“God Helps Those Who Help Themselves”
In the series “Half Truths”
The Bible is one of the most popular and most beloved books of all time. Nearly every American home, Christian or not, owns at least one Bible, and in homes with a Bible, the average number of Bibles is three. Yet surveys show that, in any given week, only about 30-40% of Americans actually read anything in the Bible.
I want to do a little “quiz” to start. I will read a statement and I want you to decide if that statement is in the Bible. I’m not going to ask you to raise your hands, so that no one feels pressured or embarrassed. Remember, listen to the statement and decide if it’s in the Bible or not. Let’s begin.
- Cleanliness is next to godliness.
- The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.
- God moves in mysterious ways.
- A nagging spouse is like the drip, drip, drip of a leaky faucet; You can’t turn it off, and you can’t get away from it.
- God helps those who help themselves.
OK, how many statements did you identify came from the Bible? Actually, just #2 (Matthew 26:41) and 4 (Proverbs 27:15-16 The Message) are in the Bible. Numbers 1, 3 and 5, though popular sentiments, do not come from the Bible. Today we will explore #5, “God helps those who help themselves,” in our series, “Half Truths,” inspired by Adam Hamilton’s book of the same title.
If you thought that “God helps those who help themselves” is in the Bible, you’re actually in the majority. Barna Research group’s survey in 2000 found that 75% of Americans and 40% of Christians believe this is a truth found in the Bible. A more recent survey says that 68% of Christians believe this statement is in the Bible.
So where did this idea originate? Historians trace this idea back to one of Aesop’s Fables, (“Hercules and the Wagoneer”) dating to the first century A.D. A French author and an English philosopher advanced the thought in the 17th century. It was made famous in America after being published in Poor Richard’s Almanac by Benjamin Franklin in 1757 and it has stuck ever since.
As we saw last week, this statement does contain an element of Biblical truth, but also misses the point.
Our family prays before every meal we share, whether at home or out to eat. We don’t sit down with empty plates expecting food to magically appear when we pray. We pray because we know we’ve worked to earn a paycheck that was used to provide our food. We give thanks for farmers who grew the food, workers who processed, packaged and marketed the food, truck drivers who transported the food and so on. But we also recognize that the food we have, along with all of the abilities to buy, prepare and serve it, ultimately comes from God. But it only appears on our plates because many others have done their parts.
There was a couple who decided to sell their house. They hired a realtor, set a price and began praying. They also asked their congregation to pray. Months went by, and they received no offers. Their realtor explained that no one would buy their house because they had set the price way too high. However, they insisted that they trusted God and left the price alone. Not long after that, they came to their pastor and asked what they should do. They said they were disappointed in God for not helping them. The pastor listened and told them that the best thing they could do was listen to their realtor, that maybe God was speaking to them through her. So they lowered the price to what the realtor recommended, and within a few days, they sold their house.
The partial truth of this statement is expressed by the Apostle Paul writing to the Thessalonian Christians, a congregation he established on one of his missionary journeys into Europe. He told them about Jesus Christ and the new life God offers us through faith in Christ. He told them that Jesus would return, perhaps very soon. It seems that some of these Christians took him very literally about Christ coming back soon – they sold their property, quit their jobs and waited for him to come back. In the meantime, they were eating other people’s food, gossiping and stirring up trouble. In that context, Paul gave this advice: “For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: ‘The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.’ We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat” (2 Thess 3:10-12).
Paul’s idea still applies today. His message was, in essence, “pray and work.” He did not teach that trusting Jesus means we pray and then God takes care of everything. Our faith is meant to move us to act, even as we trust God. We pray, and we work.
So “God helps those who help themselves” is partially true in the sense we’ve discussed; however, it is fundamentally unbiblical in some important ways.
One is this: The half-truth that “God helps those who help themselves” is sometimes used by Christians in an effort to avoid the Biblical mandate to help others and to love our neighbors. The reality is there are some people who cannot help themselves. They are trapped in poverty or struggling financially, caught in circumstances that leave them frustrated or dealing with past mistakes or the consequences of bad choices. Sometimes people are in a hole so deep they can’t climb out without someone helping them.
In our Gospel lesson from John, a great crowd of people followed Jesus in response to his healing miracles. They were in the wilderness, and it came time to eat. Jesus asked his disciples to get food them, but feeding them would cost at least six months’ wages. Finally, Andrew found a boy with a lunch of five loaves and two fishes, all the food they had. Then Jesus took what they had, gave thanks and the disciples gave everyone something to eat. When the leftovers were gathered, they had 12 baskets of food.
We often look at this story and try to figure out how Jesus did it, but that misses the point. Jesus took what the little boy shared and used it to help many, many others.
In the Old Testament law book of Leviticus, God instructed the people not to harvest all of their crops. They were not to use it for themselves or sell it. They were some of the crop along the edges of the field so the poor and the immigrant could have something to eat. It was a commandment of compassion and charity that helped the people to recognize that the crops and fields ultimately belonged to God.
Over and over in the Bible, God calls us to help those who cannot help themselves. The book of James tells us, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress …” (James 1:27).
The book of Proverbs shares some words of wisdom. “Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor will also cry out and not be answered” (Proverbs 21:13) and “The generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor” (Proverbs 22:9).
In his parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37 and his parable of the Sheep and Goats in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus tells us God judges us not only by our faith, but by how our faith led us to act compassionately for the poor and needy.
In contrast with the half-truth, the truth of scripture is that God helps those who cannot help themselves. In my experience, God most often meets the needs of hurting and struggling people by acting through other people. Yes, we definitely should discuss the best ways of helping and not hurting and of creating independence rather than dependence. But if we have no compassion or concern for those in need, then we have missed an essential part of the gospel.
There is another way in which “God helps those who helps themselves” does not capture God’s heart, and I am thankful for it. Believing the half-truth causes us to think that to get God to love us, we have to work very hard. We think we need to do more good things than we do bad to earn God’s favor. We need to be kind, go to church, volunteer, give and help so that God will overlook our sins and help us in life.
But the heart of the gospel message is that God helps us because we cannot help ourselves. I think of Paul’s words in Romans 5:6, which says, “For while we were still helpless, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly” (NASB). Before we were aware of God or our need, God was already there, taking the initiative. We don’t act to get God’s attention; God has been trying to get our attention and inviting us to respond to God’s gift of grace.
This idea of grace is central to the Christian message. Grace is the undeserved work of God in our lives. It is not something we earn, buy or work for. We cannot help ourselves into grace; God offers it. We can only accept it.
The truth is that when we are helpless, God helps us through grace. Only God can make us clean and whole and give us new life and purpose. We can’t; only God can.
Today you may feel helpless or hopeless. Your marriage may need saving or you might be in the grip of addiction. You might feel lost or ashamed. God is here, reaching out to you in grace, offering to help you, even when you cannot help yourself.
Let’s pray. I invite you to repeat after me, silently or aloud. Thank you, God, for grace. Thank you for the many times you have helped me when I did not deserve it. Thank you for loving and forgiving me. Thank you for giving meaning to my life. Thank you for saving me. Please, Lord, use me as your instrument to help others in need. I offer myself to you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.