The phrase “God helps those who help themselves” has permeated our thinking, but is it true? My blogging friend Caddo recently mused over this quote, which got me thinking.
So, who says that God helps those who help themselves?
You will not find these words in the Bible. According to a helpfully thorough article in Wikipedia, the idea goes way back to ancient Greece, was first expressed in English by Algernon Sydney, and made its way into American vernacular by Benjamin Franklin.
And we believe it. After all, it fits nicely with the American Dream that serves as a defining narrative for life in the USA. In spite of economic troubles and the growing perception that America is losing her edge, many of us still operate under the conviction that if we just work hard enough and do the right thing, that God will bless us. Furthermore, that “blessing” will take the form of prosperity, success and even, if one is really blessed, great wealth and fame.
There is, of course, some truth in the idea that good things come to people who work for them. The Bible does teach, primarily in Proverbs, that hard work and wise habits generally result in favorable outcomes. That’s just the way the world works.
But it’s not always the way God works.
In my opinion, the central, and false, assumption behind the statement that God helps those who help themselves is that we are the initiators of God’s activity in our lives, that he responds to us, and if we just get our behavior right, he’ll do what we want him to do.
The Bible describes a different dynamic. It tells a story, from the first page of Genesis to the last page of Revelation, about God as Creator, Savior, Provider, Ruler, and, yes, our Helper. The subtle distinction is that he does it all at his initiative and for his purposes.
God created the earth and all that is in it without our instigation and for His glory.
When the people of the earth decided to build their own monument to reach the heights heavens, God did not help them. In fact, he disrupted the process considerably.
Abraham was minding his own business in Ur when God tapped him on the shoulder and promised to bless him with descendants, land and a nation.
Our greatest need, the one we are completely helpless to meet, is our need for a Savior. We should be eternally grateful that God does not limit himself to helping those who help themselves.
This does not mean that God does everything for us. Once we are in our proper orbits around him, he expects us to participate in his activity. (That’s a good topic for another post.)
For now, the truth is that this common phrase is exactly half right. God helps people. Period.
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:10