I?m glad you asked. Well, it?s in the Koran for one. This is what it says: ?Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a person until they change what is in themselves.? But before the Koran was written, it appears in a first century A.D. Greek fable, where a wagon falls into a ravine, but when its driver appeals to Hercules for help, he is told to get to work himself. What a lousy God Hercules turned out to be.
Was Hercules the God who said it? Image source: https://pixabay.com/photos/statue-of-hercules-art-monument-2531191/
A French author from the 1600s once said ?Help yourself and Heaven will help you too.? But it was the 17th century English thinker Algernon Sidney who has been credited with the now familiar wording, ?God helps those who help themselves.? While Benjamin Franklin later popularized the saying when he used it in a book in 1736. It has been widely quoted ever since.
So, since it?s really a product of Greek mythology, it begs the question, doesn?t it? Why do so many people believe that, ?God helps those who help themselves? is in the Bible? And why do so many Christians, even though they know that it isn?t in the Bible, still believe it to be a Biblical principle?
Well, like most Biblical misquotes, there is a degree of truth ? A half-truth if you will. After all, a broken clock is right twice a day! So, I want to take a look why this statement is half-true. Then, I want to bring a warning about relying on the half-truth. Finally, I want to present what a true Christian alternative that represents something of what I believe is a more balanced view.
The Half Truth
First, what is half-true and Biblical about the statement, ?God helps those who help themselves?? When we think about the statement itself, we know that when someone says, ?God helps those who help themselves,? they are usually issuing a harsh statement, a challenging statement, and it?s usually directed at a person who is behaving a particular way ? typically a person who is sitting around, doing nothing. Perhaps they are wallowing in self-pity. Perhaps they are simply being idle and lazy. And the Bible does have something to say about this. And so, the statement, ?God helps those who help themselves,? alludes to a Biblical truth and here it is: God does not bless laziness. Let?s check out what the Bible actually has to say about this:
We were never undisciplined nor did we take charity from anyone while we were with you. Instead, you saw how we worked very hard day and night so we wouldn?t be a burden to even one person in the community. We had the right to depend on your help and hospitality, as you know; but we wanted to give you a model you could follow, to lay a path of footprints for you to walk in. This is exactly why, while with you, we commanded you: ?Anyone not willing to work shouldn?t get to eat!? You see, we are hearing that some folks in the community are out of step with our teaching; they are idle, not working, but really busy doing nothing ? and yet still expect to be fed! If this is you or someone else in the community, we insist and urge you in the Lord Jesus the Anointed that you go to work quietly, earn your keep, put food on your own table, and supply your own necessities. (2 Thessalonians 3:7?13)
When Paul wrote this to the church in Thessalonica, there were some Christians, well-meaning though they were, who had quit their jobs, and, like doomsday preppers, were just sitting around waiting for the second-coming of Christ. They believed Christ?s return was so imminent that they just sat around waiting. Do you know anyone who lives their life like they are waiting for something to happen without doing any work in the meantime?
I once knew a guy who told me that someone had once prophesied over his life that one day he would preach to nations. Preach to nations! What an awesome (though thoroughly dubious) prophecy! So, do you know what this guy was doing in the meantime? Nothing ? not a thing. He was not working or ministering or anything. He was literally waiting for the day when he would preach to nations ? as if one day he might get a phone call: ?Hello, this is the nations? we realize you must be very busy sitting around doing nothing, but we were wondering if you might come and preach to us?? As far as I know this man is still waiting for the call. Somehow, I don?t think it?s going to come.
Waiting around for something to happen? Photo by Hutomo Abrianto on Unsplash
God does not bless laziness. There is a reverse principle therefore: God does bless diligence and hard work. God does bless people who display initiative and energy. Take Proverbs 13:4 for example: ?Laziness wants it all and gets nothing, but the energetic have something to show for their lives.? That makes the statement, ?God helps those who help themselves,? half true!
The Danger of the Half Truth
However, there is a danger in living out of this half-truth. There is a danger in believing that the harder you work, the better you are, and the more you help yourself, the more favor or blessing you will have from God. It is the danger of self-helpism. Urban Dictionary defines self-help as something that helps you achieve something without using the help of others. An article in New York magazine reports that the self-help movement has mushroomed into an ?$11 billion industry dedicated to telling us how to improve our lives.? The article observed:
Today, there are at least 45,000 books in print of the ?optimize-everything? cult we now call ?self-help? ?. Today, every section of the book store (or web page) overflows with instructions, anecdotes, and homilies [from self-help books] ?. Self-help books have replaced doctors, priests, and therapists (and maybe even parents, politicians, and teachers with public personalities who gave names to the problems of millions.
The article offered titles and brief descriptions for some of today?s most popular self-help books:
- How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less How to make a lasting good impression, from teeth to breath to handshake to small talk.
- Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion Business and science-tested strategies for bending others to your will.
- 59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute Provides behavioural tweaks ? in an amount of time anyone can spare.
- The 4-Hour Workweek Self-help?s current version of get rich or get good at anything quick.
- The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life
- How to Think More About SexYes, that is the real title. And none of you need to read it? this has got to be the most unnecessary book ever written.
Photo by David Lezcano on Unsplash
The Problem of Self-Help-ism
So why is the idea of self-help potentially a problem for Christians and well, anyone really? What do you notice about most of these titles? What do they promise to deliver, and how? What do you notice about self-helpism in general? I think there are at least five big lies here ? five deceptions that come with the idea that if you want God to help you, help yourself.
- Firstly, self-help promises results in a very short amount of time.
- Secondly, self-help promises results with very little effort or pain or discipline
- Thirdly, self-help assumes you have the ability to change yourself, the power to change your life is within, that you can make everything better on your own
- Fourthly, self-help promotes the kind of radical individualism that works counter to the idea that help actually comes from the outside, usual in the context of relationship
- Finally, so much of self-help places you at the center of the universe
Yes, there is a danger in living out of the half-truth that God helps those who help themselves and it lies in the idea that somehow I am at the center, I am responsible for making me a better person, I need to be better so that I can experience the favor of God (and the favor of others for that matter), I am the one, I am my savior? But of course, you know, living like this can only lead to disappointment, frustration and ultimately the kind of self-justification and self-reliance that leads you away from God.
A True Christian Alternative
Up to this point, we?ve talked about the half-truth. We?ve noted the dangers of living your life out of this half-truth. Now we must ask, what is the true Christian alternative? Here it is:
The Christian message is not, God helps those who help themselves. It is the opposite. It is this: God?s helps those who recognize that they can?t help themselves. Try as we might, we are incapable of providing ourselves with the kind of help we actually need. We lack the power, the patience, the goodness, the self-discipline and even the will-power.
The gospel of Self-help promises results in a very short amount of time. The message of the Bible is that real change ? becoming the best version of you ? is actually a life-long process for which there are no short cuts. Even up until the moment of your death, you are still being transformed and made ready for eternity. And it is not a work of the will, but a work of the Spirit. 2 Corinthians 3:18 says, ?And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord?s glory, are being transformed (literally metamorphosized) into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.?
Transformation is a life-long process! Photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash
The gospel of self-help promises results with very little effort or pain or discipline. The message of the Bible is that suffering, pain and discipline are necessary for character development, and should be embraced, not avoided. In fact, Jesus says in Matthew 16:25?26, ?Don?t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I?ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self.?
The gospel of Self-help assumes you have the ability to change yourself, that you can make everything better on your own. The message of the Bible is that, try as we might, we have no real, lasting ability to live out the kind of life that we suppose we should be living. We can?t really help ourselves. Listen to the apostle Paul:
For if I know what I need to do, but still can?t do it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don?t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can?t do it. I decide to do good, but I don?t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don?t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. It happens so regularly that it?s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I?ve tried everything and nothing helps. I?m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn?t that the real question? (Romans 7:17?24)
Paul?s words aside, the reality is we don?t even need the Bible to tell us that we can?t help ourselves right? Something in us knows that no matter how hard we work in this life, how much success we may have, there will always be this sense that something?s not as it should be, that something?s broken. I see it in myself all the time and I?ll bet you do as well.
Sometimes we just can?t help ourselves. Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash
The gospel of self-help promotes the kind of radical individualism that works counter to the idea that help actually comes from the outside, usually in the context of relationship. Alcoholics Anonymous has understood this for over 80 years and has helped millions get sober. How? They begin with this: ?We admit we are powerless over alcohol ? that our lives have become unmanageable.?
C. H. Spurgeon said
?If heaven were by merit, it would never be heaven to me, for if I were in it I should say, ?I am sure I am here by mistake; I am sure this is not my place; I have no claim to it.? But if it be of grace and not of works, then we may walk into heaven with boldness.?
The gospel of self-help places you at the center of the universe. But, the good news of the Bible is that the universe is not about you. To be honest, you don?t need that kind of pressure and you would make a miserable God anyway. This what the Bible says of Jesus:
He is supreme in the end. From beginning to end he?s there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe ? people and things, animals and atoms ? get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross. (Colossians 1:15?20)
Jesus is the center of the universe, not you, or me. Thank God for that. That?s why God doesn?t help those who help themselves. It?s all given as a pure gracious gift to those who realize they can?t help themselves. If you want to know what God helping those who can?t help themselves looks like, consider this story?.
On September 8th, 2008, a man named Thomas Vander Woude and his son Josie were out working on their family farm. Josie was 20, but he wouldn?t be moving out any time soon. He had down syndrome. So Josie became Tom?s constant work companion out in the field. On this day, while Thomas was working out on his 26 acres of field, Josie was off in a different part of the yard when a broken septic tank cover gave way under his feet. The tank was 8 feet deep and filled near to the top with sewage. Thomas saw his son fall in and so he rushed over to help. He pulled and pulled on his son?s arm to no avail. Even worse, no matter what he did, Josie was continually sinking into this pit of filth. Thomas knew that his son would surely die if he sank beneath the waste. So this father did the only thing he could to save his boy: He got down into the filth with him. He tread in the sewage in an attempt to keep Josie?s head above the water line, but sadly Josie was still sinking. Vander Woude would not give up though. Taking a deep breath, he plunged his whole body into the sewage head first and held his boy?s body up from underneath so that Josie could keep his head above the water. When rescue crews arrived, they pulled Josie out of the tank alive, but Thomas, 66 years old, was dead.
Photo by Mishal Ibrahim on Unsplash
That?s what Jesus does for those who can?t help themselves. He has plunged himself into the mess of humanity and always holds us up so that we can live! God helps those who help themselves? Nope? God helps those who cannot help themselves. Will you recognize that you are one of those and receive it?