Who Says that God Helps those who Help Themselves?

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.

Human nature is stuck in a medieval mentality, imagining that we’re all little earths around which the Sun should orbit.

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

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About Judy

At heart I am a student of truth, an observer of culture, and a communicator. Jesus is my teacher and my Lord. In pursuit of these passions, I read as much as I can, serve as Teaching Director for a Community Bible Study group, and write a blog in an attempt to synthesize it all. I take great delight in my relationships with family and friends, and I also enjoy long walks, bike rides and cooking. And did I mention that I like to read?
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22 Responses to Who Says that God Helps those who Help Themselves?

  1. Naphtali says:

    Judy, so good and glad to hear someone write about that line. If one really puts it into perspective it makes no sense. Instead of taking God’s word and applying it, we have tried to earn our way into anything worthwhile. God loves to shower his gifts on us; and Jesus was the greatest gift.

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  4. HI Judy,
    This is very interesting topic to think about. I love your conclusions behind the statement. I’ve learned that we can’t sit back and just expect God to grant our wishes. We do need to do our part in obeying His commands. However, I agree with what you wrote. It’s not about “if we just get our behavior right, He will do what we want Him to do.”

    • Judy says:

      Hi Danielle,
      I too have learned that God generally doesn’t do things FOR us, but that he somehow invites us to do things WITH him. It seems to me that we mostly mess up his plans, like the small child who wants to “help” make dinner or fix the toaster, but he still gets his work done in spite of our clumsy efforts. The tension between God’s work and our participation is tricky – I’m still learning how to get that right. I think my tendency might be to “help” just a little too much:) (Lots of missing toaster pieces…)
      Thanks for stopping by!
      Judy

  5. branchl77 says:

    This is right at the heart of our father. Love is always about the other person. The Kingdom is ablot learning not to take thought for ourselves. And Ministry is about clean hands and a pure heart which means having God’s heart and working by His Spirit, not going after our personal adgenda. So I think you have found the Fathers heart on this one, I seee no doctrine about helping ourselves in scripture. I just hear Christ saying not my will but your will Father. Thanks sis.

    • Judy says:

      I agree that setting aside our personal agendas and operating out of love is always in line with God’s heart. If only I’d remember that when faced with a choice like that! Thanks!
      Judy

  6. Cara Olsen says:

    I am often wearied by the manipulations on the bible that Christians, seeking their own selfish gain, purpose, and will, impose on others who don’t know any better. This, of course, is how incorrect theology begins to circulate. “God helps people.” We need not make it any more complicated than that!

    Thank you, Judy.

    ~ Cara

    • Judy says:

      Hi Cara,
      Yes, it is tricky to take the Bible on its own terms, isn’t it? We all tend to project our ideas on to the Bible rather than submitting ourselves to it. The only way I know to handle that is to just keep reading the Bible. Thanks for your thoughts!
      Judy

  7. Judy – I loved this post! You are an excellent communicator : ) I think if you did a random poll, most people would think that “God helps those who help themselves” is in the bible. Another one I hear a lot is “God will never give us more than we can bear.” You’ve got potential for more than a part 2 here! As always, thanks for sharing your insights with us : )

  8. mybroom says:

    Hi Judy, it’s funny how these sayings have crept into the Christian vernacular – eventually they become more quoted than the word itself. Another one I hear sometimes is “God always comes through on the eleventh hour” – I’m fairly sure He came through 2000 years ago. cheers, G

    • Judy says:

      Hi Graeme,
      I wonder how many pseudo truths we could collect? You and Becky (next comment) have two of them covered:) Yes! Jesus did come through for us!
      Judy

  9. myfunhap says:

    I think you raised one of the most important issues in modern spirituality. As I understand it, our most important part is the part that God has instilled in us. It is always there, it is perfect and we “only” have to stop to look away from it. So, if we look for God, he is already instilled in us. It is a divine system to make all Godliness as one and the same. It has only two components: wisdom and loving kindness. All other elements in the universe are ultimately built out of that.

    Asking God for help should therefore not be an outward looking but an inward looking. Not only is God not outside of us, it is also much less distracting to look outside of us.

    What do you think?

    • Judy says:

      Hi Francois,
      Nice to hear from you again! Yes, this a complex issue. Where/how does one find God? What do I think? Personally, as I have read and studied the Bible, I see that it paints a picture of a humanity wholly incapable of finding God on their own and a gracious God who comes to us. Jesus came for us so that we can experience the love of God. We find wisdom and loving kindness In Christ through whom God invites us into relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It’s a subtle distinction, but I do not think God is found in the wisdom inside of us; wisdom and loving kindness are found in Christ. Thanks for your thoughts! Judy

  10. Sue Anderson says:

    I help myself by going to Him for help. :)

  11. Larry Who says:

    One of the Holy Spirit’s names is the Helper. The Father is also called Jehovah Jireh – the God who provides. Jesus is our Savior. Then, there are the angels who are ministering spirits. Lots of help for us believers

  12. Caddo Veil says:

    Thanks so very much, Judy!! This is wonderful, just what I was looking for when I asked you about it–and now I’m looking forward to Part 2, when you discuss our “participation”. Would it be alright if I print this out for my personal notes file? Again, thank you (for doing my homework for me!)–God bless you abundantly! love, sis Caddo

    • Judy says:

      Hi Caddo,
      I’m glad you find my humble musings helpful, and of course, please use it as you’d like. There’s much more that could be said on this topic, but I suppose thar’s true of just about anything! Blessings to you!
      Judy

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